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.

18 comments, add yours!:

samuel said...

right in time ! trying to figure out a good question(s) for a video kiosk a the end of the exhibit. the first one (i translate) "what were you looking for coming to the museum" doesn't work. not specific enough, requires backward thinking and people are tired i guess. People do participate, but either goof around or just say if they liked the museum or not. This is ok but not what we looked for. I will try 2 differents one this coming days : one asking "what was the objet (in the exibition) you liked best (that impressed you the most). One with pictures (showing pollution effects, the museum has an ecological outlook) and asking for reactions (thinking about : "this concerns me, this doesn't concerns me..."). Trying. Not easy. thank you.

Nina Simon said...

Hi Samuel,
Thanks for your honest and thoughtful comment.

I recommend that you not use, "what was the object you liked the most," but maybe instead "which object (or exhibit) would you recommend to a friend?" That way, you get away from the use of the superlative ("best" can be daunting) but prime them to think in a familiar and comfortable social context.

Plus, maybe they'll go home and recommend the object to a friend!

Georgina Goodlander said...

This is perfectly timed for me, too! I'm working on a new scavenger-hunt-like game, in which I want to finish each quest with a task that will challenge the player to think about an artwork. So far I have: (1) Make up a story about this painting and write it on a postcard. (2) This sculpture is actually a sundial. Create your own sundial from foil. and (3) Look closely at the shadows in this image, what do you see? Write down three words that describe this painting. With the last one, we thought we might experiment by having all the players write down their words on a large sheet of paper, like next to like, to create a tag cloud. One benefit of the game format is that we can be more demanding in what we ask of our visitors. They have to complete the tasks in order to progress, so we're looking at ways that we can use these tasks to generate content. The foil sculpture is in the current version of the game and is very successful, but I'm interested to see what level of success we will have with the "write a story" task, as this is asking a lot. How wonderful if we can build and share a collection of unique interpretations of an artwork in this way though!

We've also found that tasks like these (and particularly ones where people have to break a code) do get strangers talking to each other. When one group comes up to a point in the game where they have to physically stop and do something, we see several groups congregating and talking about what they are doing. With the code example, we see strangers helping each other solve it and sometimes they go on to play the rest of the game together. Definitely an unexpected but wonderful result of the game!

Anyway, this post definitely includes some useful tips for us as we move forward with trying to create interactive experiences that have value for the visitors and for us. Thanks!

Philippa said...

In our current exhibition 'Taste of History' we have a simple smelly interative about foods that were rationed in WWII and pin-up sheets with the question 'Which foods couldn't you live without?'.

I've been overwhelmed by the response and tellingly, there have been no spoilt sheets or swear words (this is in an area without a permanent gallery staff member and last week we had to scrub off a large rude drawing from the side of a display case). Local radio even featured some of the responses.

I struggled with the wording - I still find the phrase a bit ungainly - but I think it works because we've asked a universal experience question.

The results are fascinating in an anthropology way which opens up the question as to what should a museum do with the results of visitor particpation?

I've been tweeting them simply as a way of recording them in a publically accessible format (I like that twitter is a reference point for opinions). But I'm definitely feeling my way there as to whether that will work - would be interesting to know what others think.

Philippa, Worcester City Museums

Nina Simon said...

What a great question! That's one I'd be genuinely interested in. Where are you tweeting the responses?

Gail Durbin from the V&A gave a great session at MW2009 focusing on semi-entrepenurial ways to both solicit and then distribute this kind of contribution. She (and others) has been playing with print-on-demand services like Blurb.com to make books of visitor contributions. There's an IP/privacy question here - how do you make it clear to people that their answers may be aggregated and published? But I think for many visitors it would be exciting to have their contributions aggregated and available to them on the web or in a book.

Another option is to have some kind of event in which people compete to advocate for their must-have foods. I love the yearly Tournament of Books and you could imagine doing something similar for foods - having experts or passionate amateurs debate and arbitrate. Then, your museum publishes "the ultimate food you can't live without" and it becomes a great PR event and fun day of eating nothing but that food. Maybe that's a little silly, but I'd come!

Philippa said...


The book idea is excellent, we've just started using lulu for exhibition catalogues so it could be an interesting addition - a visitor created catalogue (although you're right, I might have needed to put out a statement about data protection first...)

Chocolate is winning hands down.

samuel said...

thank you Nina for the tip ! your twist makes sense; plus it moves it even more away from museum-centric questions...I might also adapt the "would you go on Mars" you mentioned, to something like "if Earth is too polluted for humans; would you be willing to go and live on another planet ?". will let you know if it works. Many, many thanks to you.

@philippa. i like this question too (and chocolate !). to echo visitors participation, twitter is a good idea. will do that with hashtag for retrieval.

Troybur said...

Hi Nina,

I've read your list of useful characteristics for good questions a couple of times and, while it might seem obvious, I think that I'd add "questions for which there is no correct answer."

Thanks for the thought provoking post. Again.

jes said...

Great post. The same kind of principles hold true for designing instrument questions in an evaluation, which I think supports a nice cross over here. Audience research practice shouldn't be relegated only to getting "the numbers", but also to supporting your internal needs. In many front-end studies we try to capture some of the questions visitors,themselves, are asking about the conceptual ideas that we have presented them. If the questions are intriguing (if they meet the criteria you've mentioned here essentially), they often find their way onto a text panel or other interpretive device. Just another way to support question creation and double up with some front-end evaluation.

Carly DeBoice said...

Working with our youth advisory group, we asked a suite of questions to inspire us developers.
Our best question so far was:
What is your biggest fear?

If you're interested, I'm keeping track of the best questions here:

Thanks Nina - great post.

Tricia said...

Great post! I have a couple questions. Do you know if the DAM Psychedlic Rock questions are online anywhere? I was interested to see them but couldn't find them.

I've also been playing around and testing good prompts in an area about Anne Frank. So far, I get good responses and visitor-to-visitor conversations with "Are all religions equal ... or are some better than others?" And, then, a really simple one that gets a wide range of responses (and yes, it is leading saying that her story helps us but it is the one that generates the most open-ended responses) ... "Anne's story helps us ..."

Phil Katz said...

Nina -- One of your suggestions in part I is that questions should "draw from personal experience, not abstraction." If that's so, how do you then encourage visitors to connect their personal experiences to abstractions? What would be the characteristics of an "inductive question" that moves museum visitors from the personal to the abstract/analytic without beating them over the head? (Confession: I was never very good at that when I used to teach history to college students, so I really want to know what you and others think.)

christophe said...

Thanks for your article! I'm organizing a video art exhibition about utopia and I still have to find a question triggering comments from the visitors. I haven't found it yet but your criteria will help!

Nina Simon said...

Hi Phil,
Sorry it's taken me so long to respond to your comment/question: How can we bridge from the personal to the abstract?

There are some interesting answers to that question in this formative study on a chatbot called Daisy who lives at the Exploratorium. In studies, the Explo researchers found that questions were most effective at doing this kind of bridging when asked successively as opposed to all in one question, moving from personal questions to broader inquiry.

I think this technique could be used in many situations; for example, imagine questions about farm implements starting with, "Which tools looks the most fun to use? Which tools look the hardest to use?" and moving to "How are these tools different from the tools you use in your everyday life? What do you think makes a great tool?" You could lead with the second set, but I suspect you would be more successful if you started with the personal, specific questions.

L. Junkin Lopez said...

This is helpful- thanks. Will link to the article from my blog!


Maria Mortati said...

Hi Nina,

I realize this is many months after the fact that I'm coming back to this.

Think this post was right on- the only thing I would add to it is the role that design plays in making or breaking some of these experiences. If the question is buried, or the exhibit isn't designed to be clear, fun, etc., then even the most evocative question can fail. Just been running into that from time to time and thought it was important to mention.

Susan Brown said...

I realize this is a year-old post, but I'm still learning from it. Thank you. Questions asked can linger in the visitor's mind long after they leave the exhibit. I'm working on a childrens educational program for an archaeology museum. In order to teach them how archaeologists learn from a dig site, I've filled a garbage can with selected items and ask the children, "What can we learn from what this person has left behind?" Has anyone else tried this approach?

Florence M said...

hello Nina,
Many thanks for this post , it's so inspiring in the way to conceive a question in my job as education curator. For me it's a new way of thinking the elationship with the audience, even if in french it's sometimes difficult to translate some criteria in french langage.
Thank you for your slide show: ignity custumer curiosity through, very useful and I recommanded it!!!