Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Design Techniques for Developing Questions for Visitor Participation

On Friday, I offered a participatory design workshop for Seattle-area museum professionals (slides here). We concluded by sharing the tough questions each of us struggles with in applying participatory design techniques to museum practice. Dennis Schatz from the Pacific Science Center contributed:
How do we find the RIGHT questions for visitor participation?
I love this question. It's a two-parter I've been puzzling over for a long time. First, what do the right questions look like? And second, what techniques can help us find more?

Part 1: What does the right question look like?

Last year, I wrote this post which offered some broad suggestions for what the "right" questions look like. Here's my current list of useful characteristics:
  • questions that trigger an immediate response
  • questions that induce grappling
  • questions that motivate authentic expression
  • questions that draw from personal experience, not abstraction
  • open to anyone (minimize cultural bias)
  • speculative (what if? instead of what is?)
  • questions which produce answers that are interesting to consume and respond to
Here are some of the wrong questions:
  • What is the girl in the painting doing? (too teacherly)
  • What does freedom mean to you? (too abstract)
  • How would you define nanotechnology? (too impersonal)
  • What's the best song you've ever heard? (avoid superlatives - they make some people anxious)
  • What do you think? (too general)
The "right" questions can be short or long, simple or wacky. They can require yes/no responses or lengthy paragraphs. The key is that they are genuinely interesting and that they trigger a learning response both for the person who chooses to answer and the person who chooses just to spectate. This is the golden rule of developing questions for visitor dialogue: you must be truly interested in their answers. If you don't care about the answer to the question, why on earth should anyone else?

Part 2: How do you develop the right questions?

Last year, I didn't have a great answer for this one. But I've been experimenting with visitor dialogue over several recent projects and have developed a few simple design strategies to hone in on good questions. Each of these exercises takes about five minutes, assuming you have access to a group of people who in some way approximate your target audience (colleagues, friends, visitors).
  • Develop a "question of interest" that relates to your content. Make sure that the question is one that any person can answer and one for which you ACTUALLY CARE TO HEAR THE ANSWER. Ask the question to several people. Ask yourself. Listen to or read their answers. If you find yourself dreading asking the tenth person that same question, you have the wrong question. Go back and write a new one.
  • Show the question to a group of people and ask them to raise their hands if they have an immediate answer to that question. Then, ask if they would be interested in perusing others' responses to the question. It's OK to have an imbalance here, as long as there are more interested spectators than interested creators.
  • Gather up a bunch of answers to the question and look at them. These answers are your "exhibit." Identify how many of them are interesting. Identify how many of them motivate you to ask a followup question.
  • Ask the question several different ways to different groups of people. Vary your specificity, your personal intrusiveness, your wording. Compare the responses you get. Ask people to rate how hard it was to answer different questions and whether there were some that were easier to jump into than others.


Here are some questions that I've seen work marvelously well.

  • The Ontario Science Centre's Facing Mars exhibition opens with a simple question: "Would you go to Mars?" Visitors are forced to enter through one of two gates marked YES and NO. Their answers are tracked via a display that tallies the total number of YESes and NOs registered to date. This question is right because it is easy to answer yet induces grappling. It's personal but not consequential. It frames and personalizes the exhibit experience. And looking at other people's responses (via the number displays) is quick, easy, informative, and somewhat surprising.
  • The Denver Art Museum's Side Trip poses many specific questions about visitors' experiences with psychedelic rock music, concerts, and drugs. The questions can be quite personal, and the responses--which include stories of visitors' "first trips" and "Jimi experiences"--are detailed and pretty fascinating to read. This question set is right because there are several specific questions, enough so that anyone can find one appropriate to her experience. These questions also use "first" memories rather than "best" memories, which are easier to recall and share.
  • My local public library does an annual summer book recommendation wall, on which patrons can post their mini-reviews of books they've read and enjoyed. The question is, "would you recommend this book to someone?" This question is right because it is highly functional--patrons understand how it will be useful to others. It is somewhat personal but doesn't ask the respondent to be an authority in describing the book, just in sharing why he would recommend it. There's an implied interpersonal transaction in the offering of this information, which makes the experience feel valuable and personal without pushing face-to-face interaction on anyone.
I've also been playing with visitor-to-visitor questions to help me talk to strangers. The most reliable question I'm using works in art museums. My tactic is to look for the person in the gallery who is looking most intently at something, walk up to them and ask, "what are you looking at?" Even though the stranger intrusion is potentially uncomfortable, this question works because it expresses interest on the stranger's terms, not my own. I'm not challenging them to tell me why they are looking or what their reaction is, just what they are looking at. It's an innocuously descriptive question that almost always leads to very interesting insights into how different people appreciate art.

What kind of dialogue are you looking to spark? What kinds of questions do you seek, and what techniques do you use to find them?

I'm genuinely interested in your answer. That's why I asked.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Hackerspaces: DIY Science Centers for Adults

Like many people who've worked in science centers and interactive experience museums, I've always been perplexed by the fact that hands-on workshop audiences top out around age 14. So many of the activities available in interactive museums--exploding toothpaste, liquid nitrogen ice cream, collage-making, robot wars--are just as interesting, educational, and fun for adults as they are for kids. So why don't adult workshops succeed?

There's a growing type of institution that is successfully engaging adult geeks in hands-on workshops with a DIY, member-based approach. A few weeks ago, Nick Bilton told me about the hackerspace he helped found called NYCResistor. I had never heard of hackerspaces, and I thought he was talking about people with computers getting together to crack codes. But it turns out hackerspaces are the next step in the evolution of the DIY/maker movement--physical member organizations for people who like to mess around with electronics. They are more than just workshop spaces--they are member institutions, like museums. And their unique structure and bottom-up approach offers some instructive lessons for museums that want to really embrace visitors and members as co-creators of the institutional experience.

Hackerspaces are about people, not content

Hackerspaces are hybrid private clubs/public educational spaces. NYCResistor's tagline is: "we learn, share, and make things." There are people who pay for membership ($40-$100/month, depending on where you are in the country), and there are others who pay for workshops, which range from straight skills (learn to soldering) to artsy/sciencey (needlepoint circuits) to dangerously silly (shrinking coins). In hackerspaces, membership doesn't just mean expressing affinity; it gives you useful privileges including private cubbies and a key to the space.

Hackerspaces are mostly small non-profit co-ops, with 25-100 members and under 1000 sq ft of space. In some cases, such as AS220 labs, they are part of larger community art spaces. Their numbers are growing, and the wiki-based list of worldwide hackerspaces includes as many "planned" as "active" institutions.

This isn't just a geek thing. There are maker spaces popping up for all kinds of artists, crafters, and independent entrepeneurs who want a shared space to congregate, share ideas, and work on projects. Mitch Altman, one of the founders of the San Francisco-based Noisebridge, was quoted in Wired as saying:
"In our society there's a real dearth of community. The internet is a way for people to key in to that need, but it's so inadequate. [At hacker spaces], people get a little taste of that community and they just want more."
Isn't this one of our dreams for museums? That people will key into their love of art or science or history online, then show up at the museum, get a "taste of community," and just want more?

Hackerspaces are member-centric

Hackerspaces aren't organized around content like museums are. They're organized around members. The brand and organization of hackerspaces is heavily tied to the concept of community ownership and management. Most hackerspaces have very transparent legal structures and operate on a consensus model. Their members are unapologetically enthusiastic about their activities. They are the true institutional "advocates" that so many museums seek. As one NYCResistor blogger effuses, "Will this endless parade of awesome classes never end?" Hackerspaces don't just support members' energy for the place; they are structured to literally be BY and FOR their members, without any intermediary staffed institution.

It's interesting to think about this in the context of museums like the Museum of Life and Science in North Carolina, which is trying to position itself as a "member-focused institution." I spend a lot of time working with museums that are trying to find ways to support and connect with the love their members and advocates feel for them. But these places are museums first, member communities second, and their approaches reflect a need to retain some institutional control. Hackerspaces (so far) are bottom-up institutions, which means they can wholly support member needs. The institution IS the members. Noisebridge defines itself as "an infrastructure provider for technical-creative projects, collaboratively run by its members. We are incorporated as a non-profit educational corporation for public benefit." The second sentence could be on any museum homepage. I'm not sure about the first.

Hackerspaces in Museums?

Even if your museum can't support this kind of direct member infrastructure across the board, you might be able to integrate a hackerspace into a part of your museum and use it to explore new relationships with members and with active adult audiences. Got a funky extra gallery or an old computer clubhouse that is underperforming? Could your museum host a hackerspace? There are some truly wonderful potential connections between activity-oriented museums and hackerspaces... and then there are some challenges.

Things interactive museums can offer hackerspaces:
  • the equipment, the expertise, and the insurance to support a lot of activities
  • semi-private space (probably at low rent compared to retail spaces)
  • publicity
  • an educational outlet (some hackers are struggling to find ways to connect their enthusiasm to younger would-be geeks)
Things hackerspaces can offer museums:
  • design ethos and brand that attracts an audience that mostly shies away from museums
  • highly creative adults who are interested in supporting others' learning
  • "real" projects going on, but not at the level of requiring expensive lab environments
Of course, there are other aspects of hackerspaces that make them a less-than-perfect match for museums. The membership structure is incredibly important to people who want a place to safely store their projects and the ability to show up and work at 3am. The DIY, shared-ownership support is antithetical to the corporate nature of most large science centers. 50-100 passionate geeks may not be a compelling audience when you have 1.2 million walking through the doors every year. But for small science centers or art organizations, which share much of the DIY ethic with hackerspaces, this may be a perfect fit.

There's also the potential for museums to be the engine for some new kinds of makerspaces. What does the hackerspace for genealogists look like? Or the one for DIY biologists? Could it start in a museum?

Monday, April 20, 2009

Avoiding the Participatory Ghetto: Are Museums Evolving with their Innovative Web Strategies?

I just got home from the Museums and the Web conference in Indianapolis. I’d never attended before and was impressed by many very smart, international people doing radical projects to make museum collections and experiences accessible and participatory online. But I left uneasy, grappling with questions that plagued me throughout the conference. The people at Museums and the Web are on the forefront of web-based innovative museum practice. How does their work relate to their physical institutions? Are participatory activities happening on the web because that is the best place for them? Or is the web the dumping ground for activities too messy or uncomfortable to do onsite? How can participation, openness, innovation, and institutional change become part of a broader conversation? I'm afraid that the web is becoming a participatory ghetto rather than an integrated driver of innovation in museums.

This fear was precipitated by a painful visit to the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Max Anderson, the museum’s director, delivered an inspiring keynote address on the first day of the conference about “moving from the virtual to the visceral.” Max argued that museums should use the web to give online visitors the same level of emotional, experiential, exciting engagement that they have onsite. He spent a long time discussing the IMA’s award-winning online dashboard, which shows real-time data about everything from visitor zip codes to photography requests to the size of the endowment. He spoke convincingly about how the dashboard and other efforts are helping the IMA become a more transparent, open place that respects and involves visitors in all aspects of the organization.

I was thrilled by Max’s talk and looked forward to seeing how the physical site reflected the transparency and engagement he spoke about. I showed up at the IMA expecting innovation. Instead, I found a standard art museum. Nice art. Impersonal guards. Lovely grounds. Obtuse labels. Interesting architecture. There was nothing that connected me to the visceral, exciting institution Max had sold in his talk, the institution that exists on the web.

Is this a problem? I think so. I felt like I had met someone online, someone sexy and open and intriguing, and then on our first date that mystery museum turned out to be just like all the others. This is a problem that many of the museums doing the best work in social media may soon confront. You join the Brooklyn Museum’s posse. You tag your brains out on the Powerhouse online collection database. And then you show up in person and feel jilted. Where are the friendly, open, participatory experiences you came for? Where’s the museum you know and love?

Some might argue that this disconnect is not a bad thing—that museums are using the web to reach new audiences, just as specifically tailored programs reach new audiences. But studies have shown that temporary exhibitions and programs targeted to specific “non-traditional” audiences are not effective at converting those audiences into general museum visitors. They come for their singular program alone. They don’t become institutional advocates, members, or donors. You may be able to engage a thriving community online, but if their experience with the institution is fundamentally different from the onsite one, they will remain online-only visitors.

I still believe that museums offer the greatest value in their physical venues. And with that in mind, I’m worried that people’s online experiences may not be giving them the right impression of who you are and what you offer at the physical site. This used to be a problem of properly conveying the “visceral” in the “virtual.” But now, for some of the more innovative institutions on the edge, it’s a problem of making the visceral as relevant, dynamic, and interesting as the virtual. If you do fabulous things online and not onsite, your online audiences will show up and be disappointed. They will feel deceived.

It's not impossible to translate our most innovative virtual activities into onsite experiences. I ran a workshop on "going analog" at the conference in which we explored ways that physical museums can be more like wikis, fantasy baseball services, social networks, and more. All it takes is a willingness to put this stuff into the museum and the cleverness to design the right metaphor. Consider the IMA’s radical transparency online. Why can't they be comparably transparent onsite? They could add the accession price of artworks to their labels. They could explain why the art is being displayed, what value it is perceived to have, and why it is shown in the context of the other works in the room. They could share the arguments that go into the creation of every exhibition. They could explain WHY you can’t touch the giant, highly tactile sculptures throughout the main entrance. Online, the IMA is respectful, open, and provides deep levels of information. Onsite, it’s an authoritative cipher.

When I talked with Rob Stein, the IMA’s CIO, about my frustration, he suggested that “institutional change has to start somewhere.” And he’s right. Maybe I’m being too hard on the IMA. Maybe the innovative work they are doing on the web will lead to comparable innovations to the onsite experiences.

But I’m nervous it won’t happen for a number of political reasons. In most museums, technologists are still seen as service providers, not experience developers. They live in well-defined (and self-protected) silos. There are stereotypes flying in many directions—that curators won’t give up authority, that technologists don’t respect traditional museum practice, that educators are too preachy, that marketers just want to get more live bodies in the door.

How are we going to bridge this divide? Many of the technologists I met at Museums and the Web never go to regional or national museum conferences. When I asked why, people said, “no one there understand what we’re doing,” or “it just reminds me of how far behind the rest of this field is.” I understand the desire to learn from and spend time with people in your part of the field, but I was surprised at the extent to which people had no interest in cross-industry discussions. I’m teaching a graduate course at University of Washington right now on social technology and museums. Four of my students were at Museums and the Web. None are attending AAM (the American Association of Museums). They don’t see it as relevant to their future careers. This worries me.

We need to do a lot more talking across the aisle, working hard to adapt our specialized vocabularies to a common discussion about institutional mission and change. I want museums to be open, participatory, dynamic, and relevant in all places, not just online. If we only do it online, it doesn’t force us to fundamentally change how our institutions work and present content to visitors. It just creates a virtual outpost for change. And I don’t want to live in that ghetto.

Monday, April 13, 2009

A Simple Argument for Why Museums and Cultural Institutions Should Care about Social Media

I spend a lot of time talking to people about social media--how it can be a model for real-life content venue interactions and how it can connect museums and cultural institutions to users in new ways. But inevitably (and quite appropriately), someone will say, "all of this is very interesting. But my organization is functioning just fine without it. Is there some reason that I really need to pay attention to social media?"

This is an honest and valid question. And only recently have I concluded that my answer is yes--not that your organization needs to do anything in social media yet, but that you should pay attention.

Here's why. It has to do with reach. In the 2000s, it was important to have a website so that people could "find you" on the Web via search engines like Google. But the Web is changing into a socially contextualized information environment, and as that change happens, it becomes more important that people can "find you" via their personal social networks.

Here's a longer explanation, and here's the Nielsen research report that motivated this post.

The way we use the Web is fundamentally changing. Eleven years ago, Google launched and vastly improved search capabilities on the Web. Before Google, lots of people used the internet via services like AOL, but we didn't use the Web a lot. We sent emails and IMs. We engaged in chat rooms and consumed content selected by AOL or Prodigy or Yahoo.

Now, of course, Google is a huge part of our lives. We talk about "googling" things in all kinds of contexts. For many people (including me), Google serves as homepage. My portal to the Web is through search. This means that I think of "entering" the Web as a hunt for information. Google has conditioned us to think of the Web as the outcome of atomized search for information. I need to know something, so I look it up. I find the page. I find the answer. The end.

This is the reason that many museums and cultural organizations decided they needed websites in the late 1990s and early 2000s. We recognized that people were increasingly turning to the Web as a source of information--for content knowledge but also for trip planning. I believe that the primary reason most museums started their websites is about planning visits. Marketing departments realized that a large percentage of people were using online search engines to find interesting things to do, and they wanted to be there.

Now, things are changing again. Whereas the Web of the 2000s was dominated by search, we are entering a time when more and more people are using social media as their gateway to the Web. Ask a college student what her homepage is, and you are likely to see Facebook, not Google, pop up on her screen. The worldwide market reach of social networks and other "member community sites" (as Nielsen research deems them) is growing rapidly, and it seems likely that Facebook and other social networking sites will continue to attract older, more mainstream audiences.

This means that more and more people are "entering" the Web via social context. Last week, Susie Wilkening wrote a blog post expressing that Facebook has replaced her newspaper as the go-to place for relevant news in her life. It's not hard to imagine a near future where Facebook (and sites like it) also replace a lot of the ways we use atomized search. This already happens for me with professional research. When I'm looking for a resource on something, my first stop is Twitter, where I can send my research question to my professional network. Then I use Google to track down the references they mention. People often ask me how I find out about interesting projects going on at different museums. I'm not constantly googling "visitor co-created exhibits" and searching blind. I find out about these things in my social networks--via blogs, professional communities, Twitter, and socially-selected content feeds, which contextualize and direct me towards information of interest.

This isn't just a professional shift. For people who are deeply immersed in social media, social networks are already a much heavier influence on personal choices--where to visit, what concert to attend--than traditional advertising. Which means that your organization's website--a brochure out in the wilderness of the Web--is only going to remain relevant and useful as a marketing piece if it is being referenced in the social context of your users' lives. The time is coming when atomized search will take a back seat to socially networked information sources, and that is going to change what it means to have a presence on the Web.

Does this mean your organization needs a social media presence today? No. Think back to how and when you decided that you needed a website at all. What was that decision based on? Did you lose potential opportunities because you came late to the Web, or did you waste resources by investing too early in an untested environment? You have time to make the same kind of decisions with regard to social media. Some institutions already feel the imperative, whereas others are years away. Social media is already changing the way people interact with the Web. Don't say I didn't warn you.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Game Friday: Spore, Self-Expression, and the Pitfalls of Creating Your Own Universe

What does "game 2.0" look like? Games are already highly participatory, but over the last few years game designers have been giving players more control over the gameworld and experience. The ultimate substantiation of this is Spore, a game in which players invent their own life forms and manage their evolution. Spore was released in September of 2008 to huge sales expectations. It was intended to be a casual game that unlocked the creative potential of tens of millions of non-gamers. But it hasn't realized that goal, and it's a cogent example of what happens when you conflate self-expression with participation.

Two years ago, I wrote about Will Wright and the rise of "God games" in which players not only function within but control an expanding universe of characters, scenes, and conditions. Last week, Wright spoke at the Web 2.0 Expo about Spore, and claimed that the power of Spore is not as a game but as a "self-expression tool." Players design their own life forms, from the strange to the powerful to the very silly. These creatures can be registered on a wiki, and there are easy tools to upload videos directly to YouTube from the game of your creature taking its first steps and yawlps. There are over 100 million player-created creatures roaming video game consoles all over the planet.

Spore is being cast as a "Web 2.0" version of a video game. Spore does pass the basic test by getting better the more people use it. Each new Spore creature is automatically uploaded to a central database and then redistributed to individual players' universes. The more creatures, the more variety you can add into your own little world. The automatic tools for uploads to other venues (like YouTube) enhance the sense that Spore creatures and activities exist outside the walled universe. I particularly like the celebration of players and their creations on the Spore wiki, where you can read the stories behind the creatures, which often gives you a window into players' own lives and interests.

But Spore is an entirely "creator"-focused experience, which severely limits its potential for adoption. If you do not want to make creatures and watch them grow, this is not the game for you. Yes, the tools available to help you make creatures are lovely, but you still have to have that inclination in the first place. Spore gives players more control over the experience than Wright's other "god" games. In Sim City, you had a limited number of options available to you as you grew your metropolis. In Spore, literally, the universe is the limit.

Strangely, Spore is being billed as casual game, or even a toy, and is focusing on audiences that don't want to log hundreds of hours deep in the intricacies of a complex game. Wright argues that the power of Spore is to unlock the capacity to be a game designer to anyone regardless of programming ability, that it lowers the barrier to entry sufficiently that everyone can create. But openness can be daunting, especially to casual gamers. Not everyone wants to design games, just as not everyone wants to write a blog or post videos. Spore banks on the idea that we all secretly want to be creators, despite research that shows that people like to participate in different ways. The simple tools for creation mask the fact that players need personal drive and intention to pick up the game in the first place.

While other Web 2.0 platforms offer opportunities for creators, critics, joiners, collectors, and spectators, Spore requires every player to be a creator and offers few useful constraints on creations. Upcoming expansions will allow players to create their own "adventures" by prescribing the gameplay at different stages. This seems to be barking up a very niche tree of appealing to the same kind of folks who like to be dungeonmasters or write their own fan fiction. And while there is a thriving community of self-motivated would-be game creators, it is not a massive casual gaming market. Spore is a chemistry set without instructions, and only some of us are motivated to invent our own experiments.

What does the ultimate "game 2.0" look like? How will it balance creative acts with other forms of player participation?

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Participatory Design Vs. Design for Participation: Exploring the Difference

Pop quiz! Which of these descriptions exemplifies participatory museum practice?

  1. Museum invites community members to participate in the development and creation of an exhibit. The exhibit opens. It looks like a traditional exhibit.
  2. Museum staff create an exhibit by a traditional internal design process, but the exhibit, once open, invites visitors to contribute their own stories and participation. The exhibit is dynamic and changes somewhat in response to visitors' actions.
The answer (for me) is both. But the difference between the two examples teases out a problem in differentiating "participatory design" from "design for participation." In the first case, you are making the design process participatory. In the second, you make the product participatory. My burning question is whether these should remain exclusive from each other. Is an exhibit participatory if no visitor sees a place for her own contribution? Is it participatory if the contributory experience was designed without her input?

Participatory Design means Innovating the Process

There are museums pursuing participatory design for a variety of reasons: to increase the diversity of voices represented in exhibits, to cast wider nets for great ideas on program topics, to engage particular partners in the exhibit design process. I once worked on a project where the main goal behind our community-based participatory model was to make our exhibit process faster and cheaper. Some projects engage a very small, well-defined segment of the community as partners in the process (such as the Wing Luke Asian Museum's well-documented community process), whereas others invite open participation (such as MN150, Tech Virtual, and Click! A Crowd-Curated Exhibition) from across the world.

But the visitor experience of these exhibits isn't necessarily altered by the innovative process that created it. For some museum professionals and projects, this is a good thing--it "proves" that participatory design can yield products that meet institutional standards. But if the goal is to change as many peoples' perception of the institutional relationship to community members as possible, then limiting yourself to a hidden participatory process is problematic.

The simplest way to demonstrate the participatory process is to expose it, to transparently show off the people and process involved. But that might not make for a better exhibit. Do people really care to learn the intricacies of how the exhibit was made? Does knowing that individuals from their neighborhoods were involved change their perspective of the institution?

Design for Participation means Innovating the Product

Transparency may tell the story, but it won't make drop-in visitors feel that the institution invites their participation. The less simple but more effective way is to create participatory experiences on the floor, to offer every drop-in visitor a legitimate way to contribute to the museum and see their contribution respected and responded to. This is incredibly hard, and very different than changing your exhibit design process. The Ontario Science Centre is doing some of this in their Weston Family Innovation Centre, where visitors every day make and augment physical and virtual objects that are displayed in the museum. The Innovation Centre is an entirely responsive space, designed for people to use each other's work as inspiration and generally to see themselves as co-creators of the space.

But the Innovation Centre is a struggle to manage. It's messy and it always changes. It consumes stuff. There are some people who'd prefer to just stop the action, put the participation-to-date on display, and call it "done." But it's never done. And that's a major monkey wrench in the standard models for how museums operate, staff, and fund their work.

Do you Need Participatory Design for Participatory Experiences?

One of the other unusual--and challenging--aspects of the Weston Family Innovation Centre is that it was designed by a lengthy, expensive participatory process that involved hundreds of prototypes and exploratory activities. It was co-designed by staff across the Ontario Science Centre, teen co-conspirators, and visitors via a series of ingenious brainstorming and making exercises developed by Julie Bowen and her brilliant team. Julie has commented that without this intense, exhaustive participatory process, they could not have designed such a successful, authentic-feeling participatory public space. Engaging in the participatory process also helped the staff transition to imagining their new roles in the eventual visitor experience.

But do you really need a participatory process to produce a platform for participation? Not always. There are fabulous participatory platforms--from community murals to StoryCorps to PostSecret--that are designed without a lick of user involvement. I've written often about the art of designing platforms for participation, and the extent to which designers need to constrain and control the experience to structure comfortable, successful venues for participation.

But an interesting problem arises when a participatory platform feels unresponsive, and users don't feel that their contributions are being respected or valued. Consider the user reactions (ranging from enthusiasm to uproar) to the evolving design of Facebook over time. Users, who see themselves as co-creators (if not owners) of the Facebook experience, reacted negatively and protested when they felt that their interests were not taken into account. From Facebook's perspective, the company was in control of the designed experience and had the right to roll out changes without consulting users. Users disagreed. Facebook is learning how to negotiate this relationship. They need to treat respect users as design collaborators (to some extent) if they want to keep them as contributors.

But how far does that go? Do true participatory platforms need participatory design processes behind them? Or do designers just need to be transparent about how the platform works and how users' contributions feed into the experience?

This question isn't rhetorical; it's something I'm really grappling with as I work with museums that are trying to be more "participatory" overall. To me, a participatory museum is one in which visitors perceive the institution as actively inviting and incorporating contributions from non-professionals. Does that require participatory design, design for participation, or both?

Friday, April 03, 2009

Quick Hit: Upcoming Experiments and Workshops

I’m traveling for half of April. The bad news is that I don’t get much face time with the dog. The good news is that I get to see all of you who inspire and energize me.

I hope you will join me for…

StrangeMuse Experiment—this Sunday, April 5. You can participate in this experiment from anywhere in the world (I’ll be in Seattle at the zoo with a group of grad students). The experiment is a multi-step activity in which you talk to strangers, get strangers talking to each other, and then build a social object that mediates conversation among strangers (more here). We tried this at the Denver Art Museum last week, and it is incredibly challenging—you can’t just put out a box of chocolates and expect people to talk. I encourage you to take part and document your triumphs and spectacular failures on this site. I will aggregate the results for later discussion on the blog.

Virtual-to-real design workshop at Museums and the Web—Friday, April 17 in Indianapolis. We’ll be tackling tough questions around how to design elegant, physical substantiations of virtual functions like tagging and personalization. If you can’t attend the conference, you can read my paper on this topic and play along at home. There are also lots of other great papers from the conference; my favorites so far are the evaluation report on the impact of the Wolfquest game and conversational learning on the Science Buzz blog.

Free workshop on topic of your choosing—Friday, April 24 in Seattle (UPDATE: FULL, BUT THERE IS A WAIT LIST). I’m teaching a course on social technology at the University of Washington Museology program this spring, and we’ve decided to open up a FREE workshop on participatory design for museum practitioners and other students on the afternoon of the 24th (thank you, UW). It’s a two-hour workshop to be held at the university and space is limited—go here to register. Since we don’t know who will sign up and what your needs will be, you can vote on the workshop topic that would be of most value to you. Please feel free to comment or ask questions about topics on the forum, but I'd prefer if only those who think they might actually attend vote. There will also be a reception at 4pm in the mezzanine of the UW tower if you just want to shmooze and (bonus!) meet my husband and parents-in-law. But not the dog. He doesn't do workshops.

And if any of you want to try some acroyoga (shown in the photo at top), consider coming to the Creativity and Collaboration retreat or cornering me at a carpeted moment at a conference.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Becoming Generous Thieves: Notes from the Museums in Conversation Keynote

On Monday, I gave the keynote at the Museums in Conversation conference in Tarrytown, NY. It happened at 7:45 in the morning, and I know that many of you were not there, let alone awake, at that time. So I want to share the thoughts that I offered to that intrepid early crew on Monday. You can also see the images I used, which were constructed with an extremely cool presentation software called Prezi, here. (For those who start drooling, Prezi will be launched publicly on April 5 and is pretty easy to use.)

I focused on two attributes that I think we should all be cultivating: greed and generosity. Greed, because creative greediness motivates us to hunt down and steal the best design techniques the world has to offer, and generosity, because giving those great ideas and applications away is the only way to change the larger cultural landscape.

I learned to cultivate creative greed while working on Operation Spy at the International Spy Museum, where I was lucky to be working on a project that was so new to us that we didn't have any pre-established models or structures for doing it. I spent a lot of research time learning how designers in related fields solve the problems we had developing Operation Spy: how screenwriters craft plot twists, how game designers build instructions into the game, how theme park designers deliver consistent, high-impact multi-sensory experiences. I approached all of these fields with one question in mind: "What can I steal?" What amazing thing is this designer or author or game creator doing that I can take a slice of and stick into my museum?

The question stuck with me, after Operation Spy, after leaving the Spy Museum. I started to apply it more broadly, to look around at my lived experience, find the great stuff and ask myself, “how can I steal that to make museums more amazing?” This is not to say that I don’t have confidence in museums’ core value or services. But I also recognize where we’re falling short. We aren’t reaching all the audiences we’d like to. We’re not essential parts of every community. We’re not even getting the finanacial and politicial support we’d like.

So my response is to be greedy, to look for the models I can steal from to try to tackle some of the challenges museums face. In 2006, I honed in on a particular cookie jar I love to steal from: the social Web. In the beginning, the Web was a lot like a museum. It had a lot of interesting, sometimes esoteric information. You could poke around and read things and click things. But then, just in this last decade, the Web 2.0 revolution came along, and the Web became a social environment where people could share their own content with others, discuss it, and redistribute it.

Whether you think this was a good development or not, the fact is that it changed the Web from a nice to have to a must have for a lot of people. There are college students who cannot make it through the day without checking Facebook multiple times. There are people using the social Web to organize protests, discuss deep issues, and build lasting relationships. There was a study published earlier this month by Neilson Research about the astronomical growth of social networks from Dec 2007 to Dec 2008. The fastest growing demographics are over 35. One third of Facebook users are 35-49 and one quarter are 50 plus. This isn’t just a change in youth culture. It’s a change that affects everyone.

I see this change and I want it for museums, so I study the models of how the social Web works and apply them as greedily as possible to my own work as an exhibit designer. I want museums to be like the Web. I want a college student to feel like her week is not complete if she didn’t make it to the museum. I want guys like my dad, boomers who are seeking meaningful connections online, to see museums as the physical place that support their needs.

Why are museums the right place to become the physical substantiation of the social Web? Because we’re all about niche content! We’ve got that wrapped up! There’s a technology thinker named Cory Doctorow who once said: "Content is just something to have a conversation about." This is a pretty threatening quote on one level. I think when lots of museum people express concern about Web 2.0, their fear is this—that the museum’s carefully created and protected content and expertise will be drowned out by the conversation. But I see this quote in a different way. Sure, content is something to have a conversation about… but it’s the ONLY thing to have a conversation about!

And museums have really good content--content related to the core interests of niche groups who aggregate online. And they don't just meet virtually. One of the interesting things about the social Web is that it has increased the ability for people to affiliate with strangers and meet up in person. This is what online dating is all about, but it’s also what sites like Meetup are for. There are groups of knitters and genealogists and airplane nuts meeting in coffee shops and bars to talk about the niche content they love. This drives me crazy. Bars and coffeeshops are taking our market share! Museums should be the place for that (more on this here)--for people to meet and share their love of culture, science, and history.

And this is where the generosity comes in. In the same breath with which we need to greedily steal all the ways that social conversation around content works on the web, we need to generously provide the real-world platforms for those conversations.

What does this kind of generosity look like? It could be offering a space in your museum for local meetups. It could be instituting a community process like the one the Wing Luke Museum in Seattle uses to invite community groups to propose and co-design exhibits on topics of extreme relevance to them in the museum. It could be doing something as simple as providing a blog about topics of value to your audience. That’s how I got here today. In 2006 I started to chronicle my adventures in greediness. In a small act of generosity, I made my learning a public act via a blog called Museum 2.0. And in about a million ways, that generosity has been paid back to me in spades. It was easy for me to be generous – I was already doing that learning anyway! In the same way, there are some easy ways for you and your institution to be generous. Think about what you have that your target community needs, and I’m sure you can find a match.

Two of my favorite examples of museums that found strategic ways to be generous are COSI in Columbus, OH, and the Wild Center in the Adirondacks of New York.

I've written about COSI before, but on Monday I focused on their strategic partnership with WOSU, the local public broadcasting station. By 2005, a bond measure had failed and COSI was struggling financially. COSI has a big building, and they had closed some galleries to reduce their operating costs. So partly as a financial measure and partly as a community development measure, they started leasing space to simpatico organizations. One of the most important of these is WOSU, the local public radio station. I don’t have to tell you how much news organizations are struggling to remain relevant—and solvent—in today’s economy. So COSI rents 12,000 sq ft of space to WOSU, which then has a digital studio and some public space to hold events and stage exhibits. WOSU programs happen at the museum, and they collaborate as partners to host other events for the growing Columbus non-profit and media fields.

You may not think of Columbus as the next Silicon Valley, but there are a lot of energetic tech startups and entrepreneurs there who are ready to convince you. COSI has become a literal, physical hub for the growth of these new businesses, and their partnership with WOSU makes them a powerhouse on the airwaves, with the mayor, and with the future engineers of Columbus.

Looking at it now, it may seem obvious. But this is a museum that just a few years ago was seen by voters as irrelevant to life in Columbus. COSI had a desperate need to raise money. The team saw that the only way to get that money was to be relevant to the community. So they were generous with something they already had, something that was plaguing them—extra space—and used that as the basis of a new fruitful collaboration. Now, they are relevant not only to their core family and school audiences but to a much wider audience of young professionals as well.

I don’t think of Columbus as a huge cosmopolitan place. But I understand that the majority of museums are nowhere near as big as COSI and do not have 12,000 sq ft of space just lying around. So the other example I want to share is from a small institution in the Adirondacks called The Wild Center.

The Wild Center has a small indoor exhibit and 31 acres of trails with interpretative material. They are open seasonally and have small visitation. But the Wild Center staff feel pretty strongly about the fact that the Adirondacks are a rare place in our country where there is a history of serious action to protect and preserve the natural environment. And they noticed that not enough people in the Adirondacks were concerned about climate change and its effect on both the natural environment and local businesses.

So they started a climate conference that focused on economic models for local businesses and governments not just to survive but to succeed in a world of climate change. Sure, they talked about the gloom and doom, but they focused it very locally on the Adirondacks and worked with local builders, politicians, and business owners to help them understand how reducing their carbon footprints could improve their towns and businesses. It was a generous action that was seen as neighborly. A local blogger celebrated:
Two years ago I was lamenting that no local public leaders were stepping up to the plate on trying to understand what global climate change would mean for the Adirondacks (and its ski-tourism industry) - thankfully, that has changed. The Wild Center in Tupper Lake has taken on the lead role of informing their neighbors about the potential impacts of global warming (such as the impact on amphibians), showing local builders what they can do to mitigate those affects, and organizing scientific meetings to discuss and assess the progress of climate change in the Adirondacks.

What’s greedy and generous in both of these examples? In both cases, the museums had a need—for COSI, to avoid bankruptcy, for the Wild Center, to be relevant to their neighbors. They looked around and found something to steal—a business model here, a free advertising channel there—and coupled it with something they could give—space and information. The things they gave were things that were needed by the communities they serve—really needed, not just nice-to-haves. And by providing a community service that was seen as highly valuable, both museums positioned themselves more securely in their local environments.

I encourage you to take these two ideas--greed and generosity--and use them throughout your work and life. When you listen to someone share their experience, think to yourself, “What can I steal from this story?” When you hear someone express a need, think to yourself, “What can I offer that would support this person?”

And if you find yourself sitting at a conference eating breakfast next to someone you don’t know, maybe you don’t want to go through the small talk and find out what their job title is and where they’re from. That’s ok. Cut to the chase. Ask them, “what's the most amazing thing you’ve seen recently that we could steal to improve museums?”

My dream is that this starts right now, this morning, with all of us. Form a crime ring with the people sitting next to you. It’s like Robin Hood. Start planning heists on the best thing the world has to offer, and start giving away everything you’re hanging onto for no good reason.

Make a list. Become a generous, greedy thief. Find the good stuff, use it like crazy, and tell everyone about it. I live a life governed by these two questions. I love being a creativity thief and giving my best ideas away. And I hope somebody will use them.

I sometimes think of museums as a kind of thrift store, preserving cast-off bits of material culture for new audiences to fall in love with. I buy my clothes from the thrift store. I like the idea that something that became extraneous for someone else can become the jacket or pants that I depend on. I want that for museums. That’s why they call it goodwill.