Wednesday, June 24, 2015

ASKing about Art at the Brooklyn Museum: Interview with Shelley Bernstein and Sara Devine

I’ve always been inspired by the creative ways the Brooklyn Museum uses technology to connect visitors to museum content. Now, the Brooklyn Museum is doing a major overhaul of their visitor experience--from lobby to galleries to mobile apps--in an effort to “create a dynamic and responsive museum that fosters dialogue and sparks conversation between staff and all Museum visitors.” This project is funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies as part of their Bloomberg Connects program.

I’ve been particularly interested in ASK, the mobile app component of the project. The Brooklyn team has been blogging about their progress (honestly! frequently!). To learn more, I interviewed Brooklyn Museum project partners Shelley Bernstein, Vice Director of Digital Engagement & Technology, and Sara Devine, Manager of Audience Engagement & Interpretive Materials.

What is ASK, and why are you creating it?

ASK is a mobile app which allows our visitors to ask questions about the works they see on view and get answersfrom our staffduring their visit.  

ASK is part of an overall effort to rethink the museum visitor experience. We began with a series of internal meetings to evaluate our current visitor experience and set a goal for the project. We spent a year pilot-testing directly with visitors to develop the ASK project concept. The pilots showed us visitors were looking for a personal connection with our staff, wanted to talk about the art on view, and wanted that dialogue to be dynamic and speak to their needs directly. We started to look to technology to solve the equation. In pilot testing, we found that enabling visitors to ASK via mobile provided the personal connection they were looking for while responding to their individual interests.

Are there specific outcome goals you have for ASK? What does success look like?

We have three goals.

Goal 1: Personal connection to the institution and works on view. Our visitors were telling us they wanted personal connection and they wanted to talk about art. We need to ensure that the app is just a conduit to helps allow that connection to take place.  

Working with our team leads and our ASK team is really critical in thiswe’ve seen that visitors want dialogue to feel natural. For example, staff responses like: “Actually, I’m not really sure, but we do know this about the object” or encouraging people with “That’s a great question” has helped make the app feel human.

Goal 2: Looking closer at works of art. We’d like to see visitors getting the information they need while looking more closely at works of art. At the end of the day, we want the experience encouraging visitors to look at art and we want screens put to the side. We were heartened when early testers told us they felt like they were looking more closely at works of art in order to figure out what questions to ask. They put down the device often, and they would circle back to a work to look again after getting an answerall things we verified in watching their behavior, too.

Moving forward, we need to ensure that the team of art historians and educators giving answers is encouraging visitors to look more closely, directing them to nearby objects to make connections, and, generally, taking what starts with a simple question into a deeper dialogue about what a person is seeing and what more they can experience.  

Goal 3: Institutional change driven by visitor data. We have the opportunity to learn what works of art people are asking about, what kinds of questions they are asking, and observations they are making in a more comprehensive way than ever before. This information will allow us to have more informed conversations about how our analog interpretation (gallery labels for example) are working and make changes based on that data.

So, success looks like a lot of things, but it’s not going to be a download rate as a primary measure. We will be looking at how many conversations are taking place, the depth of those conversations, and how much conversational data is informing change of analog forms of interpretation.  

You’ve done other dialogic tech-enabled projects with visitors in the past. Time delay is often a huge problem in the promise of interaction with these projects. Send in your question, and it can be days before the artist or curator responds with an answer. ASK is much more real-time. As you think about ASK relative to other dialogic projects, is timeliness the key difference, or is it something else entirely?

How much “real time” actually matters is a big question for us. Our hunch is it may be more about how responsive we are overall. Responsive means many thingstime, quality of interaction, personal attention. It’s that overall picture that’s the most important. That said, we’ve got a lot of testing coming up to take our ASK kiosksthe ipads you can use to ask questions if you don’t have or don’t want to use your iPhoneand adjust them to be more a part of the real time system.  Also, now that the app is on the floor we’re testing expectations that surround response time and how to technically implement solutions to help. There’s a lot to keep testing here and we are just at the very beginning of figuring this out.

That’s really interesting. If the conversations are about specific works of art, I would assume visitors would practically demand a real-time response. But you think that might not be true?

In testing, visitors were seen making a circle pattern in the galleries. They would ask a question, wander around, get an answer and then circle back to the work of art. Another recent tester mentioned that the conversation about something specific actually ended in a different gallery as he walked, but that he didn’t mind it. In another testing session, a user was not so happy she had crossed the gallery and then was asked to take a picture because the ASK team member couldn’t identify the object by the question; she didn’t want to go back. This may be one of those things people feel differently about, so we’ll need to see how it goes.

If we are asking someone to look closer at a detail (or take a photograph to send us), we’ll want to do that quickly before they move on, so there’s a learning curve in the conversational aspect that we need to keep testing. For instance, we can help shape expectations by encouraging people to wander while we provide them with an answer and that the notifications feature will let them know when we’ve responded.

Many museums have tried arming staff with cheerful “Ask me!” buttons, to little effect. The most common question visitors ask museum staff is often “Where is the bathroom?” How does ASK encourage visitors to ask questions about content?

Actually, so far we’ve had limited directional, housekeeping type questions. People have mostly been asking about content. Encouraging them to do more than ask questions is the bigger challenge.

We spent a LOT of time trying to figure out what to call this mobile app. This is directly tied into the onboarding process for the appthe start screen in particular. We know from user testing that an explanation of the app function on the start screen doesn’t work. People don’t read it; they want to dive right into using the app, skimming over any text to the “get started” button. So how to do you convey the functionality of the app more intuitively? Boiling the experience down to a single, straight forward call-to-action in the app’s name seemed like a good bet.

We used “ask” initially because it fit the bill, even though we knew by using it that we were risking an invitation for questions unrelated to content—”ask” about bathrooms, directions, restaurants near byparticularly when we put the word all over the place, on buttons, hats, signs, writ large in our lobby.

Although “ask” is a specific kind of invitation, we’re finding that the first prompt displayed on screen once users hit “get started” is really doing the heavy lifting in terms of shaping the experience. It’s from this initial exchange that the conversation can grow. Our initial prompt has been: “What work of art are you looking at right now?” This prompt gets people looking at art immediately, which helps keep the focus on content. We’re in the middle of testing this, but we’re finding that a specific call-to-action like this is compelling, gets people using the app quickly and easily, and keeps the focus on art.

Some of the questions visitors have about art are easily answered by a quick google search. Other questions are much bigger or more complex. What kinds of questions are testers asking with ASK?

It’s so funny you say that because we often talk about the ASK experience specifically in terms of not being a human version of Google. So it’s actually not only about the questions we are asked, but the ways we respond that open dialogue and get people looking more closely at the art. That being said, we get all kinds of questionsdetails in the works, about the artist, why the work is in the Museum, etc. It really runs the gamut. One of the things we’ve noticed lately is people asking about things not in the collection at alllike the chandelier that hangs in our Beaux-Arts Court or the painted ceiling (a design element) in our Egypt Reborn gallery.

Visitors’ questions in ASK are answered by a team of interpretative experts. Do single visitors build a relationship with a given expert over their visit, or are different questions answered by different people? Does it seem to matter to the visitors or to the experience?

The questions come into a general queue that’s displayed on a dashboard that the ASK team uses. Any of the members of the team can answer, pass questions to each other, etc. Early testers told us it didn’t matter to them who was answering the questions, only the quality of the answer. Some could tell that the tone would change from person to person, but it didn’t bother them.

We just implemented a feature that indicates when a team member is responding. Similar to the three dots you see in iMessage when someone on the other end is typing, but our implementation is similar to what happens in gchat and the app displays “[team member first name] is typing.” In implementing the feature this way, we want to continually bring home the fact that the visitor is exchanging messages with a real person on the other end (not an automated system). Now that we’ve introduced names, it may change expectations that visitors have about hearing from the same person or, possibly, wanting to know more about who is answering. This will be part of our next set of testing.

The back-of-house changes required to make ASK possible are huge: new staff, new workflows, new ways of relating to visitors. What has most surprised you through this process?

This process has been a learning experience at every point... and not just for us. As you note, we’re asking a lot of our colleagues too. The most aggressive change is more about process than product. We adopted an agile planning approach, which calls for rapid-fire pilot projects. This planning process is a completely new way of doing business and we have really up-ended workflows, pushing things through at a pace that’s unheard of here (and likely many other museums). One of the biggest surprises has been not only how much folks are willing to go-with-the-flow, but how this project has helped shape what is considered possible.

In our initial planning stages, we would go into meetings to explain the nature of agile and how this would unfold and I think many of our colleagues didn’t believe us. We were talking about planning and executing a pilot project in a six-week time spanabsolutely unreal.

The first one or two were a little tough, not because folks weren’t willing to try, but because we were fighting against existing workflows and timelines that moved at a comparatively glacial pace. The more pilots we ran and the more times we stepped outside the existing system (with the help of colleagues), the easier it became. At some point, I think there was a shift from “oh, Shelley and Sara are at it again” to “gee, this is really possible in this timeframe.”

After two years of running rapid pilots and continuing to push our colleagues (we’re surprised they’re still speaking to us sometimes!), we’ve noticed other staff members questioning why projects take as long as they do and if there’s a better way to plan and execute things. That’s not to say that they weren’t already having these thoughts, but ASK is something that can be pointed to as an example of executing projecton a large scale and over timein a more nimble way. That’s an unexpected and awesome legacy.

Thanks so much to Shelley and Sara for sharing their thoughts on ASK. What do you want to ask them? They will be reading and responding to comments here, and if you are excited by this project, please check out their blog for a lot more specifics. If you are reading this by email and would like to post a comment, please join the conversation here.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Sustaining Innovation (in Many Different Situations)

I'm in Europe right now, on a mix of vacation and work. The work is focused on "innovation." Last week, I sat on the jury for the first Cultural Innovation International Prize given by the Center for Contemporary Culture in Barcelona, and this week, I'm offering a workshop for museum professionals across Poland participating together in a "Museum Lab" in Warsaw.

Innovation is often represented as a shot in the dark, a one-time project, something prize-worthy. But one of the biggest challenges our Barcelona jury had was the reality that innovation is situational, not universal. What feels innovative in one context feels tired in another. The most innovative institutions find meaningful ways to challenge the prevailing wisdom in their own specific environments. And hopefully, they don't just do it once; they do it again and again.

These thoughts made me go back to one of my favorite books, Sustaining Innovation by Paul Light. Paul Light profiled 26 nonprofit and governmental organizations in Minnesota in the 1990s, each of which innovated over time, changes in leadership, and circumstance.

In 2011, I reviewed Sustaining Innovation, bringing in voices from Museum 2.0 readers like you as well as a colleague from one of the institutions Light profiled (Sarah Schultz, then at the Walker Art Center). If you're interested in innovation in museums and nonprofits, you may enjoy:

  • The first post, which outlines Paul Light's fundamental ideas and the most compelling lessons I learned from the book, including my favorite: "how to say no, and why to say yes."
  • The second post, in which Museum 2.0 readers shared their own experiences of how organizations support or block innovation. Including some very real stories and reflections... please consider contributing your own experiences to the vibrant comment thread.
  • The third post, in which I interviewed Sarah Schultz, who worked at the Walker Art Center for 22 years, on her experiences from "inside" one of the institutions highlighted in the book.
  • The fourth post, which raised a question about two different conditions for innovation--a stable institution with slack to foster innovation, versus a hard-driving institution making change on a shoestring. Which would you prefer?

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

What Happens When a Viral Participatory Project is Too Successful? Diagnosing the Power of the Love Locks

Last week, the international press lit up with a story from Paris: the city is removing the "love locks" from the Pont des Arts bridge. 45 tons of rusting padlocks, inscribed with lover's names, were hauled off to protect the historic bridge and its views of the city. And so, one of the most successful, accidental, and fraught participatory projects of the past decade comes to an end.

The "love locks" are not a project with an institutional or artistic director. Nor are they historic. They started to proliferate on bridges around the world in the mid-2000s. The concept is simple: visit a picturesque bridge in an historic city. Carve or write your names on a padlock. Lock the lock to the bridge, throw the key in the water below. Your love is memorialized forever... or until the municipality decides that the locks must go.

No one planned the love locks, but their success is rooted in the same principles that make all the best participatory projects work:
  • it requires no instructions beyond its own example. See the other locks on the bridge, and you immediately understand how to participate. The other participants teach you how to play. While the tools require some forethought (purchasing and inscribing a lock), on the most active bridge, enterprising vendors have sprung up, ready to sell you a lock and inscribe it for you.
  • it is simple to do, but it feels significant. So many participatory projects do the opposite, requiring you to take a dozen tricky steps to no meaningful end. Payoff here is fast and powerful. 
  • it has emotional resonance. You don't need to write a missive about your relationship, just affix a symbol (which has been helpfully assigned by everyone else). And yet, the symbol feels important. It is an expression of the idea that love is forever and no one can tear you apart. I've read stories of people affixing locks during honeymoons, but also after the death of a spouse or a child. Sentimentalities can be embarrassing to say aloud... which means we are constantly seeking comfortable, often symbolic, ways to express them. 
  • it is durational. One of the reasons lovers are so frustrated by the removal of the locks is that they can no longer fulfill step two of participation: visiting your lock years later and reconnecting with time past. Few couples will actually do it, but for those who do, there is a huge secondary sentimental payoff. If your contribution is thrown into the trash bin at the end of the day it was made, it may feel trivial. The longer it stays, the longer the perceived commitment to the participants and their experience.
  • it connects you to something greater than yourself. We often say at our museum that "make and share is better than make and take." We're constantly seeking ways to invite people to participate in projects that grow over time, so participants can see how their contribution became part of a greater whole. The love locks do this in an incredible way, connecting your love relationship to those of hundreds of thousands of other couples. It reminds me of that moment in a wedding when the officiant turns to the audience and says "all of you are here to bear witness to this commitment." The locks bear witness to each other, and to everyone who affixes one.
Of course, it is this great collective uprising of love and locks that is leading to the love locks' downfall. I support any municipality that feels that the locks must go. I understand that they can pose a danger to people's safety. That they invite tourists to vandalize others' cities. That they are another way to capitalize on sentimentality.

Yet still I see them as beautiful lessons in how we all want to participate. We just need the right opportunity and mechanism. That's the key.

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Learn to Love Your Local Data

Last month at the AAM conference, a speaker said, "we should all be using measures of quality of life  to measure success at our museums."
I got excited. 
"We should identify a few key community health indicators to focus on."
I got tingly.
"And then we should rigorously measure them ourselves."
Ack. She killed the mood.

Many museums (mine included) are fairly new to collecting visitor data. Especially new to collecting data about broad societal outcomes and experiences. Why the heck would we be foolish enough to do it all ourselves?

The "we have to do it ourselves" mantra is one of the most dangerous in the nonprofit world. It promotes perfectionism. Internally-focused thinking. Inability to collaborate and share. Plus, it's expensive. So when we find we can't afford to do it ourselves, we throw up our hands and don't do it at all.

Here are three reasons to find and connect with community-wide sources of data instead of doing it yourself:

The data already exists.

Want to know the demographic spread of your county? Check the census. Want to know how many kids ate fruits and vegetables, or how many teens graduated high school, or how many people are homeless? The data exists. In some communities, it exists in different silos. In others, someone is already aggregating it. 

When we started more robust data collection at our museum, we wanted a community baseline. We thought about collecting it ourselves (stupid idea). Instead, we found the Community Assessment Project--an amazing aggregation of data from all over our County, managed by a wide range of stakeholders from health and human services. Not only do they aggregate existing data, they do a bi-annual phone survey to tackle questions like "have you been discriminated against in the last year?" and "what most contributes to your quality of life?" We got the data, and we got involved in the project. Now, instead of using our meager research resources to collect redundant data, we can springboard off of a strong data collection project that we access for free. 

You may not have a Community Assessment Project in your community, but you have something. Ask the health department. Ask the United Way. Someone is collecting baseline community data. It doesn't have to be you.

We're stronger together.

Imagine a community with 50 different organizations working to reduce childhood obesity. Would you rather see them each pick a measure of success that is idiosyncratic to their program, or join forces to pick a single shared measure of success?

If your museum is working to tackle a broad societal issue, you're not doing it alone. Your program may exist in its own bubble of the museum, but there are likely many organizations tackling the same big issue from different angles.

Each of you is stronger--in front of funders, in front of advocates, in front of clients--if you can work together towards one shared goal. Even if it doesn't map perfectly to your program, it's worth picking a "good enough" measure that everyone can use as opposed to a perfect measure that only works in your bubble.

For example, one of the outcomes in our theory of change that we care about is civic engagement. We want visitors to be inspired by history experiences at the museum to get more involved as changemakers in our community. Our Community Assessment Project already measures indicators of civic engagement like voting, writing to an elected official, and speaking at a public hearing. Are these the indicators we would choose in a bubble? Probably not. But are they more powerful because we have years of good countywide data about them? Absolutely.

Shared data builds shared purpose.

What happens when those 50 different organizations agree on one indicator for success in reducing childhood obesity? They get to know each other. They understand how their individual work fits into a larger picture. They build new partnerships, reduce redundancies in programming, and fill the gaps. They do a better job, individually and collectively, at tackling the big issue at hand.

That's what we should be using measurement to do. I can't wait to hear a story like this at a conference and fall in love with data all over again.

Are you working across your community to share key indicators of success? Share your story, question, or comment below. If you are reading this via email, you can join the conversation here.