Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Why Museums Need Nike+: Tracking, Gaming, and Architecture of Participation

I often get asked what Web 2.0 means, and I usually use a form of Tim O'Reilly's four elements: content platform not provider, architecture of participation with network effects, perpetual beta, and modular design.

But those elements are pretty conceptual. How do they apply to creating a great 2.0 experience? There are other elements that often come up on this blog, like user-generated content or me-to-we design, that are more about implementation than theory. Today, we talk results. I'm talking about a product that uses the tools of tracking, gaming, and me-to-we design to give a fabulous experience: Nike+.

Nike+ is a combined iPod and shoe sensor product that allows users to track every step of their runs. This means you receive real-time audio data while running about your progress (updates each mile), and later, can review your run stats online. You can create goals for yourself (against which your progress is automatically tracked) and challenge others (anonymous or known) to run at your pace, complete a number of miles, etc. You can also create song lists for runs that give you a "power-up" when you most need it based on your run thus far.

Nike+ provides a brilliant trifecta of sticky experiences, combining tracking, game mechanics, and me-to-we design to support a product, an activity, a community, and ultimately, healthy lifestyles.
In many ways, it's the IDEAL inspiration for museums seeking to create a pervasive, sticky visitor experience that extends beyond the visit and is not totally screen-bound.

Let's take a closer look at how this all comes together.

First, Nike+ offers tracking. This is the most obvious feature of the product, and one that offers value on its own. As with the mileage displays inside hybrid vehicles, Nike+ users report that the experience of being tracked actually improves their performance. It's no coincidence that Nike+ provides both real-time and post-run statistics--you need both to adjust behavior real-time, and to motivate future improvement.

Second, Nike+ gives you a game. You get rewarded for running. As one enthusiast put it:
The second best part about the Nike+ running — the cool, video-game like part — is that you not only run, but you also get points for running. Your score ever-increases. Better still, if you set goals for yourself, you even get awesome virtual trophies and ribbons, resplendent in their vector beauty. Just like Pac-Man got to eat the occasional delicious (albeit high-sodium) pretzel treat in-between hundreds of dots, the Nike+ runner gets the occasional trophy treat in between the miles. As I understand it, a lot of people run for so-called "exercise", but let me tell you: points are way cooler.
These first two mechanics, tracking and gaming, make for an intoxicating individual experience. However, these two are most valuable while you are actually using the Nike+. When you stop running or looking at your stats on the web, the memories of trophies and goals slip away. Why run? It's not even a human encouraging you--just a stupid machine.

And this is where the third mechanic, the me-to-we design, comes in. I've written before about the 2.0 hierarchy of participation, where users move from having a "me" experience to a "we" experience through the useful networking of their individual bits. Consider how the Nike+ performs on the pyramid to the right.

On the first level, we're talking shoes and iPod only. You get music, you get covering for your feet. Nice provisions.

On level two, you get the sensor, the tracking, the points. Now, you can interact with the content, set the individual goals, see your progress, etc. This is where tracking and points take you.

On level three, you can see the goals and runs set by other people, and use that for inspiration, but you can't do anything meaningful with it.

On level four, you can join in collective challenges. Here's where the power of "we" comes in. Now, you aren't just thinking about your running goals while running or checking out your own stats. Now, you have external goals for which you have to answer to others. You've got to leave work so you can run and meet the challenge. Right. Now. Here's how that same enthusiastic blogger put it:
And the coolest part about Nike+ running? Like any good online game, you can challenge your friends. First to 100 miles? Fastest 5-mile time? Your call. These challenges wind up being incredibly inspiring — running against good friend and athletic powerhouse J. John Afryl kept me on my toes (maybe a bit too much as you'll read later) — and they're also incredibly fun. Logging in after a long run, uploading your data, and seeing where you are in the standings, is a pretty awesome way to wrap up your exercise. And more importantly, sitting around the house, wondering what to do, thinking about jogging, and then realizing that if you don't go jogging tonight you're going to lose points and slip in the standings — now that's true, videogame motivation.
In this way, the architecture of participation is the most powerful of these three mechanics, encouraging customers to think about the Nike+ product even when they are not using it. The gaming and tracking make it fun and addicting, but the architecture of participation makes it pervasive.

And what about level five? One of the interesting complaints out there about Nike+ is that it doesn't provide for enough direct runner-to-runner interaction. Users have argued that running is often a social activity, and that they want to have that same social experience via Nike+. It's not crazy to imagine a future cellphone bluetooth Nike+ that allows you to talk real-time to a running partner half a world away as you both navigate the streets. Without the pyramid of me-to-we supporting it, no one would want such a feature. But now, through the networked challenges, Nike+ users are starting to know, appreciate, and want more ways to interact with each other.

Think about what a strange feat Nike has pulled off with this product. It has taken a non-screen-based, often anti-social, occasionally loathed or feared activity--running--and turned it into a social game. It has transformed the motivation to run from exercise to winning. Imagine if all the calorie counters and pedometers and hybrid car readouts and everything else we track individually were networked and gamed in this way. Imagine if our gardens and books read and other healthy lifestyle activities were rewarded and socialized virtually.

Nike+ took an uncontrolled venue--the streets and trails used by runners all over the world--and created a compelling experience around it. In museums, we're often challenged by the question of how to track and provide a networked social experience without bringing more computers and screens into the galleries. We need to think more like Nike+, more modular, more visitor-centered, with devices that are simpler than handhelds.

Yes, the iPod nano (required for Nike+ use) is functionally a handheld, but it is smaller and more versatile than the devices many museums use for personalized experiences. And you don't have to give it back at the end of the run/tour. I think the most powerful lesson to learn from Nike+ is NOT how the tracking and gaming improve the running experience. It's the way that social networks encourage users to be engaged long after and before they run. This is the holy grail of experience design--creating something so pervasive that people think about it when they aren't doing it. And if Nike can do it for something as feared and despised as running often is, surely we can do it for museums.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Listening in Multiple Directions: The Value of Tracking

Pop quiz. At any given time, do you know:
  • how many visitors are in your museum?
  • how many members are in your museum?
  • whether an individual visitor has visited before, and if so, when?
  • the purchase history of visitors buying items in your store?
Shockingly, for many museums, large and small, the answer to these questions is no. Ticket systems don't talk to membership databases. The store and the museum entrance are strangers. Each person who enters, whether they visit weekly or once in a lifetime, is treated the same.

Yes, some retail works that way. In Macy's or at the movie theater, I'm just a credit card. But not so in other facilities that encourage repeat visitation. Consider, for example, how my climbing gym uses data. When you arrive, you have to swipe your member card (comparable to museum membership) or pay for entry if you are not a member (again, comparable). The person behind the counter can instantly see how often you come, when you last visited, and can relay to you messages about your bill, classes you are taking, or warnings/compliments about behavior based on prior visits. It doesn't matter whether I've never met the person behind the desk or not--he or she can engage with me appropriately based on data. This kind of tracking enables faceless visitors to be treated as regulars, long-lost buddies, and or potential sales opportunities.

And on the web, this data use goes to the next level. Many months ago, there was a provocative post on the O’Reilly Radar called “If Google Were a Restaurant." In it, the author explored the Google's "pervasive culture of measurement," and considered how similar tracking and alterations might be made in the real world. Imagine a restaurant that tracks every single order, how much food is left on every plate, and uses that information to buy, market, and plate food differently. Imagine book stores that rearrange displays every day based on the sales of the previous day. Imagine museums that… well, we’ll get there.

The point is that Google monitors every single transaction on its site. It knows how many people in what geographic areas search for which terms when. It knows what people are most likely to click on for a given search. And it uses that data to prioritize content—to make the search functionality better.

Many interactive sites do this. Amazon tells you not only what product you might like, but when you click on a product, it tells you what people who clicked on it actually purchased. There are sites that change their inventory, their content, and their marketing to personalize your experience based on passive monitoring of your usage.

Is this Web 2.0? Absolutely. It’s not user-generated in the typical sense, but it fits the basic law of "architecture of participation with network effects": the services get better the more people use them. If Google wasn’t collecting information about what people click on for a given search term, they would have to hire thousands of people to prioritize the content on the web for meaningful results—that is, they’d have to curate the internet. Instead, Google lets users do this curating with their everyday searches for climate change and Paris Hilton. It is user-generated. It just doesn’t take any special effort on the part of the users.

So what about museums? Through the ubiquity and ease of web statistics tracking programs, museums are learning who does what where on their websites. Simply making your collection available for browsing in a database fashion—without any fancy tagging interactivity—can give you data about what parts of the collection are most interesting and or accessible to your web users. These kinds of stats have been used to help museums reorganize their sites; for example, to put PLAN A VISIT front and center when they determine that that’s the content most web visitors want.

On the web, it’s easy to track user actions, and, if you’re inclined, to act on them. But what about in the museum? As discussed in the O’Reilly post, it’s much harder to track and assimilate data in the real world than on the web. We can certainly do it at the ticket counter. Inside the museum, it becomes trickier; exhibit tracking requires human intervention or highly integrated technology. This is what evaluators do, though their monitoring requires resources and effort. Many educators hand out surveys at the end of programs. As more museums, particularly science and tech museums, move towards personalizing the museum visit using RFID and other technologies, these same technologies are being used to see how many people spend how much time interacting where. There are some privacy and data integration challenges, but real-time tracking of activity in the museum is possible.

And tracking isn’t the real challenge when it comes to “googlizing” the museum. It's not brain surgery to create a system, like that at my gym, that gives you historical information about each visitor that walks through the door.
In fact, there are many museums, including my own (The Tech), that collect data on visitor use of exhibits incidentally--but do nothing with the data. Now that RFID and barcode scanners are becoming more popular as tools to "personalize" the museum experience, some museums are generating a lot of data about who uses what exhibits for how long. And while we hand that back to visitors--in certificates congratulating them on completing several exhibits (Sony Wonderlab) or personal websites with images from their visit (The Tech)--we don't use it internally.

Why don't we get this data, and if we have it, why don't we use it? Because the challenge isn't tracking: the challenge is to listen to and act on the tracked data. That's the problem I've seen with educational program surveys--the results are tallied, the great quotes are emailed, but intelligent actions aren't taken. Let’s say you performed an evaluation in which you placed tape recorders in a museum wing for a month and recorded every single thing said. If the transcription revealed that visitors were confused, disappointed, or disaffected by exhibits, were skipping some in favor of others, how would you react? Would you repeat the experiment on other areas? Would you move the most popular exhibits to the front of the wing? Would you reconsider inclusion or implementation of the least popular ones? Or would you destroy the tape?

I think most of us would destroy the tape (or at least hide it in a drawer somewhere). On the web, we’re willing to reorganize content to improve the visitor experience. But in the museum, it’s more expensive, more painful, more personal. This is one of the secret sources of resistance to 2.0: it requires listening to people we're not used to listening to. Beth Kanter wrote about this recently, commenting:
The premise is that listening must become a priority in order to use the Web2.0 tools successfully. I think it is a pretty critical marketing practice despite what technology tools you are using.
And if we can get over ourselves and start listening, there are real financial and visitor rewards to be realized. Google and Amazon doesn’t track user actions to "appreciate" their users' interests. They do it to be more effective institutions. They do it to sell more stuff.

How can museums become more willing listeners? By designing for modularity. By acknowledging unsolved design problems (exhibits stuffed into hallways, nooks of random growth) and considering visitors' input to find solutions. By taking on more experiments so that we're generally more change-positive. By opening exhibits before they are finished so that evaluation isn't an onerous afterthought. By generating more data about visitor actions and analyzing it.

Good operations officers know how much specific exhibits cost in maintenance and disposables. Good marketing directors know that there's a direct relationship between number of visits and likeliness to buy or renew a membership. Why aren't we tracking the data that can make us more successful? Wouldn't you like to know what value different exhibits and programs have as you work out the equation of what's worthwhile and what direction to take?

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Something Funny at the Smithsonian...

Frequently, we discuss projects and ideas on this blog that fit into the theme of "can't do that in museums." Well, this week, the Smithsonian of all places knocked down several "can't"s by:
  • having a sense of humor
  • acting quickly to add a temporary piece to the collection on almost no notice in a highly unorthodox location (entrance to the bathroom)
  • allowing a comedian to run rampant through the halls making fun of priceless collections

Benefits included:
  • direct on-air request from a national TV star to go visit the National Portrait Gallery
  • portrayal of museum directors as good-natured, even funny, people
What did they do? They let Stephen Colbert put his portrait in the museum, where it will hang for 6 weeks. Here's the National Portrait Gallery's take on it, and the clip of Colbert's final success (there are also very funny clips of him trying to get the portrait into other Smithsonian museums):

You may cry, "Pandering!" but I'd argue that this is more than just a media ploy, and it's a long way from cheapening the museum experience. Colbert offers the same funny, incisive commentary on the museum experience that he provides on other topics.

He also reflects visitors' deep-seated questions and prejudices. I laughed out loud when Colbert asked the Director of American History why Helen Keller needed a watch (a burning question not covered in label text). And as he walked through the NPG with its director, giving his own one-word judgments on portraits, he gave voice to the bigger question, "Who cares?" on many visitors' minds, one which they don't feel willing or able to voice.

To me, this is a refreshing inclusion of museums in a larger cultural lexicon, which reinforces the idea that the museum is a place to enjoy, to question, to learn, to challenge, and ultimately, to seek entrance as a "national treasure."

What do you think? Is there something odious about this that I'm missing? What other ways would you like to see museums portrayed in the media?

Friday, January 18, 2008

Observations from The Tech Virtual Museum Workshop, Month 1

This week marks one month of live activity for the Tech Virtual Museum Workshop, a collaborative, online platform for exhibit development. I've been working for The Tech on this project since November of 2007, and it has been an intense and exciting three months. A month ago, I invited you to join this project. Now, a month tired-er, I still want to invite you... and to share a few observations and learnings thus far.

First, if you don't know what the heck I'm talking about, please enjoy (and comment on, if you wish), this explanation (requires speakers).

Now, on to the lessons thus far.

First, let's talk process. What's it like to work in a virtual exhibit workshop? For me, it means spending a lot more time facilitating idea generation and communicating with others than being an independent creative agent. I'm functionally managing (and continually growing) an exhibition team of highly diverse volunteers. It's an educational role, a cheerleading role, and because we are both piloting this workshop project and trying to use it simultaneously to develop exhibits in a six-month concept-to-floor timeframe, I am both humble and desperate in my hunt for good ideas. The result is a focus on designing spaces, workshops, and social experiences that facilitate creative sharing. It's easy to say that everyone has a great idea for an exhibit inside them. The challenge is to find the way to pull those ideas out. For me, that has meant going back to days spent on the floor, encouraging and supporting creative thought. Our participants are like visitors--interested, ready to engage, ready to rise to the challenge.

Which leads to the question of people: who is getting involved? In the long term, we're dedicated to this workshop being a place for museums to collaborate with one another, to pool creative resources to develop exhibits that can be implemented uniquely at different institutions. But museum folks, no matter how much we want to collaborate, don't move quickly. I think a lot of museum people are waiting to see the result, how the whole exhibit cycle goes, before signing up to learn a new platform and engage resources in this way.

So in the past month, the people who have jumped in are mostly people who are already familiar with the platforms we're using (the Web and Second Life), primarily those already in Second Life. The Second Life learning curve is steep (though less so than I had feared), so the people who are immediately ready to jump in are those who have already figured out how to dress themselves. Not that that means that we are attracting solely gamers or the bored wanderers of Second Life. Our proto-users are artists, architects, university professors, mathematicians, engineers who have already been experimenting with creating interactive environments and objects within the virtual world.

I've been surprised and elated by the unique expertise and creativity of our participants. While we have plenty of hobbyists engaged, the majority of our contributors are "real" experts--a breed closely related to those museum staff often hand-pick to join exhibition advisory committees. And even better, these are experts who DO something. Since Second Life is such a new technology, most people using it in a professional capacity are knowledgeable about how it works (and are building things themselves) because they have to be--there's no in-house IT guy who's going to do it for them. I spend a good deal of time with university professors who run digital media, architecture, and informal learning departments at their institutions as they show me the experiments they personally have been initiating in the virtual world. These people are smart, creative, and looking for an outlet/experimental client that we are thrilled to offer them.

Which leads, finally, to the experience of designing exhibits in Second Life. I went into this project skeptical about the use of Second Life as a collaborative design platform. The barriers to entry are high. The software crashes (for me about once each day). The landscape is foreign. And yet, I've become a convert to Second Life as a breeding ground for creativity. There was recently a New York Times article on the inverse relationship between expertise and ability to innovate. As the author, Janet Rae-DuPree put it:
This so-called curse of knowledge, a phrase used in a 1989 paper in The Journal of Political Economy, means that once you've become an expert in a particular subject, it's hard to imagine not knowing what you do. Your conversations with others in the field are peppered with catch phrases and jargon that are foreign to the uninitiated. When it's time to accomplish a task — open a store, build a house, buy new cash registers, sell insurance — those in the know get it done the way it has always been done, stifling innovation as they barrel along the well-worn path.

Second Life presents a whole new set of rules--governing everything from social interactions to the laws of physics--that have jolted me and museum colleagues out of the boxes in which we typically develop exhibits. Yes, we still talk about the primacy of the big idea, the importance of interactivity, the essence of the "aha" moment. But the development process is fundamentally different for several reasons:

It's physical. Many exhibit developers and designers never touch a 2x4 in the exhibit creation process. Since many museums have eliminated fabrication shops, some developers will never get their hands dirty in the exhibit process--the designs leave the museum, and return as fully formed exhibits. Ironically, working in the virtual environment reacquaints you with physical stuff, because the design process is based on manipulating objects rather than calculating wireframes. There's an infinite amount of free materials to start with, an eclectic set of tools to manipulate them, and a bizarre world of user-created objects on which to build. The Ontario Science Center runs fabulous Rapid Idea Generation (RIG) sessions, for which they gather and hoard huge volumes of mysterious junk to spark the creative process. In Second Life, the junk is more mysterious, more voluminous, and cleans up with a few clicks. In the real world, flying aircraft, snowball shooters, and fireworks are not common building blocks. In Second Life, they offer a whole new world of creative possibilities.

It's social. Traditional design packages, like Autocad, are individual affairs. Even networked packages like Google's Sketchup do not allow designers to work with each other real-time. The fact that Second Life is a social environment means that individual designers are no longer siloed in their own private software packages. Instead, we are building things around and with each other. I can talk to an artist about her digital storytelling piece while watching two engineers experiment with a sensor-rich dance floor. Even within The Tech, individual engineers and fabricators are coming together to experiment creatively, across cubicles and machine shops, to work together in a truly collaborative space.

It's playful.
Second Life is not a professional-level design or simulation package. This has two obvious effects: first, it makes building and expressing oneself in 3D open to a wider range of people, and second, it limits the potential for what you can "do" with the 3D simulated result. We realized quickly that we were not going to use Second Life to simulate an exhibit gear for gear or in exact dimensions. But the stripped down capabilities of Second Life allow you to focus on the core idea of an exhibit--the interaction, the content, the fun--without getting distracted by the minutae. Second Life may be a better creative brainstorming tool--a place to get inspired--than a design package. And good creative brainstorming tools are hard to come by, especially ones that you can log into any time from anywhere. It doesn't take a special set of objects, like Ontario has, or a scheduled meeting, or a round-up of creative staff.

Second Life is a door to more noodling with exhibit ideas. Some institutions are afraid of this, that their staff will "waste time", as some Tech engineers have, making giant walls of eyeballs that focus on you, or doors that open when you knock them in the right sequence. But these folks are getting something that is hard to plan and is increasingly streamlined out of the exhibit design experience: no-stakes experimentation. They're having fun, playing, acting like visitors, working as and with the audience. We argue that "play" is not a dirty word when it comes to visitors. Why not apply the same attitude to our own staff?

Of course, there are many ongoing challenges with this project. We haven't figured out the best practices for developing exhibits with people rather than simply from their ideas. We're working on how to incentivize and reward all the different folks who get involved for very different reasons. We're trying to conceive a viable alternative to Second Life for those who can't get in. We're hoping to bring our visitors on the floor into the design cycle. And we don't know yet whether the exhibits that will result (the first set in physical form in June 2008) will reflect the unusual energy and populism of the process.

But we do know that we are moving forward in a creative space, legitimately drawing from and working with people outside the museum world. I hope that many of you, perhaps those who feel yourselves stuck in "curse of knowledge" box, will come play, and learn, with us.

Sarah Cole, museum graduate student and Manager of Traveling and Special Exhibits at the Indianapolis Children's Museum, is our awesome and capable intern. She is blogging about her experiences as a museum newbie in Second Life here, and she (and I) are available to help you dive into this playful creative environment.

As always, please share your questions, comments, and skeptical jeers. I believe in the goals of this project, and we need all of your insight and critique to get there.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Does Your Museum Need its Own Social Network? Case Study and Discussion

Usually, when I start posts with a question in the title, it's a cheat. The presumed answer is "yes" your museum needs a blog, a pony, or a set of comfy couches. In this case, it's debatable. Does your museum need a custom online social network? Maybe not. Let's discuss what it means, how it works, where it can go.

A social networking site is one in which users connect with one another. Most social networking sites give each user a unique user profile, along with a personal "home base" where you can always find your content, your contacts, and your interests. Some of the most popular are LinkedIn (a professional network), Facebook (social and professional), and MySpace (anything goes). Many museums have been experimenting in these spaces by creating institutional profiles, museum affinity groups, and connecting with visitors and other museum professionals individually. There are huge positives to tapping into these networks (which we've discussed here before), including connecting with visitors "where they are" and co-opting easy-to-customize applications for museum purposes. The Brooklyn Museum of Art is a great example of a museum really embracing these environments for community-building purposes.

But for some institutions or projects, being under a big tent that includes millions of people, groups, and activities is not appropriate. Why might a museum create its own social network? Some reasons include...
  • privacy. Particularly for children's museums, protecting users in a museum-controlled space is a premium.
  • freedom from advertising. Most free social networks include advertising that may not reflect museum mission.
  • branding. Creating your own social network allows you to control the look and feel of the space.
  • exclusivity. Providing a private place for classes, members, visitors, and staff to network can become a "value added" of supporting or being involved with the museum.
Ultimately, all of these reasons are about control--controlling message, use, and users. The best reason to create a custom social network goes beyond all of these reasons, and is more fundamental: you should consider creating a custom network if it is the tool that will best accommodate and specific mission-related goal for your institution.

For example, consider Tree of Promise, a private social network created and managed by the Indianapolis Children's Museum. Tree of Promise is not a stand-alone network. It is an integral part of a new permanent exhibition, The Power of Children. The exhibition uses the stories of three remarkable children in history as a launching point for a platform on which kids and families can make “promises” for how they will impact or change the world. Note that even the content of this exhibition is focused on 2.0-style behaviors: being actively engaged as a participant, connecting to a larger network of individuals. The exhibition culminates at the physical Tree of Promise, a giant tree surrounded by computer kiosks. At the kiosks, children can make a promise, which floats up into the tree as a digital leaf.

Those promises are then emailed home both to the kids and their parents, and families can then elect to join the Tree of Promise social network, an online space where they can share, expand, and manage their promises. If at-home users complete their promises, they can return to the museum, where the tree “remembers” and congratulates them on their success. In this way, Tree of Promise takes a quick participatory in-museum experience—writing down a promise—and provides a supportive platform on which users can cultivate and substantiate that action.
The Tree of Promise social network is not a network unto itself--it is an extension of the museum visit experience. As Angie McNew, Indy's Director of Information and Interactive Technology, explained to me, their primary objective was to provide a safe, simple place for families to track and share their promises with each other. The network is private, meaning that you can't go onto the site and view other users' promises without being invited personally by them. It's not an open space for discussion or communication; instead, it's a network of private spaces where kids and families have tools available to continue their museum experience. Because Indy's primary audience is quite young, they put particular focus on making sign-up and use as simple as possible, as well as presenting a clean, coherent message.

Excited to do it yourself? How do you make your own social network? There are plenty of articles out there on how to do it on the cheap and quick.
A coworker shared an article with me last week entitled Build a Social Network in Under 60 Minutes. In it, author Adam Shahbaz chronicles an hour spent creating a free online social network called "SwagMe" in which users can share images and stories of their experiences with freebie stuff ("swag") accumulated from various businesses.

The article is empowering, and somewhat useful as a how-to. But it's also deeply annoying. Shahbaz's goal in creating SwagMe was to create an online thing for the sake of it, not to connect to or support a community. His experiment dwells little on the crux of social networks--their management--and the challenges and opportunities therein. It's a short-sighted quickie, a "hey mom, look at me!" in a sea of similar navel-gazing Web 2.0 projects.

To create something like Tree of Promise requires a lot more planning and dollars. Indy used a service called OneSite, which offers a suite of options for custom social network creation. To accommodate total customization, no ads, and heavy museum control, Indy chose Onesite's most expensive option, which has a minimum $20,000 startup fee and a $2500/month management fee. Onesite is definitely on the high end of pricing (this Techcrunch article provides a good breakdown of different options and costs), but $20,000 is not surprising given the fact that Indy fundamentally wanted a highly customized site.

And the creation costs, time, and effort are only a small part of the equation. Like engagement in any community site, the ongoing management, cultivation, and support of a social network is where the bulk of the work should reside. After all, one shot efforts to make a MySpace page, a blog, or a social network--no matter how cheap or costly at outset--are only as good as their continued growth and value. In the same way that I would recommend having a blogging strategy that includes consistent, frequent posting, managing a social network requires a community support strategy. The Tree of Promise is a new project for Indianapolis, and they are about the fact that its "release" means the beginning--not the end--of a development process that will keep evolving as the community and pattern of use grows.

So back to the original question: does your museum need its own social network?
Tree of Promise doesn't make me want to dash out and create a social network component of every upcoming exhibit or museum program. It makes me cognizant of social networks' functionality as part of the museum toolkit, with particular (and limited) value. Finding the right public social networks to tie into is a no-brainer--it gives you access to your visitors in a whole new way. But creating your own social space is like developing a major exhibit or educational program. You need to be sure you have the resources to support it, and even more importantly, a compelling reason to do it. There are many such potential reasons--to allow members to share visit stories with each other, to enable teachers to share lesson plans--but you have to make sure the reason is strong enough to justify the investment. One for the toolkit... and hopefully, one that can be used wisely in the future.

Have you considered creating a custom social network for your institution? What direction or reasons are most compelling to you?

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Creature Comfort: Where are the Couches in Museums?

In the final installment of Museum 2.0’s four part series on comfort in museums, we get down to the basics: creature comfort. When it comes to content, programs, and interactives (parts 1-3 of the series), the challenge is to push the barrier towards less comfort, not more. Sadly, when it comes to the simple world of seating, bathrooms, and signs, we’re already deeply rooted in the uncomfortable camp. So for this last piece, we look at going the other way: making museums more physically comfortable.

I visited a friend last weekend who works at a coffee shop in downtown Santa Cruz, right next to the Museum of Art and History. There was funky music. There were lovely couches. There were people working and eating and chatting and reading. And on the walls, my friend explained, was art from the museum itself.

I walked out somewhat perplexed. Why doesn’t the whole Museum of Art and History look and feel like the coffee shop? Why do you go next door and enter a world of harsh benches and harsh lighting? Why would anyone choose the museum space over the coffee shop?

To address these questions, I sat down with Steve Tokar and Beth Katz, evaluators who deal with design for visitors. In 2003, Steve completed his master’s thesis in universal design (UD) in science museums, and has spent several years working on both UD and more general ergonomic design issues with museums.

Why are museums so darn uncomfortable?

We both (Steve and Beth) do visitor evaluation work, a lot of data gathering, Beth for several art museums. We always walk into these places and wonder: how is it that museums get designed without worrying about what it’s like to be a visitor walking in the door and wanting a bathroom, or a cup of coffee, or a seat?

I’m particularly interested in seating in art museums because we visited the newly redesigned MOMA and said, where can you sit down to look at all this? There are very few places to sit, and visitors are clinging to the few benches that are there. The hallways have benches, but not the galleries. From calling around, I learned that the gallery design is in the hands of curators, who see their job as serving the art, not the visitor. Ironically, benches sometime get castigated as ADA trip hazards. And some curators say they are visual distractions.

But what about the visitor? Nobody involved in the gallery design actually walks through and asks, “where would I go if I’d been here for an hour and I’m getting tired?” A lot of museums are designed with non-resilient floors that create a lot of fatigue, so you just want to sit down.

At the Boston MFA, they are building in seating as an integral part of each gallery design. They are using seating appropriate for the era of the art on display so as to add to the general design aesthetic of each space.

We go to a lot of German museums. Berlin has the Gemalde gallery with many masterpieces, with standard square box galleries. But about every fourth gallery has bay windows that look out on the street with window seating that look into the gallery—for seating and eye relief. They create the seating so it doesn’t compete with the art, and give you a chance to rest your feet and eyes.

And they were able to do that because they built it in right from the get-go. At the De Young, there is some well-placed seating built into the museum space itself—therefore it doesn’t interfere with flow.

Walk me through the most egregious errors that hit you when you walk into a museum, from the moment you enter.

Ah—I’ll give you an example from MOMA again. At MOMA, before the refurbishment, there was always an awkward line for the coat check. They had all the opportunity in the world to remove that, and instead they replicated it and made it worse—there are two lines for drop off or pick up, but they both lead to the same window! The ergonomics are unconsidered.

Beth observes that visitors searching for the bathroom often have an expression somewhere between stress and panic, as if they're fearful they won't find the place in time. There are never enough, and they always seem hidden. And the bathrooms themselves are poorly designed—there are several new museums with right angles and tiny little stalls that are challenging to maneuver.

Places to eat and drink. It makes sense that you don’t want food and coffee in the gallery, but why have only one eating place in the entire museum? Why not set up a coffee cart separately in an atrium or off a gallery? Why do you have to go offsite to get a snack? In Europe, they seem to have figured this out.

Signage. People are always saying “Where are the…?”

The Met is one place does an excellent job. They have a vast space, but they have these atriums in which they’ve installed little cafes. It’s very civilized, a great space just to sit and look outside. The wayfinding signs are good, with lots of signs everywhere. It could be a very confusing experience, but they’ve made it pleasant and usable.

In your dreams, what would you add to museums to make them more comfortable? I know that for me, the dream is couches. I have another friend who wants to eat lunch right in the gallery, while enjoying the exhibits.

In my dreams, there’s a visitor lounge where people can face each other and just talk—like business lounges in airports, with beverages and coffee.

The Denver Art Museum has some spaces like that. The older part integrated a lot of interesting spaces into the museum—like for example for a James Turrell exhibit they had a lounge outside with comfy chairs and materials and places to share your reflections on the exhibit. Friendly lighting so you don’t have the scary feeling. It was an educational space with content, just different, focused more on a social experience. They had a library designed like a British library with cabinets and books and couches to stretch out on and nooks and crannies for kids to slide into. They also have one with chairs with iPods for listening to music.

When we saw these little spaces in Denver, they really had the hand of the educational department, taken as learning opportunities. They were put outside the art spaces—which gives people a differentiated experience.

We’re mostly talking about very large institutions here. There are several small museums, especially in the interactive field, where there’s such a heavy premium put on square footage. When visitors are saying, “I’ve done it all,” how can we justify replacing exhibits with lounge spaces?

Museums of all sizes have this problem with tradeoffs: they perceive the choice as cases of objects or seats. In most cases the attitude is: “we are going to choose the objects because we are paying a lot of money for these objects.” But making that choice again and again can lead to a cluttered gallery space. You don’t have to pack the gallery or museum with art in all places—you can overwhelm people.

We have to reconceptualize what is legitimate to do with museum spaces. Lounges do fit our mission because they allow visitors to reflect on what they are experiencing, maybe in conversation with another visitor—and that also supports our mission for education and community.

What do you think? What kind of lounge or comfortable environment do you feel you could justify to your visitors, donors, and staff? I’m not totally sold on the idea that these spaces should be separate from exhibits—is there a way to integrate food, discussion, and hanging out without segregating the space?

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Setting Expectations: The Power of the Pre-Visit

When museum professionals talk about extending the museum experience, they’re usually talking about post-visit experiences. Personalized websites with photos from the visit. Online activities that continue experiments begun in the galleries. Emails home with links to content related to exhibits of interest. The expectation is that visit extension is a way to motivate repeat visits, that “taking the museum home with you” will keep the institution in mind for the future.

But what about pre-visits? In many ways, the ability to successfully set a powerful and useful expectation for museum experiences is MORE valuable than the ability to extend said experience. When you set an expectation, you frame an experience. Once visitors have already banged on the exhibits and watched the giant nostril show, the experience belongs totally to them. The chances of reaching and holding onto them back at home are small. They’ve formed their impressions of the on-site experience, and their chance of returning, becoming members, etc. is heavily based on those impressions. You can send them all the pleasant follow-up emails you like, but such notes are unlikely to be the motivating factor that brings them back through your doors.

Pre-visits, however, are a wealth of opportunity. Where post-visits might be thought of as the “long tail” of museum involvement, connecting a small percentage of individuals with a deeper experience, pre-visits hit a huge volume of people—visitors and non-visitors--right in the face. Pre-visits are about the first look. For some, that may be a billboard or ad. For a few lucky students, it may be an in-class program or curriculum tie-in. But for most contemporary museum-goers, the pre-visit happens on the web.

What’s the most used portion of your museum website? For the vast majority of museums, there’s one homepage button that reigns supreme: Plan a Visit. More people visit the museum website to plan their visit than to do anything else. This is not a negative commentary on other portions of the museum website—it’s a reflection of the stage at which visitors seek information from the institution.
And unfortunately, the information we give to these pre-visitors is mostly stale. Most museums use their websites to advertise their content and proferred experiences, and yet these advertisements are often washed out and dull. They rarely convey the energy and intrigue of the museum itself—but if you don’t make it past the pre-visit, you’ll never learn what you’re missing.

Why don’t more sites focus creative content on the Plan a Visit section of the site? One argument is that people want their nuts and bolts, no frills attached. But I think the main reason that this mismatch happens is because it’s easier to develop creative content for post-visits than pre-visits. Post-visit material continues the stories started by exhibitions and programs, whereas pre-visit content has to sneak in before the opening label text, a lead-in to the lead-in. Also, post-visit content is directed towards people who have already passed through the filter of experiencing the museum—they have already demonstrated their interest in the institution. Pre-visit audiences, however, include both visitors and non-visitors. The post-visitors are the cream of the appreciative crop. Pre-visitors include people who will never walk through our doors.

But these non-visitors are just as, if not more, important than the visitors who stick around for the final closing call. For a museum seeking to expand its visitor base (and what museum isn’t?), more creative energy should be focused on non-visitors. Sure, non-visitors include many people who just don’t have interest in your core message. But it also includes folks who aren’t aware of it, for whom a little creative effort at the front end would create a compelling reason to attend. In political terms, the pre-visit is like campaigning. You make some promises, energize the base, and hopefully tip some undecided visitors your way. If your campaign is wooden, it doesn’t matter how competent or exciting you are—people won’t see it.

What can we add to our pre-visit pitch to improve museum experiences and bring in new visitors?
Here are a couple suggestions for the campaign:

Intersperse functional with creative content.
Yes, it’s important for Plan a Visit web pages to clearly steer you to the hours and location of the museum. But every visitor who experiences your website, even if only to find out where the cafĂ© is, should get a flavor for the spirit of your institution. The Pittsburgh Children’s Museum, for example, has a novel navigation device for their homepage: a chicken. When you move your mouse, the chicken follows you to the links of interest. Like many websites, the top of each page is a navigation bar to different areas of the site. Instead of reaching the main page by clicking the word “home,” you do so by clicking “The Chicken.” This simple device reinforces the spirit of fun and zaniness throughout the site—whether you are checking hours or hunting down a phone number.

Target your demographics.
The other unusual thing about the Pittsburgh Children’s Museum’s website is its organization. From the chicken page, you can go to an area for kids, another for parents, a third for teachers, and a fourth for “museum geeks”. Each of these options leads you to a distinctive museum map meant to highlight areas of specific interest to that constituency. For parents, it’s about planning different kinds of visits, programs, and parties. For teachers, it’s about linking into curricula. For kids, it’s about the excitement of the exhibits. Pittsburgh speaks the native language of each of its constituencies instead of presenting a single image. Non-visitors are more likely to imagine themselves visiting an institution if they see their specific interests targeted in the basic content.

Frame the web experience the way you frame the introduction to an exhibition.
When a visitor walks into one of your exhibitions, how do you set expectations about the forthcoming experience? Do you employ large entry labels or videos giving overview? Do you pull people in with a particularly compelling interaction? Do you usher them into an immersive environment? Websites may be flat, but that doesn’t mean you can’t “enter” them the way you enter museums. I once saw a fabulous homepage for a Civil Rights conference (and can't now recall the link, sadly), reminiscent of the classic Smithsonian American History exhibition on the Civil Rights movement. You had to enter the website by defining yourself either as a "white" or a "black". The experience is simulated, but the emotional response is still powerful.

Give people a starting point to draw them to the museum.
With post-visit experiences, educators are always trying to design hooks into the museum visit to encourage people to return to the museum content, website, or physical site itself later. But this requires the museum visit as prerequisite. Instead of designing museum experiments that can only be completed at home, why not design web-based experiments that can only be completed at the museum? A devilishly challenging puzzle or a tantalizing question may pull some non-visitors in your doors.

Yes, all of these suggestions require resources, staff time, and creative effort. But the potential benefits are huge in terms of bringing undecided or reluctant visitors to the museum. Once they’re in, you can feed them all the open-ended, post-visit-friendly experiences you want. But first, give them a stump speech with some pizzazz to get them in the door.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Interactive Comfort: Wading Deep

It’s one thing to experience and or be confronted by content that is uncomfortable, either in the form of an exhibition or a program. But what about interactive exhibits that give visitors active roles in the uncomfortable situation?

Two examples, both from science museums.

The first is
Goosebumps! The Science of Fear, currently on display at the California Science Center. The exhibition starts with four interactive rooms in which you can confront your own fear: fear of creepy crawlies, fear of loud noises, fear of electric shock, and fear of falling. For me, terror resides in the creepy crawly room—not so much because I’m afraid of bugs, but because I’m afraid of the unknown, which they did a wonderful job conveying. Aquariums featured live dangerous spiders and snakes (not scary). The aquariums had thick black PVC tubes that appeared to lead from the animal enclosures to curtained troughs where you were expected to put your hand (very scary). There’s no explicit statement about what is behind the curtain, but the implication is that there are MORE tarantulas etc. lurking there—and the label told you to stick your hand in.

Heck. I’m a rational person. More than that, I’m a museum person—I KNOW they wouldn’t put real animals—dead or alive—behind a curtain and say “grab here”. And yet I was paralyzed by fear, unable to foroce myself to stick my hand inside the curtain. I started to feel stupid, then ashamed. Why wasn’t I willing to try what others did so easily? In the end, it was an experience that was uncomfortable, yet manageable. It left a strong impression, albeit one of partial humiliation.

Example two comes from the Exploratorium’s Mind exhibition, mentioned last week. In it, they have created a card game version of one of the Implicit Association Tests (IAT) in which people are instructed to match up four kinds of words: male names, female names, work-related words, and family-related words, with two categories. The first time, the categories are male/work and female/family. The second time, it’s male/family and female/work. In the Implicit Association Test, most people are shown to more quickly group male names with work and female names with family. It’s an uncomfortable truth about our hidden associations/stereotypes.

As I watched people race to sort cards into the right categories, I wondered why the Exploratorium chose the gender/work/family test instead of the most famous IAT, the Race Test. The Race Test, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink, asks people to associate black and white faces with words related to good and evil. The unpleasant result is that most people, black and white, associate white more readily with good and black with evil.

Finding out that you associate women with family feels less icky than discovering that you associate black people with evil. (I won't go into the reasons...) Does that make it a more comfortable experience? Does it make it a less impactful one?

Visitors put their trust in us when they engage with an interactive. They expect to give us some time and their bodies, and expect that we will give them a good experience, something valuable in return. If we give them something disgusting, unsettling, or cruel, we start to lose their trust. Then again, I'd argue that few museums do that--at least not intentionally. Too often, we give them something dull, insubstantial, broken. We keep their trust that we will keep them safe, but not that we will keep them entertained.

What do interactives need to be risky yet safe?

Let people watch. Stepping into a secret, individual room can be uncomfortable on its own. In some cases, that's a good thing--unsettle, then amaze. But most of the time, it helps to put uncomfortable experiences in public locations where you can play voyeur before playing yourself. It helps you acclimate to the experience to watch someone else get shocked--even if you know it won't diminish the associated discomfort. (Interestingly, Goosebumps! switches this arrangement, putting the watching stations on the back side of the fear interactives, so people who have already gone through the interactives can watch. At that point, it becomes more performative, which is entertaining, but doesn't help newcomers to the interactives.)

Keep personal stuff private. There's a traveling race interactive, which I first saw at the American Visionary Art Museum, in which you take a photo of your face and then morph it into different races. It feels a little naughty, to giggle at yourself with stretched cheeks or overlarge eyes. But it's also instructive. And doing it behind a curtain, alone (or with your family) keeps you from feeling self-conscious about your self-interest. I think many people would be willing to engage in interactives about tough issues--money, stereotypes, sex--if they can interact in a personal, private way.

Provide an Escape Route. I love scary movies, but I never watch them at the theater. Why? Because at home, I can pause whenever I want, or even leave the room. While some interactives call for comfy chairs to ease you in, others call for quick potential getaways or pause buttons--so you can enjoy the intensity on your own terms, and walk away if you feel the need.

What interactive experiences have you had that crossed the line? What design criteria would you add to an uncomfortable interactive?

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Finding Enticing Questions on the Edge

Yesterday, I was telling a friend about what I perceive as the essential challenge to involving visitors in co-creation in museums: finding compelling questions that open people to the experience of sharing. He told me about the World Question Center, and we spent the rest of the evening exploring the questions and answers posed on this fascinating site.

The World Question Center is a product of Edge.org, a group of self-described "digerati" providing a forum for scientists and other folks of interest to present lectures and symposia on topics loosely related to science and culture. Each year, John Brockman poses one provocative question, and solicits responses from some of the most influential thinkers in the world (though a suspiciously large number of them are white men).

Recent questions include:
  • What's your law? (2004)
  • What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it? (2005)
  • What's your dangerous idea? (2006)
  • What are you optimistic about? (2007)
And this year's question is: What have you changed your mind about? Why?

I'm frankly less interested in many of the answers than I am in the questions themselves. As are other readers--now that the most recent question/answers have been put out as books, I was interested to read the Amazon reviews. The "dangerous idea" book got very positive reviews, including this one from a person who wanted to know "your" dangerous idea:
In other words, Joe and Jane Citizen were not invited to participate in this project. Too bad... it would have been a worthy exercise to see "third culture intellectuals" spouting out alongside those who live in... our first and second culture?

Regardless, there are some interesting ideas presented here, even if the pool of writers has been high-graded through a filter that is not clearly specified.

Brockman has done a great job of teasing out questions that are both provocative and evocative, and I think many of us and our visitors would benefit from the exercise of answering them. He tells the story of visiting Hans Obrist, curator at London's Serpentine Gallery, who was putting on his own exhibition (in his office) of responses to the question: "What's your formula?" Obrist had received submissions, drawn on A4 paper, by celebrities like Brian Eno and Rem Koolhaas, but my instant reaction was to recall a time when my then 14 year old cousin came to me with an elaborate set of formulae for an imagined new axle arrangement for a more efficient car. We all have these theories, formulae, laws, and observations inside of us--we just need the right question or opportunity to draw them out.

John Brockman has given us a starting point. If the hard part is coming up with a great question, go to the World Question Center and find some pre-vetted ones that might be compelling to visitors as the basis for co-creating an exhibit or program. And once you're feeling brave enough, start writing your own. The World Question Center can't rest with the digerati--it will be a lot more powerful when we are all asking and answering each other.