During the past year or so, I assisted the Bullock Texas State History Museum staff with a multi-phase evaluation of a portion of the museum’s permanent exhibits.
This was my first time dipping into the evaluation pool so I thought I’d share my experience.
Like many museums across the country, we’ve been collecting visitor feedback through basic “satisfaction survey” style comment cards. We wanted to do more.
By going beyond comment cards, we hoped to engage visitors in a variety of environments and with a variety of tools to allow for a more complete picture of their experience.
The results of our project will help guide future updates to the gallery, and give us a better understanding of what people want to see and do at the museum.
We employed three different mediums: an iPad tracking app, surveys, and focus groups.
Our three mediums allowed us to see patterns during visitor exploration in the exhibits, get an immediate look at impressions and reasons for visiting, and create a space for people to share with us and each other in a more in-depth way.
Let’s look at each medium and how it was used:
We used an iPad app called TrackNTime to observe and record visitor behaviors on the museum’s first floor. This app lets the user keep track of overall visit time, individual time at an element of the exhibit, and specific behaviors at that element such as reading, types of conversation, and interaction with group members.
Demographics about the group being followed are also easily recorded within the app. Behaviors are customizable for your specific project. Evaluators save time and labor by downloading the tracks together into convenient PDFs.
Tracking software also allowed us to efficiently track behaviors without “outing” ourselves. Most of my subjects carried on with their visit and never noticed me.
The convenience and unobtrusiveness of the iPad meant that I didn’t even need to try camouflage!
Evaluators conducted interviews on our second floor, as visitors moved on from the area where we were tracking with the iPad app.
The survey was a short, five-question instrument, with a demographics page, designed to take about 10 minutes to complete.
It was helpful to try and frame the whole experience as a conversation with the visitor. Rather than handing out a survey, evaluators asked visitors questions and jotted notes down as they responded.
Soliciting visitors for surveys can feel like you are asking complete strangers to befriend you (no pressure, right?). People can clam up when you approach them about a survey, and no one wants to feel caught in a pop quiz.
We used old-fashioned pen and paper for this phase but you can also check out Kristie Smeltzer’s post about using iPads to record visitor interviews, and that could be a way to free staff from note taking so they can concentrate on their subject.
After completing our tracking and interview portions of the project, we found that the results from each method often reinforced each other. For example, our visitors talked in their interviews about a connection to the personal stories in the exhibits.
Tracking data showed that they did indeed spend more time at elements that told individual stories.
We conducted seven focus groups with a variety of people we knew we were reaching already (like members) and those we may not be reaching.
It was here that we were able to get some deeper answers to better understand our visitors.
Specifically, we asked them how they use and feel about technology, what they like to do in their free time, what kinds of content interests them most, and their specific impressions of the museum.
In our first two methods, the data really spoke the loudest to me in terms of takeaways.
But what interested me most about the focus groups was that we learned just as much about our participants, through their interactions with us and other members of the group, as we did from what they actually said.
Another important takeaway from my experience with focus groups was the need to allow time for the unexpected. You can receive information you weren’t expressly seeking, but still gain valuable information for your institution.
We tell “the Story of Texas” at the Bullock. During one of our groups we were able to hear the stories of refugees and asylees who were new to the city. Their contemporary stories of arrival in Texas are powerful comparisons to the stories we tell in the museum’s exhibits.
This wasn’t something we set out to learn, but it still gives an eye to who is (and isn’t) coming to the museum, provides a richness of stories about our city and state, and helps us to think about how we can reach new audiences.
Through our project we found that having a diverse set of tools in our hands helped us focus our project as well as create a space for visitors to show us how we can more fully fit into their lives.
Amy Wolfgang is a sometimes evaluation assistant, sometimes tour guide, always history hustler with the Texas State Preservation Board in Austin. Find her on Twitter: @amywolfg