Before working as an Exhibit Developer, I was involved with a project surveying visitors at a natural history exhibit with an extreme amount of taxidermy. My questions to visitors were purposefully open-ended, with a lot of room for conversation about their thoughts and impressions. Many people fondly remembered coming to the museum as a child and were charmed by the old-school habitat dioramas. Others felt that taxidermy was an outdated mode of display.
Some people were just confused. A visitor in his twenties asked me, “Are these things real?”
I looked at the raccoon next to us. “What do you mean?”
Among other things, I was interested in whether visitors saw replicas, such as casts of dinosaur bones or wax molds of plants, as useful objects in science museums. Is a dead, carefully posed animal a good tool for teaching about its living counterparts?
“Are they real or stuffed?” this visitor pressed, clarifying nothing.
On the surface, it’s an absurd question, and it certainly threw me for a loop. I probably answered something like, “Well, they’re both.” But I now suspect that he was trying to ask a different question – maybe even a whole set of questions. He probably did wonder whether the skins he was looking at once belonged to living animals. He might have wanted to know how the museum acquired those skins. He may also have been curious about the process of taxidermy or the reasons why these decades-old animals weren’t rotting inside their cases. The exhibit hadn’t provided him with enough information to form these questions, so he struggled to communicate them to me.
The taxidermy hall might not have been a bad exhibit overall, but it failed to address the needs of this particular visitor. Even the most seasoned museum professionals sometimes fail to get into the minds of their audience. Part of the problem is that visitors are never all of one mind. My experiences surveying, though, have convinced me that visitors are usually working as hard to find meaning in exhibits as we designers are to convey it.
The difficulty lies in meeting visitors halfway. Fortunately, there are many ways to do this that don’t require an audience research department.
Exhibit inspiration comes from all kinds of places, but most of us have preferences and standbys that we turn to more often than others. To break out of our familiar habits of thinking, which might reinforce our blindspots, it can be extraordinarily helpful to seek out new ways of looking at the world. Try reading in a genre you typically avoid, watching a subtitled movie in another language, and seeking out art and media by people who are different from you. Notice points of discomfort. When you’re in an unfamiliar setting or outside of the intended audience, take note of the moments that make you feel engaged as well as the times you’re confused or out of your comfort zone. No matter what kind of exhibit you’re making, you share these feelings with members of your audience at one point of their experience, or another.
Of course, expanding our sources of inspiration is a starting goal, not the end point. It can be easy to convince ourselves we understand another’s perspective when we’ve really filtered their story through our own internal lenses.
A lot of exhibit design adages are easier said than done, especially advice about predicting the questions a visitor will have about a particular item or display. We spend so long working on an exhibit that we often lose sight of what we knew at the beginning of a project. After months or years of becoming an expert on an exhibit’s content, design, and structure, we may forget that the visitor is seeing it all for the first time.
You may want to document your own thoughts and questions at the beginning of a project so you can refer back to them later on and remember what first captured your attention. Often, the most interesting part for the visitor will be the thing that has become so obvious we’ve stopped thinking about it.
Rather than feel burdened by the need to “dumb the exhibit down” or “communicate to the lowest common denominator,” we should be excited to introduce our visitors to the stories we’ve spent so much time with. As the webcomic xkcd put it: “Saying ‘what kind of idiot doesn’t know about the Yellowstone supervolcano’ is so much more boring than telling someone about the Yellowstone supervolcano for the first time.”
Cost and time are barriers to good audience research across the entire design industry. People often envision an elaborate survey instrument designed for a carefully selected and statistically average sample, administered and analyzed by a team of experts. This kind of research is certainly nice when you can afford it, but it’s far from the only way to learn more about your audience.
It’s better to prototype exhibit elements – from label copy and graphic layouts to interactives and wayfinding strategies – early on in the process and as frequently as you can. You don’t need to aim for the quality of scientific study. Even one user is better than none, says usability consultant Steve Krug. (Chapter 9 of Don’t Make Me Think, Revisited, “Usability Testing on 10 Cents a Day,” is a great resource for rapid prototyping.)
I recently roped in a handful of team members’ preteen children to prototype character designs for an exhibit aimed at middle schoolers. Our sample size was three and our survey instrument contained little more than “what do you think?”, but we were able to get a sense of how appealing our designs were to their target audience.
The trouble with trying to see from another’s perspective is that even the best audience research is filtered through the assumptions and past experience you bring with you. It’s the nature of the human mind to disregard more easily anything that doesn’t fit with our knowledge of the world whenever we sort through new information. We also tend to assume that our understanding of “common sense” is universal. We look for patterns; we view our way of thinking as the most natural.
Moving beyond these tendencies and meeting our audiences where they are requires us to practice listening just like any other skill. When I surveyed the confused visitor in the taxidermy hall, I interpreted his question using my own prior knowledge rather than thinking about the experiences that might have led him to ask it. Today, I’m better equipped to investigate the thinking behind the question, but I’m also more likely to be generous in my assumptions about the visitor. Like everything else about exhibit design, it’s an iterative process.