As UX professionals, it is in our nature to believe customer experiences and interactions with services and products must be effectively architected. In this article we offer one approach by illustrating a collaboration between UX researchers and museum practitioners that investigates the visitor experience at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum in East Lansing, Michigan.
As a backdrop, it is important to know that many museums proactively think about visitor participation. For example, in The Participatory Museum, Nina Simon explains that visitors have something creative to offer museums and that contribution is directly related to the way practitioners “design the invitation to participate.” Using this mindset, Simon believes museums should be “inviting people to engage as cultural participants, not passive consumers.” However, to design the invitation to participate effectively, we must first understand how people located in specific communities interact with museums, and also, what factors influence these interactions.
Our article is useful for professionals interested in using UX research for studying how people interact with their environments. We also share takeaways from what we learned working together on this project.
But First, Some Background on the Broad
Named after longtime Michigan State University supporters Eli and Edythe Broad, The Broad MSU Art Museum opened on November 10, 2012. It was artfully designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Zaha Hadid to signal the dynamic vision of both the museum and the university. The Broad’s mission is to be an engaged public institution that reflects through art the longstanding global focus of MSU.
Given this context, Broad leadership has been working together to gain a better understanding of people’s experiences to better serve visitors’ needs and to use art to engage with the local community. These efforts include activities such as:
- Strategizing about how to gather more meaningful data about the visitor experience, including from families, students, and newsletter subscribers
- In-depth training for gallery guides (the Broad MSU’s student employees that act as tour guides and security)
- Participation in community events
As a contemporary art museum situated outside of the traditional “art world” and on a university campus, it is extremely important that the Broad connects with its community. The Broad’s unique context and effort to understand the visitor experience paved the way for the research project detailed below.
Setting Up Our Project
In our initial ideation session, we met at the Broad to talk over potential research projects and to establish our collaborative framework using an agile workflow (for example, periodic feedback meetings with stakeholders). During that session, we discussed several potential research projects, but ultimately focused on a few main challenges.
There is no admission cost for visiting the Broad, so many people pass through without ever interacting with personnel. The benefit of free admission comes with the challenge of engaging people about their experiences. The Greater Lansing area contains several communities and a diverse population, so even just learning about visitor demographics often proved a challenge. Broad leadership was focused on collecting more information about visitors, but was asking questions like how, where, and when do you ask visitors for information without disrupting their experience at the museum?
The Broad’s architecture is unique in that there is no front door. Instead, as Figure 1 shows, there are a set of doors on the east and west sides of the museum, and each acts equally as an entrance and exit. As a result, the unique architecture also makes it relatively easy for visitors to enter and exit the building while remaining anonymous. Making it easy to come and go was part of the intended visitor experience, but what happens during their time at the museum? The Broad had some anecdotal evidence, but gaining a better understanding was difficult because of its floor plan.
We turned these challenges into research questions and then chose contextual observation, intercept surveys, and an interview as research methods to help Broad leadership begin answering these questions. Our goal was to provide data to inform their design of effective solutions for gathering information about the visitor experience without frustrating people. Our research questions were:
- How can the Broad collect relevant information on the visitor experience if visitors are not required to start or end their visit at a front desk?
- In what format should this information be collected so we don’t inconvenience visitors?
- At what point in the visitor’s experience should this information be collected?
Doing the Research
To answer these questions, we developed an agile, feedback-driven workflow assembled into sprints. Below we describe the workflow, and then continue by explaining what we learned from each sprint.
To answer our first research question, we planned Sprint One to focus on learning how visitors flow through the Broad (for instance, how/where they enter, exit, interact, and participate). To assemble patterns of such activities, we observed visitors for two nonconsecutive hours each day for one week. While observing, we took a headcount every 15 minutes to get a general idea of how many people used the museum’s different spaces (areas like the gift shop, cafe, and exhibits). Playing off of the unique layout of the Broad, we moved around each day to observe guests from different vantage points.
From this sprint we (importantly) learned that visitors generally started and ended their experience at the museum cafe and gift store common area. This story seemed to suggest that the Broad’s social spaces act as metaphorical bookends to the visitor experience. This story also helped us identify a potential environment for Broad leadership to design different kinds of interventions to collect more demographic data on visitors in unobtrusive ways.
As we discussed the user stories during our meeting at the end of the sprint, we realized that there were some important limitations to the findings. As we observed visitors, we often were unable to see how they interacted with exhibits because of the unique architecture of the Broad. Our observations taught us much about MSU students, faculty, and other affiliated community members, but families appeared to have less in common with these other demographics given our observations. For instance, families appeared to use the Broad less often to support activities like meeting with someone and more often to view exhibits. At this point, we revised our research questions to begin focusing on how families experience the Broad. In discussing the benefits of following this line of inquiry in Sprint Two, we agreed that learning more about how families participate in the museum would be useful given the Broad’s engagement with the local community and support of education.
Because the research changed directions to focus on the family experience, Sprint Two was designed to survey families as they were leaving the Broad. It was our goal to learn more about how families interacted with exhibits and resources provided by the Broad. We also wanted to better understand their level of satisfaction with their overall experience. Our research question was deceivingly simple because we did not know the answer to it: How do families describe their experience after visiting the Broad? Also, it seemed answering this question would give direction to additional research. Noting that these visitors may not have a long time to answer questions, we designed the survey to be efficient (completed in less than 30 seconds on a touch-screen tablet). Also, referring back to data from Sprint One, we believed the best time and place for conducting surveys was on the weekend at peak times for family visitors. So, at those times, we wore Broad name tags to add credibility to our request to families that they complete a quick survey. As a result of our approach, we surveyed 39 families over a period of two days.
From the surveys, we learned that the content of exhibits appeared to influence how some families rated their overall experience. For example, we asked families to describe their experience using a single word or short phrase. Those words appeared directly influenced by the art installations, not necessarily the end-to-end experience of visiting the Broad (for example, one family said “scary,” but the Broad is not a scary place). As well, over half of the families heard about the Broad through word-of-mouth, and visitors reported coming from ZIP codes that mapped all across mid-Michigan. Overall, 71% of families noted they were very likely to visit the Broad again, which was especially notable because for the majority it was their first time at the museum (approximately 74%). The results pointed to a very positive experience for families.
As a team, we conducted a card sort from a portion of the survey results to generate user stories. From this work we concluded that families, particularly first-time visitors, reported a positive overall experience. For us, that meant the Broad seemed to be providing a valuable overall experience for families. However, we wanted to more deeply explore some of the statements made on the survey to learn about the context for some of the answers (for instance, what causes a response of “scary”). In other words, the surveys were useful because we learned how families describe their experience, but they were also designed to be efficient, so we felt interviews would help us engage more directly with a family’s experience.
For the third sprint, we decided to assemble an experience map of an end-to-end visit to the Broad. To do this, we interviewed a father and mother immediately after their experience at the Broad with their two children. When taking the survey during Sprint Two, participants were given the option to elect to participate in the interview. Those that elected to participate received an email invitation. We also reached out to potential participants in our own local networks that fit our criteria (for example, a family that was a first-time Broad visitor). From our efforts, we were only able to recruit one family interested in participating, though we had initially hoped for between four and six. Put together with what we learned from Sprints One and Two, we used this interview as a starting point for future research. While we’d hoped for more participants, we also found the interview compelling and worth exploring, especially since it built upon the previous research findings.
The goal for the interview was to learn about what the participants were doing, thinking, and feeling as they visited the museum. As well, the family was given input to the final design of the map and were invited to edit language or visuals to be certain it represented their experience accurately. Figure 2 shows the experience map that was constructed to represent the family’s visit.
The experience map points out trends that were discovered in Sprint One (for example ending the visit at the cafe and gift shop common area) and Sprint Two (the family was very likely to come back again). It also shows that the Broad has many opportunities for families to participate in art in the local community. Meanwhile, there are clearly some opportunities for improving the end-to-end experience for visitors. For example, the website seemed difficult to navigate on both mobile and desktop versions. Social media, on the other hand, proved more useful for this family. Also, the family had some suggestions for how to improve the experience for their children, which seems to fit with the Broad’s mission of being a community-engaged educational and cultural institution.
As a team we are currently talking about how to further study the family’s suggestions in the experience map. We hope to do more interviews and learn about other families’ experiences to further evaluate what we’ve learned so far. For instance, we would like to learn more about how families interact with social media, the Broad website, and the outdoor exhibits.
On the other hand, we feel the entire research project has given us deeper insight into how people are interacting at the Broad and how they are experiencing the exhibits. As a result, we plan to extend our research project to design and test different interventions for collecting demographic data on visitors in the Broad’s social spaces (for instance, the cafe and gift shop areas or the education space for families). We are particularly interested in how these interventions could be creatively designed as a kind of interactive installation that adds value to people’s experiences at the museum in ethical and minimally disruptive ways.
Meanwhile, we also presented our research to the staff at the Broad. During that presentation, staff offered excellent suggestions and advice for future research projects. Some even raised questions they are wrestling with, and wondered how we could help them research (and hopefully solve) these issues. We plan to continue working the staff’s feedback into future research projects and will continue to liaise with them as we develop new questions and collect more visitor stories. We believe our project helped evangelize UX research at the Broad, and our goal is to continue making UX an important part of how the Broad architects experiences for visitors.
Takeaways from the Project
Our work with the Broad shows museums are more than just storage containers for eye-catching items. Many museum visitors are often interested in engaging in art in multiple ways. As a result, cultural institutions like museums can be seen as living spaces where people come to interact with exhibits and with each other. To enhance these interactions, these institutions will continue to need to understand their visitors’ experiences.
If you are interested in doing similar work on cultural institutions or environments in general, we suggest a few important ideas:
- Establish common goals before getting started on doing research
- Create a research design and assemble user stories as a team
- Be agile in your mindset and approach
- Don’t be afraid to learn from each other as the research unfolds
- Always focus on the ethics of how the research affects visitors
- Check in with each other often through digital tools and face to face
- Iterate your collaboration to best suit the people on the team
As user experience professionals, we have an important role to play in architecting experiences for people interacting with cultural institutions like museums. Doing so positions us to impact our local communities in meaningful and important ways. As organizations and institutions like the Broad perform outreach to their local communities, UX practitioners should seek avenues to participate in that work and do what we’ve always done: advocate for people and for better experiences. Our case shows that museum practitioners can be valuable partners in this important work, and that UX methods can provide insight into how people experience their environments.
Description of Figure 2: Experience Map
- Planning/Deciding. The Broad’s online presence is slightly difficult to navigate
- Traveling: Traveling to and from the Broad is not seen as an issue or barrier to guests
- Visiting: Guests are intrigued by the building itself, and, overall, enjoy their visit
- Post-visit: Family participation at the Broad is existent, however, there is a lot of room for growth
|Planning/Deciding and Researching
|Traveling and Visiting
|Looking for a family activity on the weekend
Searching the internet and talking with others
|Drive to the Broad and find parking
Viewing and interacting with site and materials
|Finding car to drive to the next destination
|Looking for information about activities for family.
|Gathering information via website, friends, colleagues, social media
|Find parking on campus.
Walk through the museum
Participated in the exhibits, but most time was spent in the education area for families to read and explore the artwork
|Walking, Driving, Viewing outdoor exhibits
|Reflecting, Planning a trip to participate in a community event, Only aware of minor exhibits on the west side
|What family activities do they have? Do they have snacks for the kids?
|Did we come through the correct entrance? What exhibits are appropriate for children?
|Did we miss any of the exhibits?
|Plan to go back on a rainy or cold day
|Interested in the exhibits. Curious about the other community events
|Peaceful and quiet inside the museum. Desire more participatory exhibits for kids
|Want to find out more about family activities offered by the Broad
|Excited to plan a visit on a family day
|Website is somewhat confusing to navigate. The Social Media pages are more clear
|Spent majority of time in children’s area. Children’s area may be too small for multiple families to utilize at once
|Unaware of outdoor exhibits on the east side and did not view them
|Researching more information about family days
|Website could perhaps be updated more often. “The last update for the first family Saturday of the month was way out of date.”
|Create a larger space for children. The space could encourage kids and families to create their own artwork to decorate this space.
|Encourage museum personnel to engage guests with outdoor exhibits. Provide family activity information to families during their visit.
|Provide family activity information to participants