Fortuna Curiosa

Let’s Get Real 2014

Last week I attended my first Culture 24 Let’s Get Real conference, the topic: ‘Is your content fit for purpose?’ The stage was illuminated by a poorly timed (considering the conference coincided with the Scottish referendum, which was mentioned innumerable times throughout the day) illuminated ‘Yes’ sign. But how many of us would honestly answer yes in glowing lights? More like: ‘we’re getting there’.


Or, we’re getting there…

Jane Finnis‘ welcome set the right tone for the event, stressing that digital change needs to happen on an individual organisational basis, and that it is the individuals within those organisations that will drive that change. It immediately made me think of James Davis’ keynote from this year’s University Museums Group conference where he introduced the concept of a ‘digital guerrilla’ – a concept that would have been at home in this discussion. If you haven’t watched the video yet, do check it out.

Learning from Failure
The first keynote of the day was delivered by Michiel van Iersel, an urbanist who runs a website looking at and learning from failed architecture; he translated lessons about failure. He made quite a number of interesting points, but for me the key was that we are designing a user experience, and that the user’s use of that is never ‘wrong’. Listen to your user and take a user-centric approach to design. He also raised the interesting question of how we make the most of opportunities, while not leaving ourselves with ‘ghosts towns’ when the resources dry up!

photo 2

Must design for the user experience, as the user will experience it as they choose….

The key message coming across on Twitter was clearly dare to fail, with discussion around what happens when stakeholders and funders don’t buy into this? Of course they are ‘human’ too and are open to failure, but it is not always an easy pill to swallow when public money is involved.

Crit Room
Unusually early in the day was the crit room session, but it was a very valuable session. Unlike crit rooms at some conferences, the panel gave very detailed and comprehensive feedback on the websites under the microscope. First up was The Beaney, a sub-site on a council website which cost about £1,500 – excluding internal staff time which we always do seem to exclude when valuing these things! I found this really useful as it is of a similar scale to the Oxford ASPIRE website, which I manage when I can find a minute! They started with the obvious questions of why you need a website, who your audience is, and what purpose it serves. Although these questions are obvious, I know that once the site is built we don’t always give these key functions enough focus and continually re-evaluate if we are still serving that purpose.

The third crit session looked at the new integrated website for National Museums Scotland, which provides a unified site for the four museums. This was of interest, as although currently we are very happy with each of our museums having their own distinctive web presence, as they are distinctive museums with distinctive voices, brands and audiences, this may one day be something we in Oxford consider. Although there were lots of tips for small improvements, it was agreed that they did an amazing job in unifying and cleaning up inherited content. The room also agreed that National Museums Scotland have a particularly strong and consistent voice across their museums, which they attributed to their clear style guidelines – which they have promised to share in the near future. On Twitter we discovered that Tate already share their online style guide – some light reading for the train journey home.

Death of the Organisational Voice
After lunch we were treated to a short session on improvisation in order to pass on a message about ‘productivity’. The key message was that while positive ‘yes and’ discussions open up possibilities, ‘no but’, or even ‘yes but’ conversations shut down ideas and can create a negative environment. A fun interlude, but I was waiting for the harder content for the afternoon.

This was kicked off by a provocation from Joanna Jones from the V&A about what phenomenon like social media have done to the organisational voice. She demonstrated with an opening anecdote about how a carefully orchestrated embargoed press release about a major Alexander McQueen exhibition was scuppered by a Twitter post letting the cat out of the bag and directing interested parties to an alternative website for their information. In the age of social media, can organisations control their stories and their online identity?

Joanna felt that they could, but rather than a ‘strategy-free approach to social media marketing’, which can result in organisational ‘broadcasting’, Joanna thought that the role of organisations is to use their ‘authority’ to facilitate conversations. She felt that this is something the V&A hasn’t always been good at, but are getting better at. She also quoted the amazing stat that the V&A have 140 active bloggers!!!


This images does not do this amazing couch justice…

Trust the Audience
The highlight of the whole day for me (and I know many others there) was a keynote from Shelley Bernstein from the Brooklyn Museum on a project they have been working on to re-examine their visitor experience from top to bottom.

They took on an agile ethos to test the visitor experience, looking at what they did know and piloting activity in response to that, and evaluating how it worked before designing the next pilot – each pilot was on stream for about 3 weeks. What they came up with was amazing, but for me it was this agile, evidence based approach – which unlike the project itself I can replicate in my work place – that really spoke to me.

The project responded to the fact that Brooklyn Museum visitors wanted recommendations, but pilot experiments showed that they didn’t want ‘canned’ recommendations in the form of ‘if you liked x try y’ cards, but needed personalised recommendations. To test whether virtual access would be sufficient to provide this, the museum provided some visitors with iPods with a direct, real time connection to an iPad which they could use to ask one of the museum’s curators questions. In fact, the test visitors did like it, they felt that they engaged more critically with the objects as they considered their questions. The virtual access still felt personal, and they were not ‘sucked into’ the device; they made use of the device but it did not dominate their experience. Also, by identifying trends and consistency in the questions asked, the museum identified some gaps in their interpretation and have used this to review some of their labels.

The success of this pilot allowed the museum to gain funding to roll it out on a much bigger scale, which will happen later this year. There will be an app available to visitors who will similarly be able to send their questions in to the museums and receive responses in real time. Responses will be fielded by a specially hired team of staff. The staff on the back end will have access to an interface which tells them where the visitor is and what else they can see using iBeacons, as well as a library of responses. When new questions come in they will need to consult core curatorial staff for new answers, but they will not need to do this in real time, and the response should only be needed once, as it then forms part of the library. Shelley and her team are deliberately keeping the first iteration of the back end minimal so that it can be adjusted and improved as usage identifies need.

This will also be augmented by comment kiosks where other visitors can ask questions (though not in real time) and responses to the most frequently asked questions for that area can be displayed.

An ambitious and resource intensive project, it seems well researched to meet a genuine visitor need and I will be finding a way to orchestrate a visit once it is live to try it myself!

Finishing Up
The afternoon was more eclectic with a well received case study from Tanya Cordrey from the Guardian on their online audience development activity, and a provocative look at what the sector can learn from big name brands from Jessica Riches.  A good take away was the Guardian’s 5 principles:

  1. Be everywhere
  2. Know your audience
  3. Encourage participation
  4. Tell great stories
  5. Know your own voice

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This entry was posted on September 23, 2014 by in Museums.
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