Weeknotes 38. 2016: Minding the gap: What we can learn from listening to what visitors don’t say

On September 23rd, 2016, posted in: weeknotes by

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It was about four years ago that we started noticing. Silence, gaps, spaces in visitor experiences and it’s started to become a bit of an obsession. Because it seems that listening to what isn’t said is sometimes more important that listening to what is said.

We noticed it first in one of our very earliest pieces of work in which we gave visitors a recording device to carry with them during their visit.  The recruitment and fieldwork had gone exceptionally well.  Visitors were happy to take part and we quickly accumulated hours and hours of recordings.  We started listening eagerly but quickly felt overwhelmed by the scale of our task and began spooling through the long passages of silence to get to where visitors chatted and pondered their experience.

And there’s the thing.  We instinctively focussed on what visitors said, the questions they asked, how they spoke and what they did. Days into the process we realised that we had been unwittingly ignoring the real insight.  For much of their visit, people moved quickly and quietly through the site. Where we, and the organisation, imagined visitors moving slowly, looking carefully, discussing the objects, there was… well, a gap.  These objects, the displays weren’t, in the words of Peter Samis, ‘sticky’

In fact a whole series of galleries were acting as a route to the ‘interesting stuff’ that did halt them in their tracks and did provoke lots of verbal reaction. One group of participants could even be heard pacing through gallery after gallery until they finally announced “So this is where the interesting stuff is!”

This insight allowed us to shift our focus – was there anything that might sloooow them down or open them up to these less obviously appealing displays for example.  Or could we use the energy from the ‘interesting’ stuff to open them up to new experiences.

The silences and gaps are still with us and we continue to try to ensure our attention is not too caught up in what is being said or done.  But it brings with it some challenges such as how do we talk about what isn’t there and when is a silence or gap significant or not?

Why does this matter for digital project?

A common issue we come across is that organisations have spotted digital gaps not audience gaps. For example, we hear we have lots of information that we haven’t been able to give to people without cluttering the exhibition space and a mobile guide lets us fix that issue. But the truth is most visitors don’t want access to lots of information during their visit.  They just want the right information written in a way they can understand and is easily accessible to them.

We need to refocus our gap detecting powers on to our audiences. Because what we have begun to realise is that the gaps and silences often occur because our audiences aren’t always very good at either articulating their needs or even knowing things could be better.   

A nice example of this follows on from Lindsey’s recent post on planning.  As part of that work on planning we’ve been listening to front of house staff talk about the type of questions visitors ask them, how they tackle them and where they place themselves. In the entrance hall, some people ask “Where’s the [insert name of famous object]?”, “Where’s the cloak room?” or “Where do I start?”. But observation and further questioning suggested that some audience segments simply weren’t interacting with staff at that point. They tend to shoot off into the museum and wander. In silence. The staff’s operating assumption was that these visitors ‘didn’t have any questions’.  This turned out to be true – sort of – but not quite in the way that was expected.

We came to realise that a lack of purpose, low levels of knowledge about a venue or lack experience of museums can mean some visitors – often those who need help most – simply can’t formulate a specific question, have no destination in mind or assume everything will become clear if they just keep going. In other words visitors who need most support aren’t accessing it and may have no idea their visit could be better with just a bit of help.

Digital could help this group identify what is interesting to them but relying on them to seek it out is unlikely to work. They need active intervention. Active interventions might be in your face marketing that talks to the need OR a person located in the right place, supported by a digital tools. We’re not the first to think of this by any means – many museums combine tablets and staff, however thinking about how you train these staff and the types of questions they need to ask can only be identified by understanding what they aren’t asking.

As we start to dig into more and more of these gaps and silences, we can see there are lots of opportunities. We just don’t know what they are yet.

In weeknotes – Lindsey and Laura have been preparing for their visit to Boston and workshops at the Isabella Gardner Stewart Museum. If you would like to join them for a beer and some museum related chat they are going to be at “Drinking about Museums” at The Hong Kong in Harvard Square at 6 pm on the 29th.

Meanwhile Lindsey and I have sharing with Scottish Ballet the outcome of the research phase as well as managing all the logistics for a series of phone interviews. Plus a few top secret things that we can’t share right now but hopefully will be able to soon.

No links this week but double next week!

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