Friday, September 28, 2007

Game Friday: Shuffle Your Brain

The very first game post I ever wrote was about incorporating game mechanics into museum experiences. A year later, and Amy Jo Kim's presentations about ways that personalization, feedback, collecting, points and exchanges can make all kinds of experiences more engaging and sticky still resonate with me. Amy is the Creative Director of Shufflebrain, a game design firm that has unique expertise in identifying and exploiting behavioral human predilections to make games and game-like experiences compelling in everyday contexts. In other words, Amy is the brain behind how and why we game.

Rather than occupying your attention with my own analysis, I encourage you to go straight to the source and check out her two fascinating slide presentations (from eTech 2006 and GDC 2007 respectively) on how to put "the fun into functional." While her main audience is software and game developers, I think the material translates directly to other experience providers (like museums).

The first presentation explains the five game mechanics and gives examples of how they are used to make Netflix (personalized feedback), MySpace (friending people as social exchange), Ebay (leveling up via those little colored stars!), and other software tools more appealing.

The second presentation focuses on the growth of user-generated and shared content in social media, and talks about how game mechanics are involved both in the applications that support such content (YouTube, Twitter, and others), and how such content sharing can enhance games themselves.

Enjoy, and please share your comments with others.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Master Mashup: Viral Marketing from Bob Dylan

Someone should give Bob Dylan's publicist a raise. He or she has created one of the most innovative, enjoyable mashups out of a cultural icon. Click the red box above once the video has loaded to see what I'm talking about (thanks to Jim Spadaccini for sharing).

What's a mashup?
In 2.0 speak, it's a web application that combines data from more than one source to create a new tool. One fun example is overplot, a mashup that takes quotes overheard in New York City (the data) and places them on a Google map (the tool), so you can browse the quotations by address. For example, you can click on "Midtown" on the map, go to Columbus between 89th and 90th, and find a gem like this:
Chick: I have to run in here and get more ChapStick.
Guy: You just bought chapstick yesterday.
Chick: My dog steals them and eats them.
Guy: That must be why his lips are so soft.
This mashup turns a simple list of quotes into a geographically browsable conversation. And if you know New York, it's so much more delicious to "see" the quote location rather than just reading the intersection listing. (warning: many overplot quotes are decidedly less PC than the example above.)

Map-based mashups are popular because they provide a well-understood visual representation of data. They're used to chart everything from crime statistics to Craigslist postings. Other more ambitious mashups, such as We Feel Fine, pull in data passively from blogs all over the world to create stunning visual datasets.

Whether simple or complex, mashups are most successful when they create new value out of the combined content. At their worst, they feel like hack jobs--a toaster spliced to a television. At their best, they are elegant combinations whose sum is more interesting, or at least differentiated, from the parts.

The Bob Dylan video at the top of this post is an example of a mashup of particular interest to museums because it overlays user data (personal messages) onto a cultural artifact (the Subterranean Homesick Blues video). This seems like a brilliant way to advertise museum shows--to find ways to allow visitors to embed their personal messages, opinions, or content into the museum content, thus fusing the interests of the visitors with the offering of the museum.

Of course, there are potential rights issues to be ironed out, but as in most museum/2.0 tensions, it's mostly a question of control. In this case, ceding control/use of the museum content to visitors can create a powerful message that the museum content truly is "for them." In the Dylan example, a video that was push technology (giving content TO the user) transforms into pull technology (eliciting and becoming a platform for content FROM the user).

How do we convey that the exhibition is truly FOR the visitor? By allowing them to put themselves into it.

Admissions Anxiety: The Case for Consistency

Pop quiz: How much does it cost to go a museum? And I don’t mean cost in a global bottom line sense—I mean how much does it cost to walk up to the admissions desk and buy a ticket? How much for a family? How much for a student? How much for an adult?

The answer, of course, is that it varies. Museums can range from free to about $30 for admission. There are secondary admissions fees, like parking, and optional fees, like for IMAX shows, traveling exhibits, and other add-ons. It’s often confusing to wade through the choices: do I want the underwater pony show or the artist-led splatter tour? But even more than this confusion, I believe museums suffer from a lack of consistent expectations when it comes to price and purchase options.

On face value, confusion looks like the main culprit. And yet movie theaters, restaurants, and carnivals are all masters of multiple options and combo tickets. No one runs out of a restaurant overwhelmed by the volume of choices and potential meal combinations. It is possible to offer a menu of options—with varying prices, durations, and content—without scaring people off.

So why can’t museums do it? I’d argue that it’s because museums, unlike these other experience providers, are inconsistent. There’s a difference between offering many options and offering a consistent experience. There are no free items on a restaurant menu. There are small items (with small prices) and large items (with bigger prices). But in museums, sometimes the large items (general admission) are free and the small items (traveling exhibits) are expensive. Sometimes it’s the other way around. In short, the museum menu is inconsistent, and therefore confusing.

Why is inconsistency the culprit? Because people don’t have a clear concept of how much their museum outing might cost. When I go to the movies, I’m not surprised by the price of tickets. I know the popcorn will be overpriced and that I can get a better deal at 2pm than at 8. There’s consistency to the price experience of movies—they probably cost about the same in your town ($9-12) as they do in mine. When I go to the movies, I can look in my wallet and know what I’m in for.

But imagine if movie theaters operated like museums. Suddenly, the theater in your town is free, whereas mine costs $20 to enter. Hers gives you admission to two movies at once, and his gives you a discount on a second movie when you buy a ticket to the first. In this scenario, the consistency of movie prices is in doubt—and with that price confusion comes confusion about value. Is the more expensive movie worth more? Is it worth more to see it in the more expensive theater? Or should I hold out to see it for free somewhere else?

Some might argue that this problem is not one of consistency, but of unfamiliarity. More people go to movies and restaurants than to museums, and therefore, perhaps, they have a better understanding of how to deal with menus of options in those environments than in museums. But there are other cultural and recreational activities with similarly small (or smaller) market share in the experience economy which are more consistent than museums price-wise. I’ve never been to the opera, but I have a general concept about how much opera tickets cost. The same goes for skydiving, music concerts, and camping fees. The value of the experiences offered—whether cultural, recreational, or natural—have consistent price expectations associated with them.

Some might also argue that it is precisely this inconsistency, this range of museum prices, that make museums great cultural resources. After all, if all museums cost $10, none would be free and open to the public at large. While I appreciate the desire for free museums (and would potentially prefer all museums to be free), their existence alongside $20 museums makes for muddled expectations. If all museums cost X—whatever X might be—then people could evaluate museum visits alongside other cultural or recreational options more easily. “Let’s go to a museum,” could attain the same universality (price-wise) as “let’s go to the movies.” In some ways, what I’m talking about could be construed as an argument for museums to become a more consistent cultural commodity—which I believe would positively impact both museum prices and their presumed value.

Because the related problem to price inconsistency is value confusion. There’s no question that there are good movies and bad movies, movies made for a dime and others made for millions. And yet there is a general, universally accepted value to the movie-going experience. That value is intrinsically linked to its price, just as the value of a meal in a restaurant is linked to its price.

But what’s the value of a museum experience? And is the value of a $20 museum experience directly relatable to that of a $5 one? Why are we asking our visitors to make these complex determinations?

Interestingly, direct museum competitors, like Ripley’s Believe It or Not and Madame Tussaud’s, have pretty stable price consistency. They value the experience they offer at about $30. I wouldn’t be surprised if the public catches on to the consistent price of these “edutainment” venues and responds positively to their consistency by visiting several such institutions.

Ultimately, that’s a great potential side effect of consistency—that providing consistently valued (and priced) museum experiences promotes museum-going in general. Maybe there’s an option, like in restaurants or theaters, for different museums to convey different levels of experience (with commensurate levels of price). There could be fast food quickie museums and long, programmatically rich ones. Or, maybe we should consider a “one price fits most” model. It might change people’s perceptions of museum experiences as highly differentiated and encourage people to visit museums more broadly and generally. If I liked that $10 museum, maybe I’ll also like this one. Let me know what you think. I’ll be at the matinee.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Game Friday: Treating Players Like Experts

I read a description this week of a new hidden object game that is based in a Mayan archeological dig. The reviewer called the storyline "intriguing" and described the player’s role as follows: “You are an archaeologist with a deep knowledge of Mayan culture investigating the demise of the last known Mayan family.” Oh, really? And where did I acquire this deep knowledge of Mayan culture? What does this statement really mean?

Most games grant players a certain amount of starter skill. Rare is the game that forces new players to truly enter as total novices. Whether the skill involved is casting spells or doing skateboarding tricks, you start at a level of proficiency. You may not be Tiger Woods on the golf course, but in a game environment, you are his worthy opponent. You already know how to hit the ball. And these starter skills or proffered proficiencies are part of what make the games compelling; they offer an opportunity for players to do and experience things they can’t do in their regular lives. Most of us will never be Guitar Heroes or NBA contenders--but we can play them in these games.

But those are skill-based games. More interesting to me is the phenomenon of granting players some “starter knowledge”—for example, expertise as an archaelogist. In knowledge-based games, it’s hard to mask player non-proficiencies. You can't claim, "You are an expert in Aramaic" and then expect players to start spouting off in an ancient tongue. You can’t give people a starter inventory of knowledge, unless you want to send them to the library before playing.

The way most game designers deal with this is by using the concept of starter knowledge as a hook, not a real part of the game. In the Mayan example, players are not actually required to have deep knowledge of Mayan culture. They are expected to take that role as a premise and then play a game (solving riddles and finding hidden objects) that is tangentially related, at best, to the actual knowledge and skill set of an archaeologist.

But what if you are in an educational setting, like a museum? Is there a way to legitimately give players roles they know nothing about and expect them to work in that context?

This was a huge challenge in designing Operation Spy, a live action narrative immersion game at the Spy Museum. One of our goals was to give visitors a sense of what it really feels like to be an intelligence officer. But of course, the real officers go through years of training. How do you tell someone he or she is a CIA agent and expect them to know what to do with that information? How do you design a safe-cracking experience that feels real for players who have never cracked a safe before in their lives? How do you throw someone into a situation where they have no proficiency and treat them like experts?

don’t have the solution to these questions. I do, however, have some tricks and observations that I’ve seen successfully applied to this problem.

One of the easiest ways to convey expertise is to flip around the language used to transmit information. Most museum labels assume the visitor starts with little or no knowledge. For example, a label might say, "This chemical is used in jet fuel." But if you are trying to support the fiction that the player is a chemist, you might say, "As you know, this chemical is used in jet fuel." Those three magic words, "as you know" presume that the person you're talking to is an expert, and yet conveys the same information. The player can sagely nod his/her head and think, "yeah, I DID know that." Social scientists have shown that if you tell someone a fact in way that seems like you are reminding or asking them to verify it, people more often believe they actually knew it than if you ask/tell them straight.

Treatment. If you treat someone like an expert, they'll start believing in their own expertise. Consider the example posed in the Peter Sellers movie Being There. Throughout the film, rich and powerful people treat a mentally childlike gardener like a brilliant statesman. The gardener reacts passively, but the others keep treating him like a star--until he is one. The point is, it takes very little action on the part of the player/gardener to be seen as an expert. It just takes aggressive onlookers/game masters.

One of the easiest ways to feel like an expert is to be the guide for someone else. Little kids are great at this. In fantasy play, one kid will often assume the expert role and will set the rules: "I'm the teacher. You have to do this. This works like this." And when someone solicits you for help, you feel even more powerful. Some video games have taken advantage of this by pairing the player with a weaker, needy partner whom the player must protect and take care of. In live action games, this role can be assumed by the facilitator, who can seamlessly slip into helplessness (to give the player the authority) when the player is ready to be the expert.

Metaphor. In many situations, what it feels like to be an expert is more important than what it actually is like. Do you need to sit in a car for 12 hours to understand what a stakeout feels like? Do you need to spend 8 years in medical training to understand the pressure of working in the ER? Ultimately, a lot of the interactives we designed for Operation Spy convey the feeling of spy work, even when they didn't convey its reality.
This may sound suspiciously like the Mayan example--that we took espionage as a premise and departed to play our own games. But I'd argue that there's a distinction between metaphorical play (which is analogous to the real thing) and play that departs from the real experiences. When experts talk about their work, they often use metaphors. Does scientific discovery feel like a flash of brilliance, finding a needle in the haystack, or a reward for tedious work? Each of these could be expressed quite differently by different kinds of games. If you can't be true to the complicated knowledge required to make decisions or discoveries, you can be true to the universality of what those experiences feel like.

Treating players (or visitors) like experts gives them confidence and allows them to explore beyond their typical experiences. Where have you seen this work well? What's missing from my list? As you know, I care what you think... :)

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Performance Anxiety: Visitors and their Audience

I had a great conversation with Darcie Fohrman yesterday about visitor input exhibits like video kiosks. She told me an anecdote about an experience with the Stanford Art Museum exhibition, Question, which included a keyboard where visitors could type their own thoughts about art, to be projected on a wall along with quotes by famous people. One day while Darcie was observing, some kids took charge of the keyboard and started keying in some swear words. A guard stepped in to stop them--and then Darcie stepped in to pull back the guard and let the kids be.

This story highlights the existence of the audience for visitor input exhibits. Arguably, all exhibits are relational--you lifting the giant lever affects me as an observer and fellow visitor. But by displaying visitor content, visitor input exhibits take this relation to the next level. Who is the visitor input experience for? Is it for the inputter, who has the experience of recording their thoughts? Or is it for the inputtee, who sees those thoughts displayed? What is the relationship between visitors and their audiences?

My impression is that most such exhibits are designed to be inputter-focused. But the audience can't be ignored. At Stanford, the kids were the inputters/performers, and the guard was the audience--an audience who didn't like what s/he was seeing. Were the kids aware of their audience? Was the idea of other people seeing "Shit" projected on the wall part of its appeal? Or did they do it for themselves?

We're already comfortable with the idea that museum exhibit and program designers create content for an audience. That audience--our visitors--expects that museum content has been developed with them in mind. If the Stanford Art Museum had chosen to exhibit a quote from a famous person that included an expletive, the guard probably wouldn't have raised a complaint--he or she would have rationalized that the exhibit designers had a good reason for including the swear word.

But are visitors as audience-minded as we are? It depends. It's partially our choice. One of the design considerations when creating visitor input exhibits should be signaling who the audience is and how the input will be displayed, if at all. A video booth with signage that says, "Record your thoughts for our archives" might garner different submissions than one that says, "Record your thoughts for inclusion in this exhibit." This signaling may result in different content, or, more significantly, different users.

Some people are excited by the idea of performing for an audience; others get scared off. In museums, there's rarely clear signaling about how or where visitor input will be displayed, so the museum gets neither the positives of audience awareness (desire to do one's best and be "famous") nor those of the private experience (potentially more personal content). Perhaps designers should think about the kind of content they want to elicit, and whether a public or private display best accomodates that.

The Experience Music Project in Seattle is a great model for skillful use of both audience-centric and private visitor experiences. Creating music can be both a private and public experience, and they address both. I appreciated getting to be behind closed (sound-proofed) doors, banging away on instruments I didn't know how to play. Had I been recorded and broadcast, I would have put the drumsticks down. But I also enjoyed the sound stage where you could "perform" a song for a crowd. Sometimes you want to be famous. Sometimes you just want to be alone with your guitar.

Of course, even when signaled, different people interpret their own actions differently. This is a fascinating component of Web 2.0--the balance between public and private audiences. Is your MySpace page a vehicle to promote yourself to the world, or a personal place to communicate with friends? Is your Flickr page a handy place to store photos, or a public exposition of your travels and exploits?

We do a disservice to our visitors when we don't encourage them to consider these questions, to consider their own audiences. One of the things that makes YouTube successful is the overt presence of the public audience; it makes you aware that people are going to watch your content and judge it. It makes you feel like there are people out there who want your content--people you are doing this for. The same goes for blogging. I could be writing this for myself in a journal, but I'm sharing it with you instead. I'm thinking about you as I write this. I'm wondering how you'll react, where I got too long-winded, etc.

And that awareness, hopefully, makes my content more useful to you. If visitors were more aware that their input was being produced for an audience--whether online, in the collection, or in the museum--they might take the input experience a little more seriously, and spend less time just giggling at the webcam. Or, maybe they'd hijack the opportunity and use it to put on their own off-topic, inappropriate shows. Either way, the resulting content would be made FOR someone, not just by someone. The visitor experience wouldn't just be input--it would be an output experience as well. Instead of just using the exhibit, visitors would get a slice of what it's like to create an exhibit, on a small scale, for someone else. And when that happens, we can start honestly talking about visitors contributing to the museum experience.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Talking Through Objects 2: The Rollercoaster Conundrum

Last week, I wrote about the ways that dogs can be useful social objects--and you had lots of good comments and input. This week, I'm hoping you can help solve a mystery on a similar topic.

You see, I've found another object that's a successful stranger-to-stranger social enabler, but this one is harder to understand. It's a rollercoaster; specifically, it's the 100 year old wooden coaster on the Santa Cruz boardwalk, the Giant Dipper. A couple months ago, I rode the Dipper for the first time. While standing on line, I noticed something surprising: when a car full of riders came back to the boarding area after their ride, people in line stuck out their hands to slap the hands of the riders in the car. I went back a couple months later to photograph it.

Step 1: people on line wait for rollercoaster.

Step 2:
people see car is coming and stick out their hands.

Step 3:
a successful "five" is given.

Why does this happen? It's not because the boardwalk is a social place. Sure, it's social, but people stick to their own "pods"--families, teens, adults--and don't diverge or merge. If you were to go out on the boardwalk proper, teeming with people on a summer night, and stuck your hand out, no one would give you five. So why do they do it at the rollercoaster?

Maybe it's because people are excited about the ride. Maybe it's because people waiting in line are bored and want something to break up the monotony. But the best reason I can imagine has to do with barriers and shared experience. Out on the boardwalk, or at the zoo or a museum, there's a common experience of the sights, sounds, smells, activities of the place. But since the spaces are largely open, it feels threatening to approach strangers. You'd have to do it face to face. You could be rejected, or overpursued, or any number of anxiety-inducing possibilities, and you can't hide or reasonably extract yourself from a negative situation.

On the line for the rollercoaster, on the other hand, there's a physical barrier separating the people in line from the people in the car. In fact, it's impossible for people in the car to have any kind of sustained interaction with people in line, because a. they are moving past the line-standers in a car with a restraining bar and b. they are required to leave the building when they depart the car. The interaction between strangers is necessarily short. There is a foregone conclusion that it will not be prolonged to the discomfort of either party. It's a controlled environment--and while neither individual is in control, the partially limiting barrier makes it feel okay to act atypically.

These "partially limiting barriers" are successful in other venues as well--most notably online, where it is personal anonymity rather than temporal transience that makes the interaction between strangers feel controlled. But it's the same inhibition that allows otherwise shy people to dance with strangers at clubs--for some people, loud music and a less intimate setting are opportunities for social interaction rather than limiters. It's also a reason that people will game with strangers; in that case, the games' rules form the partial barrier that facilitates social interaction.

But I'm not so sure of this. How do you interpret the Giant Dipper hand slapping? Where do you see barriers used as springboards for social behavior?

Friday, September 14, 2007

Game Friday: The Thrill of the Chase

A simple little game today, Lonely House Moving, which caught my eye not for the gameplay (urban Mario) but for the intoxicatingly simple story. Girl and boy talk. Girl gets into U-haul. Boy has epiphany and starts racing after her.

You play the role of the boy, dodging squirrels, bird poop, and the lampshades falling off her truck as you try to catch the moving vehicle and, presumably, announce your affection. It’s like every modern romantic comedy compressed to its most basic form. And the impact is powerful; in the discussion area of Casual Games, comments ranged from
“Go nameless lonely guy! For the sake of love!”
“dodging stuff in the context of this little guy's newfound love-struckedness is a nice illustration of the way you have to prioritize if you discover that you really want something. I honestly feel like I'll take a little piece of this game away with me and it might improve my life in some tiny way.”

What makes this simple narrative so impressively conveyed? There isn’t any dialogue or facial detail on the characters. There’s no carefully composed heartstring music. Visually, the game uses two devices to great effect: the relation between two faces, and the passage of time.

First, the relation between the characters. It’s no more detailed than the fable of Mario and the princess (less if you consider the occasional text in Mario about the princess needing help). And yet the game designers here did something brilliant: they keep the two characters in the visual frame throughout the entire game. The boy isn’t moving towards a goal (the girl). He’s chasing her. For most of the game, you watch his body, constantly moving towards her, while she is facing the other way, unaware as she rides the truck that she is being followed by her friend (and is losing several personal items off the back of the truck). Seeing both of these heads and their directionality continually reinforces the relationship between the two, and you are constantly hoping that she will turn around and see you. That tension and hope fuels the game.

The other thing the game does well is passage of time. It’s accomplished in the cheesy “sun goes down then comes up in the background” way, but it works. In the context of the simple story, it conveys the length that the boy will go to follow the girl, and you can imagine how the 12 hours pass in each of their minds.

Ultimately it’s this invitation to the imagination that makes the simple strokes of this game so emotionally appealing. The game sets you up with everything you need to get invested, get interested, and get imaginative. You can port your own emotions onto the characters, thinking of that one woman or man or job or chance that got away. And then you run and hope to God this time you’ll catch it.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

See You at the Igloo: The Power of Club Penguin

When I talk with museum people about virtual worlds, the conversation usually centers on Second Life. And sure, by some metrics, it's the biggest, most fully realized 3D world out there, full of user-generated content, sex shops and waterslides, and a whole lot of buggy, experimental experiences.

But Second Life isn't the biggest, and it isn't the fastest growing. It's just the most open.

If you want to see where the real action is, waddle over to the igloo. Chances are if you know a kid between 6 and 12, you know a kid who uses Club Penguin or Webkinz, or both. Club Penguin is subscription-based and purely on the web; Webkinz requires the purchase of a plush toy (with an active virtual life). These virtual worlds are, as one father put it, "the cuddly G-rated version of Second Life." And they're booming. Club Penguin has 700,000 subscribers (at $6/month), about 12 million users, and was just sold to Disney for $350 million with a $350 million additional earn-out. And unlike Second Life, Club Penguin is 2D, highly controlled, and its primary users are too young to type.

But not too young to fall in love with virtual worlds. In January, there was an interesting CNET article about "Generation We"--kids growing up today who are constantly plugged in, not to their own personal gadgets, but to a larger social network. They expect their computer experiences, like in-person play experiences, to be social. While there's not much interest in playing with strangers, kids as young as 6 will make plans with school friends to meet up in the virtual igloo afterschool for scripted chat and simple flash games.

Talking to kids about these worlds, I've learned they know how to game the system (removing those pesky parental controls). But they don't use it to swear. They use it to play. They love the way it fuels their desire to quickly jump from one activity to the next. Now we're making pizza! Now we're playing hockey! It's not just one game, so it doesn't feel constrained. It emulates real social imaginative play and provides a realized (if virtual) environment for interaction.

They also love a part that creeps me out: the commercial aspect. Much of the gameplay in these worlds focuses around earning virtual money to buy virtual goods. And I can see the appeal; I felt the same excitement playing Lemonade Stand, filling pitchers and raking in the imaginary text-based dough. Whether healthy or not, acquiring, saving, and scheming with money is a classic child preoccupation--and one that cannot fully be realized in the real world.

One of the best places to get a good idea of Club Penguin without strapping on a beak is through their blog. Blogging may seem like an adult (or at least teenage) activity, but the Club Penguin creators realize that their users are enthusiastic and want to be involved in the action. You get a feel for the emphasis on new! improved! content, events, and the extent to which kids really feel this is "their" world. If only museums' blogs got such a wealth of poorly spelled comments. "

So what does this mean for museums? Someone recently said to me, "the mass audience for virtual worlds is growing up with the technology." It isn't the Second Life early adopters for whom this technology will be ubiquitous: it's the young penguins in their virtual igloos. Adults may not expect social networks and virtual extensions of real experiences in museums, but within ten years, adolescents raised on Club Penguin and Webkinz will. In the same way that today's teens have grown up with the mobile phone technology, today's pre-teens are growing up with social networks and virtual worlds. If you are going to invest time looking into virtual worlds while thinking about future audiences, perhaps it's time to start getting out on the ice. Or, as the Club Penguin blog would put it, waddle on!

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Talking Through Objects: The Dog Analogy

I'm gearing up for some conference talks next month, and one of these is part of a very cool session, Eye on Design, at the Western Museums Association conference. The coordinator asked several folks to pick a design trend from outside the museum world and discuss how they might be applied to museum design. I've been thinking about what, of all this 2.0 stuff, is most exciting to me. And right now, it's the ways that these technologies encourage social engagement among strangers.

On the web, such socializing can happen around games (MMOs), shopping (Amazon discussions), trip planning (TripAdvisor), music or book collections (Librarything)... the list goes on. But I recently stumbled back upon one of the most powerful tools for stranger-stranger socializing in the real world: dogs.

I'm in the process of adopting a dog. Doing so has brought me to shelters, dog parks, and generally a heightened awareness of dogs and their owners. Dogs are the ultimate social object. They allow for transference of attention from person-to-person to person-to-thing-to-person. It’s much less threatening to approach someone by approaching and interacting with his/her dog, which will inevitably lead to interaction with its owner. Similarly, enterprising dog owners use their dogs as social instigators, steering the pups towards people they’d like to meet.

Why does this work with dogs but not with, say, 18th century coins in museums? When you are looking at a painting, and I am looking at the painting, why don’t we transfer our interest in the painting into social exchange?

One argument might be that dogs are owned and therefore uniquely associated with their owners. In the museum, neither of us has a vested interest in the exhibit with which we are both interacting, so neither of us can extrapolate back to interest in the other person. But that’s not quite true. Often I’m standing at an exhibit, totally thrilled by the way I can use my hands to make cloud formations or listen to strange sounds or… and would LOVE to share it with strangers. I feel some ownership of the experience I’ve discovered. I’d love to flag someone down and say, “Hey! Check out this awesome thing!” But I rarely do. I’m conscious of other people’s “alone time” in the museum. When I see someone having a great experience with an exhibit in a museum, my impulse isn’t to approach him and ask what he’s enjoying. My impulse is to leave him alone to enjoy his experience, to be alone with his dog, as it were.

But leaving dogs “alone” never seems like the right choice. They have so much social energy on their own, absent of owners. Have you ever had a stray dog, a sweet and not-too-mangy one, approach you on the street? In my experience these dogs are the best social generators. Immediately, I spring into action, asking the people on the street if they know the dog, have seen it, etc. Suddenly an ad hoc gang of strangers is shepherding this dog through the neighborhood looking for its home.

Imagine an exhibit that could do this—that could approach you, express a need, and spring you into social action. An exhibit that compelled you to walk around to other visitors and ask, “Do you know this exhibit? Is it yours? Any idea where it belongs?”

What are the general characteristics of dogs that make them good objects for sparking social interaction?

They are intrinsically relational. Exhibits are things. Dogs are persons (if highly limited in their abilities as such). The expectation with a dog is that the only way to engage with it is by being social with it, which then breaks the ice for being social with those around it. The expectation with an exhibit is that one approaches it intellectually, physical, even emotionally, but that the approach is uni-directional; that is, the exhibit isn’t giving anything back. You are the only active agent with an interactive. With a dog, you are both active agents, and the “interactivity” is social.

Dogs are outwardly emotive. There are many museum exhibits that are arguably as interactive as a dog. And yet the thing that makes dogs lovable is their desire to relate emotionally, to perform and to please. It’s easier as a stranger to respond positively to an animal that expresses interest in you than an exhibit that just sits there. And dogs’ attention is not uni-directional—dogs will spread their attention to all those around them. Which means if you are having a great experience with your dog, I can perceive and access that. In a museum, I can’t necessarily tell if the ancient bowl is communicating with you or you with it. Dogs are approachers. Exhibits only receive.

Dogs are endlessly interesting to their owners. If I approach you in a museum and ask what captivates you about the sculpture in front of us, you might look at me strangely and tell me you were just spacing out. But if I ask what you love about your dog or why he does that funny thing, you will chatter on for minutes. Yes, this happens in museums, but most often when you interact with museum staff, who have vested interests, relationships, and ideas about the objects on display. Museum visitors are rarely as “close” to exhibits as they are to their pets.

In a strange way, the dog analogy leads to thinking about personalizing the museum. When the museum is full of objects, exhibits, and experiences that feel personal to visitors, visitors take ownership and have relationships with those experiences that are emotional and deep—like their relationships with dogs. I once toured an art museum with an art educator who told me that she thinks of certain pieces as “old friends” who she loves to visit and communicate with from time to time. It struck me that she was incredibly privileged to have this personal relationship with the art. But that relationship is like her own secret dog. It makes her experience more meaningful, but doesn’t necessarily induce social behavior.

Having personal relationships with museum content is a start—but that’s just the first step, when you clip the leash on the dog and call it yours. The real challenge is figuring out how to design exhibits that are “approachers,” that come up to you with interest and attention and needs and ask you to satisfy them. How do we design exhibits to be the cutest, most friendly strays on the block?

Please share your thoughts. In the meantime, I’ll be out socializing with my new friend.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Game Friday: Supporting Community Influencers

The Austin Game Developers Conference is finishing up, and from it comes Gamasutra's intriguing account of the session on Engaging and Empowering Community Influencers. In gaming, especially MMOs (massively multiplayer online games, like World of Warcraft), the social component--supported by bulletin boards, community sites, and in-game social areas--plays a major role in how the game is perceived, and, by extension, its success. The players who talk to the most other players are often more influential than those with the highest scores, and game design firms are starting to consciously cultivate and support their influence.

There are some obvious ties to the role of "community" in museums. Recently, some museums have launched initiatives to rebrand as community spaces, acknowledging and attempting to harness the positive social energy around visitation. Notably, the Brooklyn Museum's heavy involvment with social networking sites like MySpace has extended the idea that museums are sites for discussion. And even museums that don't have online social presences are sites for discussion, whether on TripAdvisor, Yelp, or other forums for opinion about cultural attractions.

As this evolution progresses, it may be worthwhile for museums to turn to gaming and consider the ways that game designers treat their players. Traditionally, game designers thought of players as consumers, and were uninterested in their social discusions, forums, etc. around gameplay. Now, designers realize the power of such forums to influence the game's success, and are employing "community managers" to work with and in those forums.

An easy place to start is the web: get out there and see what people are already saying about your museum. Search for your institution of TripAdvisor (for reviews), on Technorati (for blog mentions), on Flickr (for photos), or on YouTube (for rare but coveted visitor-generated videos). Read the comments. You'll quickly see that a conversation is happening about your institution--and you do not control it. But that doesn't mean you can't be a part of it, either by actively inserting your voice, supporting discussion on your own site (a la Brooklyn Museum), or, in the model of the game designers, trying to steer it.

How do these game companies steer the discussion? It's a three step process.

First, the community managers identify and reach out to "community influencers"--everyday players whose voices are particularly clear, persuasive, and insightful. Most of these people have enough vested interest in the game--either because they love or hate it--that a solicitation from the game production company to get involved is met with positive response. Who are these influencers? People with "leadership, empathy for what people like and don’t like, ability to sooth ruffled feathers, articulate." Critical people are sought after; "yes men" are not as useful as those who have clearly articulated issues with the game. Note that these people are selected, not self-selected. These aren't the people who tell the museum about their visit via program surveys or comment cards; they are the people who tell their friends about their visit. It takes staff time to break into these communities, but it means that the sample is not based on people with visions of grandeur or "yes" folks. Their interest is in the game, not the influence.

Second, the community managers give these influencers special responsibilities and perks. In many cases, the responsibilities are direct extensions of things the players were already doing--offering critique of issues and suggestions for new features, supporting newbie experiences, rallying people around certain elements of the game. The perks include access to information about the game, praise and fame within the forums, and occasional freebies and in-game rewards. Note that these influencers are not formally hired; they do not have contracts (though many sign NDAs). They are being supported as goodwill volunteers, not hired as corporate shills.

Third, the game designers use the influencers' feedback to change the course of the game. This is the most important point, both for the influencers and the designers. If the community managers just made influencers feel good about their involvement, they'd be marketers, not community managers. The point is that the designers actually believe that they can learn something from these influential, thoughtful players. When the designers make changes based on their learnings, they have a readymade audience of influencers who will test, support, and distribute information about the changes. The influencers become part of the design experience--not in a heavy or disruptive way, but in a supportive and provocative one.

Could museums do this? Sure. Some already do. It requires relying not on the self-selected group of influencers (i.e. members/donors), but on the people who use the museum most frequently, most thoughtfully, and most socially. Right now, it's hard to do step 1 (identifying), because in many cases museums aren't aware of where influencers are making themselves known.

So get online and start looking for and reaching out to your influencers. Or, start at home on the museum floor. Influencers ask insightful questions at programs, bring rowdy crowds through exhibits, and hang out in the cafe and on the museum steps. They complain and criticize and don't let the museum take the easy way out. They delight and share and are perplexed and want to talk about it. This often happens in a lovely way in children's museums, where there are many heavy repeat visitors, kids who have a good understanding of what works and doesn't on the floor. I once worked at a tiny museum where each week a boy would come in and give us a tour of what he did and didn't like. He was a great and honest evaluator, and he loved his role as an influencer.

Once identified, acknowledging and supporting influencers can be a wonderful way to get new programs or experimental projects rolling. Community development doesn't have to rest solely on staff's shoulders--getting the community involved should, after all, be about them. What's going on in your museum? How do or could you support your community influencers?

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Museum 2.0 at ASTC: Come Tour the Best Tech Museum in LA!

The ASTC (the Association of Science and Technology Centers) annual meeting is coming up in LA (home of my childhood), and Museum 2.0 will be there! The fine folks at ASTC must have made a teensy oversight when they neglected to include my favorite tech museum in the conference proceedings, so I'm remedying the situation by sponsoring a conference alternative on Sunday afternoon, October 14: lunch and a visit to the Museum of Jurassic Technology.

In a world of increasingly sterile museum environments, the Museum of Jurassic Technology is a beacon of emotion, strangeness, and wonder. Created by artists David and Diana Wilson, it is an homage to the curiosity cabinet of yore, a place where the grotesque, the imaginary, and the unfamiliar intermingle. Exhibits range from oil portraits of the Soviet space program dogs to immersive stories about scientists who may have existed to failed dice to letters sent to the Mt. Wilson observatory, and are by turns exquisite and disquieting. Enjoyable and fascinating both as a designed collection and a meta-commentary on museums, the MJT is small, quirky, and DEFINITELY worth a visit. Plus, they serve free cookies and tea. What's not to like?

The logistics:
This outing will be on SUNDAY, OCT 14 from noon until 3:15; we will make it back in time for the 3:30 sessions. We will leave the convention center promptly after the morning session, zip over to Culver City, explore the MJT for an hour, grab some lunch, and scoot back. I wanted to make it a more leisurely affair but am concious of everyone's needs for heavy conference time. We'll take cabs/my car; the whole experience should cost about $30 between food, transportation, and museum donation.

Please contact me at to join the adventure. It's an opportunity for us to discuss some of the content that's been brought up on the blog, but more importantly a chance to visit a really weird museum. And I mean that in the best possible way.

And if you want a more traditional Museum 2.0 experience, I will be presenting on:
  • SATURDAY in "I'll Show You Mine If You Show Me Yours"
  • SATURDAY in "Defining Museums 2.0"
  • TUESDAY in "Web 2.0 the Sequel: What's Now? What's Next?"

See you in LA!

Monday, September 03, 2007

Labor Day Thoughts: Getting Admin Staff on the Floor

It's Labor Day, and across the country, a working dichotomy is manifest in museums. Administrative offices are dark while the galleries are packed with visitors. The floor staff are directing traffic, selling tickets, and facilitating experiences for throngs of people. If they're lucky, they've got a few good visitor services managers running the show. And if the leadership is wise, there are some admin staff among them, learning from the experience.

This post is not intended (primarily) as a salute to floor staff--though they deserve it. Few would contest their value and service to institutions that generally pay them poorly for the often monotonous work of facilitating smooth, positive guest experiences. Instead, this post is an open question: how involved should admin staff be with the floor experience? How often should educators, designers, and execs push back from their desks, throw on a nametag, and walk the floor? Is this an outdated concept or a useful business strategy?

For mostly practical reasons, museum staff offices have shifted over the last couple decades further and further from the public. As museums grow in staff and exhibits, the reshifting of space often necessitates moving people into new buildings, basements, and unused floors. In the most extreme situations, staff work several blocks from the closest visitor, and frequenting the museum floor requires an outing rather than just a bathroom break.

Is this a bad thing? Arguably, much of what happens behind the scenes at museums has little bearing on the visitor experience and vice versa. The screams of children, while invigorating, don't inspire better fundraising nor conservation. And yet I'd argue that museums are in a very special position as "product manufacturers" because staff always have direct access to their consumers. And if museums are indeed products for visitor/consumers, then that access is the most precious marketing, research, and development resource we have.

Why should admin staff spend time on the floor?
It makes us better providers of visitor services. It makes us more compassionate and capable managers of floor staff. It makes us more compelling storytellers and fundraisers about the guest experience. It makes us confront the reality of the museum not from our own perspective as owners, but from that of our users.

It's easy to write these things and much harder to live them. Time on the floor often feels repetitive. You rarely gain new insights; instead, you hone your ability to give directions to the bathroom. The tangible value of the experience for you, and your impact on guests, seems minimal, and quickly you start itching to get "back to work." You get it. You know what the museum's like. Why reexperience it again and again?

Because your visitors don't. It's an interesting characteristic of museums that most visitors to them are newbies to the location and are unlikely to advance beyond that status to become frequent users. Unlike, say, people who ride the subway or people who listen to iPods, the "product experience" in museums is largely formed in a single initial visit. If the visitor returns, it's likely to be for "something new" next year, by which point they have a familiarity with the general museum experience but not the specific content experience. What this means is that as product creators and distributors, museum staff are largely dealing with people brand new to the product. Our visitors don't have the luxury we as staff have to "get to know the museum" over several visits. The museum they know is very different--and getting out on the floor helps us understand that difference.

On the floor, even as staff familiarity with the content and the layout grows ad nauseum, the visitor experience is largely uninformed. And while it's easy for non-floor staff to remember the sensations of being on the floor--the noise and quiet, the elation and confusion--it's hard to remember the sensation of being there for the first time. And that sensation is the one to which we must design, program, and sell.

For this reason, the most important place for admin staff to spend time is in front of the museum, walking the line, answering questions, selling tickets and memberships and welcoming people in the door. This is the location where visitors' prejudices and expectations are on display. This is where their questions, yet unaddressed, are most clearly expressed.

And the second most important place is alongside the newbies. Take a tour with a group of visitors. Walk in and wait on line with them--as long as it takes. Read the map. When we can dart around the lines and pop in to our favorite haunts, it's hard to remember that most visitors are not as well-informed as we, and that their experiences are limited by what we do--or don't--give them as aids.

This basic fact--that being a visitor advocate means being a newbie advocate--has become central to my work now. I'm doing some experience design within the virtual world of Second LIfe, where I am humblingly, and somewhat embarassingly, a newbie. The talented people with whom I work, who make my content come alive, are the experts of Second Life, and they navigate the world and its quirks with the confidence of experience. When I bring up issues about unclear orientations or weird freakouts when my avatar (character) gets stuck in a wall, they smile and say, "Sounds like typical Second Life." And yet for me, as a confused newcomer (like many SL users, the majority of whom don't return after their first visit), it's nothing to smile about--these challenges are barriers to me becoming an active user.

The same thing is true in museums. If, sitting upstairs in front of your computer, you hear the screams or see the lines out your window, you may smile and say, "Typical day at the museum." But for the majority of visitors, it's not typical: it's new and confusing. Floor staff know this, and their observations can be painful to designers or educators who believe they are dealing wtih more sophisticated users, people more like them. The only way admin staff can design for these real visitors with their real experiences is to understand the banalities and imperfections of that newbie experience as it exists.

I treasure the fact that I'm a Second Life newbie; I believe it makes me a more compassionate designer. I know that I can't turn back the clock and make myself a museum newbie, but I can spend as much time with them as possible, trying to remember, to appreciate, and to design for their needs. It's hard work. Walking back into the museum on Labor Day as a visitor may be the first step.