Seizing New Opportunities

Sometimes opportunities arise from unexpected places.

Close followers of this blog will know that I’ve had a long-running relationship with the South Australian Museum. This dates back to when I started my PhD in early 2011, when some people I knew on staff arranged for me to have some desk space in exchange for me using the Museum for the bulk of my fieldwork. The arrangement was informal – I wasn’t on staff, wasn’t reporting to anyone in the Museum, and for practiality purposes was usually categorised as one of the volunteers (but didn’t really fit in that category either). Nonetheless it was an arrangement that worked well, and having a home institution made my research so much easier than if I’d had to make prior arrangements from scratch every time I wanted to collect more data.

A view of the wing where most of the Museum’s galleries are located.

Fast forward to mid-2014. As I was getting close to submitting my thesis and wrapping up my PhD, I decided it was time to phase myself back into consultancy, and established myself under the name I’d been using in my online presence for several years, interactivate. The rationale behind setting up myself as a consultant was twofold: firstly, I liked the variety and the flexibility associated with being a consultant; and secondly I wasn’t in a position to move cities to pursue employment. I moved across the globe and back in my 20s and early 30s. Now on a personal level I’m established in Adelaide, have roots here, and no desire to move on.

Not surprisingly, given my established contacts there, the South Australian Museum soon became my largest client and I continued to be a familiar face around the place. Then, towards the end of the year, the Director called me to his office.

It turned out the Museum was going through a restructure, and a new position called the Manager of Visitor Experience was being created. It was a response to an identified need to put a visitor-centric lens on the way the Museum operates and presents itself to its audiences. In addition, the role is responsible for the revenue-generating activities of the Museum such as the shop, cafe and events.

Filling the position on a permanent basis would require a formal recruitment process, although the Director didn’t want it vacant for the amount of time that would take. So he invited me to be Acting Manager on a part-time basis in the meantime. My initial contract was for three months, starting in early January.

At first, I wasn’t sure if I would be interested in continuing in the role – I wasn’t confident of my knowledge of the cafe/shop/events side of things* and wasn’t sure if it would interest me; also I’d already invested a fair amount of time and effort in building the consultancy business and wanted to see that through. However, once I started doing the job I found I enjoyed it, liked having the blank slate of a newly-created position to work with, and so I decided to apply for the permanent position.

After an interview that I was sure I’d blown, I was contacted a few days later and told that I’d been offered the job! It’s a full time role, which means I’ll be mothballing interactivate as a consultancy. I’d by lying if I said that decision didn’t come with a tinge of regret. But then again, jobs such as this don’t come around very often, and it’s too good an opportunity not to sieze with both hands! There’s no way I could have imagined something like this would be on the horizon when I first set out on the PhD and consultancy journey.

I still plan to blog regularly (50 posts this year is not an impossible ambition), although I’m aware that it might be more difficult now. Not just the time it takes (although I imagine my job will keep me VERY busy . . . ) but also being aware that being linked to a particular institution means I can’t anonymise my experiences. However, if nothing else, needing some blog inspiration will be a good excuse to keep abreast of the literature.

Wish me luck!

 *Although this is relatively new territory for me, thinking laterally about my experience and discussing it with other people, I found the knowledge gap wasn’t as large as I first feared.

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.


The 6Ds of Group Dynamics

What’s the right number of people to have working on a project? 

Based on my experience in exhibition development teams, planning groups and various committees, I’ve developed these rules of thumb for group dynamics:

  • To Do and Deliver: I believe small teams of 3-4 people are most suited for completing specific, focused tasks where the desired outcome is well-defined and understood. Groups of this size are large enough to have enough hands to bear the load, while being agile enough to make progress quickly. They make good working groups and subcommittees.
  • To Delegate and Decidethis is the main role of committees and boards, and 8-10 people is usually a good number to have around the table. There are enough people to ensure a variety of perspectives inform the overall strategic direction of a project or organisation, while still being small enough to make decisionmaking manageable. Such committees can include representatives of your “Do and Deliver” subgroups or working parties, who can report on progress and seek guidance on what to do next.
  • In my experience, things get a bit tricky once you try to get more than about 12 people around the table. Too often, the result is less action and more dalliance and deferralDiscussions tend to be unfocused and circular as the sense of “too many cooks” creeps in. It can be hard to reach a decision, meaning progress is slow if not completely sclerotic. Larger groups also quickly factionalise, leading to more conflict than consensus.

Do these tally with your teamwork experiences?

Festival Volunteering

Today the Adelaide Festival and Adelaide Fringe wrap up for another year, the city returns to normal, and our social calendars get a lot less frenetic.

Like many arts festivals around the world, both the Festival and Fringe depend heavily on volunteers to help things go smoothly. And volunteering is a great way to feel part of the festival vibe. This was my 4th year as a Festival volunteer, and this year I decided to be a volunteer for the Fringe as well.

My collection of volunteer passes


I’ve just added up the hours from the past few weeks and found that I have volunteered over 50 hours in total. Things I have done over this time include:

  • Live tweeting selected discussion sessions during Adelaide Writers’ Week
  • Operating and minding projectors as part of a multi-site outdoor video art installation
  • Keeping queues orderly and ensuring people were in the right queue for the show they wanted to see
  • Giving directions and handing out lots of maps, flyers and programmes

Festival volunteering is something I more or less fell into: back in 2012, the Festival decided to bring in a dedicated team of social media-savvy volunteers to live tweet selected sessions during Writers’ Week. I was one of the people who was tapped on the shoulder to help out in that first year, and I’ve been involved in every Writers’ Week since, adding additional volunteer duties as my other commitments allow.

I find volunteering in public-facing roles useful for reminding me some important lessons that I can apply to my own work, such as:

  • Signage and maps need to be carefully designed and worded to avoid ambiguity and confusion: what’s clear when you can take your time to find out what’s going on is much less so when you’re arriving at the last minute for a show that’s about to start.
  • People don’t tend to read instructions or the fine print when it comes to booking, purchasing and collecting tickets.
  • Planning can only take you so far: event staff need to be flexibile and ready to respond to unexpected scenarios. There are only so many things you can be specifically trained to handle, although the training you get as a volunteer for a large event gives some good pointers.
  • Being in customer-facing roles can be exhausting! Plus it can be easy to get jaded saying the same thing over and over again to a seemingly endless procession of patrons. Rotating staff across different duties over the course of a shift keeps everyone fresh and able to put their best foot forward.

Right, now I think I’ve earned a few quiet nights in  . . . .

In pictures: First World War Galleries at AWM

Although only officially launched earlier this week, the Australian War Memorial’s new First World War Galleries have been open since late last year. I was in Canberra earlier this month, so I swung by to check them out.

My interest in this exhibition was twofold:

  • A significant new exhibition is always worth a look
  • It’s linked to some of my current work. I’m currently part of a research team that is exploring how Anzac* heritage experiences are related to Australian national identity. So far I’ve conducted 16 in-depth telephone interviews with people who have visited the Gallipoli landing site.

It’s a slightly unusual refurbishment, in that significant portions of AWM’s original World War 1 galleries are heritage pieces in their own right, particularly the original dioramas that were conceived by official war historian Charles Bean. It means that in some cases, the new galleries don’t look all that new at all (although the original dioramas have been significantly reinterpreted and seem far better lit than I remember them being).

The exhibition opens with a display of one of the boats used in the Gallipoli landings.

To be honest, I was expecting a more dramatic threshold statement for the exhibition – the boat shown above, while a very signficant object, is in a space that feels pretty much like an extension of the cloakroom area rather than a gallery setting. For me, the layout didn’t herald the end of the logistical process of arriving, and the beginning of an exhibition experience. However, there are interesting uses of thresholds later in the exhibition, in particular the transition from the Turkish/North African theatre of war to the trenches of France. There is a change of colour scheme from one that is dominated by warm shades and sandy tones, to one that is dominated by glossy blacks and uses a vibrant, dramatic red to highlight certain displays.

Looking across the threshold into the exhibits on the France/Belgium stage of the war.
Looking across the threshold into the exhibits on the France/Belgium stage of the war.

Also visible in the image above is what I called the “Ikea style” visitor route set into the floor. The exhibition is laid out chronologically, and this timeline spine works its way throughout the exhibition with displays off to each side (hence the Ikea reference). Personally I liked this feature – it gave you a clear sense of the order of the narrative without dominating the design or forcing you to take a particular route if you didn’t want to.

Most object labels were on adjacent touchscreens. Thumbnail images of all the objects scrolled across the screen, and I found it quite easy to find and select the object I was interested in.
Most object labels were on adjacent touchscreens. Thumbnail images of all the objects scrolled across the screen, and I found it quite easy to find and select the object I was interested in.
The original dioramas were also given another layer of interpretation through touchscreens linking the diorama scene to documents and stories of real soldiers.
The original dioramas were also given another layer of interpretation through touchscreens linking the diorama scene to documents and stories of real soldiers.

The use of audio throughout the exhibition was well done: subtle but reinforced the mood of each space. Ambient audio was primarily sound effects; spoken audio (which can be annoying and distracting when you’re trying to focus on something else) was kept to a minimum and mainly used to emphasise key points/events – for instance Ataturk’s tribute to the Anzacs is played on a loop just before you leave this section of the exhibition.

Juxtaposition of old and new displays.
Juxtaposition of (what I assume to be) old and new displays.
I saw these women spend a lot of time at several of these photograph displays. They were apparently more interested in the human stories than the hardware.
I saw these women spend a lot of time at several of these photograph displays. They were apparently more interested in the human stories than the hardware.

I think this exhibition would be an interesting one to study with Pekarik’s IPOP model of visitor preference. Both Objects and People displays were strongly featured in the exhibition, and there were some sensory/tactile aspects as well (Physicality), although I’m not sure how strongly Ideas came through (by which I mean the big-picture context of the conflict). Admittedly, this is a difficult brief when the topic is an extended war, fought on multiple fronts for complex reasons.


*For the benefit of my non-Australian readers: on April 25, 1915, troops from the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (the ANZACs), landed at Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey as part of an ill-fated campaign early in the First World War. The anniversary has gained national significance and Anzac Day is the main day of rememberance in Australia.

Our Irrational Brains

Recently I wrote about three interesting books on the psychology of choice. In this post, I want to explore a couple of books that help to explain why humans sometimes make bad choices. Basically, our brain works in ways that can trick us into irrationality.

Nobel prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman illustrates this with the following example: imagine a bat and ball together cost $1.10. The bat costs $1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

Without thinking, most people will jump in and say 10 cents. Your brain is probably itching to shout it out! But think about it: if the ball cost 10 cents, then the bat would have to cost $1.10 (we know the bat costs $1 more), meaning the two together would be $1.20. If we sit down and do the sums we can see the only answer that satisfies the supplied facts is that the ball costs 5 cents, the bat costs $1.05, and together they are $1.10. It’s basic arithmetic. So why are so many people fooled?

In Thinking Fast and Slow, Kahneman describes two distinct ways our brain thinks:

  • System 1: Fast, automatic, frequent, emotional, stereotypic, subconscious
  • System 2: Slow, effortful, infrequent, logical, calculating, conscious

System 1 is the quick, instinctual and heuristic-led thinking that takes place without any real effort or control on our part. While it’s useful (we sometimes need to act rapidly without methodically thinking through every possible option), it’s also easily fooled in a way that our more methodical System 2 is not. But because System 1 acts subconsciouly, it can be hard not to listen to it. Even when System 2 thinking leads us to the correct answer (such as in the bat and ball example above), System 1 is still nagging us in the background, meaning the rational answer often just doesn’t “feel” right.

There are a number of heuristics the System 1 brain uses. One example is the availability heuristic – we tend to think things are more likely if we can recall specific examples of them happening. This is why people tend to think plane travel is riskier than it actually is, and might also be an explanation for why people tend to consistently overestimate the number of immigrants or the proportion of the population claiming unemployment benefits (two topics that are mainstays of the tabloid media).

In Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely describes how our economic decisions are affected by the way we think. Some of my favourite examples show how money can skew behaviour in unexpected ways.

In our market society, money is seemed as the ultimate incentive. However, as Ariely shows, it’s not as good a motivator as economic theory would have us believe, and can actually lead to perverse incentives. He describes research in which people who were paid to do a simple task did it less efficiently than people who were doing it without payment, as a favour. Adding money into the equation turns a social contract into an economic one, and it changes the nature of the transaction.

In one striking example, Ariely describes a study of a child care centre in Israel that started to charge fines of parents who collected their children late. Market logic would dictate that the fine would be a financial disincentive, and fewer children would be picked up late as a result. In fact, the opposite happened:  rather than parents apologetically arriving late (because they had transgressed a social norm), late pickups became more common. The fine was essentially seen as a fee-for-service, one which parents could pay for unapologetically. A social transaction had become an economic one. Interestingly, the tardy behaviour continued even when the fine was subsequently removed. A transaction based on goodwill had permanently shifted to one based on financial exchange.

Other studies show how things offered for free are perceived as qualitatively different from ones that attract a charge, even when that charge is quite modest. Even when the free offer is not the best offer available, most people will still opt for the free deal.

The Thesis Has Landed

Birth Announcement

Dr Regan Forrest is pleased to announce the healthy arrival of a completed PhD on 30th January 2015. The thesis, weighing 282 pages, is now publicly available online through UQ espace. Candidate is doing well and is relieved to be finally able to share her results with the world.


Who are you designing for?

Near where I’m working at the moment, there is a restroom with one of those stacked toilet roll dispensers that are a public bathroom mainstay and a complete nightmare to use. I’m sure you know the type I mean – there’s a tiny gap at the bottom that, owing to the combined friction of multiple stacked toilet rolls and the perforated nature of the product, you can never seem to be able to get more than one or two sheets out at once (i.e., not enough to get the job done). We’ve all had to grapple with one, I’m sure.

This afternoon, I noticed that the users of said restroom have taken matters into their own hands, and the dispenser now looks like this:


It strikes me as an interesting example of a design intended to meet the needs of the owner, not optimise the experience of the user. I can see the design brief would have had goals as follows:

  • Ability to store multiple rolls at once. This means cleaning staff don’t need to come and replenish the dispensers as often.
  • Minimise paper wastage. By making it more difficult to get paper out, you’ll ensure people only use the bare minimum they actually need. This saves on the toilet roll budget, while also stops excess paper getting all over the floor.

By these criteria, the above design would get a big tick, however, the solution is heavily weighted towards the needs of the owner (who wants to keep their toilet paper budget down) rather than the needs of the user (who wants to easily acquire the paper they need, and yes, may end up wasting some from time to time).

The result? When a product doesn’t meet users’ needs, they either stop using it, or when that’s not an option, they create their own workarounds, which might create more hassle for they owner than if they’d just designed it with user needs in mind in the first place.

Choices, choices

Three books on my bookshelf (actually, audiobook library) are about the psychology of choice – how do people make decisions and what helps people feel more satisifed about their choices?

As decribed by Sheena Iyengar in the introduction to Art of Choosing, how much emphasis is placed on individual choice depends on the culture you come from. In the English-speaking world, and the US in particular, a high value is placed on individuals being able to make their own choices. Choice pervades the culture so fully that it is considered to be part of the natural order of things: having choice is seen as axiomatically logical, right and good. But other cultures may put more value on social harmony or professional expertise than individual choice, and may decide that individual choice is not always worth the cost. Indeed, when viewed through a different cultural lens, individualistic cultures look like people value the right to choose over their own self interest at times.

This suggests there is such thing as too much choice, and research bears that out. Iyengar’s most famous study was conducted at a jam display at an upmarket grocery store in California. Customers could come up and try the jams on display, and could then get a discount voucher for purchasing one of the jams on offer. The main thing that they changed over the course of the study was how many jams were on display at any given time: 6 or 24. Although a greater percentage of customers were attracted to the larger display, customers were much more likely to actually buy jam if they only had 6 to choose from at the outset.

This idea is explored further in Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice. Schwartz describes research that shows that not only does too much choice befuddle us and cause us to procrastinate in our quest to make the “right” choice, we’re often less happy with the choices we *do* eventually make. It seems that having a never-ending array of choices increases the fear we have of making the “wrong” choice, as well as the perpetual possibility that a better option is just around the next corner. It’s a recipe for inertia and dissatisfaction. Schwartz suggests we’d be better off making “good enough” choices that allow us to move on with our lives.

But what if we’re looking to guide the choices of others? This is an idea described in Thaler and Sunstein’s book Nudge. They describe the concept of “choice architecture”, that is, the way you present options to influence the choices people make. Many choices we have to make, like pension plans or energy supplier, tend to be confusing (and let’s face it: not particularly interesting). Rather than read up on all the options, most of us take whatever the default option is, irrespective of whether it’s the one that suits us best or not. In a philosophy they call “libertarian paternalism”, they argue that these default options should be ones that suit most people most of the time. That way, people are still free to make another choice if they wish, but for those who take the default path of least resistance (i.e. most of us, most of the time), we’d end up with a better option overall. We can also use choice architecture to make choices less confusing, for instance by sequentially narrowing down options rather than showing all of them up front.

Now all of this may seem a bit tangential to museum visitor experiences at first glance (although one of the goals of Project 50 is to broaden the scope of this blog a bit). But it shouldn’t take too big a leap of imagination to see that consumer psychology and visitor experiences are linked: the people who are putting off choosing their pension plans on a Wednesday are the same people who are trying to decide what to do to keep the family entertained on a wet Saturday afternoon, or where would be the best place to go on holiday next.

A museum visit is full of choices – from the first decision to visit a museum rather than do something else, then which museum to go to, what exhibitions to visit, what displays to look at, whether to stop at the cafe or buy a gift at the shop, and so on. Consumer psychology and visitor research both show that people like choice, but also they like a manageable number of choices, and they like to know what the consequences of their choices will be. And through understanding people, we can both guide those decisions and help people be happier about the choices they make.

Transmission metaphors in museums

Embodied in the language we use are all sorts of ideas and assumptions: some of which we are aware, others we are not. A paper in the latest Curator journal (Ntzani, 2015) explores how the “transmission” metaphors that are frequently applied to communications influences the way we conceptualise museums:

“[T]ransmission metaphors make communication seem like an easy or automatic process between active speakers and passive listeners. This presupposition has long haunted museum communication practices” (Ntzani, 2015, p. 63).

Drawing upon the work of Michael Reddy, Ntzani describes two main transmission metaphors: that of the conduit; and that of the container.

Some literal museum conduit - a stairwell at the EMP museum in Seattle (Credit: RogerSmith/Flickr)
Some literal museum conduit – a stairwell at the EMP museum in Seattle (Credit: RogerSmith/Flickr)

The two metaphors are distinct and often incompatible. Conduits are invisible and passive transmitters of information, whereas containers call attention to themselves in the way they hold information and impose a shape onto it.

Ntzani argues that the container metaphor is often implicit in the way we discuss museum objects, exhibits and indeed museum buildings.

 . . . transmission metaphors make us think of museum objects either as containers of intrinsic cultural information, or as conduits of information that are transmitted from museum curators to museum visitors. The first proposition sees museum objects as sealed containers of cultural values that speak for themselveswhile the second proposition sees museum objects as conduits of messages, the signs of a language museums employ to build their narratives.” (Ntzani, 2015, p.65, my emphasis)

That section in particular made me think about the language of objects issue I was grappling with last year. Could the container and conduit metaphors help explain differences in the way different curators conceptualise the object and its communicative role? The former positions the object as being imbued with inherent meaning. The latter renders the object as a mere tool for an interpretive storyline: it says nothing in particular until it’s placed into a wider narrative.

“When museums are discussed as educational institutions, attention falls on the transmission of messages; in this case conduit metaphors take the lead. When discussed as architectural spaces . . . container metaphors are more frequently used.” (Ntzani, 2015, pp.67-68)

The museum itself can be conceptualised as a series of nested containers, analogous to Russian dolls: an exhibit is nested inside an exhibition, which is nested inside a museum that itself is nested within a particular social or geographical context.

Museum architecture can be considered as a series of nested containers - like Russian Dolls (Image credit Bradley Davis/backpackphotography/flickr)
Museum architecture can be considered as a series of nested containers – like Russian nesting dolls (Image credit Bradley Davis/backpackphotography/flickr)

Extending the concept further, Ntzani points out that it is only the outside of each doll that is adorned – the interior is a plain, neutral container for the doll within. In museum buildings, there can be a tension between those who wish to have statement architecture that draws attention to iself, versus those wanting a discreet container that will fade into the background. The conflict between conduit and container may be a new way of conceptualising some of these debates about the role of museums.

Ntzani, D. (2015). Under the Spell of Metaphors: Investigating the Effects of Conduit and Container Metaphors on Museum Experience. Curator: The Museum Journal, 58(1), 59–76. doi:10.1111/cura.12098