Listening to Visitors: Research Findings on Mobile Content

On April 11th, 2014, posted in: new post, weeknotes by

It’s time for another Frankly, Green and Webb journal post! Two confessions before we get started:

Firstly, for those of you who made it along to Museums and the Web in Baltimore last week, this post might have an air of the familiar.  I was out in the US with Laura giving (a slightly bigger version of) this very presentation last week. It’s worth saying now that this post isn’t the shortest: having started out with twenty minutes of material I’ve tried to cut it down as best as possible. Do stick with it ‘til the end – I’m sure it’ll be worthwhile.

Secondly, contrary to what the title says, this blog isn’t about mobile – it’s about audioguides… Sorry. We used to talk about audioguides way back when, but we’ve rebranded that to ‘mobile’ now, because let’s be honest, audioguides have a bit of a reputation.

To set the scene, when Alyson and I started working on our presentation for Baltimore, we found ourselves disagreeing fundamentally about the nature of audioguides…

I thought of them as typical problem children: difficult to manage, surprisingly expensive, and generally a bit of a pain.

Meanwhile, Alyson thought that they’re really much more like embarrassing parents: a touch old fashioned, blisteringly awkward, and fundamentally not as cool as they once were.

This is my dad. At my wedding. Note the eyebrows. Anyway, we’ll come back to this later. But first, down to business.

We all know that when talking about content – whether for mobile or for an audioguide – it’s obligatory to start by reminding everyone that ‘Content is King’.

We’ve heard this statement so many times that it now seems to mean precious little. But what can we take from it? We’re told that we must respect content, value content, and make content work hard. The harder we make content work, the more valuable it is. But what do we mean by valuable?

Traditionally we might have thought of value in the following essentially business-y terms.

To make content more valuable and harder working there were therefore a couple of things we could do:

  1. Reduce the cost of content. (Perhaps by making workarounds to fit old content into new software, or just by buying cheap.)
  2. Increase the audience for that content by distributing it on multiple platforms, making it accessible online, tagging it and so on

All of the above are tangible, easy to test and can be discussed in simple concrete terms during meetings. User numbers increase, costs decrease: we can quantify both the gains and the risks associated with this approach.

Here’s a provocation – audioguide content is difficult to transfer to multiple platforms because it delivers a totally unique experience. If we look at the experience design for other media – say film, or television –  there is one fundamental difference.

With film, the audience is fixed and the content moves. You can change the location, shape, size of this screen – the action will still happen, the experience will change a bit BUT not so much that the meaning will lost.

With audioguides, however, the experience is created by putting the viewer in the scene and moving them through it. It is a unique experience and therefore not easily transferrable. Content has to be designed to work intimately within a set physical space, and for that reason it is very tricky to distribute it across multiple platforms without seriously compromising or degrading the experience.

Now, let’s think again about value.

According to our traditionalist view, hard working content provides an experience to as large an audience as possible. But what if that enlarged audience is forced to suffer an experience that makes no sense at all outside of its physical context?

What if we now look at value in a different way? Instead of viewing value as a factor of low cost and large audience reach, what if we try to understand it in terms of visitor impact:

Terms like engagement and understanding can be amorphous, difficult to discuss and subjective to measure  – but if audioguides can deliver them, then clearly there is a different kind of value worth investigating.

Back in 2012/13, we started working with the National Gallery, London.

Charlotte Sexton, then Head of Digital and responsible for the Gallery’s guide, wanted to understand what kind of experience the guide service was delivering. She wanted to have the evidence to be able to…

  1. Know whether or not it was necessary – and worth spending the time and money – to refresh some of the guide’s 40 hours of content
  2. Talk about the guide internally, and secure the involvement, engagement and interest of those members of staff whose input was needed to make the guide a success

Most (but thankfully not all!) of the content Charlotte was working with was produced back in the mid 90s as part of a tech driven project. Back then, the Gallery was introducing a random access CD ROM player, said to be able to hold almost unlimited content, and so, fittingly, a ton of content was produced in double quick time, at low cost, using cheap narrators and without any interpretation strategy or in-gallery testing.

Charlotte wanted to understand the value of the guide to the visitor experience, but also she wanted to be able to articulate that value internally to get those who needed to be involved, engaged and interested. She wanted to ensure that any money spent improving the guide would go to the areas where it was going to deliver.

What we did
We did a large piece of quantitative work evaluating the whole service – from marketing, to distribution, to both user and non-user perceptions of it. We interviewed internal staff to map the user journey to understand the key moments where the visitors interacted with the gallery (the touch points).

We also set about evaluating the existing content. Knowing that Charlotte would need to make new content eventually, we wanted not just to find out how the existing content was performing, but also to identify any underlying principles for good content, so that Charlotte could know that new content she developed would work for visitors.

We had to recruit people before they visited, mainly because we were hijacking an hour of their day. We then gave them an audioguide with content chosen to represent different styles and techniques of content that were available on the audioguide.

We developed a series of structured questions to help them note down their thoughts in the moment. Finally, we interviewed them about their overall experience.

We recruited through Facebook and there were some definite flaws in visitors self selecting –  so we had a group that were fans of the gallery. But interestingly, it meant we had a majority of people who weren’t audioguide users.

What we found out
The data we were able to collect through this research go some way to answering two key questions, namely:

  1. Do audioguides work?
  2. What are the principles for designing great content for visitors?

And by answering these, they help us begin to see a way of measuring and appreciating the value that mobile and audioguide content can deliver, and of understanding what it means to make “hardworking content”.

So then, on with the results.

Do audioguides work?
The first of our questions is fairly easily answered: Yes. Audioguides do work. Over 80% of our participants in the quantitative study said using the audioguide led them to ‘enjoy their visit more’, and three quarters felt that the guide had led them to learn more and discover more about art.

Added to this, there was also a consistently small positive difference in visitors’ overall rating of their experience inside the museum, when comparing guide users with non-guide users.

Listening to audio in situ, with the visual evidence before their eyes helped visitors get more from the moment, and increased their analytical skills, capacity to look, and confidence in front of the art.

More than that, guide users really valued the experience offered by the audio in front of an object – this is the core of what an audio guide has to offer.

So, in spite of its less than flattering reputation, the audioguide did good. In fact, just like the moment you realise that you embarrassing dad is actually a human being – flawed in some aspects but actually brilliant in others – so, audioguides are good at being audioguides. They have a really good impact when we let them do what they are good at.

Onwards then, to question two.

What are the principles that make for great content for visitors?
Whilst there is a good body of literature on audioguides, there is surprisingly little data available when it comes to content. By listening to visitors’ responses at the National Gallery, we’ve come up with 5 principles that should help ensure content is fit for visitors’ needs.

We tend to think of audioguides as information delivery platforms and in that respect, they fail as a medium and we fail them. Audio in this context is about delivering meaning and that’s what our visitors expect from them.

Visitors are more than capable of spotting a painting hanging on a wall, reading its dates and who it’s by.  What they want is help to make that painting mean something, to be provoked into forming an opinion and to be challenged to think.

When we think that we are delivering ‘information’ we lose the focus of what we – and our audiences – are trying to achieve.

One of the most interesting findings from the National Gallery was that visitors don’t have a preference for a particular style of content. They liked interviews. They liked archival recordings. They liked debate and conversation, and they liked narration.

But whatever the style, when production standards slip, visitors are quick to pounce and find fault: that narrator is not delivering a performance, the interview edits are forced, that’s not a Russian accent… When these sorts of flaws manifest themselves, production becomes a distraction and visitors lose their focus on content.

So, don’t worry about what the ‘right’ kind of content is. Focus on your strengths and make whatever you like, provided it’s good.

When you offer someone an audio guide, you’re inviting them to welcome strangers into the innermost depths of their ears. As listeners, we think of these experiences as we would any human-to-human communication. Therefore the ground rule for content is to behave as a real speaker would in person. Visitors want to know why they should listen to someone.

This also came through in terms of matching your voice that matches your organisation’s brand – if the visitor can’t imagine the voice working for a given organisation,  it will be difficult for them to believe what they are hearing. Many organisations have focussed on what their brand looks like, very few of thought about how their brand sounds.

Visitors appeared to base their perception of time on how engaging and entertaining the content on their audioguides was. Put simply, entertaining content was too short, and boring content was too long.

So if visitors are saying something that content is too short, take that as a complement; it certainly doesn’t mean that you should be running off to make more!

Visitors can recognize when content hasn’t been created for mobile and created with an audio experience in mind. There are certain small differences in how you direct someone that change when something is in front of you.

The best way of getting around this is to ensure that your processes for creating content also reflect audio and mobile practice. Draft content in audio first, and draft it inside the gallery if you can. Be sure to test any new content in the space it was created for to pick up on any plot holes, or missing visuals.

This isn’t a set of commandments and, as we’ll see below, in adopting them, we still need to remain open to compromise. These principles are about making us ‘more’ creative with our solutions so that we can understand what visitors like but we can also play around with their expectations. We know visitors want information but more importantly meaning.

Perhaps though, if we get this first bit right, then there’s a chance that we’ll also free ourselves up to think more about this kind of value…

I mentioned above that adopting principles requires a willingness to be flexible, and there are a couple of examples that bear this out.

Looking again at the quantitative data we have gathered during our research, one of the most common reasons for visitors preferring not to take a guide – at the National Gallery and elsewhere is “wanting to go at their own pace”.

This is an area that never ceases to fascinate me, in part because I have little firm idea of what that statement might mean in practical terms. Anyway, the assumption we have made has been that visitors want to encounter and look at objects at their own speed and in whichever order they please: they want to avoid being either forced quickly or dragged slowly through a fixed tour. We’ve translated this to mean, “I don’t want a linear experience, I want a random access experience.”

When confronted with this kind of audience, our response has been to change the structure of a guide’s content to allow visitors more choice over the order of the content they could listen to. So, for example, we moved  from a forty-five minute, immersive taped narration to a random access experience offering more control over content and no fixed sequence.

However, what this experience gained in a certain form of accessibility through those changes, it lost in story. The loss of a structured, coherent, progressive narrative, means that for each stop, content must assume a complete lack of prior knowledge on the part of the visitor. Lessons from one stop cannot be taken onto later stops to create a cumulative, deeper and richer level of understanding and meaning.

Suddenly, then, by bending to meet the requirements of one principle (make my time count) another (give me meaning, not information) is being compromised. I have to spend longer in front of the painting going over background information and possibly less time getting new meaning.

Perhaps, this is the wrong approach? Is what visitors are expressing when they say they’d like to go at their own pace actually a fear of being stuck in front of an object for what feels an age listening to dull and irrelevant content? Is it the feeling that, thanks to the demands of their audio guide, they may not be able to enjoy a leisurely stroll around their favourite gallery, or leave and get outside while the sunshine lasts?

By making the switch from a linear to a random access experience, have we in fact tried to fix a lack of visitor understanding about the content and the experience our guide offers by changing the technology that supports it?

What this last complication reminds us is that any audioguide – any mobile content for that matter – is only as good as the service that supports and markets it. By listening to visitors, and understanding their needs and impulses, we can not only make content that’s fit for purpose, we can also learn about the way we should talk to our audiences.

Thanks for sticking with me…
If you’ve made it this far, thanks! Hopefully this post has done a few things: it’s shown that our much maligned friend the audioguide can still be relevant; it’s set out some good, strong principles for developing audio content; and it’s put the cat among the pigeons by showing that, firstly, we can’t do without compromise, and secondly, content – whilst it might be king – isn’t enough on its own to create a good visitor experience.

Do let us know if this post has stirred up any thoughts, and – if you’ve enjoyed it – do check out the full presentation and Alyson’s paper on this research.


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