In my experience, lobby feedback systems generate three kinds of responses:
- Effusive, generic platitudes: "Great Museum!" "Nice art!"
- Wedding registry-style signatures: "Dina and Arthur Feldman, Lincoln, Nebraska"
- Specific complaints: "The bathrooms were dirty." "Better food in the cafeteria, please."
Each of these kinds of responses has value--but the value is limited. The positive comments induce warm fuzzies, and the registries let you know where people come from (though zip code requests do that more consistently).
As for the complaints, the common lack of feedback--when visitors are not told whether or how their complaints will be addressed--minimizes their impact on the visitor experience and likely reduces their incidence. A survey of a survey of UK health patients who used the National Health Services complaints system found that people don't want money or revenge when something bad happens--they just want to know that they are being taken seriously and that changes will be made to ensure won't happen again. An unresponsive system can't do that. The same survey found that 20% of complainers found the process "pointless" and almost a further 30% had found it "totally pointless." These are likely people who will take their complaints elsewhere (or leave them unresolved) in the future.
Even when the comments are good, museum staff processes are rarely set up to learn from them and adapt programming accordingly. I've worked at several museums where we gave educational program attendees surveys to fill out at the end of a workshop or lecture. We dutifully tallied their responses, but only for the internal bragging rights to the board that "92% of this year's participants rated our programs as 'very good' or 'excellent.'" We explained away the occasional complaints. The surveys were not a learning tool; they were a reporting tool.
Building a better feedback mechanism for all comments--good and bad--requires two things:
- Staff who are eager to learn from visitors (and have processes in place to support change).
- Designed systems in which visitors can see where their comments go and how they have impact.
Here are two examples, one big, one small.
In the UK, an independent non-profit website, Patient Opinion, has developed a public way for patients to share stories about their health care and for hospitals and the National Health Service to respond. People share both positive and negative experiences (and in many cases, a story will feature a mixture of comments, thanks, suggestions, and concerns), and NHS representatives frequently respond directly. The public nature of the discourse helps subsequent users feel that the system is working and is worthwhile.
Does it matter that Patient Opinion is independent from the NHS? As a public strategy blogger notes, Amazon and other online services maintain their own high-functioning feedback systems. But if people think the NHS feedback system is broken, going outside can help. People see Patient Opinion as serving a different purpose than the NHS complaint system--more about civic dialogue and improvement than sparking a punitive outcome. The Patient Opinion blog noted:
Sometimes a hospital will contact us about a critical posting on our site. "Can you remove it?" they say, "and ask the patient to make a complaint instead?" We don't remove it (of course), but we will email the patient in confidence to ask if they would like to make a complaint. And in every case to date, the patient has replied: "No, I don't want to make a complaint. I'm not trying to get anyone into trouble. I just want the problem fixed so it doesn't happen to anyone else."
Could you reframe your feedback system to invite visitors to tell you a story about the experience they had while onsite? I could imagine very successful "museum opinion" or "museum stories" websites in which visitors reflect on their experiences and connect with staff about their favorite bits and frustrations. Perhaps instead of sending people an e-newsletter if they give you their email address, you should start by asking for their story.
Staff of Life
For a much smaller, no-tech example, consider my grocery store, Staff of Life. This local store has a simple comment box at the front where patrons can submit requests for everything from shredded coconut to more handicapped parking. This is a standard suggestion box with a twist--staff members write responses directly onto the comments and post them on a board, so everyone can see both the request and its response. The fact that every comment receives a response sets a precedent that the board is a place for a conversation between staff and users, not a black hole for users' suggestions.
When I first saw this board, I wondered: could a museum swap out its lobby suggestion box for a board like this? Do museum visitors really have comments as specific as "please stock large nutritional yeast flakes?"
Talking to front-line staff members reveals that yes, visitors have lots of things they want to say and discuss--whether in a rant, a series of questions, or extended reverie. I've talked to many admissions desk staff members who constantly hear from visitors about their favorites and their grievances. For the most part, if staff members offer those same visitors comment cards, the visitors shrug it off. They wanted a conversation, not a one-way communication device.
The problem with the current state of things is that those comments rarely gets to the people who can actually use them. If a visitor feels that an exhibit label needs to be changed, or is frustrated by the lack of seating, the front desk staff can only go so far to get that communicated up to the curator or facilities manager in question. And by spending their time not quite satisfying visitors' desires to talk about their experiences, front-line staff can get pulled away from the work that their managers care about.
That's what's brilliant about the grocery store comment board at Staff of Life. It allows a conversation between patrons and high-level staff members. When I'm shopping, the staff members with whom I interact are stockers, checkers, and baggers. These are not the people who can order a new product or make decisions about the width of the aisles. The comment board sends visitors' comments to the staff members who can use them to improve the store. And by responding to the comments publicly, those high-level staff members demonstrate their commitment to responsiveness and visitors' needs.
Of course, people visit grocery stores much more frequently than they do museums. An asynchronous paper-based response mechanism might need to be supplemented by something online to help visitors see the responses to their own queries. But the simple presence of an open, public dialogue between visitors and staff changes the dynamic of the store for everyone. Whether I make a comment or not, I know that my grocery store is listening to me and people like me, and that we are trying together to make it a better place.
Isn't that the way you want visitors to feel about your institution?