Friday, March 27, 2009

Take a Side Trip to the Denver Art Museum

This blog post is a love letter to an exhibit, written in patchouli ink across the back of an old Janis Joplin record. This week, the Denver Art Museum (DAM) opened a new temporary exhibition called The Psychedelic Experience, featuring rock posters from San Francisco in the heyday of Bill Graham and electric kool-aid. I happened to be at DAM for work and got to experience this amazing exhibit.

More precisely, the amazing part was a second, smaller room called Side Trip, just off the entrance to the poster show. Side Trip is an immersive environment full of interactive experiences that let visitors share their own stories of the 1960s, make their own rock posters, and explore the music and vibe of the time. It is an incredible museum experience. It wasn’t expensive to construct, it doesn’t rely on artifacts, and the interactives integrate technology in a low-key, magical way. It’s a thrilling challenge to the traditional form of art museum exhibit design, and better yet, visitors like it.

There are two aspects of Side Trip that really stand out: the immersive environment and the design of the interactives. They function together to make the space special (and to support incredibly long dwell time in Side Trip), but I’ll examine them separately.

First, the environment. The most striking thing about the space is the low light (which accounts for the poor quality of my photos). You feel like you are in a friendly, almost clandestine space, which is no small feat in DAM’s austere white boxes. The space is full of funky, period-ish furniture, everything touchable, everything open to sprawl on or hang out. They bought the furniture on Ebay and are planning to sell it at the end of the show per Sarah Palin’s specifications. There’s music playing, and the space includes both open and intimate areas so you slide from living room to concert hall to record store to telephone booth without getting disoriented or feeling confined.

The signage in the exhibit is deliciously informal. The glass door at the front has a ripped piece of lined paper taped to it that says, “hey man, the posters are next door.” But why spend time in the harsh light of a gallery when you could hang in this hand-scrawled den? All of the instructions are handwritten on paper or cardboard. The story-sharing stations, which are rolodexes filled with cards on which you can share your first acid trip or your experience as a goody-two-shoes who didn’t tune in, feel naturally integrated into the overall feel and expectations of the space. There is no dissonance between the museum’s formal voice and laminate and the visitors’ pens and paper. We’re all together, man.

While the immersive space’s extreme departure from standard art gallery design may be its most radical feature, the gem for me is the interactives. The interactive experiences in Side Trip are superlative. They are intelligently thought out and offer experiences at various levels of depth and creative participation.

The primary interactive activity is one in which visitors can make their own rock posters. Rather than giving people blank sheets of paper and markers, the DAM educators devised a brilliant scheme that gives people a low barrier to entry into the daunting world of art-making. Tables are set up with clipboards that have transparencies on them. There are stacks of graphics, cut-out reproductions from the real rock posters on display next door, which visitors can place under the transparencies to arrange and remix into poster designs of their own choosing. Visitors can also use dry erase markers to trace over the graphics, augment them, and add their own flair. When someone is satisfied with her recombined poster, she hands it to a staff member, who puts it in a color copier. The visitor is given a copy of her poster and the museum keeps a copy as well. The results of this physical “remix” activity are beautiful, intricate posters. You can’t easily tell where the remixed artifacts end and the visitors’ additions begin. I saw teens and adults who sat and did this activity for 45 minutes and wasn’t surprised to hear that some people spend over an hour on it. But you don’t have to start with a blank slate – you’re given a starting point via the graphics that also tied the activity tightly to the artifacts in the show. Brilliant.

There were several comparably ingenious interactive experiences. One of my favorites (given my pet love of using technology to mediate social experiences among strangers) was a piece called Light Show. A large wall featured a slowly undulating, multi-colored projection passing by, like the visual aftermath of an accident in a lava lamp factory. There were two slide projectors set up facing the wall, and a staff member invited me to make my own additions to the light show by pouring colored water and oil together on a plastic tray and then pressing another piece of plastic against the liquid to smoosh it. This was fun, though a little goofy, and I saw lots of people watching who were not comfortable enough to put themselves on display publicly. But it got really interesting when another visitor approached the second slide projector. He did the same thing as me, with different colors, and the staff member adjusted the throw of both of our projectors to overlap. Our art was intertwining on the wall without us having to compete for the same tray of colored water. We started working together and talking about it, standing a few feet apart at our separate projectors. It’s a low-tech example of the way people feel comfortable engaging with strangers when the interpersonal element is somewhat removed from your physical person.

There are also some clever high-tech interactives coupled with familiar low-tech technologies to create a magical experience. There are listening stations that look like stacks of records in crates (which they are). You put on headphones and flip through the records just as you would in a store. As your hands move through the records, the music changes to whatever record you are currently checking out. Magical, simple, surprising.

There are also two telephone booths featuring the “Youtubeaphone,” a rotary dial payphone with small embedded screens. You can dial into old rock videos from the era, leave your own video, or watch other memories recorded by visitors. This was a little less intuitively magical than the records, but still a delightful play on how we think about connecting with the past through period objects and media.

It’s not surprising, given the exhibition’s topic, that many visitors come into the Psychedelic Experience with a story to share or a connection to the era. In the more formal poster gallery, I saw many pierced teens listening unironically as their parents enthused about Jefferson Airplane. But the design of Side Trip really allows those stories to flourish, both through creative acts like the poster-making and light show and through participatory expression on the rolodexes and the Youtube-a-phone. The content-producing experiences were engrossing for creators, but more importantly, the spectator experience of these visitor-generated stories, posters, and light shows was really excellent. I spent a long time reading the stories of first concerts and ogling the posters made by visitors, and I saw lots of other people doing the same. The experience was comfortable, diverse, authentic, content-oriented, and deep. I don’t often leave museum galleries regretful that I have to go.

Would Side Trip have been better if it had been fully integrated with the Psychedelic posters show? Probably. The lounge-y spaces could have punctuated the exploration of the artifacts, encouraging visitors to alternate between examination of objects and personal histories. It would have provided more varied context for the artifacts, and I know it would have increased my dwell time with the posters. Relegating Side Trip to a separate room allows traditionalists to avoid the dialogue about how participatory experiences might positively enhance the overall exhibit experience. It may also give visitors the perception of a segregated world of (square) galleries and (hip) side trips.

But there’s also something special about creating a singular place for this kind of experience, and the overall feel--the lighting, the signage—would have been somewhat compromised in a mixed gallery. Side Trip is an inviting art-oriented place for visitors. It is not made to show art or protect objects or display the brilliance of a curator. It is made for visitors to be creators, explorers, and participants. And there’s something really groovy about that.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Guest Post: Language Matters

This guest post was written by Koven J. Smith, who makes technology things at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He writes about the lessons he's learned about how to talk tech with curators, educators, and other museum beings who don't know what "OCR" means (like me).

So here you are, a Sincere Technology Professional with a Great Idea. This idea, which gels rather nicely with your museum’s stated mission, will do great things. You’ve been working on it in the lab (your desk) for months, you’ve done all sorts of proof-of-concept demos, and you can clearly demonstrate that the benefit to your museum of implementing this project will be immeasurable. And best of all, your Great Idea won’t even cost the museum anything! All you need is the approval of your Executive Gatekeeper (usually your director/head curator/lead educator), and you’re good to go. You prepare for months, getting ready to answer every question you think you’re likely to get with well-thought-out, reasoned answers. Then The Day comes. You go to The Meeting with your Executive Gatekeeper, and it goes really, really well. Everyone seems happy, and you walk out feeling excited that your Great Idea is finally about to take flight.

Then weeks pass. Months. You hear nothing. One day, another Sympathetic Professional mentions casually that your Great Idea has been killed off, for reasons that seem to you to be at the least, asinine, at the worst, paranoid. It’s almost as if (gasp!) no one in The Meeting really understood your Great Idea after all, despite the fact that everyone appeared to be in total agreement. As a Sincere Technology Professional, accustomed to working for the greater good of the museum, you become dejected. You go to Museum Technology conferences and begin to complain that your Executive Gatekeeper just “doesn’t get it.” Other Sincere Technology Professionals even agree with you: “Yeah man, my director is a total Luddite.” “Right on! Our chief curator is terrified of things not written on papyrus.” And so on. You become dejected and stop coming up with Good Ideas. You turn into a Cynical Technology Professional. You spend a lot more time muttering to yourself. You start wearing a tie. It’s not pretty.

If you’re working in a non-traditional Information Technology role in a museum, this is probably a familiar scenario to you. A great project, with incalculable benefit to the museum and little drain on resources, is killed before it even makes it out of the conference room, often for reasons that seem to have little to do with the project itself. Why does this happen?

Unfortunately, we Sincere Technology Professionals are at fault more often than we’d like to admit. Because we work in an environment in which technology itself (much less the individual Great Idea) is rarely accepted as an a priori good, and the default answer is typically “no,” we are always selling the very idea of technology alongside the Good Idea itself. And when that is the case, we cannot risk even a moment of misunderstanding, lest our Good Idea be killed.

In trying to understand why my own projects have failed to pass muster with the Executive Gatekeeper(s), I’ve come to realize that much of the misunderstanding, sadly, was my own doing. Although I was careful about aligning my Great Ideas with the museum’s mission, and made sure I addressed issues I knew would be of concern to my audience, I wasn’t careful enough with the language I used to describe my ideas. I failed to explain basic terminology, or I dumbed down concepts, which led to obfuscation rather than clarification. So in thinking about how to improve my own performance at future Meetings, I came up with a few simple guidelines, which I hope will be helpful.

Always explain acronyms.

This is an easy one—tech people (myself included) love their acronyms. It’s certainly easier to say/write “API” than “Application Programming Interface” hundreds of times. However, we must realize that an acronym that we as tech folks have long since taken for granted is still a new concept to that curator across the table. A simple act of explanation, even for something that seems incredibly obvious, can come across as an overture of inclusion to the less tech-savvy.

I remember a meeting a while back with a large group of curators and educators about digitization of archives. Those of us who had worked on the project, myself included, kept tossing around the term “OCR” without ever having explained exactly what “OCR” meant. At some point (probably a good half-hour into the meeting) I looked up and, seeing a bunch of blank faces, casually asked if everyone in the room knew what “OCR” was. Only about a third of the attendees raised their hands. I backed way up, and explained Optical Character Recognition in the most straightforward way I could. The whole room lit up, and we found ourselves suddenly engaged in active conversation.

The point here is that most of the people in that room were bewildered enough about what we were discussing that they were unwilling to ask to have one of the founding principles of the project explained to them. Without that simple act of explanation, two-thirds of the people in that room would have left The Meeting not fundamentally understanding the project, and it probably would have died. Explaining OCR suddenly included everyone in the process, and made the technology (slightly) less terrifying.

Don’t dumb it down.

Another mistake we often make is to use non-specific metaphors to describe specific concepts. Although the impulse to do this, which has its root in an attempt to make alien terms more relatable, is a sincere one, it is ultimately self-defeating more often than not. By taking something specific and describing it in a generalized way, we open the door to all kinds of (potentially dangerous) misunderstandings.

Let’s use as an example the oft-heard phrase “electronic publication.” This term is applied variously to virtually any piece of digital information made public by a given museum. Online collections database? That’s an electronic publication. Blog? That’s an electronic publication. Interactive educational feature? You’d better believe that’s an electronic publication.

We started using this term to try and bring the kind of legitimacy that has always been associated with “being published” in the academic/scholarly world to Web-based media. Technology professionals therefore attempted to incorporate that language to make their projects more comprehensible (and prestigious) to that scholarly audience.

The problem is that the term “publication” has a specific meaning for scholars and academics that is quite apart from what we as technology professionals mean. A traditional publication, with its production/vetting/editing process and clear publication dates, is significantly different than a multi-output, ever changing Web application. A good Web presentation brings with it demands well after the delivery date (constant updates, responding to commenters, etc.) that a traditional publication does not. The tech professional may assume the scholar understands these demands; the scholar may not know enough about the given application or platform to know what questions to ask. Using the term “publication” causes the scholar to make assumptions about the nature of the Web application that may or may not be true. The language itself has prevented a critical conversation from taking place.

Don’t use meaningless terms.

This is probably the most pervasive language problem I encounter in describing technology projects to potential clients, sponsors, or Executive Gatekeepers. This is a particular brand of language obfuscation in which we group many disparate concepts together under a single, broad designation, and use that designation so often without explanation that it ceases to have any meaning at all.

A good example of this problem is our use of the phrase “Content Management.” Ugh. How many times a day do we hear this phrase? I often hear it used as a selling point from vendors—”our application features a content management system!” We then dutifully check off “CMS” on our list of requirements, without ever asking whether the vendor means what we mean when they use that term.

Lazy terms like “Content Management,” that could potentially encompass so much territory that they cease to actually mean anything at all, and prevent us from asking the questions we should be asking. Because these terms could potentially mean almost anything, they act as a panacea for all problems, and cause people who should know better (including Sincere Technology Professionals) from asking the right questions.

In closing...

So in short, watch your language. While language alone won’t solve all of our problems, being cautious about the terminology we use certainly helps get us through the treacherous “selling” phase of a technology project. I hope these guidelines prove helpful to you as you work through your own Great Ideas. Good luck!

Friday, March 20, 2009

Querying the Environment: A Smart Model for Pull Content

In my continuing quest to find elegant ways to integrate technology into the museum experience, we come to interpretative material and the simple question, "How can you create natural ways for visitors to retrieve the information of most interest to them relative to an artifact or exhibit?"

Here's one lovely answer: Meta.L.Hyttan. This project in Avesta, Sweden, in which visitors use special flashlights to explore a historic site and reveal interpretative content of interest, is an elegant example of how museums can innovative the label experience.

First, a little explanation about "pull" content techniques. Pull techniques invite visitors to actively retrieve content of interest, rather than consuming content "pushed" indiscriminately by the museum. "Pull" techniques don't just allow multiplicity of content; they also emphasize the visitors' active role in seeking out information. Of course, visitors are always somewhat active in their pursuit of interpretation--they decide whether or not to read the label, whether or not to watch the video, whether or not to click into the interactive. But requiring visitors to take a physical action to retrieve interpretative material imparts a certain power to visitors--they choose what to reveal, not just what to look at. It's not surprising that research has shown that information retrieved via "pull" techniques is retained better than that which is pushed. You may not remember what your teacher lectured about, but you probably do remember the answer she gave you to a question of particular interest.

The most familiar pull learning tool we use daily is Google. It's certainly possible to plunk a computer into the gallery and let people google to their hearts' content, but that activity doesn't fit naturally into the flow of museum-going. Nor does hitting different buttons on an audio guide or even a cellphone feel entirely natural in the context of the physical and visual exploration of exhibits. The technology distracts and breaks a bit of the power of the museum experience. And while I believe in letting people use their own technology (i.e. their phones) to access information, I think there's potential for other kinds of devices and environmental interactions to add value in a way that enhances, rather than detracts from, museum-ness.

Which brings us back to Sweden. In 2004, the firm Smart Studio created a unique flashlight-based interpretative interface for exploration of a historic blast furnace site in the old Swedish steel town of Avesta. The site itself has no interpretative material--no labels or obvious media elements. But each visitor is given a special flashlight, used both to illuminate the space (for general exploration) and to activate interpretative experiences include light projection, sound, and occasional physical experiences (i.e. smoke and heat). There are indicated hotspots in the site which activate interpretative material when the flashlights light on them. Smart Studio launched with two layers of content in the hotspots--educational (how the blast furnace works, explanation of certain elements and history) and poetic (imagistic stories from the perspective of steel workers, based on historical content). Visitors can walk through the blast furnace site and receive none of the interpretative material if they choose, or they can use their flashlights to activate content.

I love this project for several reasons:
  • They used a technology that fits well conceptually and practically into the experience of exploring a historic site of this type. You use the flashlight to see the site, and you use the flashlight to see deeper, hidden layers of history as well. The metaphor is consistent and the object interaction is intuitive.
  • The flashlights function in a magical, surprising way that stems naturally from their typical use. If you were given a crazy pointer and told to use it in this way, it would not be as surprising or exciting as this new "activation" of a familiar object. This gives the sense that there is something magical and unusual happening at the historic site, giving it an aura of mystery and enhancing the uniqueness of the experience.
  • The minimal intervention of the interpretative material allows purists to experience the site without additional media elements if they so choose.
  • Unlike an audio tour, the light-based interpretative material can be shared socially. A family could explore the space together and use flashlights to "show" new content to each other.
  • The act of illuminating the interpretative material gives visitors the sense of personal agency in the discovery and exploration of history. Again, the flashlight metaphor evokes the experience of other explorers and archaeologists, and lets visitors play at uncovering history. But they are also in control of the content experience, revealing stories on demand.
  • The infrastructure can support a layered, changing set of content pieces. In their original proposal, Smart Studio alluded to this potential for multiple languages and interpretative contexts, but I'm not sure whether they have pursued it and added additional interpretative material over time.
You don't need a device like a flashlight to design elegant pull interfaces. But you do need an understanding of how people conceptually think of themselves when visiting museums. How can you create an environment or an object that invites visitors naturally to pull more content? What is the physical manifestation of "googling" in your museum?

Monday, March 16, 2009

Self-Expression is Overrated: Better Constraints Make Better Participatory Experiences

I’ve had it with museums’ obsession with open-ended self-expression. I know this sounds strange coming from someone writing an admittedly self-expressive blog post, but hear me out.

When I talk about designing participatory experiences, I often show the above graphic from Forrester Research. Forrester created the “social technographics” profile tool to help businesses understand the way different audiences engage with social media (and you can read more of my thoughts on it here). The point, in the context of this conversation, is that a minority of social media users are creators—people who write blog posts, upload photos onto Flickr, or share homemade videos on YouTube. There are so many more people who join social networks, who collect and aggregate favored content, and critique and rate books and movies. These are all active social endeavors that contribute positive value to the social Web.

And yet many museums are fixated on creators. I show the tool and then they say, “yeah, but we really want people to share their own stories about fly-swatters,” or, “we think our visitors can make amazing videos about justice.” Museums see open-ended self-expression as the be-all of participatory experiences. Allowing visitors to select their favorite exhibits in a gallery or comment on the content of the labels isn’t seen as valuable a participatory learning experience as producing their own content.

This is a problem for two reasons. First, exhibits that invite self-expression appeal to a tiny percentage of museum audiences. Less than 1% of the users of most social Web platform create original content. Would you design an interactive exhibit that only 1% of visitors would want to use? Maybe—but only if it was complemented by other exhibits with wider appeal.

Second, open-ended self-expression requires self-directed creativity. You have to have an idea of what you’d like to say, and then you have to say it in a way that satisfies your expectations of quality. In other words, it’s hard, and it’s especially hard on the spot in the context of a casual museum visit. What if I assigned you to make a video of your ideas about justice? Does that sound like a fun and rewarding casual activity to you?

If your goal is to invite visitors to share their own experience in a way that celebrates and respects their unique contribution to the institution, you need to design more constraints, not fewer, on visitor self-expression.

Consider a mural. If given the chance, only a very small percentage of people would opt to paint a mural on their own. The materials are not the barrier—the ideas and the confidence are. You have to have an idea of what you want to paint and how to do it. But imagine being invited to participate in the creation of a mural. You are handed a pre-mixed color and a brush and a set of instructions. It’s easy. You get to contribute to a collaborative project that produces something beautiful. You see the overall value of the project. You can point to your part in its making with pride. You have been elevated by the opportunity to contribute to the project.

This experience is shared by folks who contribute data to Citizen Science projects, nominate concepts for MN150, or perform research on the children of the Lodz ghetto. Visitors are not building exhibits from scratch or designing their own science experiments. Instead, they are participating in larger projects, joining the team, doing their part. There are often opportunities for partial self-expression—a flourishing brush stroke here, a witty Facebook status update there—but the overall expressive element is tightly constrained by the participatory platform at hand.

Why aren’t more museums designing highly constrained participatory platforms in which visitors contribute to collaborative projects? The misguided answer is that we think it’s more respectful to allow visitors to do their own thing, that their ultimate learning experience will come from unfettered self-expression. But that’s mostly born from laziness and a misunderstanding of what motivates participation. It’s easy for museums to assign a corner and a kiosk to visitors and say, “we’ll put their stories over there.” It’s harder to design an experience that leverages many visitors’ expression and puts their contributions to meaningful use. It’s like cooking. If you have a bunch of novice friends, it can be maddening to find appropriate “sous chef” roles for them to fill. Many cooks prefer just to get those clumsy hands out of the kitchen. It takes a special kind of cook, artist, or scientist to want to support the contributions of novices. It takes people who want to be educators, not just executors.

Museum staff should be those special kind of people. We should respect visitors enough to engage them in work that we actually value, to find in-roads that support their participation. We should care enough about their potential usefulness to find the right job for them to do. When I worked with teens on media pieces for an exhibit on black holes, they always wanted to know where their media projects would be featured in the exhibition and what the specific criteria were for success. The client kept saying, “do whatever you want,” which they thought meant, “we support your unique self-expression.” But the teens heard, “Do whatever you want—we don’t really care what it is.” The teens wanted the constraints, both so they could be good contributors and to put some limits on the vast openness of “whatever.”

We should support the rare visitors who have something unique to share. But we should also consider the vastly greater number of people who are waiting for us to give them a brush and tell them where to paint.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Join Me for A Social Design Experiment on April 5

Spring is here and it’s time to talk to strangers. On Sunday April 5, I’ll be conducting a collaborative experiment with 15 intrepid University of Washington graduate students, and I’d like to invite you to join in from your own hometown. April 5 is the first day of a class I’m teaching called Social Technology, in which we are focusing on designing an exhibition that features social objects, that is, exhibits or artifacts that inspire interpersonal dialogue.

To kick off the course, we’re doing a simple exercise at the Seattle zoo (but you can do it anywhere). The experiment requires you to go to a public space and do three things:
  1. Talk to a stranger.
  2. Get two strangers talking to each other.
  3. Make and install an object or condition which motivates two strangers to talk to each other without your intervention/involvement. That is, you should be able to watch the strangers talk to each other about the designed social object you have created without being directly involved in the action.
The point of this experiment is to play with design conditions that support both facilitated and unfacilitated engagement with strangers. This is something I am obsessively curious about. And while I’ve been exploring venues, situations, and apparel that serve as social objects, I’ve found few examples of explicitly designed social objects. Most social objects that mediate conversation among strangers are incidental. For example, my dog, while a highly evolved social matchmaking device, is not deliberately designed for that task. I believe that focusing specifically on the social capacity of an object, rather than its content or interpretation, yields new design techniques for museum exhibits and other participatory spaces.

There are three reasons you might value this activity:
  1. It will be fun and kind of unusual.
  2. It will help you understand the challenges involved in supporting user self-expression.
  3. It will help you develop ways to encourage inter-visitor dialogue and engagement around objects in your institution.
And there are three reasons I’d really value your participation:
  1. I want to suck your brain and revel in your inventiveness.
  2. I want to aggregate all the data, synthesize it and share it. More data means more interesting, nuanced conclusions for everyone.
  3. I want to connect these students to a larger group of people interested in exploring topics around social technology in museums.
If you want to participate, please leave a comment here or send me an email at You don’t have to be a museum person or have any qualifications beyond your interest in participating and documenting your experience.

I recommend performing the experiment with friends or family to enhance both the fun and safety of the activities. Don't just plunk your cute baby down in the park, walk away, and call it a social object. You have to actually design something—a sign, an incident, an object, an environment. It’s ok if you fail as long as you try. We’ll learn as much from the social objects that don’t work as from the ones that are astounding successes.

Participants will be asked to write up their experiences (photos/video enthusiastically supported!), which will all be featured on a dedicated website. We’ll also be live-twittering the experiment on April 5 using the hashtag #strangemuse.

I’ll produce a report that will be shared here on the Museum 2.0 blog. And if you happen to be in the Seattle area, I invite you to join us for a post-experiment dinner on April 5, location TBD (suggestions welcome).

So how about it? Ready for a stranger April?

Monday, March 09, 2009

Deliberately Unsustainable Business Models

I once asked Eric Siegel, the Director of the New York Hall of Science, why museums are rarely innovative shining stars on the cutting edge of culture. He commented that as non-profits, "museums are built to survive, not to succeed."  Unlike startups and rock stars, museums aren't structured to shoot for the moon and burn up trying. They're made to plod along. Maybe it's time to change that.

Last year, I met Mark Allen, the founder of Machine Project, an extremely cool "post-educational" space in Los Angeles that is part art gallery, part workshop space, part mad scientist party central. They host events like Dorkbake in which people design their own Easybake-esque ovens and then bake cakes in them. Next month, the space is being turned into a magic forest. Their mission statement is: "Machine Project exists to encourage heroic experiments of the gracefully over-ambitious."

At one point, Mark commented that they have a "deliberately unsustainable" business model. In other words: do great stuff while you can, and when you can't do it anymore, stop. This is the model that governs most businesses and artistic endeavors. It's the reason terms like "jump the shark" exist. Most companies, rock bands, and sports teams are only brilliant for so long. Then they start to slide. Then they die.

Of course, the current financial crisis demonstrates what happens when companies set up artificial life support systems to prolong themselves far beyond their ability to provide great products and services. The unusual part of Mark's statement isn't the acknowledgment that Machine Project will only exist as long as it is relevant and good; it's the desire to close up shop when the excellence ends. It's incredibly rare for an organization or company to seek deliberate unsustainability. Most want to provide consistent jobs for their employees so their families can be secure. They want to provide quality products that are reliable over the long run. They want to promise consistent services that consumers can bank on. That's why TV shows jump the shark. When they can, they will claw their way through as many seasons as possible.

The problem arises when the desire to sustain overcomes the desire to be awesome and more resources go to surviving than succeeding. This is abundantly clear in the case of US automakers and banks, whose current arguments for financial support rest on their need to survive, not their ability to succeed. Is it true of your museum too?

For some museums, awesomeness has never been part of the mission statement or core services. Elizabeth Merritt from AAM wrote a provocative post last week about the financial future of museums in which she suggests, among other things, that 20% of museums should be allowed to fail in the coming decades. As she puts it:
My observation, after thirty years of working in the field, is that museums have an amazing ability to survive in the most adverse environments. They are the cockroaches of the nonprofit world--sometimes it really does seem like you can’t kill them with an atomic blast. Most of the time some improbable deus ex machina saves the day: for example an unexpected cash gift or a free building. Mind you, this often only saves the distressed museum from closure—it does not cure the underlying dysfunction. The museum may simply struggle along for another ten years before the next potentially fatal crisis.
The underlying dysfunction that Elizabeth mentions is often an inability to focus on anything but survivability. To make it, museums need to survive AND succeed. I think it's important for museums to undergo an exercise in which you list out two types of things:
  1. core services that people depend on and need to survive. These include jobs for employees and programs that address a societal gap not provided by other organizations or businesses. For example, maybe your museum provides job training for at-risk youth and your community relies on your consistent ability to do so.
  2. services you provide that make you awesome. What drives people through your door, gets them excited, and connects them passionately with your content?
You should be able to point with pride to both the ways you support the community with reliable, consistent services and supreme awesomeness. The desire to survive will always exist, whether you run a small institution or a giant one. It's human nature to want to keep your job and keep doing what you're doing. The challenge is not to make it your primary goal.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Gaming the Talkback Experience with the Signtific What If? Machine

Jane McGonigal and the folks from IFTF have released a new future-casting game/collaborative experience called Signtific Lab. Unlike Superstruct, which employed a very open-ended collaborative framework to invite people to imagine their circumstances in 2019 relative to several provocative scenarios, Signtific is a more focused, tight experience, both in content and format. In other words, it's way better. This is one of the clearest, most physically translatable me-to-we platforms I have experienced. It's fun, I learn something, I'm challenged to contribute something meaningful, and I connect with other users. SigntificLab in its second iteration, and you can play live from now until March 5 (or again from March 9-12).

I like suppositional "what if?" questions because I believe they invite anyone to creatively respond, unlike "what is?" questions, which imply a correct answer. The Signtific platform is a kind of "what if?" machine that could be adapted to any potential scenario (and I believe that's what they plan to do in the months ahead). And while it's fun as an online experience, I see the potential for Signtific to be repurposed in physical space as a dynamic platform for capturing diverse visitor opinions on a variety of "what if?" topics. In other words, a new kind of talkback board or participatory educational program.

Here's how Signtific works (their rules here):
  1. The organizing institution presents a three-minute video exploring a "what if?" question. In the current case, the question is: "What will you do when space is as cheap and accessible as the Web is today?" In other words, what if anyone could launch a satellite into space for $100?
  2. Players are invited to play one of two kinds of cards based on the scenario: "positive imagination" cards or "dark imagination" cards. A card includes 140 characters of text either envisioning a positive or negative outcome of the suppositional scenario.
  3. On any given "positive" or "dark" imagination card, players can play four different kinds of follow-up cards: momentum, antagonism, adaptation, or investigation, to add additional ideas, disagreements, other uses, or questions to the original imagination card.
  4. Players get points for playing cards as well as for starting chain reaction of dialogue via follow-up cards. There is a simple leaderboard and each player's cards are aggregated on a personal dashboard. The organizers also curate some of the most interesting cards and offer rewards for "outlier" ideas that are improbable but fascinating.
The result is a network diagram of cards, a threaded dialogue that takes place across many nodes. On the web, these are shown via long lists of positive and dark cards, some of which have trees of follow-up cards. The visual interface is not perfect--but imagine the physical analog. A big board, with the "What if" question across the top and six different colors of cards. Red for positive. Blue for dark. Pink for momentum. Green for antagonism. Purple for adaptation. White for investigation. You get the idea. There would be lots of red and blue cards, some of which would have other colored cards clustered around them.

The thing that excites me about this is not the opportunity to use all the weird-colored cardstock hanging around the supply cabinets of most museums. What excites me is that Signtific provides a very deliberate framework that prioritizes collaborative thinking and dialogue. If Signtific just asked the "What if?" question and allowed open response, it would not be as good. If they just had positive and dark cards, it would not be as good. What's GOOD about Signtific is that it encourages people to reflect on others' submissions and react to them in a series of intentional ways. In museums, we are often struggling to find deeper ways to encourage people to engage with each others' opinions and to learn collaboratively and relationally.

The most important aspect of designing a successful participatory platform is to intentionally, deliberately, and clearly DESIGN the platform. Signtific is not an open mushy conversation about the future. It's a structured set of specific interactions that are guided by clear values like interpersonal learning and seeing multiple perspectives on an idea. The scoring system doesn't just value output; it values quality, dialogue, and uniquenss. The brevity of each card (140 characters) keeps the content tight and makes it easily repurposed to other platforms (like Twitter). I also love that they are opening the site in short iterative stints so that they can continue adapting the platform as they learn how people are using it.

I look forward to seeing where it goes, and where museums might take it as the basis for a talkback board or a programmatic live event. Maybe they'll open source the platform at some point so that anyone could use the system to play out their own what ifs.

I encourage you to check it out, submit a card, and share your comments here. What if we created suppositional interpersonal engagement platforms (what if? machines) for informal learning environments? What positive and dark outcomes could you imagine?

Monday, March 02, 2009

Educational Uses of Back Channels for Conferences, Museums, and Informal Learning Spaces

Many museums are experimenting with “back channel” platforms that allow visitors and staff to chat and share content while onsite at the museum. For some educators and curators, this may sound like a nightmare. Visitors texting amongst themselves while you are trying to conduct a tour? Their pithy opinions of the exhibits broadcast live in the lobby?

Last week, I had my first serious experience with useful back channels at a conference (WebWise), and it taught me some lessons about how back channels might be used effectively as a learning tool in museums and other experiential venues (like conferences and classrooms).

The back channel isn’t just a social space. I noted three distinct, valuable uses of back channels at WebWise:
  1. To communicate socially in an environment that does not permit open dialogue. This is the "note passing" or flirting use case.
  2. To share your onsite experience with a network of people who are not co-located with you. Where the first use case serves co-located people, this use case focuses on broadcasting the highlights of your experience to friends elsewhere.
  3. To investigate a content experience more deeply using a different set of tools than those used to convey the content. For example, you may listen to a speaker and check out related links from his work as he talks.
At WebWise, these use cases were addressed by a variety of tools that composed a multi-dimensional back channel. WebWise is a single-track conference; everyone was together in the same big room for the majority of two days. There were four conference back channels, two that were officially promoted and two that emerged ad hoc:
  1. A talkback board. We gave everyone post-its in their registration packets and encouraged them to post their questions and comments, especially on the “gaps” in the conference, to the board. The board was directly outside the main conference room. (addresses use #1)
  2. A Today’sMeet chat room. This is a really simple online chat interface that allows you to share messages of 140 characters or less. I set it up, demonstrated it in the first session, and then participants were off to the races with their own laptops. (addresses use #1 and #3)
  3. Twitter. While we did not formally promote Twitter as a back channel, Twitter users quickly gravitated towards a #webwise hashtag and were able to track each other’s tweets via Twitter search. (addresses use #2 primarily, #1 secondarily)
  4. Delicious. One participant started using webwise as a tag on Delicious for websites referenced during the conference. He promoted its use via both Today’sMeet and Twitter. (addresses use #3 primarily, #2 secondarily)
By the end of the conference, there were:
  • 6 post-its were on the talkback board.
  • 724 posts on Today’sMeet by about 80 users.
  • 380 posts on Twitter by about 40 users.
  • 105 links on Delicious by about 8 users (led by one superuser who posted 63 of the links).
First, why did the talkback wall fail, despite our advertisements? At some conferences, they can be used to great effect, but at WebWise, the board was both physically and conceptually irrelevant, especially when compared to the immediate opportunities presented by Today’sMeet. Unlike museum talkback walls, which are typically situated in galleries where visitors are viewing related content, the WebWise wall was set apart from the action, and it made a BIG difference.

Why did Today’sMeet succeed at engaging so many people? It is a low-barrier chat system that does not require registration. It’s really easy to use and promotes discussion, not individual profiles. The majority of people who used Twitter and Delicious during the conference were already registered members of those services, whereas every single person who used Today’sMeet was new to that service.

There was a greater diversity of users on Today’sMeet than Twitter, and many people used both. As noted above, people primarily used Twitter as an external broadcast tool and Today'sMeet as an internal conversation tool. A typical tweet shares a notable conference item with the outside world:
Today’sMeet, on the other hand, was primarily used as a conversational medium among people actually at the conference (image at right, note that newest posts appear at the top). When a speaker would mention a project, someone would immediately post the relevant URL to Today’sMeet. People asked general questions to the group and replied directly to each other. It was sort of like passing notes in class—but the notes were highly on-topic extensions of what was being said real-time onstage. Some session leaders also deliberately watched the back channel for questions and integrated them real time into the onstage discussion. Whereas Twitter provided the conference highlights to a wider audience, Today’sMeet allowed attendees to delve deeper into individual moments and questions.

After the conference, a friend reflected on the positive experience with Today’sMeet, saying, “At first I didn’t understand why you didn’t just rely on Twitter for the back channel. But I liked how Today’sMeet was less formal, how you could be anonymous or use any username you wanted. It felt like something we could use at my museum as a step to get people more comfortable with Twitter and other back channels.”

Here are some of the key lessons I learned from the WebWise experience:
  • If you don't engage in multiple back channels, you may not see multiple use cases. Different tools are best for different types of interaction. Just because post-it notes didn't work at WebWise doesn't mean they don't work in galleries... as we know from the success of many talkback boards.
  • If you ask visitors/participants to try a new tool, make sure it has as low a barrier to entry as possible. I have yet to see a museum set something up that is as simple to use as Today'sMeet.
  • If discussion is the goal, you don't need user profiles - you just need a way to talk. If building up a personal profile/relationship with the institution is a goal, people need to uniquely identify themselves.
  • Think about the possibility for asynchronous back channels that allow visitors (and staff) to share deep content with each other over time. Consider, for example, the rich conversation on Flickr about this image from the Chicago World's Fair. You could imagine a comparable conversation available to visitors onsite alongside exhibits or artifacts in the galleries.
  • If possible, find ways to show the real-time location of people who are engaging in the back channel. The Mattress Factory's new SCREENtxt application uses a location-based system so that visitors can identify whether other participants are onsite at the museum or not.
  • Make allowance for emergent back channels that visitors/users "bring with them" to the experience. These tools are particularly valuable for the "portal to the world" back channel use case. Every time I see a kid take a cellphone photo in an exhibit, I know that photo will immediately travel to Facebook, Flickr, Twitter, etc. How can your system capture that activity?
What have you learned from your back channel experiences--at conferences, museums, or otherwise? Which use case is most appealing to you as a user and as an experience designer?