You lost me at “Hello”

I’m a firm believer that first impressions are really important for creating excellent visitor experiences. Of course, the flip-side of this is that I’m acutely sensitive to experiences that get off on the wrong foot.

An example of this happened to me recently. To explain, it’s probably best to walk you through the entire scenario. Bear with me as I give some background:

Earlier this month my partner and I were in the UK visiting family and friends spread across the country. On our way to visit friends in Edinburgh (via car), we decided to take a detour via Hadrian’s Wall. A friend had recommended we visit Vindolanda, an old Roman fort near the wall. It is the site of significant archaeological finds, offering an intriguing insight into daily life in a Roman military outpost.

Like many remote historical sites, it’s not the easiest place in the world to find, tucked away as it is past a small village and along some winding, narrow Northumberland roads. This sort of thing is obviously part of the deal – historic sites are where they are of course.  But it does make orientation and signage even more important than usual.

We had been driving along a very narrow road (too narrow for two vehicles to pass each other), not entirely sure we were heading in the right direction when we saw a sign saying “Vindolanda”. So far so good, and we took the turning.

A few hundred metres down the road, and some distance from anything resembling a Visitor Centre, we saw this Car Park:

Signage for Vindolanda East Car Park. The "East" implies that it is not the only car park (and probably not the main one - at least that's how I interpreted it). Information on the adjacent sign is too small to be read from a (moving) car.

Not convinced this was the right place, we pressed on. A few hundred metres further and we found the entrance to the Visitor Centre. Or was it?

The Entrance to the Visitor Centre complex. Where to from here?
We were faced with: disabled parking; barrier-controlled entry to another car park; a building with nothing to indicate its purpose (but which did not look like a Visitor Centre); and another building beyond, which potentially showed more promise as our intended destination (even though it’s hard to see in the picture above).

In the absence of any indication of where we were supposed to go, we decided to park in a courtyard in front of the furthest building (which did turn out to be the Visitor Centre), with a view to wandering in and working out what the story was.

We had barely got out of the car when a staff member came out of the Visitor Centre, enquiring about our business. After explaining we were just trying to visit, she told us that we should have parked back up the road (in the Car Park we drove past); the area we were in was for disabled access and deliveries only. Duly chastened, we returned back up the road.

It was only at this stage that I saw the crucial sign:

The 'no parking beyond this point sign', relatively high and to the left of the sign which has just attracted all your attention. Blink and you'll miss it!
This sign had been completely out of our field of view when we entered, and this important information was not repeated anywhere else once this threshold had been crossed.

I concede that technically we were in the wrong and that the sign does say that this is where we should have parked. But in our defence, it is in a completely different line-of-sight from the sign that attracts your attention first.* And given the location of the main car park is less than intuitive (being some distance from any obvious destination), why weren’t the parking arrangements made clear on the main sign?

We finally made our way back to the Visitor Centre. By this time, having already driven an hour or so from Newcastle to get here, I wanted to use the rest room. But even this simple requirement was made less-than-straightforward by the toilets being located past the pay-barrier and halfway through the exhibition space. Thus we had to first purchase tickets and pass through the back half of the exhibition to use the facilities (good thing I wasn’t desperate, or with a three-year-old who was). Once we were done in the loo, we found ourselves deposited halfway through the exhibition space, losing some of the logic and storyline as a consequence.

Which is a shame really. The newly completed exhibition (opened April 2011, developed with Heritage Lottery Fund money) looked well researched and designed, with plenty of interesting objects and displays. Then there were the fort ruins themselves. Pity I was too cheesed off to really take it in and enjoy it properly.

I’m aware that this post might come across as a bit churlish and nit-picky, especially since the chain of events was triggered by my own failure to see a sign. But as I have said before, I believe that everything an attraction does sends visitors a message, not just exhibitions and site interpretation. And in this case, I think a quality visitor experience (and an exhibition that clearly took a lot of planning, time and money to create) was let down by a failure to look at the visitor experience as an integrated whole. In short, no-one had thought through the whole experience, from finding the site right through to departure, in a visitor’s shoes.

Supporting this contention are a couple of additional observations:

  • The on-site cafe was open to “paying visitors only”. Why? The vast majority of visitors who make the effort to come to such an out-of-the-way site would surely have every intention of partaking the full experience – eventually. But visitors may have made a long journey and need to recharge before they’re ready to make the most of the site. To demand that visitors pay their entry ticket before they can purchase any refreshments (or use the toilets, as in my case) betrays a suspicious attitude towards the visitor, not a welcoming one.
  • What was the rationale for having the main car park several hundred metres away? Admittedly, most visitors to such a site are hikers for whom a bit of a walk is not a problem at all. But to my mind, this is beside the point. There was a car park closer to the Visitor Centre, but this was controlled by barriers (see picture above) and presumably was reserved for staff. Doesn’t this send the message that staff convenience outweighs visitor convenience? Again, a less than welcoming message.
To end on a happier note, I’ll add an epilogue to this tale: further up the road, past the Scottish border, we stopped at Jedburgh Abbey. A good audio tour was included in the entry price and they had nice biscuits in their gift shop.
That cheered me up…

 *Reading the Environmental Psychology literature as part of my PhD has made me less inclined to see such failures as my ‘fault’ – there is enough theory out there to explain why our mistake was a perfectly understandable one in the circumstances.

“Culture Segments”

A couple of weeks ago, I referred to Culture Segments, which was developed by UK-based firm Morris Hargreaves McIntyre as a way of describing different audiences for the cultural sector.

It identifies 8 different audience segments, based on people’s interests, attitudes, and extent to which they value culture as a part of their day to day lives:

“the segments are distinguished from one another by deeply-held beliefs about the role that art and culture play in their lives, enabling you to get to the heart of what motivates them and develop strategies to engage them more deeply.”

Briefly, the eight categories can be described as:

  • Enrichment: an older more mature demographic; most likely to visit heritage sites and gardens; relatively conservative and fixed in tastes and habits.
  • Entertainment: younger adults who are less interested in the arts; most likely to frequent ‘must-see’ events, theme parks and sporting events; tend to stick with what is seen as ‘popular’
  • Expression: people with a wide range of interests of which arts and culture are an important part; they enjoy intellectual stimulation and seek communal experiences in their leisure time
  • Perspective: home-oriented; mostly interested in outdoor-and nature based activites; they do not see arts and culture as important aspects of their lives but can be tempted if their relevance is made clear
  • Stimulation: active and adventurous, they like being at the cutting edge; innovators and early adopters; will seek out contemporary art forms like street art and music festivals in contrast to traditional arts and culture
  • Affirmation: view arts and culture asa way of spending quality time with friends and family; they actively seek educational experiences for their children; seek self development and peer affirmation
  • Release: younger adults with busy working and family lives; arts have moved down their list of priorities as they struggle to fit everything in; need convincing that arts can be enjoyable for children
  • Essense: active cultural consumers and creators; they avoid mainstream activities and like to be seen as discerning and sophisticated in their tastes; like to be the ‘first to discover’ the new and unknown

Each segment is described in further detail in the Culture Segments document (downloadable as PDF), including education levels, age profiles, cultural spending habits (split between tickets, food & drink and souvenirs) and ways to target each group more effectively. It’s based on the UK population but I imagine the general principles would be applicable elsewhere, if not the specific stats.

These audience segments are different from the visitor identities I have written about earlier – they are describing different things for different purposes.

The principal difference, as I see it, is that visitor identities are based on the circumstances of a particular visit to a particular site; these may change from visit to visit and from site to site. (For example, the same person can be a ‘Facilitator’ when taking their children to a Natural History museum, but an ‘Experience seeker’ when visiting The Louvre on holiday.)

By contrast, the audience segments are intended to be a measure of how likely you are to be a visitor to a cultural venue in the first place. (This is in keeping with my definition of ‘audience’ as being a bigger population than ‘visitors’ – your audience comprises all your potential visitors.)

Having said that, there might be some patterns and relationships between the two: I could imagine ‘Stimulation’ and ‘Entertainment’ segments being more likely to be ‘Experience seekers’, ‘Affirmation’ more likely to be ‘Facilitators’, and so on.  It would be interesting to study this in more detail.

Zen and the art of crochet

If I had to rate my artistic ability on a scale of 1 to 10 (and I’ll extend this rating to my craft skills), I’d give myself a 4. On a day I was feeling particularly generous.

I never advanced much past stick men in the drawing stakes, and I’ve always lacked the manual precision (or patience, or both) to excel at anything that involves making something: school woodwork and sewing projects were equally disastrous.

Given this track record, my involvement with the Adelaide Reef project was a radical departure from the script. This is a satellite of the worldwide Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef and links art, science and environmentalism. In a nutshell, the project has brought hundreds of people together to crochet a coral reef to display at the Royal Institution of Australia (RiAus) as part of the South Australian Living Artists (SALA) festival.

The reef is on display at RiAus Future Space Gallery until 7th September.

Some examples of the Adelaide Reef corals (from the RiAus website)

It is very unlikely I would have even considered getting involved were it not for the fact that I know some of the staff at RiAus who have been responsible for bringing the Adelaide Reef into being.

So about three months ago – having never crocheted before in my life – I turned up to one of the RiAus’ crochet workshops. At first it was just as I expected – I was pretty useless. I just couldn’t co-ordinate my fingers, hook and yarn in any way even vaguely resembling the effortless work of the experienced crocheters. But I wasn’t the only beginner and I pressed on, gradually gaining confidence, dexterity and an understanding of what I was supposed to be doing.

I continued to practice and soon I was experimenting with different techniques to create different kinds of shapes. In the end I made about eight pieces, with the biggest (not shown here) about the size of a lettuce (albeit floppier).

Some of my earlier coral crochet efforts


As my confidence and skills improved, I found crochet very satisfying and I could happily dedicate whole evenings to working on my pieces. I think it was a good example of a ‘flow experience‘ as described by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, tasks where you are able to get completely absorbed in the moment. Such levels of engagement are considered to be optimal for psychological health and wellbeing. It’s very meditative (hence the Zen reference in the title).

My supervisor, Jan Packer, has written about ‘flow’ in museum visits, which is how I first came to be aware of the concept. Flow experiences are those that a offer challenge that stretches your ability without over-stretching it, as this diagram illustrates:

A diagram showing the 'flow' state (

Other hallmarks of the flow experience which I think my crochet experience had:

  1. Clear goals – the task had a defined scope and end point
  2. It required a level of concentration, but not taxingly so
  3. Direct and immediate feedback (once you got going, the corals started to take shape fairly quickly)
  4. A sense of control, but at the same time losing yourself in the activity

I’m glad that such an event gave me an opportunity to try something that I wouldn’t otherwise have tried, and I plan to continue crocheting and expanding upon my (admittedly basic) skills.

Now that my services are no longer required for making coral, I’ll need to find other things to learn how to make!