Digesting ‘Food for Curious Minds’

Compared to Interpret Europe, which, with around 100 delegates was quite intimate in scale, the 1100-delegate ECSITE conference was a bit of a shock to the system – magnified by the fact I’d barely had time to decompress from one conference before leaping into the next.

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I used to be a regular at ECSITE, but this was my first time since the 2007 conference in Lisbon. It was also the first time that I had been a presenter.

The conference website has storify summaries, presentation slides and other info, which I’ve bookmarked to come back to at a future date (after the conference I took a well-earned holiday in Venice, hence the delay in writing this wrap-up post). But for now, here are a few of my first quick impressions, more about the delegate experience than the conference content per se:

  • Lots of delegates means LOTS of parallel sessions (up to 10). This can lead to both choice paralysis and session envy. It also got me pondering the psychology behind having lots of (too much?) choice – does it mean you’re less satisfied with the session you *do* choose, because you’re haunted by the prospect of the session you *didn’t* choose being AMAZING? I’m not sure how the organisers can get around such a conundrum in such a large conference, but I think it’s definitely a factor in how delegates perceive their experience.
  • With so many sessions happening at once, it could be very easy to get confused about what was happening where. Keeping true to the theme of the conference, the organisers named each room after a well-known Italian food. This signage was reinforced on the stairs, in the lift, and on floor graphics throughout the MUSE conference venue.
Directional signage on the stairs, saying what room's on what floor.

Directional signage on the stairs, saying what room’s on what floor.

  • Organisers made clear what measures they had taken to make the conference as sustainable as possible (using biodegradable cups and cutlery for the breaks was the most obvious). They also invited creative participation through the “Sustainability is our favourite ingredient – what’s yours?” chalkboard wall lining an underpass linking the two main conference venues.
Chalk board that delegates progressively added to and decorated over the course of the conference.

Chalk board that delegates progressively added to and decorated over the course of the conference.

  • Because by this stage of the trip my energy levels were flagging a bit, I kept a low profile during the evening events, attending only one and even then leaving quite early as I was presenting in the 9am slot the following morning.
  • The session in question (link to slides here) was quite well-received, and we had several people staying back afterwards to talk more about our work.
  • I also presented a poster on my PhD research during the Project Showcase session. However, this felt a little tacked on to the side of the Trade Show which was happening during every break. Delegates who were not playing close attention to the programme may not have even realised it was happening. I didn’t see that many people browsing the posters, anyway. But a friend came by and captured this snap:
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Poster presentation at ECSITE 2015 (photo by @elinoroberts)

  • Most of the sessions I attended were ones relating to Natural History Museums (since I’m now working in one), Visitor Research, or Mobile Technology. There have been some interesting developments in advancing a research agenda for Natural History Museums in Europe, and collaborations between museums and university researchers more generally. With respect to Mobile Technology, I got the sense that there is still quite a gap between what tech companies are selling and what is practically possible on the exhibition floor, at least at the sort of price point museums are usually working at. But more on that later, once I’ve digested my notes and my thoughts.

Back to the office tomorrow!

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Musing on Interpret Europe

It will take me a while to fully digest the last few days. A conference with a theme of “sensitive heritage, sensitive interpretation“, and that includes field trips to sites such as Auschwitz-Birkenau, is hardly going to be lightweight stuff. A lot of us frequently found ourselves in a reflective mood, and it was interesting to share thoughts and feelings with other delegates, often coming from very different perspectives (in the order of 30 countries were represented). The conference was small enough (around 100 delegates) that you had a chance to meet more or less everyone, however briefly, and this reinforced the sense of us all having a shared experience.

The conference had a good balance of theoretical and practical sessions, so I’m left with much to ponder as well as things I’m keen to try out once I get home. Although there were plenty of long days, most days had the format of a morning keynote, parallel sessions before lunch, and then a field trip running into the evening. This offered a welcome change of pace that helped counter the “session fatigue” you can get when spending whole days in seminar rooms.

Some quick take aways, which I hope to expand upon in future blog posts:

  • James Carter and Patrick Lehnes’ session on Interpretive Philosophy: interpretation can be seen to have a foot in both the Enlightenment and Romanticism. Both have their benefits and pitfalls. But I find this an interesting framework for thinking about the different sides of a controversial heritage topic.
  • Nicole Deufel’s research on “preferred readings” and the interesting differences revealed between English and German visitors to site related to their respective national histories.
  • Visitor journey mapping as a way of conceptualising all facets of the visitor experience in a holistic way (workshop by Jane Beattie and Chuck Lennox)
  • The transition from “history” to “memory”. This was a common thread throughout several sessions, but it crystallised for me during Roger White’s session on interpreting industrial heritage. Similarly to how I’ve described before, it struck me how there is a qualitative difference between heritage related to the recent past (i.e. within a generation of the people who actually lived through it) and that related to more distant times. More recent heritage also seems to be the more sensitive, controversial or contentious. It also presents interpretive and management challenges when a site’s story makes the transition from a “memory” era (within the last 75-125 years typically), to a “history” era (the past as a foreign country).
  • High quality, atmospheric exhibition design at both the John Paul II birthplace museum and the Schindler Factory Museum.
  • Finally, Eva Sandberg’s reminder that controversy is an opportunity: if a topic is controversial, it means it’s relevant, and that people care about it. Controversial and relevant trumps bland and boring.

Now it’s time to head off to Trento for ECSITE 2015. . . .

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The Gaze of the Other

Keynote address by Dr Andrzej Leder, Polish philosopher and essayist, at the Interpret Europe conference in Krakow, Poland, 7th June 2015 [1].

Consider the following: an Israeli husband and wife, aged 57 and 60, are arrested at Balice Airport, Krakow, accused of removing objects (spoons and other small domestic items) from Auschwitz and attempting to take them out of the country. The maximum penalty for such a crime under Polish law is 10 years’ imprisonment.

A spokesperson for the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum considers this a “crime of a special dimension” – such objects are the only things that remain of the 1 million plus people who faced annihilation at the death camp. Removal of these remnants represents a further annihilation.

The couple plead guilty and are fined. They apologise and return home. Once back in Israel, however, the couple are less repentant. While they regret any hurt their actions may have caused Holocaust survivors, they maintain that they did not really ‘steal’ anything. The objects concerned had been recently unearthed by weather, sitting in the ground. Their motivation for removing the objects was to ‘save’ them by turning them over to the custodianship of the Yad Vashem Museum in Israel.

The couple and the Museum spokesperson thus have competing moral frameworks, or “social imaginaries” to use Leder’s term. They may well know and understand each other’s perspectives on an intellectual level, but they choose to ignore or otherwise fail to acknowledge the aspects that challenge their own moral framework.

The couple would have known that Auschwitz-Birkenau is a museum site, and you can’t just take objects from museums whenever you please. However, many Holocaust survivors do not recognise Auschwitz’s legitimacy as a trustee of Holocaust memory. They consider the only true trustee with the moral authority to act in this role to be Yad Vashem.

Similarly, the Museum would have known that the couple, being Israelis of late middle age, would very likely have had direct connections to Holocaust survivors and that their intent was preservation, not destruction. Nonetheless, how can Auschwitz be properly managed and maintained if every visitor with a link to a Holocaust survivor is entitled to treat the place as their own property?

In its response to the incident, the Museum management emphasised the significance of Auschwitz as a grave site, for which they are ultimately responsible. In Polish tradition, the guardian of a grave has a right to speak for the dead. Delegitimising the right of Poles to take this guardianship role is seen as the first step down the road as casting the Polish people as bystanders, complicit in the Holocaust.

In post-war Europe, there were many competing different narratives and social imaginaries at play. There are the perpetrators and victims, those who were complicit (Vichy France and Quisling Norway for instance), and many questions about whether others did enough to stop or prevent what happened. With the lowering of the Iron Curtain, there are further narratives in the West that served to cast Eastern Europeans as the ‘bad guys’.

All of these different social imaginaries create Us and Them moral frameworks. Such comfortable certainties deny ambiguities, and ‘we’ (whoever ‘we’ are) are always the ‘good guys’ in our own moral frameworks. Such positions undermine empathy. We cannot accept what the Other says, even if we understand it on an intellectual level, because to do so would undermine the social imaginaries/moral frameworks of our world.

Resolving this requires what Leder calls a “Kantian imperative of empathy”. This means being ready to face inner tension between your own moral position and that of another. It also means being willing to look at yourself through the eyes of the other – and endure that gaze. Knowledge alone is not enough.

 

[1] The official session title was Imperative of Empathy – the Kantian pre-condition for any kind of European future. This summary has been hastily pulled together based on my notes taken during the session and without benefit of having a copy of Dr Leder’s slides (I’ll post a link to them if they become available). Any errors or misrepresentations are mine.

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Exhibiting Evolution in 3D

While in the Netherlands recently, I took a day trip to Leiden to visit the Naturalis Biodiversity Center. I didn’t know a lot about it before I arrived, and it was much bigger than I expected – particularly since it looks pretty modest upon arrival. For some reason, the entrance is via a historic building that includes the shop, cafe and storage lockers, with entrance to the main centre (a large modern building spanning some 6 floors) via a long enclosed pedestrian bridge across a highway. This brings you to the second level of the main building, with the path upstairs looking the most inviting.

Arrival point to the main exhibitions.

Arrival point to the main exhibitions.

This upstairs gallery, Nature’s Theatre, is an impressively comprehensive overview of biodiversity, encompassing not just animals but also plants and fungi (and a few microbes here and there as well) – areas that often get overlooked in favour of more animal-centric displays.

Birds display. I liked how many of the birds were shown in flight, in contrast to the flightless birds that were anchored to the plinth.

Birds display. I liked how many of the birds were shown in flight, in contrast to the flightless birds that were anchored to the plinth.

A walk through the plant kingdom.

A walk through the plant kingdom.

There was a lot more to this exhibition’s layout than first met the eye. On the floor of the plants picture above, you may notice a couple of greenish yellow lights set within metal discs. At first these didn’t really mean a lot to me, with their seemingly haphazard positioning and labelling only in Dutch. Their significance only dawned on me after visiting the Primeval Parade, on the level below.

An early section of the Primeval Parade.

An early section of the Primeval Parade (note the lit-up structures set into the ceiling- they’re important later).

This exhibition follows a spiral path through the earliest stages of Earth’s history, the formation of life and the world’s earliest fossils through to the era of the dinosaurs and concluding with extinct species from the last Ice Age.

A view into the Primeval Parade.

A view into the Primeval Parade.

While in this exhibition, I’d noticed a rather dense array of tree-like structures set into the ceiling. They appeared to be linked to a central spiral structure that lit up periodically. I never did quite figure out how that worked (whether it was triggered by visitor use or followed a predetermined cycle), but it gradually dawned on me that the central spiral represented an evolutionary timeline, and the tree-like branches were different evolutionary lineages.

The central spiral exhibit.

The central spiral exhibit.

Some of the tree branches terminated in white discs with a genus(?) name on it, as you can see in the picture above. Others went through the ceiling and into the floor of the Nature’s Theatre exhibition above . . . becoming those greenish floor lights! Thus the layout of Nature’s Theatre was driven by the evolutionary history of each lineage, as outlined in the Primeval Parade exhibition below.

Once the penny dropped and I knew what was going on, this added a whole new meaning to the layout of each exhibition space. I spent a lot more time looking around and across the two floors than I would have otherwise. The arrangement of these two floors is one of the most complex and clever bits of 3D spatial communication I’ve seen. And I was impressed – as a scientist. But as a visitor researcher, I have some questions/caveats. How clever is too clever? Do visitors generally grasp what’s going on? (It might be more obvious to Dutch speakers, as Dutch labelling is more extensive than English, understandably enough.) How much does it matter if they don’t? What difference does it make if the main target audience is schools rather than general visitors, and the layout is used as a teaching tool?

Either way, I’m glad I had a chance to see it on an opportunistic day-trip to Leiden.

 

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Rijksmuseum by App

I did a few laps of the Rijksmuseum yesterday – alternating between the printed guidebook and the museum’s free app to find my way around. In my last post I focused on the analog navigation, today I’ll review the app.

The app is essentially the same as the multimedia tour (the successor of the good old audioguide), although by bringing your own device you save yourself 5 euros. As I imagine most people do, I downloaded it while on site using the museum’s free wifi. This worked fine – although the biggest problem I had with using the app was the patchiness of the wifi coverage. Some parts of the museum seemed to be wifi blackspots, meaning parts of the tour wouldn’t download. But when the wifi was working, the app was a useful and easy-to-follow guide.

Some of the guided tours available via the app

Some of the guided tours available via the app

The app offered a LOT of different guided tours – ranging from general ‘highlights’ tours to tours covering a specific collection or time period. Each tour also had two different versions: a shorter 45-minute version, and a longer 90-minute one.

Navigation using the app was also made very simple by a combination of navigational photographs and annotation of the same museum map used in the guidebook and in signage.

Navigation images made it clear where you were supposed to be heading to follow your chosen tour.

Navigation images made it clear where you were supposed to be heading to follow your chosen tour.

Close up of the guide map showing the next stop of the tour.

Close up of the guide map showing the next stop of the tour.

Besides the guided tours, you could also use the app to listen to audio descriptions of selected works by entering in its three-digit number. Importantly, the tours saved your progress. So if you followed a diversion while in the middle of a tour, looking up a couple of different works, you could then go back to the tour and pick up where you left off.

Audio commentary is organised into concise tracks.

Audio commentary is organised into concise tracks.

Audio descriptions averaged about 1 minute in duration (maybe even less). I think this was the perfect length: short and to the point, with the option to listen to further tracks with additional information if you wished. And the commentary was pitched at the right level, not assuming too much knowledge of art or Dutch history.

The app also revealed some hidden gems that would have been easily missed otherwise. These two paintings were displayed in the same gallery, although not next to each other:

Dignified couples courting, by Willem Buytewech ca. 1620

Dignified couples courting, by Willem Buytewech (ca. 1620)

The fete champetre, by Dirck Hals (1627)

The fete champetre, by Dirck Hals (1627)

Look at the woman in red to the right of the lower painting. Does she look familiar? Apparently, artists copying each other like this was not uncommon – it was a way of them showing off their comparative skill.

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Navigating the Rijksmuseum

First stop on my trip to Europe is Amsterdam. By coincidence, the Rijksmuseum has just been announced as the European Museum of the Year by the European museum forum. The museum reopened in 2013 after an extensive, decade-long refurbishment.

I’d visited the pre-refurbishment Rijksmuseum in 2000, but to be honest, my memories of the place are vague. In any case, my main focus for this visit was the lobby and overall navigation rather than the exhibitions (I’ll review the museum app in a separate post).

The central lobby, which has been created by enclosing what was probably a central courtyard space bounded by the museum building, is HUGE. This picture only captures about a quarter of it:

View on arrival: the cafe with the shop below.

View on arrival: the cafe with the shop below.

The main lobby is below street level, and is clearly designed to manage large numbers of visitors (apparently queues snaking out and down the street are to be expected during peak periods). But things were relatively quiet at 10am on a Monday morning (this soon changed when the school groups started showing up). Although there is reasonably good seating provision in the galleries themselves, it was pretty limited in this lobby area. It’s obviously designed for throughput, not lingering.

View of the lobby looking away from the cafe/shop towards the ticketing area.

View of the lobby looking away from the cafe/shop towards the ticketing area. The windows show street level, where a cycle path passes through the museum building.

Entrance to the museum proper is at the opposite end of the lobby from the shop/cafe, through some rather imposing outscale rectangular gateways.

Information desk with ticket checkpoint in the background.

Information desk with ticket checkpoint in the background.

The first decision point is just past the ticket checkpoint, and it takes a while to figure out the layout of the historic building – particularly when it came to finding things on Level 3 (Level 3 is actually two completely separate area that don’t connect with one another, and not all stairwells lead to that level).

I’d bought a guidebook at the shop before entering (with 100+ pages it’s very comprehensive and at 10 euros was a bargain), with most of the highlights and recommended tours directing you to Level 2 (you enter at Level 0). This means heading up the stairs you can see to the far right of the photo above.

When you get to Level 2 the first point of arrival is a large hall, and it took me a while to get my bearings. It didn’t help that the map in the guidebook didn’t include gallery numbers, which was the main way that galleries were signposted in situ.

The isometric hand-drawn style of maps used across the app, guide book and site signage

A detail from one of the site directory signs. This axonometric hand-drawn style is used consistently across the app, guidebook and site signage

I can see why they went down that route – gallery numbers everywhere would have unnecessarily cluttered the map and in general the hand-drawn representations of key features in each gallery worked well. But until I worked out which part of the building I was in, I couldn’t use this to navigate. I think the way the map is used in the app works a lot better – but more on this in the next post.

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On the road again

It says something about how busy I’ve been over the past month that it takes the enforced downtime of a 7-hour layover in Singapore to get back to this blog.

When I accepted my new job back in late March, it was with the caveat that I’d already committed to a five-week trip to Europe: a combination of a holiday, returning to the UK for the first time in 4 years, and presenting at both the Interpret Europe and ECSITE conferences. While I’ve been looking forward to the trip, I’ve also been really frustrated by the timing. Six weeks in the job is just long enough to start to feel like you’re in the swing of things and finding some momentum, which is now being interrupted by an extended time away. It’s meant I haven’t really had the time (or head space) to think much about blogging. Maybe my travels will give me more inspiration.

And if you’ll be in either Krakow or Trento, I hope to see you there!

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The What, When and How of Participant Incentives

[Note: This is a modified version of an article that first appeared in Museum Australia’s Evaluation and Visitor Research Network’s Spring 2014 newsletter]

Introduction

We’ve all seen it; we’ve all done it: Complete our survey and enter the draw to win! Agree to be interviewed and get a free pen! Researchers call these “participant incentives”, which generally speaking are defined as “benefit[s] offered to encourage a person to participate in a research program”.[1] Offering incentives is considered to be good practice in evaluation and visitor research. Visitors agree to give us time out of their visit for the benefit of our research, and it behoves us to value this time and use it ethically[2]. If we consider research as a social contract, incentives are a gesture of reciprocity, acknowledging the value of visitors’ time.

But what kind of incentive is appropriate for a given piece of research? What’s feasible? What’s ethical? What might be some unintended consequences? This article will explore some of the issues surrounding participant incentives.

The Bigger Picture

To understand the role of participant incentives, we first need to consider why people respond to surveys in the first place. There seem to be three main kinds of reasons: altruistic (people who want to help or see it as their civic duty); egotistic (having specific stake in the results, or simply enjoying doing surveys) and study-specific (interest in the topic or organisation)[3]. Incentives increase the “egotistic” reason for completing a survey. But appealing to respondent’s altruism can also increase response rates, as can the fact that many visitors hold museums in positions of high trust and regard.

Particularly for online surveys, incentives have been shown to increase the response rate, but this also depends on the length of the survey, who you’re trying to target and whether they have a stake in the research outcome[4]. As a general rule of thumb, you should state up-front how long any survey is going to take, and offer an incentive that reflects the time commitment you are requesting. For online surveys, anything taking longer than 20 minutes to complete counts as a “long” survey that warrants an incentive. One of the most popular incentives is to give participants the opportunity to enter a prize draw of something of considerable value (e.g. gift certificates valued at least $100, a tablet computer or similar items).

However, a higher response rate isn’t necessarily the ideal – irrespective of the response rate, your survey strategy should aim to minimise systematic differences between people who do respond and those who do not (nonresponse bias). This is distinct from overall response quality, which does not appear to be affected by incentives[5]. Nonetheless, if there is a particular target audience of interest (e.g. teachers, visitors who have participated in a particular programme, visitors from a particular cultural or ethnic group, etc.), you may need to consider ways to increase the response rate among those people in particular.

Compared to the use of incentives in telephone and online surveys, there is very little published research about the practicalities of conducting onsite visitor interviews in museums and similar sites. Rather, examples of practice are shared through informal networks (more on this later).

Ethical Guidelines

Neither the Australian Market & Social Research Society (AMSRS) Code of Professional Conduct[6] nor the Australasian Evaluation Society’s Guidelines for Ethical Conduct of Evaluations[7] specifically mention participant incentives, however both outline important principles with which any choice of incentive should comply. In particular, the AMSRS code specifies that there must be a clear delineation between market research and “non-research activities” such as promotions or compilation of databases for marketing purposes. This may have implications for what you can use as incentives, as well as how you use any contact details you collect for the purposes of prize draws.

Care should be taken to ensure that incentives cannot be interpreted as coercion, particularly if the incentive is large enough to cause certain participants (e.g. at-risk groups) to reluctantly participate in order to receive the incentive. In any case, it has been suggested that it may be better to increase intrinsic motivations rather than rely solely on monetary incentives[8].

Is it an Incentive, a Thank You, or Compensation?

The principle that monetary incentives should only be used as a last resort may appear at odds with the idea that visitors’ time is valuable and should be acknowledged as such. However, it’s largely to do with the way incentives are framed: an incentive can be considered an inducement to participate, but it can also be presented as a “thank you gift” that you give to visitors as a token of your appreciation. In this sense, the timing of the incentive may come into play. Giving an incentive in advance may increase participation and there is no evidence that it raises a sense of obligation among potential participants[9].

There is another type of payment that we should briefly mention here, and that is compensation. This is particularly relevant where participation incurs costs direct costs (e.g. travel to a focus group session). Any costs that participants so incur must always be compensated.

Some Examples

In September 2014, there was a discussion on the Visitor Studies Association (VSA) listserv about the incentives that different institutions give away to visitors who participate in short (<5-10 minutes) onsite surveys. Among this community of practice, the respective merits and drawbacks of different approaches were discussed[10]. The key points are summarised below:

Incentive Features Drawbacks / Considerations
Vouchers for in-visit added extras(e.g. simulator rides, temporary exhibitions, etc.) Adds value to visitors’ experience with little or no direct cost to Museum May lead to unanticipated spikes in demand for additional experiences – e.g. can the simulator accommodate everyone who’s given a voucher?
Small gifts(e.g. pens/pencils, stickers, temporary tattoos, bookmarks, postcards, key-rings) Tangible and popular gifts, especially for children.If you’re surveying adults in a family group, giving children a few items to choose from can keep them usefully occupied while the adults respond to the survey.Cheap if purchased in bulk.

 

Gift needs to match target audience of survey (e.g. temporary tattoos are great for kids, less so for adult responders)Children may end up using stickers to decorate your exhibits!
Food / coffee / ice cream vouchers Generally popular and well-received. Can create a rush in the café if you’re doing large numbers of surveys.May be limited by the contract arrangements in place with caterers. 
Prize draws Popular with visitors and practical to implement with online surveys.Cost of a single big-ticket prize may work out cheaper than hundreds of small giveaways. Visitor contact details must be recorded for prize draw. These details must be able to be separated from the survey responses to maintain anonymity.Be aware that offering a free membership as a prize may reduce membership take-up during the survey period[11].
Gift certificates Can be used for longer surveys or detailed interviews that involve a longer time commitment and therefore warrant a higher value incentive. Gift certificates may be seen as equivalent to cash from a tax perspective.
Free return tickets No direct costs. Tickets can be given away to friends and family if participants can’t re-visit. Not relevant to free-entry institutions.Could be perceived as marketing.
Discounted museum membership Encourages a longer term relationship with the visitor. Not an attractive incentive for tourists.

 

Conclusions

Incentives are established good practice in evaluation and visitor research, and are generally intended to represent a token of appreciation for visitors’ time. Although incentives can increase response rates, this is not necessarily the principal reason why incentives are used. Like all aspects of visitor research, decisions regarding the size, nature and timing of giving visitor incentives must be clearly thought through from an operational, financial and ethical perspective at the outset of the research. Done well, incentives offer the dual benefits of increasing responses and creating a sense of good will among visitors.

References

[1] Arts Victoria. (n.d.) Visitor Research Made Easy, p. 82 (sourced from: http://www.arts.vic.gov.au/Research_Resources/Resources/Visitor_Research_Made_Easy)

[2] Bicknell, S., and Gammon, B. (1996). Ethics and visitor studies – or not? Retrieved from: http://informalscience.org/images/research/VSA-a0a4h9-a_5730.pdf

[3] Singer, E., and Ye, C. (2013) The use and effects of incentives in surveys. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol 645, 112-141

[4] Parsons, C. (2007) Web-based surveys: Best practices based on the research literature. Visitor Studies, Vol 10(1), 13-33.

[5] Singer & Ye (2013).

[6] http://www.amsrs.com.au/professional-standards/amsrs-code-of-professional-behaviour

[7] http://www.aes.asn.au/images/stories/files/membership/AES_Guidelines_web.pdf

[8] Singer & Ye (2013).

[9] Singer & Ye (2013).

[10] Contributors to this discussion included (in alphabetical order): Stephen Ashton, Sarah Cohn, Susan Foutz, Ellen Giusti, Joe Heimlich, Karen Howe, Amy Hughes, Elisa Israel, Kathryn Owen, Beverly Serrell, Marley Steele Inama, Carey Tisdal and Nick Visscher (with apologies to any contributors who have been missed). VSA listserv archives can be accessed via https://list.pitt.edu/mailman/listinfo/vsa

[11] Visitor Research Made Easy, p. 60.

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Seizing New Opportunities

Sometimes opportunities arise from unexpected places.

Close followers of this blog will know that I’ve had a long-running relationship with the South Australian Museum. This dates back to when I started my PhD in early 2011, when some people I knew on staff arranged for me to have some desk space in exchange for me using the Museum for the bulk of my fieldwork. The arrangement was informal – I wasn’t on staff, wasn’t reporting to anyone in the Museum, and for practiality purposes was usually categorised as one of the volunteers (but didn’t really fit in that category either). Nonetheless it was an arrangement that worked well, and having a home institution made my research so much easier than if I’d had to make prior arrangements from scratch every time I wanted to collect more data.

A view of the wing where most of the Museum’s galleries are located.

Fast forward to mid-2014. As I was getting close to submitting my thesis and wrapping up my PhD, I decided it was time to phase myself back into consultancy, and established myself under the name I’d been using in my online presence for several years, interactivate. The rationale behind setting up myself as a consultant was twofold: firstly, I liked the variety and the flexibility associated with being a consultant; and secondly I wasn’t in a position to move cities to pursue employment. I moved across the globe and back in my 20s and early 30s. Now on a personal level I’m established in Adelaide, have roots here, and no desire to move on.

Not surprisingly, given my established contacts there, the South Australian Museum soon became my largest client and I continued to be a familiar face around the place. Then, towards the end of the year, the Director called me to his office.

It turned out the Museum was going through a restructure, and a new position called the Manager of Visitor Experience was being created. It was a response to an identified need to put a visitor-centric lens on the way the Museum operates and presents itself to its audiences. In addition, the role is responsible for the revenue-generating activities of the Museum such as the shop, cafe and events.

Filling the position on a permanent basis would require a formal recruitment process, although the Director didn’t want it vacant for the amount of time that would take. So he invited me to be Acting Manager on a part-time basis in the meantime. My initial contract was for three months, starting in early January.

At first, I wasn’t sure if I would be interested in continuing in the role – I wasn’t confident of my knowledge of the cafe/shop/events side of things* and wasn’t sure if it would interest me; also I’d already invested a fair amount of time and effort in building the consultancy business and wanted to see that through. However, once I started doing the job I found I enjoyed it, liked having the blank slate of a newly-created position to work with, and so I decided to apply for the permanent position.

After an interview that I was sure I’d blown, I was contacted a few days later and told that I’d been offered the job! It’s a full time role, which means I’ll be mothballing interactivate as a consultancy. I’d by lying if I said that decision didn’t come with a tinge of regret. But then again, jobs such as this don’t come around very often, and it’s too good an opportunity not to sieze with both hands! There’s no way I could have imagined something like this would be on the horizon when I first set out on the PhD and consultancy journey.

I still plan to blog regularly (50 posts this year is not an impossible ambition), although I’m aware that it might be more difficult now. Not just the time it takes (although I imagine my job will keep me VERY busy . . . ) but also being aware that being linked to a particular institution means I can’t anonymise my experiences. However, if nothing else, needing some blog inspiration will be a good excuse to keep abreast of the literature.

Wish me luck!

 *Although this is relatively new territory for me, thinking laterally about my experience and discussing it with other people, I found the knowledge gap wasn’t as large as I first feared.

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Flying starts, flagging finishes

Do we focus on first impressions at the expense of memorable finishes?

Have you ever had a construction or renovation project that goes something like this: At first, things start off well and there is a good relationship with the contractor. Their approach inspires confidence. Regular progress is made. But then the project hits a snag or two: something takes longer than budgeted for, or there is a delay with supplies. The level of service tapers off, as does the quality of workmanship (although interestingly, the invoices *don’t*).

I get it: most projects are a lot more fun at the front end. That’s the creative bit, and it’s full of possibilities. By comparison, the finishing stages are often full of niggling details and pieces that don’t quite fit as the plans said they should. It’s the point when the bits you didn’t quite think through at the beginning become painfully apparent.

If, at this stage, the contractor’s strategy is one of avoidance; trying to do as little as they can get away with to get the project off their books, the whole job ends on a sour note. And who’s going to recommend a contractor who they’ve had to drag across the finish line?

A project doesn’t have to end this badly for you to be unhappy with the result. All it needs to do is fail to live up to your expectations.

Finishing badly is even more disastrous when you consider the way we remember experiences. According to the peak-end rule, how an experience finishes has a strong influence on the way we recall it overall. Daniel Kahneman and his colleagues demonstrated that when we recall a physically painful experience (such as a colonoscopy, or putting our hands in very cold water), we judge it as being less unpleasant if the final stage was less painful, even if we endured the pain for a longer duration.

If we apply the peak-end rule to how we treat customers (and visitors), it would suggest that finishing on a high note is particularly important. We should definitely deliver what we promise, and only promise what we know we can deliver. If an experience ends with a pleasant surprise, that will enhance memory of the event overall. On the other hand, if it ends with disappointment, it sours the whole experience – no matter how well you did in the early stages.

 

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