Tuesday, February 02, 2010

A Simple Technique for Writing Better Visitor Response Questions

How do you write a question for a comment board that will generate authentic, on-topic, diverse, interesting visitor comments? While I've written before about types of questions that tend to be more successful in this regard, today I want to share a simple exercise I've been using with museums of all types to help staff members develop better questions for visitor response.

Here's what you do:
  • Get a group of staff members together around a table. About ten is good, but this can work with anywhere from six to twenty.
  • Give everyone a piece of paper.
  • Explain the exhibit or topic around which you want to generate a visitor response question.
  • Ask each person to write a question on the top of their sheet that they think might work. Make sure they write legibly.
  • Everyone pushes their sheet to the center of the table.
  • Now, each person grabs another one (someone else's) and writes their own answer on the sheet. Once you write an answer, push the paper back to the middle and grab another. If you can't answer a question or if it confuses you, put a question mark. Repeat until each person has answered five or six questions.
  • Pencils down. Lay out all the sheets around the table and walk around looking at them. These are your "exhibits." Make mental note of which ones are most interesting to you as a "visitor" reading them.
  • Have a discussion about the questions that really seemed to work and not work. Discuss this both from the perspective of which questions were easy to answer and which yielded interesting results.
This whole process should take about fifteen minutes. I find it to be really useful because it helps people quickly see that there IS a difference in how people respond to different questions, and that designing better questions can yield more interesting results. It's much faster to learn with a group of questions than it is to slowly replace a question in the gallery successively over time. You can make direct comparisons in real-time, and the speed of the exercise means no one gets too precious about their own question being "best." It's a form of public-private brainstorming.

Last week at the Art Gallery of Ontario, a group of staff applied this exercise to design a question for a comment station next to a giant sculpture of a palm tree on its side with its huge root ball exposed. We quickly discovered via the exercise that the question, "What does it mean to be uprooted?" yielded much less interesting results than, "Have you ever been uprooted?"

Now, you could argue that of course the second question was better because it was more personal. But doing exercises like these helps people learn rules of thumb (like "personal questions are good questions") through doing, and that makes the lesson more likely to stick.

I'm learning things from this exercise all the time. Two weeks ago, at the Levine Museum of the New South, I learned that "What was your best job?" is an inferior question to "What was your worst job?" My guess is that people revel in telling more detailed stories about pain than pleasure--but I'll have to keep testing this before I feel confident about it.

One more thought: if you want to do this exercise but don't have a specific topic or exhibit in mind, you can use the prompt, "Write down a question for which you would be genuinely interested in hearing a stranger's response." Ultimately, this is what all comment stations are about, and at least for me, these are the toughest questions to write.

Happy asking!

8 comments, add yours!:

Marianna Adams said...

I love your quick approach to thinking about questions in visitor response areas. A few years ago I had the pleasure to advise a graduate student on her thesis about visitor response areas in art museums. Then she and I worked with LACMA as they assessed a visitor response area in their LACMA Lab interactive space. Essentially we found that the type of question or prompt AND the visual design or look of the area has an effect on the quality of the visitor response.
Marianna Adams

Nina Simon said...

I absolutely agree - there are lots of ways that design of the space and the input devices impact the content of visitor response. Would you and your former student be willing to share your research with the wider Museum 2.0 audience? I'd love to share more information about this with readers here.

elia said...

I've also been thinking a lot about questions lately, but in the context of classroom discussion. It strikes me that the best visitor questions might have a lot in common with the best classroom discussion questions...a question with a single correct (or perceived-to-be-correct) answer doesn't generate much interest. A question that requires careful thinking about and reflection on background knowledge/reading/material in the exhibits may get a few really stellar responses from a few exceptionally interested or engaged people, but still isn't a wide open invitation to all.

So, as someone who is often in both museum/informal learning spaces and in formal classrooms, I'm wondering what results I might get if I asked students to generate their own discussion questions, using this same technique?

Thanks for the ideas!
Elia Nelson

rachelle | tinkerlab said...

Hi Nina,
I love your blog! It seems that this exercise could also be applied to help docents generate effective questions for gallery tours. I'm in the middle of training a class right now, and have added this piece to tomorrow's agenda!

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Term Papers 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.n 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.

forum widget said...

Great post! I think it's really important to get visitor feedback. We own a little gallery in Portland, OR and I'm going to try this technique next week. Perhaps I'll start with something less political, more environmental and see how it goes. Thank you so much for the idea!

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I like the idea to get different answers of same question from different people as answers vary from person to person.Tips given in this post to for writing better visitors response question are really helpful.You can apply them and then see the result.