Flying starts, flagging finishes

Do we focus on first impressions at the expense of memorable finishes?

Have you ever had a construction or renovation project that goes something like this: At first, things start off well and there is a good relationship with the contractor. Their approach inspires confidence. Regular progress is made. But then the project hits a snag or two: something takes longer than budgeted for, or there is a delay with supplies. The level of service tapers off, as does the quality of workmanship (although interestingly, the invoices *don’t*).

I get it: most projects are a lot more fun at the front end. That’s the creative bit, and it’s full of possibilities. By comparison, the finishing stages are often full of niggling details and pieces that don’t quite fit as the plans said they should. It’s the point when the bits you didn’t quite think through at the beginning become painfully apparent.

If, at this stage, the contractor’s strategy is one of avoidance; trying to do as little as they can get away with to get the project off their books, the whole job ends on a sour note. And who’s going to recommend a contractor who they’ve had to drag across the finish line?

A project doesn’t have to end this badly for you to be unhappy with the result. All it needs to do is fail to live up to your expectations.

Finishing badly is even more disastrous when you consider the way we remember experiences. According to the peak-end rule, how an experience finishes has a strong influence on the way we recall it overall. Daniel Kahneman and his colleagues demonstrated that when we recall a physically painful experience (such as a colonoscopy, or putting our hands in very cold water), we judge it as being less unpleasant if the final stage was less painful, even if we endured the pain for a longer duration.

If we apply the peak-end rule to how we treat customers (and visitors), it would suggest that finishing on a high note is particularly important. We should definitely deliver what we promise, and only promise what we know we can deliver. If an experience ends with a pleasant surprise, that will enhance memory of the event overall. On the other hand, if it ends with disappointment, it sours the whole experience – no matter how well you did in the early stages.


Your experience footprint is bigger than you think

It all started with a mysterious bear. . . 

But before I explain, first a little background: Last week I was at the Interpretation Australia national conference, Enriching the Visitor Experience, in Brisbane. The opening keynote was Experienceology‘s Stephanie Weaver. As the author of Creating Great Visitor Experiences, she had plenty to share about the role of interpretation and storytelling in crafting memorable and meaningful visitor experiences.

So back to the bear – Stephanie’s museum career started out at the Chicago Children’s Museum, which at the time was located in North Pier. Consistently in evaluation and focus groups, children kept on mentioning that “the bear” was one of their favourite exhibits. Good to know – except staff at the museum had no idea what exhibit the kids were talking about! There were no bears, teddy bears, pictures of bears, or anything remotely bear-related in the Museum. So what was this mysterious bear exhibit?

It turns out the solution wasn’t in the museum at all. As it happens, North Pier was at one end of an atrium mall, and this mall had a toy store. And across the atrium this toy store had strung up a large model of the “Ernest the balancing bear” child’s toy that cycled across and back on its tightrope. Although this display had nothing to do with the Museum – they didn’t manage it, they had no control over it – it was nonetheless perceived by visitors to be an integral part of the Children’s Museum experience. In fact, when exhibit staff proudly proclaimed the “bear mystery” finally solved, the Museum’s ticketing staff told them “oh yeah, we get all sorts of complaints when that bear isn’t working”.

Ernest the balancing bear (from

From this, Stephanie said she learned two important lessons about visitor experiences:

  1. The extent of the visitor experience as perceived by visitors – what I’ve called the “experience footprint” here – is much bigger than you might think, and may well include factors beyond your control (but which you still need to think about).
  2. Front-line staff often have a better idea of what’s happening on the exhibit floor than exhibition staff or management.

I’ll share a few more insights from this and other sessions over the coming days and weeks.

Why do I do what I do?

I talk a lot about visior experiences. But it occurred to me recently that I’d never really spelled out why I think they’re so important. We all like to think our work makes the world a better place in some small way, so how do I think what I do matters? Thinking about it over the past few weeks, I’ve come up with the following:

Why do I do what I do?

Because I believe that museums, heritage sites, science centres, zoos, aquariums and national parks have the power to make the world a better place. They can:

  • give us the thrill of discovering something new, or seeing “the real thing”
  • promote wellbeing by bringing us closer to art and nature
  • raise consciousness of the environment we depend upon
  • encourage empathy by presenting the point of view of a different person or culture
  • provide a context for memorable and meaningful experiences with our family and friends

And I firmly believe that the key to unlocking this potential is a good quality, well-planned visitor experience.

So that’s why I do what I do (And have just updated the interactivate web site to reflect this).

What about you – what inspires you to do what you do?




What do you want / need from an exhibition designer?

Exhibition design can be hard to pin down sometimes. It has been described as

“. . .a mode of communication that has meant different things at different times, continues to change and expand, and, in fact, is not even recognised universally as a discipline at all.” (Lorenc, Skolnick, & Berger, 2010, p12)

So if you’re commissioning an exhibition designer for the first time, it can be hard to know what you should be looking for. And it’s not a one-size-fits-all thing.

Many different types of specialists may lay claim to being able to design interpretive exhibitions. Such designers range from those with a grab-bag of soft skills that are hard to encapsulate in a few words, to people with clearly defined and quantifiable skill sets such as architects. And there’s a lot in between. In a tendering process, these apples and oranges may find themselves in direct competition with one another. If you’re the person letting and assessing tenders, on what basis should you choose?

I’ve been thinking through some of the issues I think clients should consider before commissioning a design team. This is what I’ve come up with so far:

Square pegs in round holes

It’s possible for a team to have the right skills, but deploy them in an inappropriate way. For instance, a big architectural firm may have ample experience in large complex buildings and fit-outs such as office buildings or shopping malls. Such a track record can be reassuring. But – if they see a museum as just another fit-out along the same lines, they may try and shoehorn it into the same production processes and protocols. Such a work plan will underestimate the amount of time and iteration it can take to get an exhibition layout, graphics and other media all working together in harmony. Office blocks and shopping malls don’t need to worry about “storylines”, so don’t expect standard fit-out processes to be able to accommodate them.

Such shoehorning is more likely to happen when a client uses a modified version of a boilerplate construction tender to call for bids: it doesn’t take into account the specific variables and vagaries of an exhibition.

A question to ask yourself: Does the firm “get” exhibitions or do they see them as yet another fit-out?

The certainty of the cookie cutter

In any exhibition project, certainty and creativity will be in tension. Maximising certainty will lead to cookie-cutter outcomes. Meanwhile, creativity can only flourish in a situation where there is room to make mistakes. Innovation comes with risk. Any given project will need to decide where it wants the creativity-certainty balance to lie. You can’t have your creativity cake and have the certainty of eating it!

Because it’s generally framed in terms of minimising risk, competitive tendering tends to prioritise certainty over creativity. This is not necessarily a problem. But, if you want innovation, you need to ensure your procurement processes allow space for it to happen. A standard tender probably won’t.

A question to ask yourself: Are we making it clear how much certainty we want and how much risk we can tolerate, or is our procurement process sending a mixed message in that regard?

Loose briefs

More often than not, it’s not what the brief says that will make you come unstuck, it’s what it doesn’t say. I’ve learned this one from bitter experience! Writing a brief is a bit like playing the tappers and listeners game – we forget that what’s obvious to us, frequently isn’t to anyone else. Misunderstandings in interpreting the brief can also be a failure of imagination on the brief-writer’s part – a case of not spelling it out simply because you can’t envisage it being any other way.

Another weakness of briefs is that they are often expected to capture in words a very specific and detailed image we have in our minds’ eye. It can only ever be the tip of the iceberg, and how someone will interpret a written description will vary hugely depending on their thinking style, prior experience, etc. Exhibitions are a visual medium. Sometimes it might be better to say it with a picture than leave it to words alone.

Things to try: Include visual materials such as mood boards part of the brief. Also, make a “return brief” document an early stage deliverable in the design project. This gives a chance for you and the designer to make sure you’re on the same page and iron out any wildly different interpretations of what’s expected.

Being a “good client”

I’ve been both sides of the client / designer fence, and appreciate that it’s a two-way street. No amount of dedication, skill or experience on the part of the design team can rescue fundamental issues with the client team, such as:

  • not making decisions, particularly-time critical ones
  • one client representative saying x, another saying y
  • not respecting the fact that you’re paying for a process, not just a product. Just because nothing has been built yet, doesn’t mean costs haven’t been incurred. Yes, iterations are part of the process but they cannot be done indefinitely without it affecting the price
  • not giving clear direction and feedback beyond “I’ll know it when I see it”
  • not recognising the limitations of your budget and timeframe
  • protracted, complicated and time-consuming procurement processes that expect design concepts at the pitch stage. This is one of the biggest bugbears of the design industry, and could be a post in its own right.

What tips would you give to a person looking to commission an exhibition designer for the first time?

Update: I posted this piece on LinkedIn, where there were a few very useful comments. Briefly:

  • Price shouldn’t be a key consideration in choosing a designer – it’s more important to have someone that understands what you want and how you work.
  • Be an informed client – do your homework about what you like and what you don’t
  • Resist the temptation to squeeze ‘just one more thing’ into the exhibition – “decide what to say, say it, then shut up!”

Reference: Lorenc, J., Skolnick, L., & Berger, C. (2010). What is exhibition design? Mies, Switzerland: Rotovision.

Experience Design

Late last year there was an article on The Conversation about “Experience Design“. I found it interesting and tweeted a link to it; soon afterwards the author, Faye Miller, got in touch. One thing led to another, and culminated in me writing a piece with Toni Roberts for the inaugural XD: Experience Design magazine, which has just come out.

Our piece is on Interpretive Design, and we group our thoughts around the interlinking concepts of Think, Feel, Do. Toni and I have known each other for a few years and have both been working on PhDs on exhibition design – me from the visitor perspective, Toni from the perspective of the design process (her PhD is done; mine is in the final stages). Coincidentally, we had both independently come up with a Venn diagram comprising Thinking, Feeling and Acting – something we came to realise when I posted a link to this presentation I gave last November. We’d discussed that it would be good for us to flesh out the overlaps between our ideas in a publication of some sort, and when the opportunity to write for XD came about it seemed like the right place to do it.

XD is intended to bring together people and disciplines that don’t normally overlap: industry, academia, management; theory, practice and user groups/audiences. I encourage you to subscribe to the XD newsletter, or better yet pick up a copy!

On “challenging” your audience

. . .but we should be challenging visitors, not just giving them what they want. . .

Work in evaluation and visitor research for long enough and you’re bound to hear someone say this. And from the point of view of an evaluator, it’s frustrating for a few reasons:

  • It betrays an assumption that conducting evaluation somehow means you’re going to ‘dumb down’ or otherwise pander to the masses. Evaluation shouldn’t fundamentally alter your mission, it should just give you clues as to where your stepping-off point should be.
  • It can be used as an excuse for maintaining the status quo and not thinking critically about how well current practices are working for audiences. Are we genuinely challenging audiences. . . or just confusing them?
  • It tends to conflate knowledge with intelligence. If you (and many people you work with) are an expert on a given topic, it’s easy to overestimate how much “everybody” knows about that subject. If there is a big gap between how much you assume visitors know and what they actually know, no amount of intelligence on the visitors’ part will be able to bridge that gap.
  • A challenge is only a challenge when someone accepts it. In a free-choice setting like a museum, who is accepting the challenge and on whose terms? If the ‘challenge’ we set our audiences is rejected, does that leave us worse off than where we started?

This post on the Uncatalogued Museum neatly sums how visitors can be up for a challenge – often more so than we think – if we find the right balance between meeting visitors where they are and extending them to new horizons. But finding this balance depends on actually getting out there and talking to people, not resting solely on assumptions and expert knowledge.

If the goal is genuinely to challenge visitors, then visitors need to be part of the conversation. If we’re not asking them, what are we afraid of?


IPOP Model of Visitor Preference

Most typologies of museum visitors tend to categorise visitors by demographics, motivation, or a mixture of both. The IPOP model, developed by Andrew Pekarik and colleagues at the Smithsonian Institution (Pekarik et al, 2014), is a little different in that it categorises visitors according to their preferred interests. Developed through years of research with visitors across the Smithsonian sites, the IPOP model is based on four key experience preferences:

  • Ideas – a liking for abstract concepts and facts
  • People – attraction to stories, emotional connections and social interaction
  • Objects – appreciation for objects, aesthetics and craftsmanship
  • Physical – attraction to sensory experiences, movement and physicality (this P was a later addition to the model as it evolved).

These are indicative of overall preferences rather than being absolute and mutually exclusive categories. Scores are based on responses to a self-administered questionnaire that is based on agreement to statements such as: I like to know how things are made, or I like to bring people together. The full version comprises 38 items, with shorter 20 and 8 item versions also used. Using responses to these statements, 79% of visitors show a clear preference for one of the IPOP dimensions: 18% Idea, 18% People, 19% Object, 23% Physical. The remaining 21% tend to show a combination of two dimensions (rarely three) rather than a single clear preference*.

By combining self-report IPOP preferences with tracking and timing data, Pekarik and his team have shown that it is possible to predict what exhibits a given visitor will attend to (or indeed, which exhibits they will avoid) based on their IPOP preference. People tend to seek out experiences that suit their preferences and match their expectations. When people see what they expect, they report being satisfied with their experience. However, sometimes visitors are engaged by something unexpected and different from their usual preferences. This phenomenon, described by the authors as “flipping”, can lead to more memorable and meaningful experiences.

The exhibition Pekarik et al (2014) use to illustrate the predictive value of IPOP is Against All Odds, an exhibition at the National Museum of Natural History about the rescue of trapped Chilean miners in 2010. I happened to see this exhibition on my 2012 study tour of Washington DC, and while I recall seeing it, I don’t have any specific memories of it (a consequence of breezing through dozens of exhibitions for days on end). Although I was amused to observe that the two photos I took of the exhibition are very similar to those in the Curator article!

SI-NMNH Chilean miners exhibit
My photo of the entrance / introductory graphic
SI-NMNH Chilean miners exhibit 2
The rescue capsule. The image in the Curator article takes a wider view which encompasses a tactile drill bit on the left and a video on the right. The rescue capsule was the largest and most distinctive object in the display. Whether that is why I photographed it as a way of recording the exhibition, or whether this says something about my IPOP preference I’m not sure.

I’m not sure what to make of this. Either I intuitively grasped which views best encapsulated the exhibition, or I have the same IPOP preference as the person who selected the images. . .

UPDATE 2/5/2014: I’ve just found out that the Pekarik et al article is available online for free. Happy reading!

*Interestingly, the research team categorised themselves according to the IPOP typology and found they had preferences in three of the four dimensions (none of the team was a People person). It strikes me as an interesting exercise for exhibition development teams to conduct at the outset of the project, giving individuals an insight into their own preferences as well as an appreciation of those of their differently-preferenced colleagues – there is more on this point in Pekarik and Mogel (2010).


Pekarik, A., & Mogel, B. (2010). Ideas, Objects, or People? A Smithsonian Exhibition Team Views Visitors Anew. Curator: The Museum Journal, 53(4), 465–482. doi:10.1111/j.2151-6952.2010.00047.x

Pekarik, A., Schreiber, J. B., Hanemann, N., Richmond, K., & Mogel, B. (2014). IPOP: A Theory of Experience Preference. Curator: The Museum Journal, 57(1), 5–27. doi:10.1111/cura.12048

Get in line!

I have a confession to make – I’m incredibly impatient at times.

I’m often baffled at the number of people who appear willing to join snaking queues that have no apparent motion. It seems there are a lot of people far more willing than me to wait indeterminate periods to have that unique experience or get that special bargain. I’m likely to take one look at the size of the line and decide it just can’t be worth it.

The start of the line of people waiting for Free Fridays at MOMA, New York August 2013. By this stage the queue had stretched around the block, with still about 2 hours to go before opening. People at the front of the line told me they had been there for most of the afternoon.
The start of the line of people waiting for Free Fridays at MOMA, New York August 2013. By this stage the queue had stretched around the block, with still about 2 hours to go before opening. People at the front of the line told me they had been there for most of the afternoon.

Perhaps it comes from growing up in a relatively small city – you grow up accustomed to going about your daily business with few problems associated with crowds. In cities like New York, queuing is a fact of life and several times we found ourselves in long lines waiting to get into museums or art installations while visiting there last year. But when we could avoid it, either by planning ahead or purchasing premium-rate tickets, we jumped at the chance. But then again, not everyone is willing or able to spend the extra cash needed to jump the line.

Another factor in my queue-aversion could be my size. At a mere 155cm (5’1″) in height, I’m quickly lost in a crowd. And it’s easy to lose a sense of control over your environment when all you can see up ahead is sea of backs. And that sense of autonomy and control is what environmental psychology tells us we need in order to feel comfortable in a given setting.

However, one thing that visitor experience research has taught me is that you should never just take what you think about a given scenario and extrapolate from there, assuming everyone else thinks the same. While I’m prepared to wager there are few people who actually enjoy spending hours on end waiting in line, there are clearly many people doing the same cost-benefit calculation as I am and coming up with a different result.

While it’s not something I relate to personally, I can see how the line could be considered part of the experience itself, the journey being just as important as the destination. A queue could help build anticipation about an event, even add to the “buzz” – if the line’s so long, it must be good! A queue can be a sign of success for event planners.

There could be a fantastic experience ahead, then again it could just be the line for the portaloos.

As far as queues go, there is such a thing as “good” and “bad” ones. A “good” queue has a clear beginning and end. If it’s a long queue there are enough barriers to keep it orderly and good signage to direct people appropriately. The people in charge are organised and look like they know what they’re doing. The queue moves: if not quickly, then at least at a predictable rate. A timed ticket gets you in at the time it says it will.

A “bad” queue appears chaotic – it’s not clear where it starts or ends, if there are multiple queues it’s not obvious which one you’re meant to be in, and the chaos seems to let people ‘jump ahead’ of those who have been waiting patiently. No-one seems to know what’s going on and the staff look underprepared and overwhelmed.

Giving estimated wait times reduces uncertainty associated with queuing and allows visitors to make an informed judgement about how willing they are to wait that length of time.

A queue will always be associated with some uncertainty: how long will I have to wait? Am I in the right place? Will it be worth the wait? People differ in their tolerance of uncertainty, and it may be lessened if they are uncomfortable with crowds in the first place. But there are ways of reducing uncertainty (e.g. signposting queues with waiting times, offering timed tickets) so that even those who are usually disinclined to wait will be happy to be (at least a little) patient.

Think, Feel, Act: Using Psychology to understand visitor needs

Today I presented at the Interpretation Australia Masters Workshop in Sydney. My presentation was about “Understanding audiences” and following on from the Google hangout I did for IA earlier in the year, looked at what we can learn about visitor experiences from psychology.

The presentation is based on a Venn diagram made up of three circles: Think (representing cognition), Feel (representing affect) and Act (representing behaviour). During the presentation I argued that while there are many complex social and motivational reasons for people to visit museums and other cultural heritage sites, it can be boiled down to the fact that visitors anticipate the experience will satisfy at least some of their cognitive, affective and behavioural needs. And since psychology is the study of human affect, cognition and behaviour, it should be able to tell us something about what these needs might be.

The presentation is a quick armchair ride through some of the psychological literature I have encountered during my PhD research. Summary of the references referred to:

Appleton, J. (1988). Prospects and refuges revisited. In J. Nasar (Ed.), Environmental aesthetics: theory, research and applications (Vol. 3, pp. 27–44). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Bitgood, S. (2011). Social Design in Museums: The Psychology of Visitor Studies. Collected Essays Volume One. Edinburgh: MuseumsEtc.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: the psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper Perennial.

Dahl, T. I., Entner, P. S., Johansen, A.-M. H., & Vittersø, J. (2013). Is Our Fascination With Museum Displays More About What We Think or How We Feel? Visitor Studies, 16(2), 160–180. doi:10.1080/10645578.2013.827011

Kaplan, S. (1988). Where cognition and affect meet: a theoretical analysis of preference. In J. L. Nasar (Ed.), Environmental aesthetics: theory, research and applications (pp. 56–63). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Litman, J. (2005). Curiosity and the pleasures of learning: Wanting and liking new information. Cognition & Emotion, 19(6), 793–814. doi:10.1080/02699930541000101

Norman, D. A. (2004). Emotional Design: Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things. New York: Basic Books.

Packer, J. (2006). Learning for Fun: The Unique Contribution of Educational Leisure Experiences. Curator: The Museum Journal, 49(3), 329–344. doi:10.1111/j.2151-6952.2006.tb00227.x

Plutchik, R. (1980). Emotion: A Psychoevolutionary Synthesis. New York: Harper and Row.

Rui Olds, A. (1994). Sending them home alive. In E. Hooper-Greenhill (Ed.), The Educational Role of the Museum (pp. 76–80). London: Routledge.

Russell, J. A., Ward, L. M., & Pratt, G. (1981). Affective Quality Attributed to Environments: A Factor Analytic Study. Environment and Behavior, 13(3), 259–288. doi:10.1177/0013916581133001

Smith, C., & Ellsworth, P. (1985). Patterns of cognitive appraisal in emotion. Journal of personality and social psychology, 48(4), 813–838. Retrieved from

Are museums “lean forward” or “lean back” experiences?

“Lean forward” and “lean back” are terms that emerged in digital media to describe different engagement styles with screen-based experiences.

Lean back behaviour is envisaged as a passive, kick-back-with-a-beer-in-front-of-the-TV type of behaviour, whereas lean forward implies more hands-on engagement such as with gaming or surfing the web. Therefore, it has often been assumed that lean forward experiences require a higher level of engagement than lean back ones. But as this post argues, that doesn’t necessarily follow. Indeed, lean forward experiences are often hyperactive: full of distractions, shortcuts and multitasking. In contrast, lean back experiences can be conducive to engagement with more long-form media such as a book or a movie. Our level of intellectual absorption doesn’t always correspond with our level of activity.

I’m wondering what this means for museums, which under different circumstances may offer both lean forward and lean back experiences. Do certain types of visitors expect one type, and then disappointed if they find the other? Is this part of the reason why James Durston complains about Why He Hates Museums, meanwhile Judith Dobrzynski laments when High Culture Goes Hands On? (To bring in of the most talked-about museum articles in the mainstream press this past month or so. . . )

I first got on this train of thought while thinking about the word “entertainment” in the context of museums. We’ve well and truly moved on from the days when it was assumed education and entertainment were polar opposites. Even so, entertainment may not be the best word to use – “enjoyment” is spontaneously mentioned far more frequently by visitors than entertainment is [1]. I started off thinking that entertainment conjured up an image of a more passive kind of engagement – entertainment as something that is done to you.  On the other hand, enjoyment implies something that was more active and participatory- you enjoy doing something. I thought this might relate to lean forward versus lean back experiences, but now I’m not so sure it’s as simple as that.

What do you think?


[1] As reported by Tiina Roppola in Designing for the Museum Visitor Experience, 2012 (Routledge)