Submitted by Nina Simon, publisher of Museum 2.0
On Friday, I offered a participatory design workshop for Seattle-area museum professionals (slides here). We concluded by sharing the tough questions each of us struggl es with in applying participatory design techniques to museum practice. Dennis Schatz from the Pacific Science Center contributed:
How do we find the RIGHT questions for visitor participation?
I love this question. It's a two-parter I've been puzzling over for a long time. First, what do the right questions look like? And second, what techniques can help us find more?
Part 1: What does the right question look like?
Last year, I wrote this post which offered some broad suggestions for what the "right" questions look like. Here's my current list of useful characteristics:
- questions that trigger an immediate response
- questions that induce grappling
- questions that motivate authentic expression
- questions that draw from personal experience, not abstraction
- open to anyone (minimize cultural bias)
- speculative (what if? instead of what is?)
- questions which produce answers that are interesting to consume and respond to
Here are some of the wrong questions:
- What is the girl in the painting doing? (too teacherly)
- What does freedom mean to you? (too abstract)
- How would you define nanotechnology? (too impersonal)
- What's the best song you've ever heard? (avoid superlatives - they make some people anxious)
- What do you think? (too general)
The "right" questions can be short or long, simple or wacky. They can require yes/no responses or lengthy paragraphs. The key is that they are genuinely interesting and that they trigger a learning response both for the person who chooses to answer and the person who chooses just to spectate. This is the golden rule of developing questions for visitor dialogue: you must be truly interested in their answers. If you don't care about the answer to the question, why on earth should anyone else?
Part 2: How do you develop the right questions?
Last year, I didn't have a great answer for this one. But I've been experimenting with visitor dialogue over several recent projects and have developed a few simple design strategies to hone in on good questions. Each of these exercises takes about five minutes, assuming you have access to a group of people who in some way approximate your target audience (colleagues, friends, visitors).
- Develop a "question of interest" that relates to your content. Make sure that the question is one that any person can answer and one for which you ACTUALLY CARE TO HEAR THE ANSWER. Ask the question to several people. Ask yourself. Listen to or read their answers. If you find yourself dreading asking the tenth person that same question, you have the wrong question. Go back and write a new one.
- Show the question to a group of people and ask them to raise their hands if they have an immediate answer to that question. Then, ask if they would be interested in perusing others' responses to the question. It's OK to have an imbalance here, as long as there are more interested spectators than interested creators.
- Gather up a bunch of answers to the question and look at them. These answers are your "exhibit." Identify how many of them are interesting. Identify how many of them motivate you to ask a followup question.
- Ask the question several different ways to different groups of people. Vary your specificity, your personal intrusiveness, your wording. Compare the responses you get. Ask people to rate how hard it was to answer different questions and whether there were some that were easier to jump into than others.
Here are some questions that I've seen work marvelously well.
- The Ontario Science Centre's Facing Mars exhibition opens with a simple question: "Would you go to Mars?" Visitors are forced to enter through one of two gates marked YES and NO. Their answers are tracked via a display that tallies the total number of YESes and NOs registered to date. This question is right because it is easy to answer yet induces grappling. It's personal but not consequential. It frames and personalizes the exhibit experience. And looking at other people's responses (via the number displays) is quick, easy, informative, and somewhat surprising.
- The Denver Art Museum's Side Trip poses many specific questions about visitors' experiences with psychedelic rock music, concerts, and drugs. The questions can be quite personal, and the responses--which include stories of visitors' "first trips" and "Jimi experiences"--are detailed and pretty fascinating to read. This question set is right because there are several specific questions, enough so that anyone can find one appropriate to her experience. These questions also use "first" memories rather than "best" memories, which are easier to recall and share.
- My local public library does an annual summer book recommendation wall, on which patrons can post their mini-reviews of books they've read and enjoyed. The question is, "would you recommend this book to someone?" This question is right because it is highly functional--patrons understand how it will be useful to others. It is somewhat personal but doesn't ask the respondent to be an authority in describing the book, just in sharing why he would recommend it. There's an implied interpersonal transaction in the offering of this information, which makes the experience feel valuable and personal without pushing face-to-face interaction on anyone.
I've also been playing with visitor-to-visitor questions to help me talk to strangers. The most reliable question I'm using works in art museums. My tactic is to look for the person in the gallery who is looking most intently at something, walk up to them and ask, "what are you looking at?" Even though the stranger intrusion is potentially uncomfortable, this question works because it expresses interest on the stranger's terms, not my own. I'm not challenging them to tell me why they are looking or what their reaction is, just what they are looking at. It's an innocuously descriptive question that almost always leads to very interesting insights into how different people appreciate art.
What kind of dialogue are you looking to spark? What kinds of questions do you seek, and what techniques do you use to find them?
I'm genuinely interested in your answer. That's why I asked.
This article was originally posted on Museum 2.0 at http://museumtwo.blogspot.com/2009/04/design-techniques-for-developing.html by Nina Simon:
Nina Simon is an independent museum exhibit designer focusing on developing interactive experiences to make museums more participatory, dynamic, and relevant.