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Chapter 2: Participation Begins with Me

Page history last edited by Nina Simon 14 years, 7 months ago


  1. Chapter 2, Part 1: Participation Begins with Me
  2. Chapter 2, Part 2: Museums and Personal Profiles
  3. Chapter 2, Part 3: Profiles at Work



Participation Begins with Me


When we think about designing community spaces, we often start from the top down. We focus on the overall mission and goals -- to bring people together around issues of climate change, or to create a safe space for dialogue about gender. We think about our overall vision, and we imagine visitors en masse, as the group who will come, participate, and breathe life into the space. We talk about visitors in the abstract plural, using constructions like "visitors will..." The idea is to start with vision first. Design it right, and the community will engage.




Is better, but I almost think you could just leave it out and it would be stronger. For example, you could start with the point:"Social networks start with the relationships between people, and only the essential infrastructure to support their connections..." If you think that it's essential to make a contrast between people setting up visions and missions, that will take some work to get there, and may distract from your goal. M+V's are very different, abstract in nature and not an apples to apples type comparison to social networks and how they work. They are about intent/promise/legacy. Social networks are (in an ideal world) a fulfillment of that intent or continuation of that legacy.


Social networks work in the opposite direction, starting with people and building only the necessary infrastructure to support connections among users.  And they don't just start with a crowd of people--they start with individuals.  Each unique user enters the experience through a personal profile that connects her to her interests and relationships.  When you think about it, it's strange that the first step of participating in any online social environment is to self-identify.  Discussion forums just want a name or an email address.  But increasingly, social networking sites like Facebook and LinkedIn expect you to start with an exhaustive "profile" activity in which you share your interests and affinities.  If these sites are about building community, why do they spend so much time encouraging you to self-identify?


These sites realize that self-identification is the first step towards interpersonal engagement.  There are some social venues, like rock concerts, when we enjoy being faceless members of the crowd.  But in most cases, it's lonely, even terrifying.  Personal self-expression -- through your appearance, your preferences, your actions -- allows you to express yourself relative to other people.  We all use our personal identities to signal who we are, who we want to meet, what we are open and closed to.  The more strongly you self-identify, the easier it is to find the communities that are appropriate for and compelling to you. 


And so online communities are based around "social webs," each with a particular individual at the center.  You are attached to other people, products, institutions, and ideas via your own self-expression and preferences.  Some sites, such as LinkedIn, very explicitly show the social web of "links" between you and others.  The expectation is that you are not interested in everyone in the universe of LinkedIn.  And so they make tools that make it clear who you are connected to, and who they are connected to--with the confidence that you will want to grow your social web based on your pre-determined affinities and identity.


For me, the most powerful example of this comes from a service called Librarything.  Librarything is a website that provides a library-quality, searchable database of books.  You enter the books that you've read or are in your library, and you quickly have your own professional catalog of your books.  This is highly me-oriented.  Without any social input, Librarything has proved itself valuable.  It lets me track my stuff.


But I didn't sign up for that reason.  I signed up because I'm an avid reader, and I wanted a better way to get recommendations for new books to read, particularly books I can get at the library.  I use the library frequently, and I'm often frustrated by the lack of quality recommendations.  Beyond the rack cards with the top Pulitzer Prize winners or best beach mysteries, I have little information to help me in my hunt for great books.  There's no section for "literary, plot-driven stories with strong female characters that take place in South America" or "ironic and wacky but not too over-the-top eastern european romps" or "biographies I never thought I'd like that blow me away."  Nor can I turn to the other people in the library for assistance.  Yes, there are lots of people in the library who like books.  But what if they don't like the kinds of books I like?  How can I be confident that an unknown member of the book-reading community will belong to my particular community of readers?


This is where Librarything comes in.  It shows me all of the other Librarything users who share my books.  I can see, for example, another user who shares my love of the poets Tony Hoagland and Jeff McDaniel, and feel reasonably confident picking up a book by another poet from their library I've never heard of before.  The social web of Librarything is based individual by individual, personal library by personal library.


The resultant community space is incredibly powerful.  Think about the difference between Librarything and the public library.  The public library is built on the top-down model.  Build the space, put out the chairs, make the affordance, invite in the people.  You could argue that people who frequent the library constitute a community of readers.  But not a participatory community.  The library gives me no incentive to walk up to another patron and ask for a book recommendation.  Rules (or preconceptions) about talking in libraries aside, it's incredibly hard to go up to a faceless strangers and begin a conversation, even in a context that implies a shared affinity for reading and books.  It's not enough to know that someone else is there.  If you want to encourage people to connect with each other, it can't come from the top.  It has to come from the individuals, from their self-expression.

[Yes, but most public libraries do have a reference librarian present on the floor - someone you can ask for help and/or suggestions. I did this just the other day and the librarian helped me find a wonderful series of books. Museums/galleries have experimented with a person on the floor like this in the form of "Ask Me" programs or science center "explainers" - where does this staff person fit in your scenario? CC]


And this is where Librarything and online social networks show their true power.  In the physical world, I have a few signifiers I can use to create a personal "profile" that expresses my unique identity.  I can wear a tshirt for a band I like.  I can walk my dog around town.  I can display my tattoo.  Each of these types of self-identification can lead to social interactions with people who belong to the communities of rockabilly lovers or dog owners or inked folk.  The small kernel of self-expression becomes a kind of beacon, a social object that links me to others in my social web of affinity. 


But these sidewalk interpersonal experiences are limited to my personal appearance and objects I carry.  It is incredibly difficult for me to display my love of backpacking or Reconstructist Judaism or off-grid living as I walk down the street.  On the web, I can display all of these.  I can use different sites for to express myself in the center of different social webs.  The people who I trust for book recommendations on Librarything are not the same as the people I seek for professional connections on LinkedIn.  I can express the aspect of my self-identity appropriate to the situation, and then I can use that personal profile as the center of a community experience.


Why does this matter when it comes to participation?  People naturally participate with their friends because they perceive their friends as people who value their contributions.  Similarly, people feel comfortable participating in their own physical environments--home, bedroom, cubicle--because those places reflect their personal identity.  When it comes to participating with strangers, or participating in foreign environments like museums, people need a starting point that allows them to feel confident about expressing themselves in the new situation.  People are more comfortable engaging with strangers when they feel they can fully express themselves.  People like online dating because it allows the initial connection to be based on more than just physical appearance or first encounters; potential dates can see you "as you really are," or at least as you claim to be.  It's easier to approach someone via a known connection than based merely on colocation.


People also feel validated when they are treated as individuals rather than faces in the crowd.  When someone addresses me by name, I appreciate that he has taken the time to remember it, to connect me to a kernel of my unique identity.  There is nothing more annoying that being in a social setting and feeling ignored or treated like a prop instead of a person.  We've all been to that deadly party where the host seemed surprised to see you, where everyone you speak to seems to be craning their neck to find someone more important, and where you spent the night standing alone with a drink wondering why the heck you were invited and why you came.  "They don't care about me," you think.  "They don't even know my name."  Or worse, "maybe I'm not worth talking to."


We've also all had the opposite party experience--the host who graciously and enthusiastically welcomes us, the conversation that crackles and flows with individuals' intriguing stories and expertise, a headiness that comes with sharing a special moment with others and smugly, quietly, reveling in it.  The difference between the first and second party isn't just a question of the food or the venue.  It's a question of how the host and guests treat each other, whether everyone is respected or some are valued and others ignored. 


Finally, people are most willing to participate with others via social webs that start with their own unique self-expression because the resultant interaction is more likely to be high-value.  If I connect with you based on the fact that we both love underground hiphop, we're likely to have a good conversation about music and learn something from each other.  If you approach me because we've both hiked the Chilkoot Trail in Alaska, we may give each other good suggestions for the next mountain to climb.  We can introduce each other to new things with confidence starting from the personal profiles each has created.


Of course, there's a dark side to promoting interpersonal connections via individual self-expression.  People who operate in these kinds of social networks meet people and get introduced to new experiences that are "like them"--close by on the social web.  That's what makes social webs valuable--that they generate recommendations validated by the things you already know and enjoy.  Some people argue that this kind of social context prevents us from getting exposed to divergent ideas and experiences and that educational facilities like museums are mission-bound to help visitors get beyond their preconceptions to confront and explore the foreign and unknown. 


I agree with this argument... somewhat.  No one lives in their own bubble, especially in a physical context like a museum where it is physically impossible to avoid seeing other artifacts on your way to the one that is socially optimized for your enjoyment.  In his book Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam observed that there are "deepening" communities and "bridging" communities.  He expressed concern that people are increasingly choosing to engage in deepening communities, like churches, where they strengthen relationships with people like them, instead of bridging communities, like bowling alleys, where people from diverse backgrounds "bridge" their differences to form new kinds of interpersonal relationships and understanding.  Social webs are a combination of deepening and bridging environments.  Yes, they are places to hang out with the people you already know and learn more about content you already care about, but they are also places to discover new and surprising things via the experiences your connection bring your way.  In the social web, the personal profile is an entrypoint that frames and contextualizes the initial experience in a way that makes the user feel valued and in control.  That confident starting point is a springboard from which people may choose to deepen the relationships they already have, or to bridge out and seek new and unusual opportunities.


But by failing to treat visitors as unique individuals, museums miss the opportunity to hook would-be visitors based on their self-identity and bring them into the museum experience via comfortable, supportive entry experiences.  And if you are seeking to support visitor participation and self-expression in the context of the museum experience by asking visitors to share stories or impressions, you need to respect them as individuals who have something of value to contribute.  The easiest way to do that is to acknowledge their uniqueness, support self-identification, and validate their ability to connect with the museum on their own terms.


Is this enough introduction? 


Am I too flip about certain negatives, as in the first paragraph or the part at the end about choosing things that are familiar/like? 


Is it clear WHY self-identification is the starting point for participation?  Do you buy it? 

[I buy the argument but isn't this pretty much what Falk & Sheppard say in Museums and the Knowledge Age? CC]


Personal Profiles and Museums


So who is the "me" in the museum experience?  Museums are surprisingly poor at allowing visitors--even members--to self-identify and relating to them based on their unique identities.  Asserting personal identity with respect to an institution is something we do daily in other environments.  When I walk into my climbing gym, the staff member at the desk greets me by name.  When he looks me up in the computer, he sees how often I come, what classes I’ve taken, and any major safety infractions on record.  In short, he knows me by my actions relative to the gym, and he can offer me custom information based on my past behavior.  I have a relationship with the institution, mediated by a computer and a smiling face.


Not so at museums.  Even places where I'm a member, I rarely am tracked as anything but another body through the door.  This lack of personalization at the front door sets an expectation that I am not valued as an individual in this museum.  I am just a faceless visitor.


To some extent, ameliorating that facelessness via personalization is a question of good guest service.  Danny Meyer, restauranteur and hospitality expert, encourages his staff across several restaurants to keep "customer notes" that can easily be shared between reservationists, maitre-d's, wait staff, and managers.  When a couple calls to make a reservation for their anniversary, the reservationist notes it, and when the couple arrives at the restaurant, their special occassion is discretely acknowledged and celebrated by the staff via a free bottle of wine or preferred service.  While this can be facilitated digitally, it doesn't take complicated tools to create an environment in which guests are treated personally based on their preferences and interests.


It feels magical when a florist remembers your name or a waiter brings you your coffee just the way you like it.  But personalization can go much further than creating positive guest experiences.  At its best, personalization creates an opportunity for visitors to enter museums on their own terms and to experience the institution based on their own learning styles, interests, and affinities.  This doesn't mean that the museum needs to know and be responsive to every detail of each visitor's personal identity.  Instead, each museum needs to develop a framework for what the "visitor profile" should be relative to the institution.


Consider, for example, the Sony Wonder Technology Lab in New York City.  The Lab is a hands-on science center focused on creative use of digital technologies.  When you enter, you start the visit by "logging in" at a kiosk that records your name, your voice, your photo, and your favorite color and music genre.  Then, that profile is saved onto an RFID card that you use to access all of the interactive exhibits in the Lab.  Each exhibit greets you by name at the beginning of the experience.  When you augment an image, you distort your own face.  When you make an audio mashup, your voice is part of the mix.  This may sound gimmicky, but it's incredibly emotionally powerful.  It draws you into every exhibit via your own narcissism.  What could be more personally relevant--and compelling--than your own image and voice?  At the Lab, your profile is a simple cache of personal data you can draw on as collaborator, co-creating the exhibit content.


For the Sony Wonder Technology Lab, the visitor's personal profile is a set of visitor-contributed content that can be inserted into the exhibit infrastructure.  This makes sense in the context of a hands-on museum full of interactive exhibits in which you are modifying digital assets.  But what's the right visitor profile for a history museum or an art museum?  How should visitors self-identify relative to a research institution or a natural history museum?


There is no "right" answer for what a visitor profile should be.  Instead, museums should consider the framework of what will go into the visitor profile.  Institutions and websites that use profiles set different constraints to support particular kinds of profiles to fit the overall context of their services.  The status update is a prime example.  Status updates are short messages that users of many online services use to self-define their current state.  Status updates may be messages like, "I'm going out to lunch with my mom," or "Just found this amazing resource for calculus teachers!"  They constitute a kind of mini-profile, frequently updated, which reflects the author's self-expression over time.


Here are the ways that four different online services solicit status updates:

  • On Twitter, an open short-messaging site, asks, "What are you doing?"
  • Facebook, a social network for friends, asks, "What's on your mind?"
  • Yammer, a private short-messaging service for corporations, asks, "What are you working on?"
  • Creative Spaces, a social space for collections of museum objects, asks, "What inspires you?"


Each of these questions reflects the unique structure, usage, and content of each service.  Because Twitter is designed as a broadcasting service, the focus is on action--things you do, links you discover.  Since Facebook is focused towards private groups of friends, the solicitation is more personal, inviting people to share their feelings.  Yammer is used by colleagues who care how your 2pm client meeting went, not how your cat is doing.  And Creative Spaces wants to support people exploring and being creatively energized by ideas and objects, so they ask people to define themselves via personal inspiration.


To construct the right profile question, you need to consider the profile or status experience both for the contributor and the spectator.  Of course, in most cases, contributors are spectators and vice versa; the audience is blended.  But it's important to consider how people will perceive the question both when they are asked to answer it and when they are reading the answers.  For contributors, the question must be friendly and simple enough that people feel they can confidently answer the question.  Even if some people choose to write embarrassing or unprofessional things about themselves on their profiles, the profile systems are not set up intentionally to embarrass or trick the contributors.  They are set up to support the contributors sharing what they feel comfortable offering.  In some cases, like Creative Spaces, the question asked is unusual enough to shift the perceptual frame of the whole experience with the site.  If you walk into a space and someone asks you what inspires you, you are primed for an inspirational experience.  If you walk into a space and someone asks you what challenges you, you are primed for competition.


From the spectator perspective, the questions should generate responses that constitute a body of content that is relevant to the structure of the overall site or institution.  Yammer asks, "What are you working on?" and the result is a content stream of professional notes on the ebb and flow of employees' actions.  Facebook asks, "What's on your mind?" and the result is a stream of personal thoughts and feelings.  The aggregate experience of the content affects spectators' understanding of the overall site and its value to them.


Sometimes the organizing question is much more specific and limited.  The Ontario Science Centre's Facing Mars traveling exhibition opens with a simple question: "Would you go to Mars?"  Visitors are forced to enter through one of two gates marked YES and NO.  This is not an incredibly personal self-identication experience; after all, you are only able to self-identify with one of two mono-syllabic words, and that self-identification is not tracked with you beyond the gate.  But the simple question frames the exhibit experience via a personal lens.  The exhibit isn't about people generally facing Mars, it's about how YOU face Mars.  This question is easy to answer yet induces grappling. It's personal but not consequential. It frames and personalizes the exhibit experience. And it does all that with just a simple set of gates.


Does this example diverge too far from self-identification?  It is also a way to vote, which will be addressed later as a participatory technique.

[I don't think so. I love this example and think that it is about self-identification in a narrower sense. My decision on whether or not I would go to Mars reveals something about me, even though that something is not particularly tangible. I visited this exhibition and was just as interested to see which gate other people chose as I was to go through it myself. I picked YES on entry and exit, btw :) GBG]


Imagine you have just one question to ask visitors that can be used to contextualize their experience relative to your museum.  What would you ask them?  How do you see visitors defining themselves in the museum?  How do they wish to self-identify in the museum, and what can you do with those profiles? [It would be interesting to get actual results for this. Poll different types of museum employees, from curators to public relations, and see what one question they would ask. I'm certainly intrigued to know what folks at my museum would say. GBG]


Other Ways to Self-Identify


It doesn't make sense in the context of most museum visits to start with a "log on."  If you have to create your profile onsite, it can be a logistical nightmare that clogs up entry into the exhibits (the reason people actually came to the institution).  Visitors can create profiles online before a visit (more on that later), but there's no guarantee that onsite visitors will have performed this activity before showing up. [Interesting video: Have you ever visited a Smithsonian website, conducted on the fly on the Mall http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N5x4Sga0d1s&feature=related GBG]  It's worth considering other forms of self-identification that are less formal than creating a profile.  In the digital world, there are many non-linguistic choices that people make to define themselves virtually.  They may create or customize an avatar, a digital character, who represents them.  They may choose the background wallpaper for their MySpace page or create a music playlist that reflects their preferences.  While many profile activities are creative, with users inputting unique content about themselves, others are selective, with users picking from among a few options.  Even being given a simple choice of fonts, themes, or styles can make the difference that makes people feel like their are operating on "their" terms.


One of the loveliest examples of this comes from the Love Tapes project by Wendy Clarke.  In the 1970s and 1980s, Clarke, a video artist, taped thousands of people sharing stories about love.  Despite the fact that this is a challenging topic for many people to talk about, Clarke captured many deep, intimate reflections from her participants.  One of the unique elements of the Love Tapes project that may have contributed to its success was a small personalization element.  Clarke invited participants to select a background song for their videos.  She offered a few options, all love songs, and participants selected a record to play behind them as they spoke.  The song had a number of positive effects: it helped set the mood, it gave participants a sense of their video length, and most importantly, it allowed them to have some ownership over the space in which they shared very personal thoughts.  In the case of the Love Tapes, the user profile was a song--a simple act of personalization that primed the experience in content, feeling, and time.


There are few examples of museums allowing visitors to personalize the museum by picking the background music, setting the lighting, or otherwise expressing personal creative ownership in the space.  It's more typical to allow visitors to personalize their own individual experience in a way that only affects them.  There are some examples of museums, like the Sony Wonder Technology Lab or the Tech Museum of Innovation, where visitors are given some kind of ticket that allows them to operate individual exhibits uniquely and develop a personal profile.  In the case of The Tech, visitors receive admissions tickets with unique bar codes that can be scanned at some interactive exhibits to allow visitors to personalize and save their digital creations for later perusal on the web.  There is not, however, a profile component--beyond the ability to set a language preference for media-based exhibits. 


Is this distinction clear?  Do we need more on this?


People are already comfortable using their personal appearance, attire, and accessories to identify themselves in public spaces.  Many museums provide wearable indentification in the form of buttons or stickers that visitors must wear to indicate that they have purchased tickets to enter the galleries.  Why not use this wearable identification as a way to personalize the experience?  Visitors could be handed different colored stickers or wristbands based on a simple one-selection question asked by the admissions staff.  Or, visitors could personalize their stickers with a word or phrase selected quickly and digitally (or manually) printed onto the wearables. 


If wearable profiles are creative, they should reflect personal reaction to some evocative question that helps frame the museum experience.  Even questions as simple as "Who is one of your heroes?" in a history museum or "What's your favorite color?" in an art museum can help people express themselves uniquely and get in the mindset of the institution.  At the TED Conference, participants are given nametags that say, "Talk to me about..."  Why not a nametag like that for a museum?  Or even simpler, an opt-in one that says, "Talk with me about the collection."


If wearables involve making selections instead of creating unique content, the selections can reflect preferences, abilities, or interpersonal connections.  Wearable profiles can be content-related (i.e. different colors for different content interests), knowledge- or skill-based (different colors for people who self-identify as novices, students, amateurs, experts, or somewhere in-between), or social (one color for people who are interested in talking to others in the museum, another for people who aren't). 


When working with wearable identification, it's important that people feel confident and positive about their personalized item rather than feeling wedged into a box or tricked in some way.  Remember, your profile isn't just for you; it's a tool that you use to connect with others with whom you share common interests or characteristics.  Wearing your personality on your sleeve should give you a feeling of pride and self-expression.  Some people wear colored wristbands that indicate their support for various political and social movements.  They wear them to feel the powerful emotional connection with the concept they represent.  They wear them to demonstrate their affinity to the world.  And they wear them to identify themselves as part of a tribe of like-minded supporters. 


What are the potential sub-tribes of visitors at your institution?  More importantly, what are the sub-tribes who might want to positively self-identify with like-minded visitors?  The most evocative sub-tribes are not readily obvious from personal appearance.   It's not useful to have a blue sticker for men and a red one for women, or to have a green band for people over 65 and a yellow band for children.  But it might be useful to have a special sticker for people at a military museum who have served their country, or a special band at a science museum for people who like explosions. 



You Are What You Do


Some profiling systems focus on what you do, not how you express yourself, to generate your identity.  These "you are what you do" systems reduce the extent to which people can self-identify aspirationally, but they powerfully focus participation on a specific set of actions that are likely to be institutionally-driven.  These kinds of profiles tie people to the activities supported by the institution, game, or platform. 


The Signtific Lab is a project of the Institute for the Future (launched in 2009) that invites people all over the world to collaboratively imagine the future via various scientific innovations and provocations.  In many ways, the Lab functions like a game.  Users are "players" and they receive points for making various predictions.  But the game is really just a highly structured dialectic that forces people to write arguments in the form of agreements, disagreements, adaptations, and questions about other players' predictions.  


The profile structure for Signtific Lab is a powerful example of "you are what you do" profiling.  When you set up a new player in Signtific, you can only share three pieces of personal information: your username, your one-word occupation, and your city.  You also select an avatar (a science-y image) and an affiliation from a drop-down list.  These five pieces: username, occupation, city, avatar, and affiliation make up the creative part of your profile and occupy a small corner of the "MY PAGE" screen.


The rest of the page is a "you are what you do" profile that displays all of the cards (arguments) you have played in the Lab.  This allows you to review your actions in the game to date, and to peruse follow-up arguments posted by other players.  The profile also displays your "strengths" based on the number of cards of different types you have played.  Offer questions about others' arguments and your "investigation" strength increases.  Build on someone else's idea and your "momentum" strength grows.  Finally, your profile shows any awards the Lab managers may have conferred upon you for particularly creative, high impact, or diverse argumentation.  In this way, the Signtific Lab creators express and support specific values, and communicate those via your profile.  Your profile isn't a reflection of how you want to be perceived.  It shows you as you are in the context of the game, thus incentivizing you to act in ways that conform to the goals and values of the game itself so that you can excel.


"You are what you do" doesn't have to be limited to game space; often, this kind of infrastructure encourages people to "do" in the real world and see their actions reflected by the platform at hand.  For example, when developing an onsite and online game to encourage visitors to the Boston Children's Museum to be more green, we decided that the online component would serve functionally as a rewarding profile reflecting green behaviors performed in real life.  The online game is a "green village" in which every player has a home.  The homes start as normal-looking buildings, but can transform into magical "green" houses complete with leaves, branches, and wildlife habitats.  You don't improve your virtual home by playing online games; instead, your home advances when you self-report green activities in the real world--whether taking a reusable lunch bag to school, turning off the lights, or conserving water.  In this way, the virtual homes serve as "green profiles" for the players.  A quick glance around the green village lets you know who is really excelling at living a green lifestyle.  The profiling system rewards real behaviors and promotes a particular set of values in the way that players advance and are rewarded.


One of the most powerful examples of "you are what you do" came from the online game "World Without Oil," in which players were challenged to react creatively--via text, photos, audio, video, and original art--to a fictional oil shock.  Here again, much of the gameplay took place in the real world, where players documented themselves as they carpooled to work, grew their own food, and constructed reactions to this suppositional reality.  Ken Eklund, the creator of World Without Oil, commented that QUOTE people learned far more than he had anticipated from the game.  He thought most people were just treating it as fiction, but there were several players who self-reported that the game had significantly changed their behavior with regard to everything from eating packaged foods to biking to work. 


"You are what you do" isn't just a convenient way to construct profiles that reflect your institutional values.  It's also a way to celebrate and support visitors for doing things that are not typically commemorated.  Signtific Lab tells me that I am good at building momentum, and that makes me feel honored and interested in cultivating my ability to help push others' ideas further.  The Boston green game lets birds roost in my chimney when I report that I walked to school, and that makes me feel like I can get some tangible reward from something that is often invisible.  World Without Oil challenges me to grapple with $8/gallon gasoline, and that gives me a safe community environment to reconsider my transportation options.  "You are what you do" systems allow platforms to acknowledge, celebrate, and encourage people in relation to actions that frequently go unnoticed.  This makes people feel validated, valued, and supported by the platform - that it is a place that helps them reveal their best self.


Museums have experimented with "you are what you do" profiles, but often in the simplest ways, documenting which exhibits the visitor has used or which stamps she has collected through her visit.  The Sony WonderTech Lab, for example, prints out a certificate at the end of your visit that tells you what exhibits you used and congratulates you for doing so.  In 2002, the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago opened an exhibition called Networld in which visitors could purchase a Netpass, an RFID card that saved your progress as you moved through the exhibit.  A digital avatar/virtual companion evolves over time as you complete each exhibit, thus creating a virtual representation of your accumulated learning through the exhibit.  This is similar to the Boston green game in that the avatar, like the green home, evolves positively based on you doing something valued by the institution (in the case of Networld, using more exhibits).  But this value system is superficial.  In both the cases of the WonderTech Lab and Networld, the only action the profile system acknowledges is use of exhibits. The resulting profile construction is shallow and only reflects volume of exhibit use, not comprehension, enjoyment, exploring or sharing.  There is no acknowledgment or support of other things that the museum might value--talking to friends/family about the content, returning to the same exhibit over multiple visits, spending a long time messing around with the exhibit to figure it out. 


What are the visitor actions that you would like to celebrate and reward?  What secret actions might you reward visitors for doing?  How might you construct a profile system that acknowledges actions that are more ephemeral than simply logging in at various exhibits?


Avoiding Prescriptive Profiles


There's a downside to all of this profiling, and it's right there in the stereotypical police usage of that word.  Many people shirk from institutional and particularly government attempts to define and track them.  They consider it a violation of privacy and evidence of the growing police state.  Of course, most of the profiles we're talking about here are created voluntarily by visitors.  But there's still a problem if people perceive their experience as being inappropriately constrained by their profiles.  People rarely have ongoing pervasive relationships with museums the way they do with social websites.  I may change my Facebook status several times a day, but I am unlikely to change my museum status more than a few times a year.  On one museum visit, I may be accompanying my young nephews on a romp through the space.  On another, I may be with my husband, looking for a more leisurely, intimate experience.  If my profile is locked as a woman with small children, I won't be well-served on subsequent visits.


We've all had this experience on Amazon.com, which uses a strict "you are what you do" approach to profiling.  You buy one collander and suddenly it's recommending kitchen implements.  Buy a book of poetry on a whim and you'll get reminders every time that poet spits out another volume.   When the profile system is too prescriptive, recommendations become laughably inappropriate, and the whole value of the personalization turns into an annoying affect.


There are several museums that have experimented with an audience-specific approach to content, particularly online when it comes to visit planning.  In some cases, like the Pittsburgh Children's Museum, this is incredibly effective.  A parent visiting the Children's Museum website needs a very different set of information than her child, and a teacher bringing 20 kindegardeners needs yet another set of information.  Their final audience type, "museum geek," is open to interpretation and is a nice catch-all for anyone wandering the web in search of a dancing chicken (seriously, you should check this out).  In the case of children's museums, the audience needs are distinct enough to merit a very different experience based on simple profiling by parent/child/teacher/museum geek. 


In the case of MOMA's web redesign, which went live in the spring of 2009, there is a bar at the bottom of the homepage that says "Welcome.  Are you a... ?"  When you click on the bar, you can self-identify as a first-time MOMA visitor, a returning visitor, a member, a filmgoer, exploring MOMA with a family, doing research, an educator, or a student.  Selecting any of these doesn't drop you down an audience-specific rabbit hole; instead, it just alters the rotating content at the bottom of the screen to be more tailored to your particular interest.


One museum professional asked me if I felt this was too prescriptive, commenting that sometimes she's a visitor, and other times she's doing research.  To me, the impermanence of the MOMA designation makes it appealing.  Self-identifying as an educator doesn't mean you can never be that first-time visitor or vice versa.  You can easily switch perspectives and see the programming that is relevant to you.


The Tate Modern takes this concept into their physical museum with a set of pamphlets featuring different tours of the museum based on emotional mood.  You can pick up the "I've just split up" tour and wallow in depression, or the "I'm an animal freak" tour and explore your wilder side.  They allow you to make your own tours online as well and bring them to the museum.  Many museums are experimenting with online custom tour systems, but not everyone wants to make their own tour.  What works about the Tate's approach is the personal starting point to the consumer experience of taking a tour.  It's not so important that it's my tour.  It's important that I can find a tour that reflects the part of me that is most important at this moment, the one with which I identify.


Again, is this example confusing because it's more about creating personal custom content than self-expression?

[I think it's both. The visitor carries the pamphlet around with them so in theory, it becomes wearable identification that staff and visitors can see and connect with. GBG]


Creativity Vs. Self-Expression


This relates to an important distinction between creativity and self-expression.  When we talk about inviting visitors to participate in museums, we often talk about allowing visitors to create things--their own tours, their own videos, their own objects.  And while that is a valuable exercise (one that will be explored exhaustively in chapter X), personal creation is not necessary in the context of self-identification.  You can make a personal profile that is useful and high-impact without ever inviting visitors to create content on their own.  Imagine a profile activity in which you invite visitors to make their own avatar, or visual representation of themselves.  I would be just as invested in an avatar that I might make out of a pre-assigned kit of parts as I am the one that I draw myself.  In fact, as a poor artist, I'm more likely to complete the task of making an avatar out of a kit of parts, and I'm also more likely to be proud of and have affinity for the result. 


This is why people love personality tests and horoscopes.  It's easier to answer a few multiple choice questions or look up your birth date than it is to write honestly about your feelings or make predictions about the future.  Of course, in many cases, the prescribed answers don't quite fit, and in those cases, the feeling of affinity with the proferred identity diminishes.  But when it clicks, we feel happy--proud, even--to wear external designations on our sleeves.  This is what designing good profiles is all about.



Activity: Developing Museum Profiles


How would you like to invite visitors to self-identify relative to your institution?  Below is a long list of potential profile components, drawn from examples from games, social websites, and more standard profiling systems like memberships.  What would you like to know, and what kinds of self-identification will encourage visitors to feel welcomed and ready for their museum experience?  For each thing you select, you should be able to articulate how the addition of that element serves visitors and the institution.  If it only serves visitors, you are in the clear.  But if it only serves you, you may want to reconsider whether it was really worth it to grab that zip code or education level.









Zip Code/City




Content interest

Favorite books/movies/music/magazines

Least favorite books/movies/music/magazines

Reading or listening?

Doing or observing?

Member of this institution?

What groups/orgs are you a member of?



Marital status

Relationship interests/intent

Emotional mood (I'm feeling...)



Level (easy, medium, hard or grade level)

Heat (mild, medium, spicy)


Depth/length of content



Reason for Coming

First/Repeat Visit

Visit partners

Amount of time available to spend


Putting Personalization to Work in Museums


What's the value of creating a great system for people to self-identify relative to your institution?  It's not just a confidence-builder or a data-collector.  It's a way to drive custom content to visitors, to highlight things of particular value to them, and to connect them to others in a  contextualized way. 


Meeting Visitors Where They Are


Imagine a history museum is developing an exhibition on the five fundamental freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment of the US Constitution: religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition.  As they enter the exhibition, visitors are forced ["forced" - how do you force a visitor to participate? CC] to select one freedom that is most important to them--the one they would protect above all others--and are handed a wristband with that single word ("religion," "speech," etc.) written on it.  The wristbands are colored differently, so it is fairly obvious that red is for religion, blue for speech, etc.  The wristbands may activate different content throughout the exhibition.  There may be some interactives that request visitors find a partner with a different affinity to complete a given task, or others that encourage groups of like-minded visitors to gather and discuss the reasons they each chose "assembly" as the most important freedom.  This concept takes the "Facing Mars" example to the next level by encouraging people not only to make a discrete selection at entry but to use that selection as the basis for a personalized experience of the exhibit.


In this case as in the Facing Mars exhibition, the personal profile is highly constrained to just one word, one affinity.  It is immediate to the exhibition visit experience and on subsequent visits, people may choose other freedoms with which to self-identify.  The act of self-identifying by selecting a single freedom is a powerful learning experience--visitors are forced to reflect on their values, grapple with the options, and make a personal determination of preference.  And then that determination becomes a gateway to specific experiences that reinforce the personalized framing of all of the exhibition's content. 


This imagined history exhibition is an example of the power that self-identification can have in driving custom content to museum visitors.  It's not just about giving people the opportunity to go on tours of the things that are most appealing to them.  It's about acknowledging individuals' starting points and then focusing their experience based on those personal starting points.  And in the case of this imagined example, the resultant experience has more impact and becomes more memorable due to the personalized entrypoint.


There are two standard museum starting points: the map and the docent tour.  Neither is intrinsically personalized.  The map features abstractions and content aggregations that can be confusing to visitors.  The docent tour presents an overview of the museum story.  And while some docents are excellent at adapting their tours responsively to their audiences, this can be a challenge.  Visitors come in the door knowing who they are, but they may not know what content is of greatest interest to them.  Well-meaning docents may ask, "what would you like to see?" and receive blank stares in response.  Try this enough times and you'll conclude that you should just lead the tour your way, give them the story you know is of high quality.


This is a particular problem for people who are unfamiliar with museums, visitors who are still learning to decode what a museum experience is all about.  To these visitors, the map and the tour are not obvious starting points full of useful information from which they can dig deeper.  These supposed entry techniques introduce another layer of abstraction and ritual to the museum experience that may be confusing or off-putting.  How can a visitor learn to "make their own meaning" from a museum experience if she cannot make meaning from the map?


Most museums aggregate their content, either by category (Impressionism, Dinosaurs, World War II) or by abstraction (3rd Floor, Green Wing) and  maps reference these aggregate names. This makes sense, if visitors understand what those aggregate names mean, and if visitors are primarily interested in the content available as opposed to the experience available.


And in most cases, neither is true. When the aggregate names are abstract, it’s hard to know what to expect. And even when the aggregate names are clear, i.e. Optics, the experiences available in that section of the museum are not. When I go into a museum, I’m rarely looking for specific content; instead, I’m looking for a specific experience.[I'm not sure this is true of everyone, Nina. Some people visit museums for information on a specific topic or just to look at "things." CC] Maybe I want something contemplative. Something active. Something that will take about 30 minutes. Something I can share with a 10 year old. Right now, in most museums, I have to look at the map/aggregate names and guess where those experiences might lie. There are some rare aggregate names that are strong signalers; I feel reasonably confident that Bubbles will give me an opportunity to play with bubbles. But what about Chemistry? Will I do experiments? Will I see explosions? Will I learn about the history of the discipline?


Theme parks address this issue well. They have aggregated areas that are quite abstract (e.g. Tomorrowland) and within those, rides with only slightly more descriptive names (Space Mountain). But on the maps, alongside the names of the rides, there is shorthand information—what kind of ride it is, what age it’s appropriate for. Many theme park maps also feature pop-outs with lists of “must-dos” for visitors of different types–teenagers, people who only have 3 hours, etc. Note that these recommendations are not only based on what visitors might like (rollercoasters vs. swings) but also on their particular constraints and situations. Theme parks are serious about helping visitors figure out what experiences will be most appropriate for them in all ways. 


Why don’t museums operate this way? Because unlike theme parks, which are focused on the visitor, museums are focused on their own content. Rather than addressing “What stuff do I want to see/do?,” museums tell you, “Here’s how we have chosen to organize our stuff.” Even in cases where visitors are invited to create their own maps, they are required to do so based on the museum's collection rather than preferred experiences.  Museums expect you to figure out how to interpret their institutional aggregation to create your own experience.


This isn't the only way to go.  Consider the difference between two websites that allow you to customize your own museum tours.  The first, presented by The Tate, offers the opportunity to curate your own six-stop tour of items from their collection.  This service is called YourCollection, and there are many versions of it at museums around the world in which visitors can hunt through items in the museum's image gallery, select those of interest, aggregate them into a custom set, and then print it out with some basic wayfinding information.


The Tate's program is easy to use and is set up to allow visitors to tell a story through their personal collections.  But it requires you to have a starting point of interest in looking at individual images of art pieces and selecting those you would like to see in real life.  Fortunately for users, the Tate only includes a tiny percentage of their collection in the options available for making your own collection.  You only have 60 images to sort through.  But as a non-art person, I'm a little daunted by the suggestion that I will find my favorite images and be able to tell a story through them.  My art history knowledge is so weak that I don't really have a good sense of what I would like to see in real life.  The reason the maps that The Tate created as a starting point as so appealing is because they appeal to basic parts of human life outside of art.  Yes, I would like to do the "I'm feeling yellow" tour because that's where I'm at today.  No, I'm not interested today in getting bummed out by the "I've just split up" tour.  The titles are brilliant entrypoints that are accessible to anyone.  The artifacts themselves are not. [That may be true with artworks in The Tate but I'm not sure artifacts in history museums, for example, do not act as entrypoints for people. Consider the reminiscence work that focuses on people's memories of things, and all the work done on "The Meaning of Things." CC}


Another site, ilikemuseums.com, has taken this experience-first approach.  I Like Museums is a directory of museums in Northeast England that encourages vistiors to explore "museum trails" that are based on experience interests, not institutional content.  No more scanning the list of 80-odd museums in an area trying to figure out whether Lady Waterford Hall or Cragside or any number of enigmatic and not-so-enigmatic attractions are appropriate for your interests. The initial trails were developed by staff and community members, and new ones are submitted on a continuous basis by visitors to the site. Each museum was asked to select three of the initial trails specifically applicable to them and wrote blurbs on how those trails relate to their content. Visitors who submit trails also add their own commentary about why certain museums were included. You can seamlessly click from trails to museums to other trails, wandering the museum landscape. And you can rate the trails and view their ratings, which presumably might help you prioiritize some trails over others.


Yes, there are content trails, like "I like military history."  But there are also trails like "i like... keeping the kids happy", with helpful content for specific audiences. And then there are the oddballs. One of the first user-submitted trails was "i like... pigs". There's also the irreverent trail "i like things to do with a hangover", which offers art adventures to take your mind off the pain, religious memorials for divine intervention, and seaside castles for "big blast of fresh air!"


These museum trails are more accessible and relevant to regular people than ones that are collections-based, because you can start with who YOU are, not what the institution offers.  You can find a museum that serves a great cup of tea if that's what you want.  You can find a place to play, a place to be inspired, a place to shop.  These are all personalized entrypoints to museum experiences.  And by displaying them all together on one wayfinding site, ilikemuseums encourages people to think of museums as multi-use venues, good for different people on different days in different ways.  The site subtly gives you more and more reasons to visit a museum beyond viewing its collection.


For the purists, the traditional museum experience will always be available.  Curators will continue to aggregates the content (in most cases) and  visitor can get lost in the galleries at whim.  At its best, this can lead to some really wonderful visitor discoveries.  Many museum professionals argue that the best museum experiences are the surprises that you stumble upon around a dusty corner.  But that argument comes from the highly privileged position of already feeling comfortable in the museum and ready to see it as a place of discovery. Not all people feel that way.  If you've grown up thinking of museums as boring places you are forced to visit with classes or with grandma, you may feel not feel like the museum is "for" you in any way.  These kinds of visitors need a hook via an experience that is clearly relevant and valuable to their own lives, and the easiest way to deliver that is via custom content in the style of ilikemuseums. I may not know what a Monet is, but I may know that I want a peaceful, inspiring experience.  I may not know what nanotechnology is, but I may know that I'm at the museum to learn something new.


All of this means that we need better ways for people to query the museum content based on their own knowledge and starting points.  This is how the library works.  You want to build a deck.  You go to the library catalog and search for books about home carpentry.  You find the book you want.  You check it out and go home.  Over time, you start to think of the library as a place that delivers content of specific value to you at your level, your needs, your experience.  Once you are comfortable enough with the library as an information source, you start browsing more generally and become a power user.  You become open to a more random and revelatory experience.


Some lucky people spend lots of time in libraries as children, pulling books off the shelves and lolling around on the carpet reading them.  That's how I grew up.  But I know I am very unusual in this way.  The same is true for people who grew up wandering through museums.  But lots of people are cultural novices and value a starting point--whether at the museum or the library--that is focused and highly relevant to their needs. 


Activity: Personalized Starting Points


Take a look at your (current or desired) museum audience.  What are the experience starting points that are most relevant to their needs?  Are they visiting as families?  Do they seek a learning experience or an entertainment experience?  Do they prefer to do, read, watch, or listen?  Name ten different starting points and construct a five stop tour for each one.  Then, present these tours to visitors in your desired audience group and ask them what starting points they would add. [Love this! But to be fair to docents, gallery guides and interpreters - this is the sort of exercise they do in good training programs. Starting with the visitor's interests and needs is pretty standard in that forum. CC]



Personalized Tours and Recommendation Engines


Personalization isn't only for newcomers to the museum experience.  While the entry experience of a museum is an important place to imprint visitors with a sense that they will be responded to personally and uniquely, the power of personalization comes as custom content is delivered to visitors throughout their experience based on their profiles or self-identification.  After all, the personal museum experience shouldn't end when you get a map.  That is just a starting point for a deeper exploration of a new personal relationship with the institution.


And so we move from the entry experience to the visitor path through the museum.  How can the museum continuously be responsive to your changing needs and interests as you move through the experience?  Museum exhibit designers and educators already do this in aggregate for all visitors, by designing varied exhibit spaces, punctuating object experiences with interactives, and connecting visitors to different levels of content throughout the institution.  But people derive meaning from different aspects of the museum experience.  While one visitor may love messing around with a magnet interactive for the enjoyment of the mechanism, another may be fascinated by the scientific theory behind the phenomena on display.  How can we serve the "right" content to each visitor? 


This is an important question not only for satisfying different types of visitors but serving visitors over time.  One of the biggest complaints that visitors express about museums is that "nothing ever changes."  From the perspective of a curator or historian, there is so much rich content surrounding each museum artifact that a visitor could spend a lifetime learning with one collection.  But visitors don't see it that way.  They see one object, one label, one story.  If we can deliver content to them that is personalized to their current situation as experience seekers, students, and social agents, museums will be perceived as offering experiences relevant to different stages of life and needs.  And from the staff perspective, rather than being required to create "one size fits all" interpretative content, curators and exhibit developers can develop materials that address different audiences' needs, from the novice to the expert.


Many art museums have experimented with offering different content streams on audio tours, featuring channels for children, channels featuring artists in their own words, channels featuring curators, and experimental channels featuring music or evocative sounds.  This kind of personalization isn't just for art museums.  Consider science centers.  My first museum job was in the Acton Science Discovery Museum, a small hands-on science center in Acton, Massachussets.  The museum was filled with really fascinating interactive exhibits, including many whose explanation eluded me despite a degree in engineering.  I found the exhibits to be beautiful and mysterious and loved exploring and playing with them.  But label text was only offered at a child's level, and the resulting experience attracted families with young children exclusively.  If we could have offered a different track featuring scientists' takes on the interactives, or more complex levels of interactive challenge and explanation, the same interactives might have been able to serve a more diverse audience. 


The challenge with serving different audiences personalized content often comes down to the distribution mechanism.  Best practices suggest that labels should be brief and accessible (with the exception of introductory panels in art museums, which appear to be written with confuscation in mind)[Yes! CC].  Interactives are often built with a "win condition" that dictates a fairly linear experience in which the visitor tries to achieve a single goal. [Pretty much classic "discovery learning" as opposed to constructivism. CC] Visitors may find audio tours to be socially isolating and cost-prohibitive.  And while many museums are experimenting with multi-media guides to the content, including those that employ visitors' own media devices, no one has cracked the code on creating an on-demand content experience that delivers visitors the information and depth level they want when they want it.  Either the secondary layer is highly immersive (and therefore, constrained) or it requires so much pushing of buttons and picking of options that it breaks the overall experience. [What about a fully-staffed living history site - like Plimouth or Louisbourg? Don't the costumed staff offer this opportunity to tailor your visit - the information and depth level you as an individual visitor need? I realize this is not the most cost-effective approach but is cost the bottom line for what you are writing here? CC]


How can we design personalized "threads" of museum content that are easy for visitors to integrate into their typical patterns of museum use?  The ideal system is available across the institution (not just at some special kiosks) and is associated directly with each object or exhibit.  It can accommodate both individual and social use.  It "learns" what you might like over time and offers good suggestions, but it doesn't force you down a reductive, singular path.  It provides diverse forms of content.  It remembers where you've been and integrates your self-defined interests and expertise into its offerings.


This kind of system has two parts: a rich content base of different types of interpretation for any given exhibit or artifact, and a recommendation engine that steers you to that content.  Let's look at several examples of these systems, from low-tech to high-tech.


As a low-tech example, consider "staff picks." Walk into almost any locally-owned bookstore or record store, and you are likely to find handwritten cards affixed to certain volumes featuring a few sentences from a staff member expressing his or her ardor for the content at hand.  These picks are a kind of alternate aggregation of the content.  In a bookstore, the books are separated by type (fiction, biography, best-seller, discount).  But the staff picks are distributed across the types and provide a second layer of interpretative material, pointing out individual items and offering a more personal recommendation than that offered in the dust jacket.  As a customer, you have to decide how reliable you perceive the staff to be to evaluate how you will integrate the staff picks into your browsing and purchasing.  Bookstore staff are somewhere between expert book reviewers and your average Joe, but the tone of staff picks tend to be friendly, personal, and easy to follow.  Some people hate the informality of staff picks.  Others find it charming and useful.  


Staff picks are a start, but they have several limitations as a model.  They are intermittent; I can't see reviews and thoughts on every book in the store.  While in almost all cases the staff picks are labeled with the staff member's name, I don't have any background on individual reviewers' expertise or preferences beyond the knowledge that they work in a bookstore.  And most importantly, staff picks are not personalized to me as a particular customer.  They are functionally just an alternative layer of content that happens to be more informal and personal in tone than the base content available about every book in the store.


Some museums have experimented with staff picks in exhibits and programs and have tried to solve the problem of the interchangability of staff picks by profiling the "pickers" more robustly.  Personalization isn't just for visitors; highlighting the unique perspectives of scientists, designers, and educators both gives those staff members an identity and offers a more nuanced blend of interpretative material.  Art museums have a long history of inviting curators or guest artists to aggregate custom shows from the collection that highlight particular narratives or juxtapositions.  These can be done formally, as in Fred Wilson's famous Mining the Museum exhibition at the Maryland Historical Society (1992) or Damien Hirst's exhibit of favored works at the Rijksmuseum (2008).  But they can also be done informally in programming.  The Seattle Art Museum's "After Hours" program invites guest artists to lead tours of "My Favorite Things" throughout the collection.   The Denver Art Museum's similar "Untitled" program features unusual experts (Jungian psychologists, perfumers, neurologists) offering "detours" of the collection in which they offer their own expert interpretation of the art at hand.  And art museums aren't the only ones experimenting in this space; in 2008, the Exploratorium launched a few "Staff Picks" signs featuring diverse members of the staff sharing informal thoughts on what they love about particular exhibits. 


In a museum, staff picks could be expanded to highlight the distinctions between the ways that different kinds of staff interpret exhibits on display.  For example, a general museum with art, history, and science content is likely to group the exhibits by those general topic headings.  But it would be quite interesting to see how a design curator interprets a historical piece of furniture, or how a scientist sees a piece of landscape art.  Because the roles among museum staff are more varied than those in the bookstore, there's an opportunity to promote learning from multiple perspectives using this technique.


How would you display these different perspectives on exhibits?  No one wants to clutter exhibits with long label text or multiple panels that might confuse or overwhelm visitors.  The key is to make the interpretative material available via random access.  Random access is a strange term to describe what is really "direct" access--information that can be consumed out of sequence.  While your eye can skip around on a long label, you are more likely to feel compelled to follow the sequential narrative of the text and read it from top to bottom.  But if you can select from several labels (all of which are equally easy to see or bring up), you can quickly (and randomly) access the material of greatest interest to you.  Random access marked the transformation of museum audio tours from forced narratives into open-ended explorations.  There are some museums, like MoMA in New York, with multiple-channel audio tours geared towards different audiences (children, teens, people who want to hear from the artist).  MoMA has different visual icons for each tour, so you can see that a particular painting has an audio commentary on the teen channel and the conservator channel, whereas another sculpture in the room might just have audio commentary for children.  You can pick what you want to hear piece by piece thanks to random access.


Random access is not always a good thing.  If you are trying to immerse people in a very specific shared narrative, it's important for everyone to consume the same thread, the same emotion, the same story.  The Spy Museum is a fascinating example of this (disclosure: I worked for SPY from 2004-2007).  The Spy Museum is a multi-sensory, high immersion museum experience.  Everyone takes the same winding path through the museum.  We focused the lights and the sound and the physical design to choreograph particular emotional responses to the stories and artifacts on display.  And while the Spy Museum visit experience starts with a personalization activity, it is almost the opposite of the profiling discussed in this chapter.  At SPY, rather than expressing some aspect of your own identity, you start by assuming someone else's identity by selecting a "cover story" in the first gallery. SPY isn't a place to be yourself.  It's a place to be someone else, to mold yourself into the museum narrative.


For many people, this is a highly enjoyable experience.  The Spy Museum is successful because it tells great stories well.  But some visitors report feeling suffocated by aspects of the story that are too dissonant with their own perspectives and experience.  Visitors with strong political feelings on the right and left complain that SPY glorifies the bad guys (whether you think the bad guys are the CIA or the Soviets).  And while visitors to any history museum might complain about political bias, people feel it more acutely at SPY because they are trapped in highly immersive and persuasive environments.  It's like Disneyland.  Some people believe it's the happiest place on earth, and every component that builds on that narrative gives them more delight.  Others feel like they are caught in a hellish nightmare, unable to escape.


DOES THE SPY STORY STRAY TOO OFF-TRACK?  [Not for me - offers an interesting and personal perspective. I'd be interested in seeing what this experience looks like though. Are you going to include any pictures in the book? CC]


At the extremes, random access and immersive narrative are oppositional, but there are many experiences that blend the two comfortably.  There's a faulty perception that you can't have a deep narrative experience in the context of random access.  Of course you can.  We use random access all the time to find the things that will resonate most with us, whether at the store or flipping TV channels.  In the library, we use random access to select a book off the shelf and then we curl up and immerse ourselves in the story.  We turn the radio dial to a favorite song and rock out.  And while some purists would say that a song is best experienced as part of an album, or an artifact as part of a set narrative path, most of us consume individual experiences randomly all day long.


So let's go back to multi-vocal interpretative material.  MoMA offers random access via an audio guide, but you don't need an audio guide to introduce people to many voices.  There are low-tech ways to offer multiple points of view as well.  For example, consider the most frequently-used interpretative material: the label.  In the last 50 years, museums have poured lots of money into developing alternative interpretative media devices to augment the exhibition experience, and yet there have been few projects focused on the label.  More people read labels than use any other interpretative content in museums, no matter how fancy the device.  And yet as professionals, we mostly focus on improving the content of labels but not their technology.  Labels are mostly printed in the same way on the same substrate.  They have a standard length and are geared towards a standard educational level (in US science museums, grade 6.  In art museums, a grade I somehow skipped or never completed.)[Might want to be careful with art museum asides. While I think I see where you are coming from, at least some of your audience are going to be art museum folks and this might turn them off. Many art museums are trying to write more accessible labels and, as you point out above, there are bad labels in science and history museums, too. CC].  There have been some innovations, such as the "flip label" which features a question on one surface which has to be flipped up, slid, or rotated to find the answer.  Some exhibit designers hate flip labels and consider them a stupid way to pander to desires for interactivity.  I like how they create a kind of suspense and use three-dimensional design to change the conditions of the narrative, however basic the interaction may be.


What kind of label design would be most useful for presenting multiple perspectives on or versions of interpretative material?  The ideal label would allow you to easily access the perspective of interest and to flip from perspective to perspective without having to follow a designated sequence.  It wouldn't be a video kiosk that forces you to watch a whole 90 second video from one commenter before checking out another, or an extremely long label that provides a paragraph from each perspective one after another.  The ideal multi-vocal label wouldn't take up more space than a standard museum label. It wouldn't be a whole bunch of labels clustered around the artifact.  The ideal label would give equal weight to each voice (not unfairly biasing you towards the curator who got fancy font or the visitor wrote in pen on an index card).  And it would let you know if there were any interesting connections or frictions between different voices, giving you an idea of where to go next. 


So here's one idea for a label design that addresses these goals.  Imagine a set of window shades or projection screens, the kind that have one solid piece of fabric and can roll up into the ceiling or window frame when you pull a string at the bottom.  Imagine making very small versions of these shades so that the fabric piece is the size of a typical museum exhibit label.  Now, imagine mounting these shades in layers, one on top of another, a different layer for each perspective with the text printed on the shade.  The shades themselves would be tinted, with each color representing a consistent perspective that could be followed throughout the museum.  Hanging from each shade, instead of the same white string, is a colored tag with a one or two-word description of the perspective (i.e. the artist, biologist, preacher, loves it, hates it).  Pull the tag of interest and you will bring down the label of choice.  Pull another tag to see another perspective.  Labels with interesting intersections or arguments could have two tags on them.  That's it. 


This is clearly not the only way to make this happen.  You could print the labels tiny on slides with perspective labels and people could drop the slides into a lightbox to see them projected bigger on the wall (problem: slide theft).  You could print text on the walls in different colors and give people magic glasses with different colored lenses to let them "see the content through someone else's eyes."   Or, you could do this digitally with small touchscreens where people could select the content of choice.


No matter what technique you use to display multiple perspectives, you eventually run into a problem of scale.  Imagine doing the herculean effort of collecting a diverse multiplicity of voices--expert and novice, artist and scientist, visitor and guard--on the majority of exhibits in your museum.  Now you have a problem that is very similar to the basic wayfinding problem in museums.  How would you display them?  And how would visitors know which one they'd like to hear?  The multi-channel audio tour or multi-shade label is manageable on the scale of a few perspectives, but is unsustainable for more than five or six alternatives.  Visitors would have to remember the icons or tags and confront the boggling tyranny of choice at many stops.  They might just give up. 


This problem of information overload leads to an argument for simplicity, for fewer channels, fewer stops, shorter labels, less interpretative material.  But there are other ways to solve the problem, to have your thirty-seven "channels" of personal content and consume them happily too.  What we need now is a recommendation engine.


Recommendation engines are systems that recommend content to you.  Your friends are recommendation engines, as are the "top 100" lists of books and movies available at your local library and video store.  In the context of personalization, the best recommendation engines are not the ones that offer you the authoritative top items in a collection but the ones that offer you things that you might actually like.  Anyone can read Rolling Stone's top 500 rock albums of all time.  But which ones will be right for YOU?  That's what recommendation engines try to figure out.


Recommendation engines use a combination of explicit and implicit information to provide you with suggestions.  In some cases, you make explicit designations by making purchases, expressing preference via ratings or reviews, or choosing some things over others.  But you are also always generating data passively via the things you click on, items you spend a long time looking at or listening to, and the choices your friends are making.  In the physical space of a museum, visitors make very few explicit data contributions.  You may buy a ticket to a special exhibition or show, or actively elect to take up an audio guide or exhibition brochure.  Libraries are better; each item you check out (as well as your track record on returning books on time) is tracked by the computer system.  But libraries are hesitant to provide recommendations or other information based on your actions due to privacy concerns (CHECK).  Most of your preferences for one museum experience over another go unregistered and untracked.  This means there's very little data on which museums can automatically offer recommendations for further experiences. 


While you may think of rating as a frivolous activity, online retailers rely heavily on user preferences to run their businesses.  Consider the case of Netflix, the dominant US online movie rental company.  Netflix offers subscribers a steady stream of movies delivered directly to users' doorsteps (or computers).  Netflix is in the business of selling subscriptions to its service.  They do not want you to cancel your subscription because you've seen all the movies you want to see or can't find a movie of interest.  They don't want to leave it to chance that your friends and family will be continually suggesting movies that you might like, or that you will be studiously scanning the AFI top 100 films list for ones you haven't seen.  And so Netflix spends a lot of money and energy improving its recommendation system so it can keep suggesting movies that you might like to see.  In October 2006, Netflix offered a million dollar prize to the team who could improve their recommendation system by ten percent.  Netflix knows that good recommendations are key to their bottom line.  If Netflix suggests too many movies that you don't like, you will either start ignoring the recommendation system or cancel your subscription altogether. 


Here's how the Netflix recommendation engine works.  At any time, you can rate movies in the Netflix database from one to five stars.  You can rate movies you haven't watched or rented.  In fact, Netflix makes a game out of rating movies, encouraging you to do so upon initial account registration and on subsequent logins so that the system can supply you with lists of "Movies You'll Love."  They make rating easy and fun.  They also ask you to rate genres (Action/Adventure, Comedy, Foreign, etc.) so they can provide you suggestions in particular categories.  Finally, they allow you to indicate if you are not interested in a suggested title (a kind of reverse rating for things you haven't seen).  The underlying message here is that there is always a movie you'll love on Netflix, so you should never stop subscribing. 


This implicit promise is also the key to why people willingly rate hundreds of movies on Netflix.  Netflix promises to give you better recommendations if you rate more movies.  Your user profile is functionally an aggregate of the movies you have rated, and the more finely tuned the profile, the more useful the recommendations.  The more you use it, the better it gets--and that symbiotic relationship serves customer and vendor alike.  This promise is what is missing from so many museum rating systems.  When museums allow visitors to rate objects or express preferences, the visitors' expressions are rarely, if ever, fed back into a system that improves the museum experience.  The presumption on the part of museums is that ratings systems are "fun" and that's why people use them on Netflix and other sites.  But they aren't just fun ways to express yourself.  They have direct personal impact.  Whether you are panning a movie or gushing over a book, your explicit action is tracked and used to provide you with better subsequent experiences.


But what's "better" in the museum context?  One of the biggest concerns about deploying recommendation systems in museums is that visitors will only be exposed to the narrow window of things they like and will not have "off path" experiences that are surprising, uncomfortable, and valuable.  Fortunately, not all of us are in the business of selling movie rental subscriptions (or woks, or books, or whatever).  While online retail recommendation engines are unsurprisingly optimized to present you with things you will like, there are other ways to filter information based on preference.  Librarything has a "books you'll hate" feature called the Unsuggester.  When the BookSuggester was released in November of 2006, programmer Tim Spaulding wrote a blog post about the addition of the Unsuggester.  After noting the patterns of opposition between philosophy and chick lit, programming manuals and literature, Tim writes: "These disconnects sadden me. Of course readers have tastes, and nearly everyone has books they'd never read. But, as serious readers, books make our world. A shared book is a sort of shared space between two people. As far as I'm concerned, the more of these the better.  So, in the spirit of unity and understanding, why not enter your favorite book, then read its opposite?"


The Unsuggester is based on different values than Netflix's Movies You'll Love and the BookSuggester.  The value system for the Unsuggester is based on the idea that we can learn something from things that are foreign to our experience.  The Unsuggester doesn't so much give you books you'll hate as books that you'd never otherwise encounter.  The books on the list are the ones that are least likely to be found in your Librarything collection or the collections of other users who also have your books.  In other words, the Librarything profile is based not on ratings but on books.  And while the Unsuggester is silly, it's also a valuable set of responsive content to your profile.  It's a window into a distant and somewhat unknowable world.  And users have responded positively.  When Tim suggested that few people were likely to actually read books on the Unsuggester list, an anonymous user responded, "You underestimate Thingamabrarians. Some of us are just looking for new ways to branch out from our old ruts... and something flagged as 'opposite' to our normal reading might just be what we're all looking for. (Besides, a lot of the 'niche' books are throwing up classics in the unowned lists, and many people like to improve their lit-cred.)"


In other words, recommendation systems don't have to be optimized to give you something you like.  They just have to be responsive to your personal profile in some understandable and meaningful way.


Pandora is an example of a recommendation system with a different value set and strategy behind it, one that is closer to the traditional curatorial expert model than Netflix or Librarything.  Pandora is an online music service that provides a personalized radio station based on a combination of user inputs and expert analysis.  How is a museum like a radio station? Both are collections of discreet, loosely organized content pieces that are both familiar and new. Your overall enjoyment of the content experience is determined to a large extent by the balance of items you like and those you don’t, those you know and those that are new. The more time between the good stuff, the less likely you are to tune in again in the future. And your loyalty to the radio station (its stickiness) relies on the regular introduction of unfamiliar content in an enjoyable context.These criteria aren’t easy to meet, and the result is lots of people like me who never listen to non-talk radio. But Pandora has lured me back by successfully responding to my profile (a small set of personally-selected musical inputs) with a wealth of new musical experiences.


Pandora uses collaborative filtering to create a real-time radio station for you based on your preferences. You enter a seed artist or song (or several) and Pandora starts playing music that it interprets as related in some way to your selections. This seed content is functionally your user profile.  The extraordinary thing about Pandora is the complexity of its filtering. It doesn’t just group artists together and play music by similar musicians. Instead, it uses hundreds of tags, signifiers assigned to each song by a team of expert musicians, to find correlated songs that may be of interest. Pandora is a product of the Music Genome Project, in which musicians define the individual “genes” of a song via signifiers and use those to generate song “vectors” that can then be compared to create highly specific and complex musical narratives. Each song takes twenty to thirty minutes for experts to encode.  This is a serious data project.


For example, I created a radio station based on just one song: Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes by Paul Simon. That radio station then played:

  • She’s a Yellow Reflector by Justin Roberts

  • If Only the Moon Were Up by Field Music

  • She’s Going by The English Beat

  • You’re The One by Paul Simon

  • Withered Hope by They Might Be Giants

  • Big Dipper by Elton John

  • Wait Until Tomorrow by New York Rock and Roll Ensemble

  • The Tide is High by Blondie


All but one of these songs and half the artists were new to me.  And I enjoyed seven out of nine. For each song, I could click a “Why?” button to see Pandora’s explanation for why it was played. For example, The Tide is High was included because it "features acoustic rock instrumentation, reggae influences, a subtle use of vocal harmony, repetitive melodic phrasing and excessive vamping."  There are over 400 different tags used to relate songs in the Music Genome Project, ranging from “brisk swing feel” to “lyrics that tell a story” to “sparse tenor sax solo.” From a single seed song, Pandora will generate a whole channel of music, and will shift and refine that channel based on your thumbs up/down rating of each song played. In this way, Pandora makes inferences about what you might like and introduces you to new music.


It’s the introduction to new music that makes Pandora uniquely interesting as a recommendation system. Rather than user-based collaborative filtering, in which visitors receive recommendations based on what other “people like you” enjoyed, Pandora is an example of item-based collaborative filtering, in which visitors receive recommendations based on the similarity of previously selected items (seed songs) to potential members of the collection.


Pandora and the Music Genome Project is controlled by experts, musicians who, like curators, are uniquely skilled at identifying and tagging songs to create musical genes that represent the full spectrum of musical expression. And their expertise makes for a better experience for me as a user/visitor. As an amateur listener, I could not tell you the particular elements of “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” that appeal to me. Listening and reacting to the Pandora-generated songs allowed me to understand the nuance of what I like and don’t like. Turns out that I enjoy songs with “extensive vamping.” Could I have articulated that at the start? No. Not only does Pandora introduce me to new music, it expands my vocabulary for discussing music. I learned something! From experts!


Users of Pandora are protective of the Music Genome Project experts. There have been interesting discussions on the Pandora blog about the slow inclusion of user-based filtering, and listeners' related fear that it will taint the waters of the high-quality item-based process. The Music Genome Project involves visitors' submissions in a limited way. The core value is in the professional categorization of the songs.


This brings us back to our fictitious museum and the multiple perspective labels.  Remember, we've asked several staff members to write their own takes on exhibits exhaustively throughout the museum, and now we need a way to intelligently serve the "right" content to visitors.  How will we design our recommendation engine?  We could ask curators to map the "genetics" of every exhibit and every perspective... You could have a personalized trip through the museum, enjoying an experience that is both highly responsive to your preferences and one which deepens your understanding and ability to articulate why you like what you like. In some cases, people might be surprised to learn that they prefer artists whose subject matter comes from childhood memories, or those who work in a specific medium. While the museum can’t be physically rearranged for each visitor, the content can be remixed conceptually to present a progressively engrossing, educational experience.


Personalization doesn’t just give you what you want. It exposes you to new things, and it gives you a vocabulary for articulating and refining why you like what you like. Pandora’s collaborative filtering process contextualizes data from a very personal starting point. You get the analysis and the narrative, but you get the slice that will resonate most with you. The world is opened a little wider and hopefully, you keep listening.




Forming Two-Way Relationships


Having explored the entry and visit experience through the lens of personalization, we now turn to a loftier goal: using personalization to develop deeper ongoing relationships with visitors.  This is an obvious element of the evolution of interpersonal relationships.  The better you know someone, the more personal stories, feelings, and experiences are shared, and the deeper your relationship grows.  So far, we've looked at how personalization can be a starting point for authentic, validated connections between visitors and institutions.  But hopefully the connection doesn't end there.  For visitors who are interested in ongoing engagement with the institution, personalization should serve as a way both to track and support visitors' evolving experiences and interests.


Museums already do this well with a very small subset of visitors: donors, researchers, and community partners.  The more money you give, the more personal attention you get from the development office.  The more time you spend digging into the collection and carefully examining artifacts, the more significant a relationship you form with collections staff.  And if you are hand-selected for a community advisory board or partner project, you are likely to work very closely with the institution and staff, expressing your interests and needs in response to a sincere desire for your engagement.


But what about the rest of visitors, the ones without deep pockets, phDs, or programmatic connections?  All three of these niche groups are necessarily small and it would not be manageable to scale up the personalized attention that a major donor, researcher, or community advisor receives to every member or visitor walking through the door.  Our models for treating individuals personally are based on a scarcity model, since each requires direct human contact with a staff member, whether in development, collections, or community partnerships.  Community advisory boards in particular are often seen as requiring a monumental amount of added staff time, so it is not practical to apply the traditional models for these partnerships broadly.


But that doesn't mean we should throw up our hands and give up.  There are a huge number of visitors, mostly members, who visit museums frequently and whose relationships with particular institutions have the potential to evolve and deepen over time.  This already happens without institutional support, but it could be heightened and celebrated if institutions got intentionally involved.  This is not an entirely altruistic endeavor.  If visitors feel more connected to institutions and feel that museums are personally responsive to their changing needs and interests, they are more likely to visit again, become members, or renew their memberships. 


Successfully converting people to become members requires a personalized entry point, but motivating renewal or more dedicated engagement requires sustained personal relationships.  Most museum membership programs do not do this effectively.  Members are not greeted by name or connected personally to staff or other members.  They may receive a series of impersonal mass communications, invitations to events, and discounts.  But they are unlikely to be socially, ideologically, or actively connected to the institution the way a church member or book club member would be.  I am a member of a temple, and as such am deeply entwined personally with other members and responsible for helping set the program for the institution.  My mother-in-law is a member of Weight Watchers, and she gets fined if she doesn't show up to meetings to share her own personal successes and failures with her fellow members.  I am a member of a political party, and I am expected to support my candidate with time, money, and my vote.  I'm also a member of lots of museums, and I am rarely addressed by name, asked to take responsibility for anything, or invited to initiate a project based on my interests relative to the institution.  For many museums, I am just a destination for their e-newsletters.  I wanted to support the institution and connect to it, but instead, I'm just a person with a discount and a button.  


Museum memberships are big business.  Over the last twenty years, the museum industry has moved towards greater reliance on gate sales, due to rising commercialism and diminishing government support. And the result, in part, is the invention of a new, successful product: the membership as discount. Membership effectively packages the museum experience--in some cities, a group of local museum experiences--into something repeatable at low cost.  The majority of museum members are "value members" who join museums for the cost savings on visits.  They do a calculation, realize that a membership is "worth it" if they visit two or three times in a year, and spring for the membership.  What's wrong with value members? Consider the largest vendor of value memberships: fitness centers. Gym memberships, like museum memberships, are often bought based on future intentions rather than current activities. If you are not someone who works out, you assume that buying a gym membership will motivate you to attend. But the gym experience, like the museum experience, doesn't welcome you into a social, supportive environment that rewards your membership. It just offers services and equipment, to be used or ignored. And the reality is that 9 out of 10 gym memberships are abandoned. The financial incentive to use the services of the gym are not great enough to overcome personal obstacles to use.


The same argument may be made of value members at museums. Museum memberships are bought based on a calculated intention to return, not a realistic assessment of museum use. Membership does not a frequent visitor make. Most membership purchases are made before entry (at point of sale) rather than after a visit. This means that people assess the "value" of membership based on the cost of admission, not the quality of the visit. In general, people who join a museum on their first visit are much less likely to renew than those who join after one or more visits (and relatedly, people are much less likely to renew if they are first-time members than if they have already been members for a year or more). It's the difference between buying a subsidized perk for something already in your life and something you intend to, but do not currently, do.


So the first problem with value members is churn rate; like delinquent gym members, museum members who find at the end of the year to have under-visited do not renew. But the other problem with value members is that they are hard to cultivate into volunteers, more active participants, or higher-level donors. They didn't join to support the institution and are unlikely to respond to calls to do so. The membership is an individual purchase, not an investment in their organization.


What does value membership have to do with personalization?  By treating membership as an impersonal discount program, museums are missing the opportunity to connect with the visitors with whom there is the most potential for a personal, sustaining relationship.  Value members join with the intention to visit more than once--they pay upfront for the privilege of that intention!  From the minute a person joins (likely in the context of a visit), the museum has 365 days to convince the person to come back and have a good enough second or third experience to justify renewal.  When venues don't succeed at this, it means they have failed to create a connection with that person.  The museum has failed to convince that person that the institution provides experiences that are responsive and valuable to her needs.  Finding ways to personalize the continued experience of a member (or any multi-visit guest) can deepen the relationship between institution and individual, which benefits both parties.  This isn't just about renewing memberships or inspiring multiple visits; it's about promoting deeper educational engagement with visitors in ways appropriate to their intellectual and creative development and interests.




Let's take the example of the non-member, the person who visits once, has a great (hopefully personalized) experience, and leaves.  What can the museum do to support a connection that builds on that first visit?  Most museums treat one-time visitors like one-night stands; they don't call, they don't write, and they certainly don't pine.  If the visitor signs up for a mailing list or e-newsletter, he will receive cheerful announcements of upcoming events in the mail, but he won't be connected to humans, staff or otherwise.  And while it is unrealistic for staff to introduce themselves personally to each visitor who visits once, there are opportunities for personalized connections that can follow visitors beyond the exit doors. 


Many museums are experimenting with exhibits that allow visitors to send home an ecard or email with bookmarks to content that visitors found compelling or made themselves.  Several art, science, and history museums have offered RFID and barcode-based systems since the mid-1990s for visitors to save experiences at the museum for later perusal on the Web.  These "do it now, see it on the web later" activities tend to have a low follow-through rate, where 5-10% of visitors actually check out their web content after their visit (source).  This number increases depending on how personal the content is; in general, activities where you take a photo of yourself or make something generate more online visits than those where you simply bookmark an object or piece of media.  It's not surprising that so few visitors choose to follow up; these visitors are a subset of the niche who choose to create medai or bookmark content in the museum in the first place.  In most museums offering this kind of personalized experience, the opportunity to personalize is provided to every visitor via her ticket, and anywhere between 6 and 40% of visitors choose to actually perform the personalization or bookmarking activity (same source as above).  This is reasonable when you consider the Forrester profiles on the percentage of people who like to create (20%) and collect (18%) content, the two activities available in most of these personalized museum systems.  So you have a subset of your audience who want to do the activities onsite, a subset of those who want to follow-up later online, and then large numbers of people who are unaware of or uninterested in these activities.  There are also visitors who lose the ticket between the museum and the home computer, forget or do not realize that they can find the content later online, etc.  Follow-through rates on visitors opening emails generated by specific exhibits--such as the Tropenmuseum's "send home a photo of yourself with an African hairstyle"--are much higher.  That content was explicitly requested via interaction with the exhibit that generated it and it travels directly to your email rather than forcing you to type in a string of numbers and visit a website.  Some of these activities are trivial--take a photo, send it home--and others are more involved, inviting you to collect content throughout your exhibit experience or via a multi-step process.  In the photo-narrative experience portion of the Skyline exhibit at the Chicago Children's Museum, visitors work in groups to construct a mini-skyscraper over several minutes.  As they work, a kiosk takes timed photographs of them.  After the skyscraper is built, the family or group sits down to make a digital "book" of their experiences.  The kiosk prompts them to select pictures from the bank of photos taken that represent "a time when we worked well together," or "a time when we solved a tough problem."  This clever setup allows the personalization (the photo-taking) to be automated, and then requires the visitors to layer on the meaning by reflecting on what they were doing and feeling at the different moments caught on camera.  This highly personalized photo narrative takes a long time to create (median group time on task is 15 minutes) and about 85% of visitors opt to take their "building permit" with them, the ticket to retrieving the digital story at home.  (TSIVIA - WHAT PERCENTAGE OPEN AT HOME?)  In another much lower-tech activity at the Chicago Children's Museum, rather than sending home an email, visitors handwrite postcards to themselves about their museum visit.  This activity was introduced to encourage visitors to reflect on their experience at the museum and memorialize their learning for later review at home.  Plus, the treat of receiving a postcard in the mail is a special delight, especially for young visitors.


All of these activities send home memorials of fun and educational visits for further reflection.  But very few explicitly motivate another visit or continued interaction with the museum.  In cases where visitors are saving content onsite for at-home review, visitors are steered to view content on the museum's website and may be drawn into related activities or information.  For example, the US Holocaust Museum's "From Memory to Action" exhibition about worldwide genocide allows visitors to swipe a card across a table to store videos and multimedia stories for future exploration at home via the Take Action website.  In this case, the goal is for visitors to continue their experience exploring the exhibit's content when at home, where their attention may be more focused on a difficult and highly emotional topic.  But the planned experience is still pretty simplistic: see the exhibit, save the things you like, check them out at home.  The end.


It is very rare for the take-home component of a museum visit to serve as the beginning rather than the end of a learning experience.  The "post-visit" is treated as an epilogue rather than the hook for a sequel.  One of the interesting things about the library model is that you have to visit the place where you checked out the book to return it.  And while a great number of patrons use book drops external to the book-browsing section of the library, there's always that potential, that sense that "here I am at the library again, continuing the cycle of returning old books and checking out new ones."  There is no such sense with the museum.   The experience is contained in the box of the visit which can only trickle so far beyond the parking lot.


The web is an obvious place for museums to continue building a relationship that might motivate subsequent visits, but so is the rest of the visitor's world. One of the nicest things about the Chicago Children's Museum's postcard activity is the time delay inherent in the postal service.  You don't come home from the museum to a postcard waiting for you at your door.  Instead, it surprises you a few days or weeks later--your own handwriting, a card you may have forgotten that you wrote, the gift of a memory of a pleasurable experience.  From the museum's perspective, the postcard activity promotes the recall of museum experiences, which contributes to cementing the learning that started onsite.  (MORE ON THIS)  But it also injects the museum into real life and reminds you, via the most personal voice possible, that you liked being there and might like to visit again.


There are more extensive ways to create cross-platform relationships between the museum and individual through narrative, by treating museum visits as "pearls on a string" that punctuate a more pervasive story experience.  In 2008, Scholastic Books released a new series, The 39 Clues, which ties together a ten-book mystery with an online gaming environment. Here's the problem that Scholastic is trying to solve with The 39 Clues: they paid for ten books written by ten different authors, and the books would be released every few months over two years. How could Scholastic keep readers interested enough between releases to bring them back for each subsequent episode?


Scholastic realizes that their books can't do everything. Reading a book can be an intense and powerful experience, but it is a punctuated moment in time. Few people obsessively reread the same book over and over, especially if the "next" book is coming in only 4 months. Is the intense experience of one book enough to hook readers to that author or series? And if the author is changing each time, how do you build allegiance to the content rather than the writer?


This problem is analagous to the repeat visit problem for museums. Museum visits, like book reading, can be an intense and wonderful experience. But is one museum visit enough to compel a second visit? If exhibits are organized by different staff members on different topics at different times, how do you build allegiance to the museum rather than a specific exhibit? How do you encourage visitors to have a sense of pervasive experience with the museum?  Most museums try to solve this by convincing visitors that there is more to do at the museum--that the deeper, layered experience can happen within the galleries. But that strategy requires audiences to deepen their engagement with the museum by visiting, which is necessarily a time-limited, location-specific experience. Time-limited, location-specific experiences don't lend themselves easily to pervasive relationships.


Scholastic realized that. They knew there was a desire among some readers to engage more deeply and continuously with characters and stories, and that there was an opportunity to draw some lukewarm readers into fandom with other avenues into and around the books' content. Rather than trying to solve this problem by releasing longer books (for the obsessed) or more books (for the skeptical), they went to another medium: online gaming. Scholastic realized that they were already good at achieving a primary goal: publishing great books for readers. To achieve new goals--deepening the experience for obsessives and bringing new readers into their empire--they turned to other media (games and online environments) that are better at achieving those desired user effects.


Here's how The 39 Clues cross-platform experience works. There are 39 clues to find. Each book unlocks a clue. Each book also comes with 6 game cards that help you find clues. These two elements guarantee that people will not only read but purchase books (to get the cards). While the books follow a team of orphaned siblings who hunt for clues, the online game reveals that you the player are also related to them (surprise!) and can hunt alongside them. There are online puzzles to solve and new book-related content to absorb. As a reader, you consume the fictitious experiences of others. As a player, you are the main event. And both experiences enhance each other.


There are also some creepy advertising components of The 39 Clues. They are offering cash prizes for participation, which seems both inappropriate and non-conducive to the creation of real online community. And the whole approach--manufacturing a series featuring a range of authors--is not exactly an entrance to literary heights.  But the approach is valuable. It takes humility to acknowledge that museum visits can't--in most cases--accommodate every kind of relationship museums would like to have with visitors. There are content-related experiences and preferences that would be better served in alternate environments. Art museums have always created catalogues to accompany exhibitions, which are one cross-platform way for obsessives to deepen their relationships with content. But what about the grazers, the visitors who come once but never make it back to that time- and location-specific experience of visitation? What other engagement platforms could connect those individual museum experiences into a more continuous, growing relationship?


The Web is certainly one of these platforms. Too many museums have an overly structured concept of the online pre- and post-visit experience that limit the opportunities for pervasive engagement. Rather than thinking of extending one museum visit with a pre- and post-visit, we should be thinking about linking many museum visits with online experiences. Scholastic took the audacious position that people will want to read all ten books, and The 39 Clues online experience is unapologetically geared toward that long-term investment. Imagine a museum game that requires visitors to visit six times in a year to connect with six different exhibits that punctuate a more open-ended online narrative. Forget "build the exhibit and they will come". This is "build the narrative and they will return".


These narratives need not be crass advertising grabs; they can become opportunities for visitors to educate themselves in a range of ways about museum-related content. In other cases, such as the personalized membership experiences at churches and social groups, the narrative is not produced by the institution; it is driven by the ongoing stories of the lives of the members.


But let's get back to the first-time visitor and the potential to make a connection that will lead to further engagement.  In the same way that the beginning of this chapter discussed visitors creating profiles on their way into museums, it's worth thinking about asking visitors to create simple profiles on their way out.  You could imagine a e-newsletter sign-up kiosk at which visitors are queried to pick one word that best describes their visit experience ("inspiring," "boring," "fun," "educational," etc.) and another word to describe something that they are newly interested in based on the visit.  Then, when the visitor goes home, he receives an email from the museum--not a completely impersonal one announcing the next exhibit, but one that says, "George, we're so glad you were inspired by the museum.  Here are a few of the objects/exhibits that other visitors (or staff) have described as inspiring that you might want to check out on your next visit.  And since you're interested in learning more about the behind-the-scenes of the museum, here's a blog that some of our conservation staff run, and a couple of dates of upcoming behind-the-scenes tours."


Yes, this is marketing.  It's not exactly participatory, but it is personal--and that's the first step towards a more multi-directional relationship.  On the institutional side, the museum is expressing an explicit, personal desire for you to return--asking the visitor for a second date.  There's a restaurant in Santa Cruz with an eccentric owner who says to every exiting patron, "See you tomorrow!"  He knows you aren't actually likely to come back the following day, but he has set an expectation (and expressed a personal desire) that you might in the near future.  This is much more compelling than the generic "Thank you for visiting Maryland.  Come Back Soon!" highway sign that you drive by at 80 miles per hour.  And on the visitor side, there are folks who want that second date.  These are people who willingly give museums their email addresses.  They WANT to receive content, and despite all their other e-newsletter experiences to date, they are secretly hoping that this institution can finally provide something compelling.  You are more likely to satisfy visitors' desires and motivate repeat visits or membership if you can be responsive, even in small ways, to their personal needs and interests.




Let's say our friend George is motivated to come back to the museum.  He received an email that was pertinent to his personal interest and decided to return.  So now the question is: how can the museum recognize and be responsive to George's growing interest?  The big second date has arrived, but unfortunately, the museum treats George no differently given their supposedly growing relationship.  In most cases, even members get the impersonal touch at the front desk. 


This is terrible.  Sure, lots of experience economy businesses, like movie theaters or restaurants, work this way, but those institutions are transactional, not transformational.  How can we expect to form deep relationships with visitors in which they share their deepest interests if we can't even remember their names or the last time they came around?  There is no such thing as a townsquare for faceless individuals.  When you are treated like a "regular," that connotes special value.  Regulars see themselves as part of a community of people who have an ongoing relationship with the institution. 


There's a restaurant in New York in which patrons are addressed by all staff according to whether they are a regular or not. To a person who has visited previously, staff (from waiters to busboys to maitre'ds) say, "welcome back. We're glad to see you again." To a new guest, they say, "Welcome. We're so glad you chose to come." How can they tell the difference between returners and first-timers? When a party is seated, the host asks if this is their first visit. If so, they receive red napkins. Returning guests receive white napkins. The napkins are a visual signal that any staff member passing by can use to be responsive to different kinds of patrons. At museums, membership cards stay in people's pockets as they visit. Why not give members and special guests a different colored sticker or identifying item to help staff throughout the institution respond to them in kind?

Identifying members and repeat visitors isn't just a way to appreciate their patronage; it can also serve as an incentive for increased visitation. You don't need a computer system for this--even a punch card, like those offered at coffee shops--can indicate repeat use and encourage staff to engage. We’re all familiar with the most basic version, ubiquitous in coffee shops, in which you can slowly accumulate stamps or hole-punches and receive a free drink after six or eight or ten purchases. There are virtual versions, such as the REI coop system, in which members of the coop receive 10% back on all REI purchases available in store credit or cash at the end of the year. There’s even a theater that offers a play with forking paths (such that you can’t see the whole show on one occasion) and a diminishing ticket price for each subsequent visit.


I’ve often wondered why I’ve never seen a museum with a punch card system. Even at the most basic level, punch cards do a couple of important things:

  1. They establish an expectation that you might visit multiple times.
  2. They allow staff to see, with no complex technology, that you have visited previously.

Presumably, a membership does these things as well. But many large museum membership database systems are dismal at tracking members’ or visitors’ repeat attendance. While the visitor is “growing their relationship” with the institution over several visits, the museum plays the amnesiac, treating each visitor like it’s the first time. And where the databases fall short, punch cards thrive. Seeing that a person’s card has been punched several times allows front-line staff to engage in conversation about what they liked on previous visits, what’s new, and what they might particularly enjoy.

But a simple punch card is not enough. Like national parks, people visit museums infrequently enough that the punch card does not incentivize repeat use. If you get coffee every day, and there’s a place that offers you a free cup for every ten you buy, then you can get free coffee every couple of weeks. Museums don’t work that way. I suspect that most people (with the exception of rabid young families at children’s and science museums) would lose a museum punch card before making it to visit number ten.

Here are some clever innovations on the punch card system:

  1. Menchies, a frozen yogurt shop in Los Angeles, offers a punch card with a free yogurt after you’ve purchased seven. When my dad entered as a first-time customer and bought a yogurt, he was given a punch card with six punches already completed—functionally, a two-for-one coupon for his next visit. Not only did this bring him back to Menchies, it was probably more effective than a coupon would have been in priming him to take a new punch card and presumably continue frequenting the shop. Some museums have been experimenting with sending students home from school trips with a free ticket for a followup visit with the family; maybe starting them with a punch card would be a more effective way to connect them to the institution.
  2. Tina, We Salute You, a hip coffee shop in London, makes their punch cards a social in-venue experience. Rather than carrying your own card, you are invited to write your name on the wall and draw a star for every coffee you’ve drunk. Purchase ten and you receive a free coffee—and a new color to continue advancing your stars. This creates a feeling of community and entices new visitors to the shop to add their own name and get involved. There’s a game-like “keeping up with the Joneses” aspect where people feel motivated to get more stars, to have a more adorned name, etc. because their participation is being publicly showcased. Instead of the reward when you reach ten and get a free coffee being a private feeling, you get to celebrate with the store and the rest of its patrons. Again, this could be a lovely way, particularly for a small museum, to encourage visitors to think of themselves as part of the museum community and to desire a “level up” in their nameplate on the wall. It’s like a low-budget, dynamic donor wall.
  3. The Winking Lizard Tavern is an Ohio-based chain of thirteen restaurants that puts on a yearly “world beer tour,” this year featuring over 150 international beers. People can join the tour with a ten dollar entrance fee, which grants them a color guidebook of all the beers, a punch card for the beers they’ve tried, and an online beer-tasting tracking system. When you hit fifty beers, you get a gift, and at one hundred, you receive the “world tour jacket” featuring the names of the year’s beers. This is functionally a membership, including email newsletter and special events, but it is driven by the idea that you will keep purchasing new (and different) beers. It’s a brilliant way for each entry, each purchase, to enhance the value of the punch card rather than making people wait entirely until the end. If only the parks service had taken this path with their passport. You could easily imagine a similar system for a museum to incentivize visiting different institutions, exhibits, or trying new experiences across the institution (educational programs, lectures, performances, discussions, etc.).

Punch cards and incentive schemes aren’t just about getting people in the door. They’re also a way to establish a deeper connection with regulars and to reward people for whom the museum is a significant part of their lives. As more museums have moved towards offering “value memberships” that are essentially discounts on admission, membership renewal relies largely on repeat visits. If the member doesn’t come several times, she won’t renew. So when it comes to members, this possibility of a growing relationship via repeat visits becomes an imperative.  Members are people who have moved beyond the punch card by making a down payment on future museum experiences.  If you're a member, paying $50 or $100 for the privilege to be part of the museum community, the staff should be able to address you by name.  Being addressed by name is really important.  Have you ever had a serious relationship with someone without knowing their name?  Of course not.  We use the idea "he didn't even know her name" to talk about throwaway interactions.  A member deserves better.  And while greeting members and museum regulars by name may sound like a Herculaen endeavor, it should just be a start.  Ideally, a personalization system would remember far more than your name.  It would recall what you've done before at the museum and recommend new things that might be of value to you.  Particularly at children's and science museums, there are many visitors who use the museum as an extension of their other family learning activities and environments.  And yet while their children's progress in an online educational game environment is tracked and provides feedback to parents, no such feedback exists for museum visits.  Exhibit designers spend hundreds of hours developing content that is developmentally appropriate for different kinds of learners, but that information is not used to enhance and amplify the learning value of the museum experience.  There are many children's museums that provide label text at adult eye-height encouraging parents to observe and learn from their children's approach to play.  Why can't the museum automate some of this observation and provide recommendations that can help families "grow with" the museum?  If the Winking Lizard Tavern can do it for beer, why can't we do it for children's education?


One of the most powerful (and creepy) versions of this kind of personalized feedback is exemplified by Harrah's casinos. Harrah’s is one of the four largest casino companies in the gaming industry.  Harrah’s uses “Total Rewards" loyalty cards to deeply engage gamers as part of the casino's "community," and by doing so, induce people to play longer and spend more money.  The cards function like bank cards; users swipe them at the slot machines to play, and the cards register wins and losses.  Players get points that can be redeemed for meals and hotel discounts, but the real power of the Total Rewards system is in tracking that is functionally invisible to guests.  Harrah's knows what games you play, what times you like to play, when you like to eat and what you like to eat.  The cards are integrated not just across the games but across the entire set of Harrah's casinos, hotels, and resorts, and the company adjusts its level of customer service to your dynamic, growing relationship with the casino.  If you tend to visit in April, you'll receive an email with hotel discounts in February or March.  Since the loyalty system was launched in the mid-1990s, Harrah's has doubled its share of guests' gaming budgets.  It's no coincidence that their system is considered a standout "customer relationship" system as opposed to a rewards card.  "The prevailing wisdom in this business is that the attractiveness of a property drives customers," says Gary Loveman, Harrah's COO. "Our approach is different. We stimulate demand by knowing our customers." 


Harrah's knows its customers so well that it can even respond to the real-time emotional rollercoaster of gambling.  The casino maintains real-time data on the actions of every card-holder as they play - dollars in, dollars out, time spent at specific machines - and uses the data to determine individuals’ financial “pain point” – i.e. how much money they are willing to spend before leaving the casino.  The casino uses that pain point to stage strategic interventions during real-time play.  When a player comes close to her limit, a staff member on the casino floor receives an alert from a dispatcher, greets the player, and offers her a free meal, a drink, or a bonus gift of money added to the loyalty card.  By mitigating the bad experience of losing with a gift, Harrah’s extends people beyond their pain points and they stay and play longer.  And by combining the action players already do (inserting money) with the desired new action (identifying themselves), the loyalty cards create a deeper relationship with no additional action by users.  In fact, the players prefer to play with the loyalty cards because they receive perks for doing so.  Players get an easier way to play and receive rewards, and the casino gets unique, trackable data on every player in the room.


As evil as it may seem, Harrah's loyalty program is an elegant example of a responsive member relationship.  This need not be a creepy "Big Brother"esque endeavor that empties visitors' wallets (though some staff wouldn't mind such a technique).  Imagine a member card that visitors can swipe each time they visit the museum.  When people join the museum, there could be several challenges available to them, based on their age, their interests, and previous time spent at the institution.  Swiping the card triggers something to happen in the member's life outside the museum - a postcard sent home, an email, an online reward - which waits for the visitor to come home and reminds them to return.  You could, for example, use a member loyalty program as a kind of game in which visitors receive rewards and encouragement for trying new things at the museum and attaining mastery of certain skills or knowledge. 


This is potentially valuable to parents, who will better understand how the museum can assist in their educational goals, kids, for whom feedback can be a powerful game mechanic that encourages mastery and continued development, and the institution, which can position itself as a useful partner in the family's development.  Right now, many families report that they "age out" of a particular type of informal learning institution--children's museums, zoos, science museums--after two or three years of very active use.  A science museum is (in most cases) no less compelling a science learning place for a fifteen year-old than for a ten year-old, but each of these visitors requires a different set of experiences.  If museums pursued loyalty systems as extensive as those employed by Harrah's and the like, they can grow with visitors instead of visitors growing "out" of them.





Personalization: Not Just for Visitors


One final note on personalization. This entire chapter has focused on how visitors can have more personalized experiences in museums. But the staff deserve their own voices as well. Just as it is hard for visitors to have relationships with institutions that don't acknowledge their growing connection, it's difficult to have relationships with buildings as opposed to individuals. And for staff--especially staff who work on the floor and talk personally with visitors every day--it's a way to feel like a human in your job instead of a conveyor of company policy.


In some institutions, this personalization happens internally. In 2004, I visited the Center Of Science and Industry(COSI) in Columbus, Ohio. In the staff breakroom, they had a wall of photos, names, and titles of all staff members so that people could easily identify each other across the institution. This is a great (and not atypical)way for staff who work in a large, diverse, and often siloed organization to recognize each other as individuals. But COSI took it one step further. Each nameplate featured the staff photo, name, title, and "dream title." The director of education's dream title was "chief banana eater." A visitor service representative proclaimed herself "queen of bubbles," and so on. This very simple addition allowed staff to express themselves - Thor their aspirational(and creative) selves along with the more standard information about their work.

In other museums, the Web is becoming a place where diverse staff can share their unique voices about the inner workings of the institution. Director blogs are interesting, but directors already have several forums in which they can express themselves. I'm more interested in museums at SMM, which scientists, conservators, educators, exhibit developers, and floor staff share their unique voices through public blogs. At several museums, floor staff have been encouraged to participate in blogging programs, either through a central institutional blog or by allowing them to run their own blogs. One of my favorite staff blogs is from the Exploratorium Explainers, a group of young floor staff who work with school group visitors. Their topics range from exhibits they have crushes on to boring events they work to funny interactions with visitors on the floor. Their tone is often irreverent, but they do a wonderful job communicating their energy and love of the museum through their writing.

Floor staff may be the MOST appropriate museum bloggers. They are the voice and face of the museum to visitors on a daily basis. They have the most connection with visitors' interests and therefore potentially the most relevant content to share with readers. In one situation at the Science Museum of Minnesota, a woman connected with a staff member with an unusual name (Thor)on the Science Buzz

COSIstaff wall

MBAYAQ blog, and then later had an in-person follow-up discussion with him on the floor at the museum. That's a social connection between two individuals that was only possible because Thor was able to express his unique voice on the museum's website.

Encouraging staff, especially junior staff, to blog on behalf of the institution is a win-win for the staff and the museum. Giving staff a venue for their thoughts creates a high (museum-level) expectation quality-wise. It encourages the development and maintenance of institutional memory and helps new staff learn the ropes in the highest turnover division of the institution. If staff maintain personal blogs, who knows how kindly or unkindly they will reference their workplace. But if they are blogging under the masthead of the institution, they go from being freelancers to staff reporters. They want to further the institution. They want to know it's okay to do so without fear of being shut down or fired.

Some companies walk this line by offering their staff individual blog space (in which they can write about pretty much whatever they want) and then maintaining an aggregate, more publicized blog that pulls appropriate posts from the personal ones. Others start with internal blogs, keep those going until management feels comfortable, and then go public. And others set basic guidelines and then step away.

I'd love to see more floor staff blogs (and security blogs, and exhibit maintenance blogs, and...). These people are often the least empowered staff authority-wise. Supporting staff blogging is a great way to acknowledge the extent to which they are the ones who make memorable visitors experiences. And the Explainers' blog showcases a group of people who are dedicated to their institution and grateful for the opportunity to be one of its mouthpieces. I can only imagine that the blog is improving staff retention. As one early Explainer/blogger, Ryan Jenkins, put it when reflecting on the experience of writing for the blog: "Finally, I want to say how proud it made me feel that the explainers, on our own, had continued the spirit of innovation that defines the special place we work at."

But the Web isn't the only place that staff can make personal connections with visitors. When the Monterey Bay Aquarium mounted a temporary exhibition called Fishing for Solutions in 1997, they took a new approach to visitor talk-back experiences that integrated staff voices as well as visitors'. The exhibition focused on the negative impacts of overfishing, rising consumption of seafood, and (human) overpopulation on the health of the oceans and ocean inhabitants. At the end of the exhibition, a talkback station invited visitors to share their own solutions. The label text read:

"People like you fish for solutions, too

The fisheries issues you've learned about are complex and changing. We believe that the best way to keep up with the issues is to join a conservation group. People also make different personal choices they believe will help ensure healthy fish populations, from how they vote, to what they eat, to how many children they have. Read what some of our employees and visitors are doing to help fish populations. What will you do to help turn the tide?"

(source:Visitor Voices in Museum Exhibitions book)

This area showcased comments from staff about their own personal lifestyle choices relevant to the issues at hand. Staff signed their comments with their names and positions at the Aquarium, which further personalized the connection between visitors and the real people who work at the museum. This technique was effective in modeling desired results because it demonstrated that the same staff who wrote the labels were willing to "put their money where their mouths were" and talk about their own personal lives and choices. Several of the responses from visitors were described as "self-congratulatory," with green promises the visitors making testimonials about their own good behavior and choices. Writing about this talkback experience, senior exhibit developer Jenny Sayre Ramberg commented that "For those visitors, the activity was an opportunity to reinforce their worldview and choices." This is true for the staff comments as well. Whether you are a visitor or a staff member, the opportunity to express yourself and your unique identity relative to the content of the institution is an important way to assert your existence and relevance to the experience at hand.

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