Tuesday, August 02, 2011

QR Codes and Visitor Motivation: Tell Them What They'll Get with that Shiny Gadget

We just opened new exhibitions at The Museum of Art & History, including one on woodworking that includes QR codes. For those who don't know, a QR ("quick response") code is a two-dimensional matrix that can embed more complicated information than a standard barcode. Why would you want a fancy barcode in your exhibition? When a person with a smartphone and a QR reader app scans one of these codes, it can launch a webpage on the phone, pulling up videos, images, and other additional multi-media content.

I presume that most Museum 2.0 readers are familiar with QR codes. I've been seeing them in museums (and parks) for a couple of years now, and I've used them in a couple projects, but I never felt a desire to write about them. I've been skeptical of their impact on museums. They're only accessible to the minority of visitors who attend with smartphones, and they're only used by the small percentage of those visitors who know how to download apps and are motivated to access additional content in museums. They've seemed like a sexy "gee whiz" technology that delivers very little so far.

When the woodworkers with whom we were working on this exhibition came to us and suggested using QR codes to access additional content about their work, I was determined to make sure we'd do a little better than just sprinkling codes around the room. What we did isn't rocket science, but I thought it might be useful to anyone who is considering using QR codes in their own institution.

From my perspective, the biggest issue with how QR codes are deployed in museums is that there's very little information provided about WHY a visitor would want to scan a given code. There's often an object label, a code, and an unwritten mystery about what you'll get when you scan the code. When I visited one contemporary art museum last year, this mystery took on an almost poetic scale. Sometimes, I'd scan a code and get a 10-min video of the artist working on a piece. The next code would take me to someone's website. There was no consistency and few pointers to let me know what I'd get.

QR codes without context are appealing to two audiences: museum geeks and technology geeks. At the MAH, we want to reach a broader audience of people with smart phones who are digging the exhibition. The woodworkers gave us fabulous multimedia content, and we created a very simple label format to advertise what visitors get when they scan a code. There's an object label. There's a code. And then there's a single sentence explaining what you can access and its duration. Here are some examples:
Scan the QR code to see the inside of this cabinet (1 min slideshow).
Scan the QR code to listen to the artist playing this instrument (40 sec audio clip).
Scan the QR code to watch the artist carving these pieces (9 min video).
This is just our attempt to help visitors understand why they might want to scan the code and what they'll get. Over the weekend, I had several (mostly elderly) visitors approach me and ask, "Can you help me watch this video on my phone?" They weren't generically interested in the QR codes. They were interested in specific content--hearing the harp played, watching the cabinet come to life.

It can be easy to forget this anytime we have a new gadget at our disposal. I can't count the number of museums I've been to that advertise an exciting multimedia add-on, lavishly describing the technology without a peep about the content or the value added. Yes, people want behind the scenes and inside the cabinet and the artifact in action. But with the possible exception of labels--an incredibly familiar technology--visitors aren't ready to trust that any interpretative technology has merit in its own right (see Peter Samis and Stephanie Pau's fabulous 2009 paper on the topic). And the more futzing it takes to access the content, the more motivated they'd better be by what they're going to get.

What are you doing to help visitors understand why they'd want to use your technology?
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