Visitors as Experience Experts | #CitizenExpert

The knowledge is bursting and the ideas are brewing from our trip to Minneapolis for the Museum Computer Network (MCN) conference last week. There were some major hot-topic sessions, discussions about trends and hands-on trials with new technologies that we were able to participate in. We had a great time overall and came away with a lot to discuss, implement and research. Minneapolis was a beautiful city and we were surrounded by fabulous museums and industry experts. We were able to visit a few of these museums, including the Minneapolis Institute of Art and the Science Museum of Minneapolis

We’ll expand on many of these later, but some of the main topics/ideas that we took away from the conference include Accessibility, WordPress, Fundraising for Digital Initiatives, Service Design, Digital Eco-Systems, User-Centered Design, Digital Asset Management (DAMs), Fostering Creativity in Technology and Exhibit Design.

One topic I found particularly interesting, and heard a few times sprinkled throughout the conference, was the idea of the Citizen Expert. Let’s explore.

Citizen Expert

The term “citizen expert” captures the concept of letting your visitors be the expert of their own experience in order to inform organizational decisions going forward. This isn’t really a new concept, but a nice way to package up a fundamental concept of good User Experience. To break down what this means…

After visiting a new city or a new museum, one could say that you are then an expert on your own personal experiences you had while you were there. You felt the energy of the locals, you explored the new exhibition, you interacted with the staff. No one else can explain your adventures as well as you and no one can relive your exact same experience. Whether they be good or bad, these experiences are invaluable, not only for you personally, but for the organizations that you interact with.

For many years, and in many industries (not just museums), leadership teams have sat in rooms collecting data, looking at numbers, and making assumptions about their customers/visitors. The realization soon set in that this method wasn’t going to work for the long-haul, and thus the concept of user (or human)-centered design was born.

Okay, well maybe this isn’t exactly how it happened but, marketing teams are starting to smarten up and realize they need to start designing around their users/visitors. This means not only designing for an organization’s goals, but also for visitors’ goals.

Where we heard about it at MCN

Liz Ogbu – Studio O

The keynote speaker at MCN, Liz Ogbu, gave a truly inspiring presentation about her recent work using the Citizen Expert concept. Liz uses this idea as the core of her services when starting a new project. She works to solve problems in communities and believes that you must become a citizen yourself in order to build relationships, uncover opportunities for impact and ultimately design a human-centered solution.

In two different scenarios, including a Cookstove Project in Tanzania and San Francisco’s Bayview Hunters Point, Liz immersed herself into the role of a local, a citizen. She became an expert because she put herself into the shoes and lives of the people she was working with, studying and understanding. As part of her process and goal of human-centered design, she had to understand the whole picture.

For both of these projects, she wanted to see who the end users of the products/services would be and how they would be using it. She wanted to understand what the problem really was and how she could work to really solve the problem in order to create the largest impact.

In addition to becoming a citizen herself during these projects, Liz was able to dive deep into her clients- stories by visiting with them, by being friends with them, by talking to them versus interviewing them. She wanted them to feel comfortable, not feeling like they were on the spot and nervous. This allowed her to get real information and real honest input as to how she could better their situations and make their everyday experience better. She used the locals as experts in their own experience.

Laura Mann – Frankly, Green + Webb

For the second time this year, I had the pleasure of listening to sessions by members of the Frankly, Green + Webb team. The first time was at Museums and the Web in Chicago back in April and this session didn’t disappoint either. Laura discussed, in the session named Service Design: Designing for Visitor Needs at the Interface of the Digital and the Physical, their projects with the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Van Gogh Museum.

Both museums relied on Frankly, Green + Webb to conduct in-depth studies/research to understand their audiences in order to provide services defined by their visitors’ needs. Their mission was to understand the entire visitor journey to provide a better service. Laura mentioned how often it is that museums focus on utilizing new technology to give a better experience, but how that isn’t always the case–you need to start at your visitor’s needs, not at technology.

With the Met project, FG+W worked with them to simplify their audio tour experience. Visitors had so many options that they were overwhelmed and unable to focus their tour. The staff had a hard time explaining the full scope of the tour which also resulted in frustration as visitors stood in line to get the audio tours for longer and longer as the app was explained. (Couldn’t this be applied similarly to having a negative website experience? You end up frustrated because you don’t know how to navigate to get to the information you seek and ultimately leave the website). The Met and FG+W realized there was a mismatch between the needs of the visitor and what was being offered. The solution: understand the needs of their visitors and work from there.

How did they do it? They took to the people who knew their experiences at the Met the best – the visitors. Through recorded visits, interviews, observation and usability testing, the result was to simplify the audio tour’s interface. They limited choices so as to not overwhelm users with options and improved labeling by using user’s own phrases such as “explore at my leisure”.

The conclusion:

Whether you are planning exhibits, building websites, designing a mobile app – you can’t make assumptions about your users/visitors. Use your visitors, your citizens, your users as experts in their own experiences. Talk to them, watch them interact, listen to their needs. The users felt the frustration or excitement first-hand, without all the other clutter that comes from higher-ups, goals, metrics… They don’t take that into account, they don’t overthink it, they just experience it.