Listen to your users

Rebecca Atkinson, 21.01.2015
Digital projects are about giving the people what they want
Every conference has its buzzword, but it's not always what you expect it to be. At Let's get digital: New strategies for a new age, the Museums Association's recent seminar at the Royal College of Surgeons in London, the word that kept coming up in every presentation wasn't "mobile" or "technology" or even "strategies". It was "users".

We don't know who they are or what they want, but we know that, when it comes to thinking, planning and developing digital projects, we have to put their needs first - above our organisational needs, and above our needs as museum professionals.

Kicking off the day, Andrew Lewis, the digital content delivery manager at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London, looked at the rapid speed of change in digital technology, arguing that, whatever digital might look like, the key is giving people what they want.

Demographics, he said, aren't necessarily meaningful because people use different devices in different ways at different times - and technology shapes behaviour, as evidenced by the huge difference in pictures posted to the V&A’s Flickr and Instagram accounts.

So if stereotypes are out, where does that leave us? Mike Ellis from consultancy Thirty8 Digital, who chaired the event, pointed out that while you can't assume that 60-year-olds aren't social media savvy or teenagers prefer digital interpretation, having personalities to help shape design decisions is incredibly valuable.

The key to this isn't rocket science - if museums are to understand what users want from websites and other digital technology, they have to get out there and ask them. What I think often gets missed is when that communication takes place.

During my time writing Museums Journal's web and app reviews, I've looked at many projects where it's very obvious that the idea and the key design principles came from the museum or the people running the project, not the intended audience. There are some exceptions – the website for Bristol Museums, for example, where everything is determined by the very simple fact that all users wanted was to find out how to visit the physical museum sites.

Zak Mensah, the head of transformation at Bristol Museums, told delegates that what people said they wanted trumped all other motivations and ambitions. Yes the museum’s website still has information about volunteering and such like, but there is no search function because it was expensive and people prefer to use Google.

As well as looking at Google analytics, Bristol Museums talked to visitors, website users and front-of-house staff. And they did this at the very start, before anything was decided or designed, rather than halfway through or at the end of the project.

Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery's new 1831 Riot Gallery, which uses augmented reality to add a digital and interactive element to static objects, also relied on users' views and experiences to shape the design.

Ensuring that people with different access needs tested the displays was built into the process, and although much of the project was a learning curve for staff, one important lesson was: don’t assume that people will get it - you have to ask.

The day covered lots of ground, but the message about users' needs really hit home with me and many delegates. During the morning Q&A, the question of mobile apps came up. So many museums discuss and even invest in developing apps, but who are they for? Do users want to search collections (something they could do online) or is this being driven by curators? Are people crying out for app-based tours, or is it just about using new technology to try and tackle an old problem?

Andrew Lewis said that he thought the best markets for museum apps were (possibly) responsive in-gallery audio tours or fun things, such as Tate Trumps.

I'm still waiting to review an app from a UK museum that has been designed in response to users' needs - or maybe it's already out there? Whether you came to the seminar or not, let me know your thoughts.


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Jonathan Gammond
MA Member
Access & Interpretation Officer, Wrexham County Borough Museum
22.01.2015, 22:52
There are many kinds of users for our few webpages, which form part of a local authority website There are those who come through the 'front door', that is they are wanting to find out about our sites and the usual information that visitors and potential visitors want. However, there are visitors who visit our website so to speak through the 'back door' or even the 'upstairs window' or 'down the chimney', in that they are online searching out information about a topic and discover our museum through their search online. When they googled Waterloo, Age of the Princes, Steel works or whatever, they did not even know our museum existed. I reckon there are as many people who search the web the latter way as the former searching by institutional name, and unless you are a museum with national recognition, i reckon, you ignore those customers at your peril. I am sure our situation is not unusual.