Monday, June 15, 2009

Advice: An Exhibition about Talking to Strangers

Advice BoothIn April, I gave 13 UW graduate students a simple challenge: make an exhibit that gets strangers to talk to each other. 10 weeks, $300, and a whole lot of post-it notes later, they succeeded.

Last month, student Nicole Robert wrote about the concept for Advice: Give it, Get it, Flip it, Fuck it. Now, the exhibit is closed and we're throwing open the doors on what was created. You can explore the project wiki where we coordinated the exhibit, including the project overview, our six-week plan to get it all done, and individual sections for development of concept, content, interaction, graphics, marketing, fabrication, installation, and evaluation. There is also a final evaluation report available for download, which offers lots of great quantitative and qualitative content about what visitors did in the exhibit. It also includes reflections from the exhibit team on the project.

I recommend you check out the wiki and evaluation report to dig deeply into the content. Below are three things I learned from the Advice exhibit and will take with me into future work.

Facilitated/Unfacilitated Blend

When we started this course, I really pushed the students to think about ways to induce unfacilitated interactions among strangers. I love facilitated experiences, but I worry that they aren't scalable to every visitor. In the end, the Advice exhibit offered four main experiences--two that were facilitated, and two that were unfacilitated. The facilitated experiences were an advice booth, at which you could receive real-time advice from children, money managers, tattoo artists, and more, and a button-making station, where a gallery attendant would help you play a simple game to make a custom button featuring your own advice "madlib" composed of your own nouns and verbs rolled into classic advice phrases. The unfacilitated experiences (discussed in more detail below) involved visitors writing their own pieces of advice on post-its and walls and answering each other's questions asynchronously.

At any time, there were two facilitators in the exhibit--one for the advice booth, and the other for the buttons. This might make Advice sound more like an educational program than an exhibit, or like a failure on the unfacilitated front. But the exhibit team did something novel. First, they replaced staff with volunteers--some entirely spontaneous--at the advice booth. Like the Living Library project, the advice booth was a platform that connected strangers with strangers--not just staff with strangers. One eight year-old enjoyed the advice-giving experience so much that he came back the following day for another shift in the booth!

Maybe more importantly, the facilitators were not the center of the Advice experience. They were roped to very specific locations and activities. Because they were a part of the experience rather than the focal point, they could impart an air of friendliness and participation without making people feel that they had to participate. They reminded me of street vendors or great science museum cart educators, imparting an energy to the space without overwhelming it. I know that floor staff are expensive, but they really make a space come alive (see this post). And in Advice, the activities for staff were interesting and specific enough that a really eclectic mix of volunteers could perform them successfully.

In Praise of the Post-It

There's lots of post-it-powered art on the web these days (like this and this). I'd like to add my ardor to the pack and suggest that you really can make a compelling, content-rich interactive exhibit experience with a bunch of post-its. In Advice, the setup was simple: the exhibit team came up with a few seed questions, like "How do you heal a broken heart?," and put them up on signs behind glass. Then, they offered different shapes and colors of post-its, as well as pens and markers, for people to write responses.
Post-it Interaction
The engagement in this part of the exhibit was very high. Random passers-by got hooked and spent twenty minutes carefully reading each post-it, writing responses, creating chains of conversation and spin-off questions and pieces of advice. It's worth noting that the exhibit space was not exactly optimal--it was a hallway separating the lobby of the student center from a dining hall. The previous exhibit in this space was a very provocative art exhibit about sexual violence, and yet in our brief site survey in April we saw almost no one stop to look at the art. Not so for the post-its. The Advice exhibit hooked maintenance staff, students, athletes, men, women--it really seemed to span the range of people passing through.

There were 230 responses to the nine staff-created seed questions, and in a more free-form area, visitors submitted 28 of their own questions which yielded 147 responses. Some of the advice was incredibly specific; for example, one person wrote a post-it that asked, "should my 17 year old who is going to college in the fall have a curfew this summer?" That post-it received 9 follow-up post-its, including a response from another parent in the same situation. Others stood and copied pieces of advice (especially classes to take and books to read) carefully into their personal notebooks.

It might seem surprising that people would take the time to write up questions on post-its when there is no guarantee that someone will respond, and very low likeliness that someone will respond while you are still in the gallery. The exhibit experienced low traffic overall in an odd area of the UW student center. But the impulse to participate was high and the threshold for doing so was very, very low. The post-its and pens were right there. The whole exhibit modeled the potential for someone to respond to your query, and as it grew, the sense that you would be responded to and validated grew as well. We saw many people come back again and again to look at the post-its, point out new developments, laugh, and add their own advice.

People felt very comfortable not only adding their own advice but also critiquing others'. We saw many instances when someone would write "lol" or "love this" directly onto a previously posted post-it. People also asked follow-up questions. For example, one person recommended "grappa and Bessie Smith records" as a cure for a broken heart, to which another responded, "Who's Bessie Smith?" The query was answered by yet a third person, who wrote, "Uh, only the greatest singer of the 20's 'I need a little sugar in my bowl.'"

Do I know if the second person ever came back to find out who Bessie Smith is? No. But I know that the resultant conversation provided information to many subsequent visitors to the space. It's like following blog comments. Not everyone comes back to read the evolving comment stream, but the aggregate is always valuable to the next visitor.

Many Ways to Talk Back

When the student team inserted a "bathroom wall" component into the exhibit plan, I didn't really understand it. If visitors could write on post-its anywhere in the exhibit, why did they also need a place to scrawl with marker on an actual wall?Advice Exhibit Bathroom Wall

But the bathroom wall turned out to be a brilliant exhibit element. It was a release valve that let people write crude things and draw silly pictures. The bathroom wall was "anything goes" by design. And while the content on it was not as directed and compelling as that on the post-its, it served a valuable purpose. There was not a SINGLE off-topic or inappropriate submission on the post-it walls. They were totally focused on the questions and answers at hand. I think the bathroom wall made this possible by being an alternative for those who wanted to be a little less focused and just have fun with sharpies.

The Advice team also offered a guest comment book (sparsely used) for people to offer comments about the whole exhibit. There were also multiple ways to follow up or submit content online or by phone. All of these ways together constructed a landscape of visitor participation that supported a large number of people participating in ways that felt most appropriate for them.

This is a good lesson for museum talk-back design. If you only offer one place where visitors can contribute their thoughts to an exhibition, they are likely to use that opportunity to share their thoughts on all kinds of things. I've visited many exhibitions that ask focused questions at the end, and visitors respond with more general thoughts about the entire exhibition or museum. These contributions are valuable, but they erode the focus of the topic at hand.

In Advice, there were many forms of talk-back: the post-its, the bathroom wall, the book, the phone, the website. Each of these took pressure off the others as a visitor participation outlet, and the overall result was a coherent, diverse mix of on-topic visitor contributions.

What advice do you have for ways we might advance the practice of exhibit design for social interaction?

8 comments, add yours!:

New York Hall of Science Digital Learning said...

I wish I could take this course. My work with the NY Historical Society and the Telling Lives booth really has awakened me to this kind of museum interaction.

Nina, have you seen the APS Musuems Conversations with Darwin exhibit's post-it conversations:

Chris Lawrence

Leah said...

For a student exhibit we created at Brown (public humanities program) on the history of sex education (both formal and informal), we'd wanted to put up a feedback/interactive section that was a bathroom stall. This made sense since this is one of the major "places" where people learn about sex (especially at Brown, where there is a very strange culture of asking and answering sex-related questions on the bathroom stalls of the main library). Anyhoo, we couldn't fit it in on our budget and had to drop. Sad.

For the public humanities student exhibit this past spring, on the Fox Point neighborhood students had the idea of putting up an electric pole (you know, the huge wooden kind where people tack announcements, lost/found, etc. normally in a neighborhood) and even managed to track an unused/discarded wooden pole from the electric company but then the curator in charge of the exhibit space said it would be impossible to install. Boo.

In any case, I really like having feedback sections like those described above that make sense given the content of the exhibit in question. (Sex education and the bathroom stall and neighborhood and the light post, respectively.) Other examples you can think of where the design of the interactive feature builds on (or becomes) part of the content) itself.

Eric Siegel said...

beautiful and inspiring, nina, one of your best.

Nina Simon said...

Hey Eric - it's all THEM! Seriously, I was incredibly inspired by what these students made. I went into the course giving them about 50% odds on success. They made something amazing. Seeing the exhibit made me want to teach this course again, just so more people can make these kinds of things and we can continue sharing the related research with the field.

And Leah, the bathroom wall cost only $75 in equipment at Home Depot! We too had lots of challenges with our exhibit space (no affixing anything to the walls!) but the team proved that with barely any time and money you really can make great stuff. I know we hear that a lot, but it's always nice to see an actual substantiation. I'd love to see more about your exhibit if there is content on the web to share.

Leah said...

Huh, I wasn't in charge of procuring materials so I don't know all the details of costs/how it broke down. I know one of the hopes had been to get an actual stall from the library to use as the writing space. I know that didn't work out, and I think the funds for the exhibit just ended up being directed elsewhere (The goal of the project was not primarily to experiment with exhibit design but rather allow students to experiment with the entire process of researching, creating, programing and promoting an exhibit; hence sometimes things like exhibit elements had to be scaled back to allow for other students to work on their aspects of the total project.)

While searching for any sort of materials to explain the sex ed exhibit, I came across this wiki that was created after the fact to document the project ( Hopefully you can read it. You'll see the public programs are not documented--that's the part I worked on primarily and didn't realize that the wiki had been created, hence lack of content (always hard to document student projects after the fact). Anyway, the press release contains most of the pertinent info on the full scope of the project, including programs (which were well attended). Probably not enough information on the design, though.

Here's a set on Flickr that the designer we hired used to document the project (

As for the light pole thing, that was just a fussy curator who wouldn't let students install the artifact once they had procured it. Such is the dynamic, sometimes, of student exhibits.

I wasn't involved in the creation of the Fox Point exhibit, but there were several "interactive" features built into it that I observed as a visitor. One was a table full of recipe cards of old Cape Verdean/Fox Point recipes that visitors could take with them. They could then cook and share the recipes with others. (I liked this idea and think in general more exhibits should have food elements!) Another was a map (duh) of the neighborhood thatt visitors could tag with their own memories of places in the exhibit. I should note it was not a digital map, though my use of the word tag would lead one to think it was. (Short description of Fox Point exhibit here:

Whitney Ford-Terry said...

$75 for the wall AND the advice booth!

Tim K. said...

I'm inspired to try to create something of this nature at Davis, but I don't want to steal the idea. I'll have to mull on this and see if I can get a team together.

Nina Simon said...

Creative theft is always encouraged... but I imagine you can come up with another great idea as well. We started this process by brainstorming interesting questions and related visitor actions and whittled down to advice as the best option. Maybe you want to start there with a group of friends and see where it takes you.

If you do it, please document and share!