Family Learning Forum

A Project of the USS Constitution Museum

Why Listen to Your Visitor?

by Minda Borun
The Franklin Institute and Museum Solutions

People often respond to an exhibit in ways that are difficult to predict. Testing the exhibit with visitors is vital in making the relationship between visitor and exhibit as effective as possible. An example of the value of front-end study at the USS Constitution Museum shows the value of understanding visitor preferences. In the summer of 2005, USSCM conducted a study of visitor preferences among three different voices in exhibit labels: contemporary questions, historical questions, and (simulated) quotes. One hundred visitors were interviewed for each of the three voices. The results revealed that 47% of visitors preferred quotes, 34% historical questions, and only 19% favored contemporary questions. Consequently, the simulated quotes were used in talk bubbles attached to ¾ life-sized cutouts of historical figures from the “Old Ironsides” crew. The next round of testing compared first person and third person voice. One hundred visitors were shown two labels: one first person, one third person attached to a life-sized cut-out figure. First person was preferred by 64% of visitors; third person by 36%. The reasons visitors preferred first person were: it is more personal, active, and allowed the visitor to connect with the story, and would appeal more to kids.

Guerrier the Terrier

A Sailor's Life for Me? prototype exhibit uses life-size human cutouts and first person text panels

Without visitor input, even the clearest text or graphic may not work as one would expect. A recent device at the Franklin Institute was designed to teach visitors about the creation of mountains through the collision of tectonic plates. The visitor turns a crank on the device to move a series of “small land plates” along a conveyor belt, until they collide with a stationary “large land plate” and pile up against one another to form a mountain. In order for the activity to be repeated by another group, the small land plates need to be reset – taken down from their piled-up mountain formation and laid flat upon the conveyor belt. To make sure that this important step took place, the first line in the device’s operating instructions was “Use the handle to put the plates into place, flat on the conveyor belt.”

This seemingly clear direction became a major point of confusion due to an interesting twist: almost all of the visitors reset the small plates themselves AFTER creating a mountain. As a result, the following group was presented with the activity all set and ready to go, rendering the first direction unnecessary. Its presence became a significant source of confusion; many visitors did not know what it meant. Consequently, the instruction was changed to read, “make sure the small plates are flat on the table, or pull the handle to reset them,” which solved the problem.

Early visitor testing of a prototype exhibit often provides designers with insights into human behavior that would otherwise have remained unknown. In a device designed for an electricity exhibit at The Franklin Institute visitors were instructed to place one of their hands on a large metal sphere, while touching a metal object with the other hand. Unfortunately, the shock produced by the sphere proved more interesting than the intended activity, and kids spent most of the testing period shocking themselves and one another. It was realized that interaction with their peers, was part of what made the shock so much fun. This insight allowed the designers to create a more interesting activity. They instructed participants to hold hands and form a chain, with the person on one end touching the sphere and the person on the other end touching a metal object. The group could then observe how electricity flowed through the human chain. Participants still shocked one another, but their urge to interact was harnessed to make the experience more informative.

Many unexpected things can happen during an exhibit’s transition from the early prototype stage to its final form that could cause problems with visitors’ experience, understanding, and even safety. The only way to track such problems is through remedial evaluation, testing the final version, after it is installed. Also, when an activity is surrounded by the exhibit’s other devices and activities, the context is very different from the prototyping room. Thus, visitors can have very different reactions to different stages of the same activity.

One activity designed for The Franklin Institute’s Amazing Machine exhibit involved spinning a large dial to play a tune). During the prototype stage, instructions for this activity were written on a white board and placed on a stand near the activity. Once the final version was installed in the museum, the instructions were placed on a plaque affixed to the device itself, close to the dial. So close, in fact, that visitors hurt their knuckles on the edge of the plaque when they turned the dial. This danger was exposed during a remedial evaluation interview, and was subsequently remedied.

A visitor’s perspective is key to creating an exhibit that is effective, educational, and fun for its intended audience. Human behavior is often surprising, and the developers of an exhibit cannot predict how the public will react. Since individual minds work very differently, a developer’s views and understanding of a concept – its nuances, its jargon – may be completely alien to a novice visitor. By listening to the visitor, developers can catch unexpected behavior that affect the exhibit, gain insight into human psychology and make use of it, and fix any problems that emerge as the device evolves.