Goals for Data Influence on Visitor Experience

In class we discussed Falk’s visitor motivation roles, and the goal of museums to satisfy the original motivation of a visitor and move them into another role that they had not realized their desire for.

The roles being:

the explorer – curiosity driven, with a general interest in the museum
the facilitator – socially motivated, teachers
the experience seeker – egoist, driven to visit because of the space’s status
the professional/hobbyist – passion driven, often professionals in the field there for work or research
the recharger – spiritualist, looking to relax and contemplate

I love the idea of giving visitors an experience that they hadn’t anticipated. This has definitely happened to me on many occasions. Most recently I was visiting the Adirondack Museum to explore their photography and vintage postcard collection, I was running late to an artist residency, but chose to take the time to do a little research on some of their collections before heading out. I entered as a professional/hobbyist. While I was in the museum I wandered through some of their outpost exhibits and noticed a trend among the traditional clubs to embroider the names of the houses onto their wool blankets. It got me thinking about my practice for the residency that I was headed to, and I completely shifted gears. I had originally planned to do some weavings, but feeling inspired by what I had seen I stopped at thrift stores from Blue Mountain Lake, NY to Pentwater, MI collecting blankets and embroidering them to leave as a gift for future residents. I became a recharger.

The gathering of data helps us to give visitors a more rounded experience; tailoring the communities interests to the museum’s focus, giving museums a chance to better focus their funding, and to request area specific grants. Data can help us move visitors from one role to another.

Tools for Gathering Visitor Information

There are three types of evaluations; front end, formative, and summative. (some may argue a fourth, remedial)

Front end data is collected before an exhibit opens. Is the exhibit needed or wanted? Who are the people who will attend? How do we market it to them? What kind of interactions do they want to have? How will that look? What does my audience want to know?

Formative data embodies the development and refinement of an exhibit. Seen in focus groups and the testing of interactives. Will this work? Are people interested?

Summative comes after the exhibit has closed. Did it work? Who came? What went right/wrong?

The potential fourth, remedial happens during the exhibit. Mostly when something isn’t going correctly. This seems to be mostly trouble shooting, changing things that aren’t working, asking visitors questions, etc.

Within these types of evaluations there are two types of data that can be collected, qualitative and quantitative. Qualitative embodies descriptive words. Quantitative embodies measurable numbers. Together they give a full picture.

There are many ways that this information can be gathered; observation, tracking and timing, surveys, focus groups, interviews, google analytics. Data can be gathered through zip codes, clicker counts, and shop transactions.

As we move into a more technologically advanced age, the ways that we collect this information is shifting and changing. Museums can track movement through cell phones or beacons. They can use cameras to observe how patrons move through a space, or how long they spend at a certain exhibit.

In the coming years there will be, undoubtedly, more ways that this information can be tracked and stored. For now, we are left to discuss the ethics of that information so those technologies can be designed to best suit us.

Potential Obstacles in Advancement

A majority of the population is wary of sharing information, especially over a digital platform. In Lee Rainie’s article Americans conflicted about sharing personal information with companies they state, “A significant minority of American adults have felt confused, discouraged or impatient when trying to make decisions about sharing their personal information with companies. When asked if they felt confident they understood what would be done with their personal information as they were deciding whether or not to share it, 50% said they felt confident they understood – but 47% said they were not confident.” (2015)

We are faced with it constantly, and are continuing to learn about new and awfully creepy ways that our tech devices are monitoring our habits and movements. In the Today show video Your Smartphone May Be Tracking Your Every Move only one of the show’s hosts knew anything about their phone’s ability to be tracking them. These things are happening under the surface, and I think it’s leading to more and more wariness when it comes to sharing information.


Rainie goes on later to point out that a Pew Research Center Poll found that “91% of adults “agreed” or “strongly agreed” that they had lost control over how personal information was collected and used by companies.”(2015)

How can we, as museums, avoid perpetuating this feeling of fear, of being watched, of losing control? How do we maintain ethics when it comes to data collection and visitor interaction?

It is obvious that the information that can be gathered through apps, observation, or beacons is valuable on many levels. It allows museums to better tailor their exhibits, it gives curators and chance to understand how patrons move through a space so objects can be placed accordingly. The value of this information seems endless, but I think one of the most important things to consider is transparency!

People want to know how their information is being used, and exactly what is being collected. People also need an opportunity to opt out.

We also need to consider the limitations of using technology in this way. Not everyone is able to afford a smart phone, this limits an entire demographic from voicing their opinions that could help to build and foster museum infrastructure. Visitors from foreign countries will not always have access to cell service without wifi, or cell service in general.

I hate to harp on a product that I’ve discussed before, but the Pen at Cooper Hewitt solves quite a few of these problems. They’ve created a site specific device that gathers data about visitor experience without having to ask visitors to use their own device as a go between.

It would be so interesting to create a device like the Pen that preserves anonymity for the user. Maybe only gathering a zip code and age? Making any information it asks for optional. Making use of the device optional. Giving people a clear understanding of what data is being collected and for what purpose. Maybe even providing a space in the museum so people can see how the data has been used. Charts and graphs!

I guess then this all leads to a question of data storage and creating more data than can be viably used. Even now, data is being created at such an alarming rate that we are incapable of knowing how much is out there. Where will it all go?

I’m holding out for the crystals.