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.

26 comments, add yours!:

Anonymous said...

Great analysis of the problem, AND the solution - thanks, Nina!

Anonymous said...

Well put. museum goers at times I find are overwhelmed with their experiences and don't know where to start when asked to jump in. By creating a experience that holds the participants hand without them knowing and directing their participation benefits both them and the organization by getting targeted feedback and collaboration and allows for the user to feel that much more connected and part of the project when they see their direct influence or collaboration.

Anonymous said...

Great pots Nina.

The Ourspace project at Te Papa in Wellington, NZ is an interesting example of a low-entry point scalable experience.

And the best 'handholding' in a museum environment I've seen on a large scale has been at the Miraikan in Tokyo.

Unknown said...


I think some of this comes from the available tools that are driving some of these shifting attitudes. I mean lots of folks entered this realm via blogs or web based tools that let you leave a comment. This format is inherently comfy for the type of contribution your railing (lovingly) against.

The museum world needs some more simple templates for this type of interaction and social contribution in museums and online.

Nina Simon said...

To expand on your thought, I think we just need to consider a vastly larger set of tools. Board games and murals are very old technology that allow people to participate and partially express ourselves. It doesn't have to be new... it just has to be broader.

Ghosts of a Chance had a good blend, including both crazy-hard self-expression (make a weird piece of art) and super low-barrier activity (go to this location in the museum and dance). Lots of models to pull from...

Kooz said...

I couldn't agree more...I wonder what research has been done in terms of cognitive psychology and the levels of "open-endedness" of spontaneous, creative or learning experiences...

Unknown said...

Great post! Thanks Nina!

Lorna said...

Thanks Nina! my head is sore from the open-expression walls i bang it against, i've always advocated structure as a means of encouraging creativity and actually facilitating expression. Leave things too open and it just makes people self conscious and scares everyone away.

POW! (Paul Orselli Workshop, Inc.) said...


A little push back:

I'm not sure I see a "problem" or "solution" regarding "self-expression" here. It seems like you're offering (literally!) a paint-by-numbers solution to counteract your peeve.

Educators since Socrates share the belief that creatively "framing" or "constraining" an experience can help reluctant learners feel more willing and/or able to participate.

I wonder if your concerns are more about the "bad framing" in some self-expression exhibits than the notion of encouraging self-expression in museums. (After all, isn't that one tenet of 2.0?)

You only have to scan through Twitter or ExhibitFiles to see posted examples of successfully framed/constrained "self-expression" projects using video recording stations, for example.

Finding the "sweet spot" in museum experiences that balance visitor comfort with visitor engagement takes many types of approaches to reach many types of visitors, so I'm a little less willing to tar ALL "self-expression" activities with the same "brush" (sorry!) that you do.

Unknown said...

Good summation, Nina! I had this quote pinned over my desk for years, which speaks precisely to your point.

"The enemy of art is the absence of limitations." Orson Welles

Nina Simon said...

I agree with you--there are many ways to construct successful self-expression experiences in museums, especially when the frame is well-executed.

But I'm afraid we are focusing on self-expression to the exclusion of other options. I often find myself in meetings about participatory design for exhibits and the client ONLY wants to consider self-expression... that's what I'm reacting against.

Anonymous said...

This is exactly the barrier I faced when confronting the "Fill the Gap" project on Flickr, by the Luce Foundation of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

You're asked to browse their collection website to select an artwork of the appropriate size to fill a gap in their visible storage space. Great challenge.

Math! Aesthetics! Searching skills! Patience!

All good lessons but way too hard.

Give me a set of paintings that fit the gap and ask me to vote--I'll vote! (Like when the Zoo asks us to name baby animals by voting. Easy.)

Ask me to research, measure, etc and I won't even start.

Am I learning the same things? Maybe not exactly. But I'm joining the conversation!

- Erin from Postal Museum

Maria Mortati said...

In a word, YES. Constraints are great for fostering creativity. Designers and developers thrive with them. Why shouldn't everyone else?

Tim K. said...

I was thinking of Black Holes at CSSC before I got half way down the article. Great point, most people don't have the creative confidence to make something with no direction.

@Erin from Postal Museum-
Things like measuring can be done by the computer, give it a set of dimensions for each piece, and sort by the ones that fit and the ones that don't. It would then be pretty simple to set up a voting system that presented viewers with 3 to five images and let them vote on their favorite of the set.
Google had a similar "game" a while back to improve their image search algorithms. Two viewers would be presented with an image and they would be asked to tag it. It looked for overlapping tags.

Jantiene said...

In our exhibition KNITTED WORLDS in Textielmuseum Tilburg visitors are asked to knit part of a knitted computer game, see:
Stitch ´n bitch group Tilburg, the Dutch knitters and anyone who wants contribute can participate! Anne Reijse, artist, designed the experience. The project just started.

Effie said...

This is a great point, Nina. I felt similar open-ended angst in design school.

We (Smithsonian Photography Initiative) have fallen into the self-expression black hole and are working our way out. Right now, we ask for full essays and a photo in response to one of our programs, click! photography changes everything - We've received some great submissions, but not the deluge we dreamed of...

Options for engagement make a lot of sense. Another thing we're trying to do is find the right groups to participate, like the Textielmuseum reaching out to the stitch 'n' bitch group.

Anonymous said...

Maria Mortati makes a great point about how (good) designers make use of constraints. I have long been inspired by Donald Norman's The Design of Everyday Things, which includes many examples of affordances -- a particular kind of design constraint that makes it easier for users to identify and accomplish the actions they want to accomplish. Not exactly what you are discussing here, Nina, but pretty close.

Voices For the Lake said...

Nina thank you! This is exactly what I'm challenged with right now with the video capture project I'm working on. Experiencing all of this and then some...glad to have some insight and now direction to deal.

Bridget Butler
Voices For the Lake Manager
ECHO Lake Aquarium & Science Center
at the Leahy Center for Lake Champlain

Wayne LaBar said...


Perhaps I am missing something but it's not like I see lots of visitor creation as it is. I agree with need for a framework for many visitors but right now I see way more experiences where there is no opportunity at all for any visitor expression no matter what the "type" of visitor.


peoppenheimer said...

Nina, this is the first post of yours I have read. Thank you very much. I've been reading Twyla Tharp and Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi on creativity; you present another piece of the puzzle.

daily picture said...

I agree with you--there are many ways to construct successful self-expression experiences in museums, especially when the frame is well-executed.

Festival Museum Nusantara said...

this blog bring the museum topics with the great presentation. thank you for sharing

Indonesia Java International Destination said...

i like to go to the museum in holiday, it give some historic and cultural experience however. good blog here.

seo reseller said...

Very interesting demographic. I find venues that places emphasis on people interaction that is engaging as a reward offers better attraction.

SEO Philippines said...

The graphic featured above from Forrester Research, is so great that it helps us readers to have more idea and information about your post. The desire for self-expression afflicts people when they feel there is something of themselves which is not getting through to the outside world. Self-expression must pass into communication for its fulfillment. :)

Psychometric test said...

Very interesting post! I do agree with you. There are many ways to construct successful self-expression experiences. You can also improve your self expression & way of talking and learning through psychometric test(Aptitude, personality test etc.).