I’m a firm believer that first impressions are really important for creating excellent visitor experiences. Of course, the flip-side of this is that I’m acutely sensitive to experiences that get off on the wrong foot.
An example of this happened to me recently. To explain, it’s probably best to walk you through the entire scenario. Bear with me as I give some background:
Earlier this month my partner and I were in the UK visiting family and friends spread across the country. On our way to visit friends in Edinburgh (via car), we decided to take a detour via Hadrian’s Wall. A friend had recommended we visit Vindolanda, an old Roman fort near the wall. It is the site of significant archaeological finds, offering an intriguing insight into daily life in a Roman military outpost.
Like many remote historical sites, it’s not the easiest place in the world to find, tucked away as it is past a small village and along some winding, narrow Northumberland roads. This sort of thing is obviously part of the deal – historic sites are where they are of course. But it does make orientation and signage even more important than usual.
We had been driving along a very narrow road (too narrow for two vehicles to pass each other), not entirely sure we were heading in the right direction when we saw a sign saying “Vindolanda”. So far so good, and we took the turning.
A few hundred metres down the road, and some distance from anything resembling a Visitor Centre, we saw this Car Park:
Not convinced this was the right place, we pressed on. A few hundred metres further and we found the entrance to the Visitor Centre. Or was it?
We were faced with: disabled parking; barrier-controlled entry to another car park; a building with nothing to indicate its purpose (but which did not look like a Visitor Centre); and another building beyond, which potentially showed more promise as our intended destination (even though it’s hard to see in the picture above).
In the absence of any indication of where we were supposed to go, we decided to park in a courtyard in front of the furthest building (which did turn out to be the Visitor Centre), with a view to wandering in and working out what the story was.
We had barely got out of the car when a staff member came out of the Visitor Centre, enquiring about our business. After explaining we were just trying to visit, she told us that we should have parked back up the road (in the Car Park we drove past); the area we were in was for disabled access and deliveries only. Duly chastened, we returned back up the road.
It was only at this stage that I saw the crucial sign:
This sign had been completely out of our field of view when we entered, and this important information was not repeated anywhere else once this threshold had been crossed.
I concede that technically we were in the wrong and that the sign does say that this is where we should have parked. But in our defence, it is in a completely different line-of-sight from the sign that attracts your attention first.* And given the location of the main car park is less than intuitive (being some distance from any obvious destination), why weren’t the parking arrangements made clear on the main sign?
We finally made our way back to the Visitor Centre. By this time, having already driven an hour or so from Newcastle to get here, I wanted to use the rest room. But even this simple requirement was made less-than-straightforward by the toilets being located past the pay-barrier and halfway through the exhibition space. Thus we had to first purchase tickets and pass through the back half of the exhibition to use the facilities (good thing I wasn’t desperate, or with a three-year-old who was). Once we were done in the loo, we found ourselves deposited halfway through the exhibition space, losing some of the logic and storyline as a consequence.
Which is a shame really. The newly completed exhibition (opened April 2011, developed with Heritage Lottery Fund money) looked well researched and designed, with plenty of interesting objects and displays. Then there were the fort ruins themselves. Pity I was too cheesed off to really take it in and enjoy it properly.
I’m aware that this post might come across as a bit churlish and nit-picky, especially since the chain of events was triggered by my own failure to see a sign. But as I have said before, I believe that everything an attraction does sends visitors a message, not just exhibitions and site interpretation. And in this case, I think a quality visitor experience (and an exhibition that clearly took a lot of planning, time and money to create) was let down by a failure to look at the visitor experience as an integrated whole. In short, no-one had thought through the whole experience, from finding the site right through to departure, in a visitor’s shoes.
Supporting this contention are a couple of additional observations:
- The on-site cafe was open to “paying visitors only”. Why? The vast majority of visitors who make the effort to come to such an out-of-the-way site would surely have every intention of partaking the full experience – eventually. But visitors may have made a long journey and need to recharge before they’re ready to make the most of the site. To demand that visitors pay their entry ticket before they can purchase any refreshments (or use the toilets, as in my case) betrays a suspicious attitude towards the visitor, not a welcoming one.
- What was the rationale for having the main car park several hundred metres away? Admittedly, most visitors to such a site are hikers for whom a bit of a walk is not a problem at all. But to my mind, this is beside the point. There was a car park closer to the Visitor Centre, but this was controlled by barriers (see picture above) and presumably was reserved for staff. Doesn’t this send the message that staff convenience outweighs visitor convenience? Again, a less than welcoming message.
*Reading the Environmental Psychology literature as part of my PhD has made me less inclined to see such failures as my ‘fault’ – there is enough theory out there to explain why our mistake was a perfectly understandable one in the circumstances.