This week’s notes come to you fresh from Utah – America’s 13th largest and best state (so says a 2012 Gallup survey), and home to the Natural History Museum of Utah in Salt Lake City. Nestled handsomely in the foothills of the Wasatch mountains, the NHMU is no less impressive inside, with a raft of interactives to suit the families that make up the better part of its audience. Still, there’s always work to be done, and the Museum team is keen to squeeze the most out of its digital offer.
For that reason, we’re currently involved in two projects with the NHMU. The first is aimed at developing the user experience of Utah Futures, a multi-player game that uses real-life data to simulate the environmental impact of urban planning decisions and encourage visitors to take personal responsibility for the environment. The second has been looking at ways to increase usage of the Museum’s free smartphone guide, the Trailhead to Utah.
So how did we go about meeting these objectives? First, with specialist help. Martha Henson is a digital producer, specialist in game design. We worked with Martha, enlisting her support to carry out both desk and visitor research around Utah Futures, and using her understanding of games to support our research and design. Games are notoriously difficult to evaluate, and yet more difficult when their goal is to change user behaviour in the long term. For a taste of what Martha was able to find out, have a look at this post, which was based partly on the findings of her NHMU desk research.
Whilst keeping a close eye on game mechanics, we of course didn’t want to neglect other, perhaps less technical issues. So through observation and interviews, we’ve also been looking at how visitors engage with the game when they’re at the Museum. As well as shedding some light on the way physical spaces affect who uses games (and how they do so), this work also threw up findings around the impact that parents can have on a whole family engaging with a multi-player experience. Witnessing the difference between parents taking the lead in, or actively stopping the game being played was a reminder of the complexity and challenge inherent in designing for group visits.
Turning to the Trailhead, the challenge we faced was to understand why more people aren’t using the service. Based on a mobile-optimised website, the Trailhead functions as a free smartphone guide for visitors in the Museum, granting access to deeper collections content. Once back at home, visitors can head to personalised portals within the same website to review what they saw during their day out and learn more.
With take-up low, we are trying to understand if the service is suffering from a lack of marketing, if it is being marketed with the wrong messages, or if in fact, the product needs to change to reflect visitor needs. Consequently, I was at the Museum last week interviewing visitors with three key questions in mind about the Trailhead guide: are they aware of it, what do they think it is, and can they access it?
Importantly, this was qualitative research, intended to look closely at how and why visitors either choose to ignore or fail to notice the service. If misperception of the service was a key factor, for example, we wanted to give visitors space to describe their understanding of the Trailhead in their own terms, rather than boxing them into a range of options through a quantitative survey. If there is a gap between the way the Museum and its visitors perceive the Trailhead, we want to know just how big that gap is, and what it will take to fill it.
With Martha and I now both safely returned to the UK, our analysis of the data we collected in Utah is well under way. We look forward to letting you know more about the two projects as they unfold over the next months.