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    In the previous chapter, we discussed tools that get better the more you use them. The more videos you rate on Netflix, the better a job it does at recommending new ones to you. The more frequently you connect with an institution, the more staff can tailor experiences to you. These techniques reflect a responsive system in which the user and the experience provider exist in a symbiotic relationship. Two-way relationships are powerful ways for visitors and staff to connect with each other deeply and for visitors to have content experiences that are appropriately and enticingly crafted "for them."

    But if your participatory goals include social engagement, personalization is only a start. Highly personalized and responsive tools can lead to isolation--me with my customized experience, you with yours. I remember a particularly frightening hard hat tour of the Newseum in which staff proudly showed off a room full of identical interactive kiosks, so that no one would have to wait in line to have his own individualized experience. It reminded me of a giant fitness center packed with treadmills, each one occupied by someone grimly pounding out his daily allotment of interactivity.

    The path to the museum as town square may start with personalization, but it is not paved with single-user experiences. And so, in this chapter, we look at the ways to shape personalization as an entry point not to interpersonal engagement. To do so, we will explore tools that get better the more people use them. Again, this is a statement with two meanings: the tools are improved by a greater number of users as well as a greater frequency of use. Whereas in the last chapter we looked at ways to make tools that get better the more YOU use them, in this chapter we explore ways to enhance your experience via the experiences of other visitors.

    Designing high-quality experiences for multiple users is no easy task. When designing interactive exhibits for individual users, you can focus the content to a single learner. You don't have to worry about resource sharing. If the visitor leaves the interactive before it's over, she hasn't let anyone down or "ruined the game." Designing exhibits that accommodate more visitors introduces operational challenges. If no one else is around, a single visitor won't get the full impact of the experience. She might even think the exhibit is broken. If the exhibit requires all users to start at the same time, visitors may have a hard time gathering the crowd needed for the whole experience. If visitors have to work with others, they have to trust that their new partners will approach the experience with the same level of respect and interest that they have. Each has to believe the others will help her, not just kick over her sand castle and run away laughing.

    Despite these challenges, designing experiences that support multiple users is incredibly important in contemporary cultural facilities. A significant percentage of visitors come to museums in large groups, and these groups are often poorly served by exhibits that have been designed for small families or individuals. There are many cases in which visitors queue up to use a single-user interactive exhibit, and the exhibit offers no affordance either for more players or for other visitors to engage as spectators, helpers, or partners. While some museums like the Newseum may choose to resolve this problem by introducing more interactive kiosks, there are others looking for ways to scale the impact of individual exhibits by making them more open to multi-person participation.

    Scaling the experience of playing with an exhibit is one thing. Scaling the experience of interacting with other humans is another. Visitors to many types of museums have consistently self-reported that the most impactful and positive aspects of a museum visit are personal, live interactions with staff whether via structured activities like presentations and workshops or more informal conversations in the galleries. Like single-user interactive exhibits, one-on-one conversations are not scalable across the institution, and unlike exhibits, visitors are unlikely to wait in line to talk to a staff member. Designing museum experiences that get better the more people use them isn't just about building exhibits that serve more visitors; it's also about designing exhibits as infrastructure that can link visitors to visitors rather than only supporting interactions with staff. For example, the Experimentarium in Denmark offers a mobile phone-based game in which visitors can take on a series of challenges throughout the science centre. After completing three challenges on his own, each player is linked to another who is also playing at the same time by their mobile phone numbers. The players race to call each other, and then they meet up in person and work together through the rest of the challenges in the science centre. In cases where staff or technology can serve as social connectors rather than content distributors, institutions can help individuals (visitors and staff alike) connect with the other people who will be of most interest and value to them.

    The key to designing successful multi-person museum experiences--whether via exhibits, staff interactions, or educational programs--is combining the flexibility of individual activities with the collective power of community outcomes. Most multi-person museum experiences are designed for communal activities (let's build a bridge, let's make a newscast). These activities can be stressful and require real-time coordination of people who might not want to work with each other. They can also introduce operational challenges when trying to ensure that enough visitors show up on time and participate in the experience together in real-time to "make it work." These activities typically require timed tickets and highly coordinated visitors and staff.

    But there are other multi-person exhibits that let each individual do his own thing with compounding benefits to the group. For example, the New York Hall of Science has an exhibition called Connections that includes a floor-mounted installation, Near, that demonstrates how different elements are related in nodal networks. When you step on the Near mat, you become a node, represented by your location on the mat. When other people step on the mat, lighted lines indicate abstracted relationships with other nodes/people on the mat. The exhibit employs a simple mathematical rule: it draws a line between each node and the node nearest to it. If there are just two people, there will be two lines, one from me to you, and one from you to me. If there are several people, there will be several lines, and not all nodes will be in reciprocal relationships with just one other close node. As people move around the mat, the lines change as they get closer to some people and further from others. This exhibit does not work for just one person, but once you have two or more people on the mat it starts to get interesting. The more people there are moving on the mat, the more the light display indicates the dynamic ways that nodes can be related in a complex system.

    Near illustrates the powerful combination of individual action and community benefit. The exhibit is flexible and scalable for groups who drift in and out. The activity of walking on the mat is individual, so each visitor doesn't have to worry about how others' contributions affects her personal goal attainment. But the exhibit also immediately and transparently communicates the benefits of multiple individuals all acting at once, and thus incentivizes group play. The Near exhibit doesn't require visitors to explicitly work together, but it provides additional rewards when people do so.

    It's no coincidence that Near is part of an exhibition about network science. Network theory operates on connections among individual nodes in both complex and simple systems. These nodes can be people, objects, or data points, and the connections among them may describe biological systems (like the neural nets in your brain), social structures (like the network of friends with whom you correspond), or machine relationships (like the network of computers connected to the Web). In Near, the relationships between individuals is abstracted down to a single question: how physically proximate is one person to another? This question isn't just geometric; specialized versions of it are used to determine how close individuals are in a social group, how close your movie preferences are to other movie-watchers, and so on. The network effect, in which outcomes are tied to interactions among individuals, has many powerful and diverse applications in content experiences, whether in retail shopping, recommendation systems, or museums. By designing intelligent systems that harness and leverage the actions of many individuals, we can deliver higher-quality experiences back to each person in the network, as well as to the community as a whole.



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Comments (1)

hadrasaurus said

at 8:00 am on Nov 6, 2009

I like the "Near" example, especially the casual participation. Perhaps the exhibit should have a method that allows a computer system or locations of prior visitors to act as input when a solo visitor is detected. How would this be translated into other cultural institutions or other type exhibits?

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