Weeknotes 37.2016: Do visitors really use a museum website to plan their visit?

On September 16th, 2016, posted in: weeknotes by

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We’ve recently been doing a lot of visitor journey mapping. Sometimes using the data we’ve gathered in a research process and sometimes working with the internal teams existing knowledge and experience. When we map a visitor journey with clients using their knowledge, it’s common for teams to insert a moment before the person arrives where the visitor plans their visit using the website. This often includes looking at what there is available to do, what is available to see and making a decision about why they should come and what they should do.


Mapping the journey at Battle Abbey for English Heritage

When we are using real data to plan a visitor journey there is often a moment where the people in the room realise

a) how few people use the website to plan a visit

b) when they do how shallow the planning is.

What do we think planning means?

A common assumption is that lots of visitors are using the website to carefully plan their visit and therefore become aware of the wide range of programmes and services available to them. It would seem to be a good assumption to make. Data commonly shows that the majority visitors to a museum’s website do so “to plan”. But that isn’t to say that the majority of physical visitors have used the website. And if they have used the website – the “planning” activity rarely looks the way we expect. Visitors may call it planning but what they actually do doesn’t match our understanding of that activity.

One of the challenges is that all too often we use the term planning to describe both an activity AND a moment in time – before visiting.  If we think of planning as an activity where we make an effort to understand what is available and make some decisions around what to do, the order to do things and when to do them then it can – and does – happen at anytime during the visitor journey – pre, during and even post-visit. And what more commonly happens before a visit is what we have come to call “checking” – how to get there, when is it open, do they have a car park.

The reality is that it’s rare for people to review what’s available to them and begin making detailed decisions and prioritisations about what to do and when before they arrive. On any platform. Including the museum’s website.

Does the difference matter?

If we assume people have used our website to plan then we believe that people are well prepared to understand what is available to them before they walk through the door. They know about the cafe and the shop, the events and the tools available to make the most of their time. They will have prior knowledge of types of things there are to see and do and how long a visit might take. And that they enter the building with a purpose.

The truth is that many people walk through your door have no idea about who you are, and what you offer.

The impact is that people who don’t plan often experience “non-planners regret” and start blaming themselves for not planning better. This is often a moment in the visit where they realise they have limited time and/or energy and want to make sure they get what they need from a visit or they spot a sign for a talk that they would have enjoyed but will now miss. This is often in the middle of a visit, where all the planning tools provided are on the outer edges of the experience and is often articulated as “I should have got a map”, “I probably should have checked what was on” or they start to ask any staff they can see.

Planning favours the knowing

Clearly there are people who plan before they arrive however they seem to have two strong defining elements. The first is a strong motivation to get the most from their visit for example “I have to see X”. They tend to have more knowledge or purpose or significant, practical needs, for example, families are often planners.

There second element is about “understanding how to visit”. Experienced visitors to cultural attractions know some of the pitfalls and unwritten rules of visiting a museum i.e. what type of things may be available that they are interested in. They understand the framework of an experience and are able to navigate through to what they personally enjoy. A challenge here is that as seasoned museum professionals it’s difficult to put ourselves in the position of those who rarely visit a museum and therefore we design using symbols and language that we assume everyone understand or we bury things thinking that people will know how to find them. So for example the “plan you visit” area often includes things such as the mobile guide – which in turn is often designed to be aimed at people who are new to the subject or museums.

Why don’t people plan?

If a visitor isn’t a regular museum attender and/or you don’t have a huge drive to engage with the subject matter of a museum then you aren’t likely to plan. Their assumption is that there is little on offer beyond what is available in the exhibition space and they will be able to understand the depth and breadth of whatever there is to do within the first few minutes of their visit. Which is commonly a busy and dis-orientating time.

This means you are potentially making the exact people that you want to encourage to have a great experience and return work super hard.

They will check details – and they will do that using your website – but right now we don’t make the effort to flip them into deeper planning or acknowledge that if they don’t plan before they visit there may be a moment where they do need support to prioritise their time and energy.

So what to do about it? Here are some things we have been thinking about:

  1. Look at the visitor journey and start to identify where people will identify the need to think about managing their time and energy – what is the best mechanism for supporting them?
  2. If your visitor doesn’t plan then providing a section called plan your visit is unlikely to work – can you use new language that fits with their motivations?
  3. Begin to think about planning as an activity rather than moment in the journey

Note: This post was indirectly inspired by this great post by Rob Cawston at National Museums Scotland about how they are looking into developing their new “What’s On” page. You should check it out.

This weeknotes is quick because I’ve eaten up all my time on this post but…

Alyson has been working on a discovery report for Scottish Ballet and supporting Laura on proposals. Laura has been working on the proposals whilst wrapping up on some work for MCN. I’ve also been working with Laura to plan the workshops for Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (ISGM) and hammering out the ssGreat Britain report.

In fact – this all ties up nicely, Laura and I are going to be heading to Boston to work with ISGM in a couple of weeks and I just found out that I’m going to have a whole day free so I’m also checking out things to do or you might even say I’m planning.

And this weeks reading:

Association for Independent Museums reporting on to charge or not to charging entry

The Atlantic posted on the increased acceptance of mobile in museums

Future of Museums on what would happen if educators ran museums?

Hyperallergic post on artificial intelligence being used in the new Tate IK Prize winner project

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