Family Learning Forum

A Project of the USS Constitution Museum

Timing and Tracking:
How Do Families Use Your Exhibitions?

by USS Constitution Museum Team

Observing families for a simple tracking and timing evaluation study is easy, informative, and objective. It requires minimal training so everyone from frontline staff to your board president can participate. All you need is a clipboard, a floorplan of your exhibition, and a watch.

Find a location where you can observe families entering your exhibition. Some institutions put out a sign to inform visitors that observations are being conducted. Observation staff should be identifiable by your visitors; either in uniform or with a name badge at the very least.

A basic tracking and timing evaluation form consists of a few fields to record demographic information like:

  • Observer ________________
  • Group Members: Male ________ Female _______
  • Date ______________

A floorplan of the exhibition with some room to record observations will also be needed.

Tracking Form Example

Completed tracking form for the “Barbary War” exhibition at the USS Constitution Museum

Getting started

Completing a tracking and timing form is straight forward:

  • Write down the time as the family enters the exhibition.
  • On the floorplan, trace their path as they move through the gallery.
  • Record any notable family behavior along the way.
  • Write down the time as the family exits the exhibition.

Use one evaluation form for each family. In a larger exhibit you may need to pick an individual to track if family members go in different directions. As results come in and you get more practice, you may decide to fine tune your form and recording methods.

Some examples of notable behavior might be:

  • Do they read certain text panels?
  • Do they find particular artifacts interesting?
  • Did they walk right by your favorite part of the exhibition?
  • Where do they talk to each other?

What kinds of information can timing and tracking provide?

Timing and tracking studies can take various forms and attempt to answer many questions. One of the most basic pieces of information they will determine is how much time does the average visitor spend in an exhibition? Hot spots and cold spots can be identified, showing where visitors spend the most or least amount of time as they move through the exhibition. Recording numbers or letters on the floorplan can indicate where certain behaviors occur. Behaviors that are useful to record include:

  • Looking – Which things fascinate your family visitors?
  • Reading - Where will families stop and read?
  • Interacting – Do families use your present interactives and for how long?
  • Conversation – Where do families talk about your exhibits, or even related topics?
  • You can even write down overheard visitor comments.

Understanding how families use your exhibitions can help identify strengths, weaknesses, and possibilities.

Getting good data

Each observation sheet should use the same set of rules or protocols. You can decide on some of these after tracking and timing a few families. Because the path of movement and time spent throughout an exhibition may vary between family members, it is difficult to track and document all of their behaviors. You may decide to follow one member of a group at a time. Make sure all data collectors understand the rules. Defining behaviors to be observed on the back of the evaluation form will lead to consistent reporting so that finished observations can be tallied accurately. Think ahead of time how the information will be used. Collecting details that will not be significant is just creating extra work.


If families are spending less than 10 minutes in a large gallery, you can bet they are not reading thousands of words of carefully crafted text. On the other hand, maybe they are stopping somewhere you did not expect.

Remember - one family may not tell the whole story. A sample size of 20 to 30 observations can provide a good general picture of how families use your exhibition. If you want statistically significant numbers you will need to complete 100 forms. The results and the experience of observing visitors can help every member of the museum staff understand how families see and use your institution.

Some of our results

One common observation made at the USS Constitution Museum and other institutions is visitor fatigue. You may notice that visitors start an exhibition reading more text, but after the first few text panels they begin to hunt for only the text that might be interesting to them. They may only read object labels or interactive instructions.

One element that both young and old visitors used in the Museum’s core exhibit, “Old Ironsides in War and Peace,” were lift flaps designed for kids.

Kid Flap

Visitor reading one the Kid Flaps from “Old Ironsides in War and Peace”

As a result of an early timing and tracking study we decided to expand the number of kid flaps. We modified the content so that both young and old visitors who only read these pieces of text would get a big picture of USS Constitution’s history.