Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Quickie Event for Folks in DC Today (Feb 27)

AAM is sponsoring an "Emerging Museum Professionals" happy hour tonight at Saint-Ex (1847 14th Street NW at U Street) from 6-8pm. I don't know how they identify "emerging" (was it when I got out of the shower?) but they say "all are welcome."

I Think You'll Like This... Staff Picks

staff picks
Originally uploaded by BrianDamage.
What’s the most endearing part of your local book/music/video store? The cats lounging in the corner? The old laminator busily baking your membership card? For me, it’s the staff picks. Handwritten, full of enthusiasm and occasionally useful information, these little notecards or placards provide two essential functions: they introduce me to some potentially interesting content, and they reveal something of the soul of the company.

Let’s deal with #1 first. This topic came to mind when I was writing the wayfinding post. I realized that my trip to the New York Hall of Science was significantly improved by the specific exhibit recommendations (staff picks) I received before visiting. My first two questions (What do they have? What do I want to see/do?) were answered before I ever walked in the door. But if I hadn’t had that inside track to staff there, how would I have decided where to go first? I probably would have wandered for awhile. Maybe I would have found the two exhibits I started at. Or maybe not.

Staff picks are an easy, humanizing way to help people discriminate in a sea of content. And it’s good business. Barry Schwartz, a psychologist at Swarthmore, wrote a great book called The Paradox of Choice, in which he talks about “excessive choice overload,” basically, the idea that you go into a store needing shampoo, get overwhelmed by the 87 varieties available, and walk out. When you walk into a bookstore without a specific book in mind, how often do you leave with a book? Simple indicators like staff picks may prevent you from throwing up your arms in despair and walking out.

And it’s easy to implement. You can put a display at the front of the museum. Or the front of an exhibit. Or, go for a human version. The Boston Library main branch used to have an “ask a librarian” booth in the front featuring a person sitting at a card table with some books. They weren’t there to tell you where the bathroom was. They were there to recommend books. It rocked. Or, drop staff and go for your visitors. The Santa Cruz Public Library has a corkboard at the front where users can write their own picks cards and post them up. You get picks from 8 year olds and 80 year olds. It makes you feel like you’re in a user community, and hopefully, it helps you find a good book.

And #2, the “soul of the company” part, isn’t trivial. Staff picks humanize and informal-ize the library/store/content experience. They make it clear that the institution values the contributions and opinions of staff across the board. They acknowledge that some of the content may be more interesting to you than others.

Negatives? I could see some people arguing that staff picks would unfairly bias visitors’ choice of content, or, more problematically, lead to crowding around selected exhibits. Or perhaps that it would be hard to come up with a system that would fairly reflect the diversity of staff/visitors. I’m not sure how the politics of staff picks work in bookstores, but it seems that many have good systems for soliciting useful, positive, and varied picks. I’d love to see some research on this, but I’d guess that staff picks keep people in the building longer, and encourage them to explore outside their comfort zone. So start picking.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Mapping Experiences: Rethinking Wayfinding in Museums

This weekend, I visited the New York Hall of Science. We had just finished perusing an excellent exhibit, “Places and Spaces,” pouring over a complex map of 1.3 million scientific papers grouped into scientific paradigms. Next, we wanted to see “Connections,” an exhibition on networks. We looked at the museum map on the wall. It had considerably fewer than 1.3 million nodes. And we could not figure it out.

There was a recent post on the ASTC listserv from a museum planning to revamp their wayfinding system. The wayfinding question in museums—or any complex space—is multifaceted. There’s the “I can’t read the map” problem. The “Where was that thing I liked” problem. The “How close is the bathroom my kid is having a problem” problem. But let’s step back. At a global level, there are three wayfinding questions that enter my mind whenever I enter a museum:
  1. What do they have?
  2. What stuff do I want to see/do?
  3. Where is that stuff?
Interestingly, only one of these questions—the third one—is an explicit wayfinding question. But I think that a lot of the confusion in museum wayfinding stems from a lack of attention to the first two questions. Most museums aggregate their content, either by category (Impressionism, Dinosaurs, World War II) or by abstraction (3rd Floor, Green Wing) and the maps reference these aggregate names. This makes sense, IF visitors understand what those aggregate names mean, and IF visitors are primarily interested in the content available—as opposed to the experience available.

IF Number One. When the aggregate names are abstract, it’s hard to know what to expect. At the Spy Museum, our content is separated into two sections, School for Spies and Secret History of History. School for Spies (which features gadgets, interactives, and the tools of espionage) is further broken down into Cloak (disguise), Ninja (concealment devices), Dagger (concealed weapons), and Shadow (surveillance). With the possible exception of Dagger, none of these names helps you understand the content of that section. The names are evocative… but not useful.

And even when the aggregate names are clear, i.e. Optics, the experiences available in that section of the museum are not. This is the second IF, and in my mind, one that most museums don’t address. When I go into a museum, I’m rarely looking for specific content; instead, I’m looking for a specific experience. Maybe I want something contemplative. Something active. Something that will take about 30 minutes. Something I can share with a 10 year old. Right now, in most museums, I have to look at the map/aggregate names and guess where those experiences might lie. There are some rare aggregate names that are strong signalers; I feel reasonably confident that Bubbles will give me an opportunity to play with bubbles. But what about Chemistry? Will I do experiments? Will I see explosions? Will I learn about the history of the discipline?

Theme parks address this issue well. They have aggregated areas that are quite abstract (e.g. Tomorrowland) and within those, rides with only slightly more descriptive names (Space Mountain). But on the maps, alongside the names of the rides, there is shorthand information—what kind of ride it is, what age it’s appropriate for. Many theme park maps also feature pop-outs with lists of “must-dos” for visitors of different types–teenagers, people who only have 3 hours, etc. Theme parks are serious about helping visitors answer my second question: “What stuff do I want to see/do?”

Why don’t museums operate this way? Because unlike theme parks, which are focused on the visitor, museums are focused on their own content. Rather than addressing “What stuff do I want to see/do?,” museums tell you, “Here’s how we have chosen to organize our stuff.” Museums expect you to figure out how to interpret their institutional aggregation to create your own experience.

The map of science paradigms we were looking at had an interactive component in which you could select a particular scientist or subdiscipline (i.e. Neuroscience) and all the paradigms that your selection impacts would light up. Imagine museum maps in which you could hit a button that says “Toddlers,” or “Quiet Spaces,” or “Personal Narratives” and see all the places in the museum associated with that tag. It doesn’t have to be high-tech; even adding basic signaler tags like “interactive” or “adult” to the printed map can help. Then, I can spend my time with my quality map time trying to figure out which way is North rather than wondering whether the North Wing is worth my time.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Game Friday: Netflix and Other Games that Care

When we were kids, my dad invented a game he’d play with my sister and I called “yum/yuck.” He served as gamemaster, and would throw out names of foods: “Spinach!” “Cottage cheese!” After a food was named, each of us would make our pronouncement—yum or yuck. His goal: demonstrate how impossible it was to cook a meal we would both like. But it turned into an incredibly fun game for us, because it was about us. We’d already acquired that American (human?) taste for self-obsession, and yum/yuck let us revel in our particular preferences.

I was reminded of this game last week when I logged onto Netflix to update my queue and was prompted to rate the films I’d recently returned. I felt that same self-absorbed pleasure I’d felt during yum/yuck as I blithely doled out stars. What do people love more than being asked their opinion? And Netflix, like the best dad in the world, actually cares about your opinion. It cares equally what you think of Delicatessen and Tank Girl. And it wants to give you tailor-made suggestions based on your opinion.

I wrote a post a couple of months ago about Amy Jo Kim’s excellent presentation, “Putting the Fun in Functional,” in which she examines several “game metrics” and how successful sites like MySpace make use of them to promote stickiness. Among these metrics is personal feedback from the system. There’s something magical about a machine that cares about your inputs and responds accordingly. Most traditional games rely on the human players for this feedback; I move my rook, you move your knight. I say “cilantro,” you say “yuck.” Presumably, one thing that makes games fun is the expectation that the other player—or in this case—the system, will evolve its strategy based on your inputs. If your opponent is arbitrary or uninterested, you stop playing.

Perhaps the best example of a non-human opponent of this kind is 20q, an artificially intelligent game that is remarkably good at 20 Questions. 20q is an interesting application for other reasons, particularly how it learns, but the reason people keep playing is because it’s fun, not because it’s interesting. Because the game, on the surface, doesn’t care about its own growth. It cares about you.

Netflix isn’t selling movies; it’s selling the activity of movie-watching. To do so, Netflix assumes the persona of an interested opponent who has one goal: to find out what you like to watch. Just by providing a platform for you to rate movies, Netflix celebrates and ascribes value to your preferences. Sure, Netflix gives you access to critics’ opinions as well, but it’s your stars that show up under the movie title.

Like Netflix, museums are portals that offer access to a wide range of content. But museums usually work the other way. Rather than selling museum-going, they sell the content. Instead of privileging visitor opinions, the experts are on display. If you like the content, you can play the role of the 20q machine—asking the museum questions, probing for the answers. But that’s work. Most people prefer to be polled.

Providing a forum for the expression of visitor preferences doesn’t require that museum content fall mercy to the whim of the visitor. Netflix doesn’t change its content based on your reviews. They don’t dump movies that get rated poorly. But they do give you a fun way to express your preferences, and they try to reward you for doing so. They make a big, impersonal repository of stuff something personal and fun to interact with. What more could museums ask for?

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Who Owns Visitor Content?

The Tug-of-War - IMG_3934
Originally uploaded by jeroen020.
Pop quiz: You’re developing a traveling exhibition on climate change. You have a kiosk in your museum where visitors can record 30 second videos of themselves sharing their personal opinions on global warming. Can you use those snippets in a set piece for the traveling exhibition?


You have an exhibit that takes photos of visitors and lets them manipulate them. Can you use those photos in a montage on your website? Can you broadcast the photos to the web to be manipulated by web visitors in an “online exhibition”?


Media release form to the rescue? Not likely. Media release forms are (typically) used in formal situations—promotional shoots, program recordings—in which the museum, not the user, dictates the circumstances and use of the content. Exhibits and programs that invite visitors to contribute on a more informal basis are a new conundrum. Most museums are playing “don’t ask, don’t tell,” assuming visitors will accept the interaction as part of their museum experience and not think about the ownership of what’s made. But if we’re moving towards more integration of user content in museums, ownership can’t be swept under the rug. Should every interactive begin with a “click to agree” release listing potential uses? Should staff resolve never to use the content for purposes outside the exhibit at hand? What’s expected, and what’s appropriate?

The first thing that made me really think about this was Christine Roman’s talk at ASTC 2006 about a novel podcasting program at the Saint Louis Science Center, in which youth in the museum develop their own podcasts. IF this was a program that was web-based (instead of happening in the museum), there would probably be some boilerplate content on the website explaining the museum’s rights of use. But these boilerplates aren’t common in physical exhibitions. Who owns those podcasts? At the time, Christine wasn’t sure.

Let’s explore some of the potential approaches to this issue:
  1. Full Disclosure. Every museum element that allows visitors to generate content has explicit labeling about ownership and potential use of the content. I’ve never seen this approach, but I can imagine some museums going for it, especially those in which children make up a sizeable chunk of the visitorship. It seems like the most iron-clad, clear approach for a risk-averse museum, and it promotes awareness of privacy issues. On the other hand, it’s clunky, promotes a culture of fear, and may turn a lot of people away from individual activities unnecessarily.
  2. Restricted Use. The interactive “owns” the content. Visitors can’t walk away with it, but the museum can’t export it for other uses. No explicit labeling. This is the way I assume most museums currently deal with video kiosks and the like. However, my guess is that the thing that holds museums back from exporting the content for other uses is lack of quality and lack of flexible technology, not a concern for visitor ownership/privacy. In a world of 2.0, this seems like an inadequate approach, both for the visitors and the museum. The visitors may want a personal webpage of their content that they can access later. The museum may want to share that content with virtual visitors. I’d love to see a video kiosk that directly feeds each entry into a YouTube account, so that virtual visitors can view and curate the content (heck, I even wrote a post about it). But I can’t imagine a museum doing that in good conscience without informing visitors of the literal world-wide audience for their cinematic expression.
  3. Visitor Owned, Museum Operated. The interactive is a tool the visitor uses to create content that they then own. Another common approach, especially when the content at hand is physical stuff. If you make an origami box at the art museum, you get to take it home with you. There are also some museums offering computer stations at which visitors can use the web unrestricted—which means they can also create content outside the museum’s purview. But this approach limits the museum to being a generic platform for creation, rather than connecting visitors to museum-owned or –licensed artifacts.
  4. Umbrella Policy. The museum develops and clearly posts one policy towards content generated in the museum, physical, virtual, or media. This is the most obvious way to go, and yet, I’ve never seen signage of this type in a museum. I’ve seen plenty of signage telling me what I can’t do with the museum’s content (i.e. take photos), but I’ve never seen signage telling me what I and the museum can and can’t do with my experience. Website privacy policies are not on the hot-for-summer reading lists. And yet every museum and institution that solicits any kind of user content on the web knows that they must have one.

It’s not trivial to develop a policy that covers all kinds of data collection, user creation, and content sharing under one roof. I counted six related documents on Youtube’s homepage—a code of conduct, safety tips, copyright notice, privacy policy, and terms of use. It’s not just about legal use (both of user information and museum properties), it’s about informed use. Despite whatever 14 years of military law might suggest, “don’t ask, don’t tell” ain't enough.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Light Changes to the Blog

Thanks to those who emailed or commented with their thoughts about the blog. Turns out that light text on dark backgrounds + long-format content just doesn't mix. My inspiration was the light-on-dark application WriteRoom, which I use for most journaling and writing, but I will gladly bend to the will of readers with headaches. Thanks to Daniel for passing on this article on why light-on-dark can be a pain. I'm glad to hear so many folks are enjoying the content. I had fun spending some snow-time inside making the header graphic too...

Please continue to let me know if you have any thoughts about how to improve this blog. I appreciate your feedback and support!

Org Charts: Social Networking for the At-Work Set

In 2005, I visited COSI Columbus. There were lots of beautifully themed exhibit spaces and fun interactives, but the thing that stuck with me most was something I saw in their employee break room. One wall was plastered with staff "profiles"--but they comprised more than just a name, title, and phone extension. They also included a photo and "My dream title" (examples: banana queen, marathon master, didjeridooer).

I was captivated. What a simple way to humanize and share information about the people with whom you work.

Org charts, like maps, aren't given the attention they should be, especially in large institutions. Granted, they can be logistical nightmares to maintain, but for many employees they are the only way to visualize and potentially connect individuals across the organization. The problem is, even when they do exist, they often have so little information or are updated so infrequently that they become useless. They're visually muddled, and even when you do get the information, job titles are often confusing at best; at my museum, the woman who maintains the artifacts is called the "Collections Manager." People think she's out there with a tire iron threatening the tour guides who don't pay on time.

Org charts are not just about putting people in their place. They are the basis for a social network of professionals. And now that social networking tools and software are advanced enough to express complex relationships between people, projects, and ideas, we should be integrating these technologies into our workplaces.

Consider, for example, the U.S. Senate. There is a site that lists each committee and subcommittee of Senate. Click on one, and you will go to its homepage. Each homepage is designed differently (ugh), so you have to hunt for the "Members" page to find all the people on that committee. Click on that senator, and you will go to their homepage. Each homepage is designed differently (double ugh) so you have to hunt for their "Committees" to find out what other ones they are on. Maybe five years ago, before 2.0, this would have been acceptable. Now, it feels hopelessly dated and slow. I want a site that shows me all the committees, lets me click through to lists of members, and lets me surf the members and their affiliations. I want great visualizations so I can see which committees influence which bills and which senators are big players across the board. Is that too much to ask?

It shouldn't be. Check out They Rule, on which you can view and generate maps (circa 2004) by linking influential people to the institutions whose boards they are on. Here's a snippet from a map of the affiliations of the JP Morgan board of directors.

And you don't have to be worth 7 figures to merit a networking application. MySpace, LiveJournal, and Facebook all provide ways for you to seamlessly view and click through friends and friends of friends. I'd like to see this used on a professional level, both to personalize the folks you work with, as in the COSI example, and to help employees meaningfully understand what talents are available to them within their own institution. At my museum, we have a list of employees and their language skills (intended for assistance with guests who do not speak English). But we should have linkable, searchable charts with all of our skills. Who's an excel maven? Who has friends to test new exhibits? Who's working on the podcast?

This is even more important considering the number of museums (and other institutions) that rely heavily on contractors and off-site folks to get projects done. I know all of the vendors working on my exhibition personally, but I'm their only pipeline to the rest of my organization. They don't have a direct connection to the IT guy they have to ask a show control question, or the marketing person who wants their sketches for promotion. They have no way to visualize, or even imagine, the people and skills they could be accessing at the museum. And similarly, my colleagues at the museum feel disconnected from all these names floating out there in different states and different sub-elements of the project. Any new contractor or employee, especially if off-site, should have access to all of this information so that they can understand the network of hierarchies, skills, actions, and roles without having to dig blindly through a sea of names, titles, and phone extensions. It would make work more efficient, the team more connected, and let new people get up to speed quickly on what's going on.

Bestiario, a design company that creates "interactive information spaces," has a neat example of this using a mind-map style chart on their homepage. Of course, they're in Barcelona. So you'll need to consult your own chart to find someone who speaks Spanish and can help you understand it. Good luck.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Game Friday on the Road: Messing with Metastructure

Remember the road trips where you valiantly combated boredom by collecting license plates from different states? Playing 20 questions? Looking for funny signs and places?

Turns out these games aren't only compelling to people who are approaching hour 4 with a ten year old in the car. Users of Google Earth, Google, and Flickr (among others) are using these applications as virtual game boards for joyrides around the world.

With Google Earth, you can hunt for unidentified satellite photographs, solve mysteries and puzzles involving landmarks, or play war games by capturing cities around the world. With Google or Flickr, you can try to guess the tag associated with a set of images. Flickr content gets pulled into memory games. You can play with content you love (continents, cats) or just cast your rod into the sea of content and see what comes out.

At first glance, these games seem like bizarre time-wasters. Why would you want to use google backwards? What makes hamster photo Sudoku more interesting than the standard version? These games represent the rise of search, tagging, and openness on the web. Web content has become so flexible that what was once a locked, mysterious process (how do I find what I want on the web?) is now something with which we are so comfortable we make games out of it. Museums should drool over this. Imagine if visitors thought your artifacts were so cool that they wanted, independently of any prompting from the museum, to make games out of them. Imagine if the wayfinding was good enough that people created geocaching games based on locations in the museum. Teachers have been doing this with scavenger hunts for years—but those are games made for work, not for pleasure.

Why isn’t there Brooklyn Museum of Art Sudoku? The people who design these games aren’t motivated by the content alone—Google Earth, Google, and Flickr all have at least as much crap content as good stuff—they are motivated by the flexibility of the platforms. Designers realize that if all that information is at their fingertips, they can draw it into their hands and mold it into something else. Right now, most museums keep people at arm’s length from their content. Collection/tagging projects like steve.museum and the Powerhouse Museum might start to crack the door, but in general, museum content isn’t open to access. You can watch from the window, but you can’t drive.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The J. M. Barrie Model for Museum Voice

What does Peter Pan make you think of? A ticking crocodile? Julie Andrews? Johnny Depp? For me, it's the beginning of chapter 8, in which J. M. Barrie gives lovely instructions on how to close your eyes, squeeze tight, and conjure the Mermaid's Lagoon. It's a delicious opportunity in which the author actually says to the reader, "here's how you can physically enter the world of this story," made even more delightful by the odd debate that precedes it at the end of chapter 7:
"To describe them [the adventures] all would require a book as large as an English—Latin, Latin—English Dictionary, and the most we can do is to give one as a specimen of an average hour on the island. The difficulty is which one to choose. ...
[several paragraphs describe different adventures]
...Which of these adventures shall we choose? The best way will be to toss for it.

I have tossed, and the lagoon has won. This almost makes one wish that the gulch or the cake or Tink's leaf had won. Of course I could do it again, and make it best out of three; however, perhaps fairest to stick to the lagoon."
[full text]

We only get the lagoon and the mermaids by chance, by whim. We could have missed it--but we didn't. Which makes it feel special and tenuous and right-nowish, even though the book is bound and its author dead.

The story of Peter Pan is well-known, but it's just as unique for its tone as its content. Over and over, Mr. Barrie addresses "my dear reader" from the pulpit of the pages. William Goldman does something similar with The Princess Bride, commenting about dreadfully dull chapters he has omitted for the reader's sanity.

Can designers pull this off with physical spaces? I think fondly of the handwritten arrows and shortcut signs to bathrooms when there's construction going on. But it's not so easy to integrate into larger-scale museum writing. Both Barrie and Goldman are able to pull off charming, but it would be easy for a less accomplished writer to fall into gimmicky. And if you try to write this way without sincerity, it will sound as flat as other text. The key is not to write the story/label/instructions. You have to tell it.

Have you ever walked someone, a non-museum professional, through an exhibition you have or are working on? Chances are, the stories you'll tell your friend are not the text of the labels, even though you probably spent painstaking hours crafting that text. If the labels are perfect, why not repeat them? Because they are written, not told. You want to tell the off-label story, about how hard it was to find the thing, how the collector was a weirdo, how he told you a story about when it was supposedly used in a decidedly unsavory way by its creator. Granted, maybe all of those stories aren't fit for the label, but that urge to share, to tell the stories that matter, NEEDS to get communicated.

Imagine an interactive exhibit that, along with the perfectly crafted instructional label, has labels in which designers or testers tell the funny stories that happened when they tried it for the first time. Or a small note on an ancient coin mentioning that the museum has thousands of similar ones in storage--or none. One of the nice things about the Barrie model is that it decidely isn't 2.0--it's lodged in a sealed, dead book--and yet it still pulls you in as an active participant in his content. Storytelling is a dying craft worth revitalizing. I'd love to see label writers going to storytelling conferences and getting a jolt from the folks who see the text as abse line upon which to layer a shared experience.

It's one of the fun challenges of a blog. I'm always tossing coins, trying, thinking of you.

Bettering this Blog

Dear readers,

Thank you for making these first few months of Museum 2.0 an enjoyable experience for me, and hopefully, for you. Over 1500 unique readers have accessed the blog and I really appreciate your interest.

I'm going to spend some time over the next month learning about and improving this blog. My plans include:
--getting a dedicated domain
--futzing with the overall design
--making the archived posts easier to find and access

I'm also considering:
--inviting other writers into the fold
--trying to come up with a regular schedule for posting
--figuring out how to share this content with more folks and encourage comments

What's working and what isn't working for you so far? If you have any helpful thoughts or suggestions to make this blog better--technically or creatively--, please drop a comment or email me (ninaksimon at gmail dot com). Thanks!

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Urban Curators: Exhibit Your World

This week, I heard about a neat renegade art/museum awakening project in Providence, RI: Urban Curators. From their mission statement:
The goal of the Urban Curators project is to engage the public in the celebration of the decaying urban environment, recognizing its inherent aesthetic qualities as well as the important role that it plays within our cultural habitat. The project achieves its goal by elevating common, overlooked objects and spaces within the city of Providence, Rhode Island to the level of high art.

The project achieves this elevation by literally hanging gold, gallery-style frames in derelict spaces within the city, framing objects and views that are of aesthetic or cultural value. By utilizing frames that one might expect to find in an art museum or gallery, viewers are forced to make connections between the urban landscape and the museum environment. Viewers are likewise encouraged to reconsider their prior conceptions of beauty and worth, understanding that the spontaneity of decay offers an alternative aesthetic to excessive design.

Who hasn't seen a beautifully decaying barn door, a rainbowed oil slick, or abandoned shopping cart and thought, "Hey, that belongs in a museum!" Kudos to Urban Curators for eschewing the concept that museums are fixed locations and drawing attention to content in the public space. Hooray for the use of google maps mashups to locate their "exhibits." Hats off for including white foamcore "labels" on the "pieces." Seems like a great way to advertise and spread the mission of a museum to your surroundings as well, to demonstrate the ways that art, science, history are a part of the world around us. As long as it doesn't involve any illegal or perceived terrorist acts. Maybe it's a good thing they aren't in Boston.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Game Friday: Sneaky Role Play

This week, a fairly simple puzzle game called Thief, by Phillip Reagan. Thief is outstanding not for its graphics or gameplay but for its unusual and delightful way of drawing you into the story.

In most games--and exhibits--your role as a user/visitor is clearly defined in the beginning. You're an observer. You're a god-like controller. You're a pawn with particular characteristics. In environments that do make you "part" of the story, common practice is to spell out your role so that you can get into the perspectives and situation of your character. Maybe you get a backstory on your role from a passport or a briefing, or maybe it's more oblique; you are thrown into an active environment and your personal reactions and behaviors form the character you assume.

Thief takes another tack. Instead of contextualizing the experience you are about to have, the opening of the game is decontextualized. No backstory. No introductions. Instead, you are presented with puzzles that slowly unlock the story. As the story unfolds, you realize what your role is--not one you may have guessed.

In this way, Thief accomplishes something extremely challenging--it provides a plot twist that happens to YOU, not to other characters. Sure, some games may throw a stumbling block in your path or reveal an ally to be an enemy, but it's rare for an experience to trick you into an Aha about yourself. And this is accomplished without an obtuse or terribly complex story at its root. Enjoy.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

There’s Something Sticky Here…

There’s a new word in the experience design lexicon: sticky. It’s the child of the killer app, a slightly more palatable sister to “viral.” It hangs out at the Exploratorium with the APE (active prolonged engagement) folks. It was christened in a shadow box. And it keeps. Coming back.

I first became acquainted with sticky through the Electric Sheep Company folks. They’re building in a big and barely searchable virtual worlds like Second Life and they want to create content that hooks people in and draws them to come back again and again. They don’t talk about building the most beautiful or robust content (though that’s important); they talk about stickiness—where to find it, how to make it.

What differentiates sticky from viral? When viral marketing became popular, the goal was to create something that viewers/users would be compelled, zombie-like, to spread. Viral content depends on carriers to make it valuable. Viral content is short-lived in the memory of the user, long-lived in the distribution chain. Sticky is different. Instead of one-shot content that will hopefully spread like cannon fire around eardrums of the world, the goal is to generate something that will compel individual users to return.

Museums can’t be viral. They don’t travel well, and their content is more complex (hopefully) than a 30 second video of a dog peeing off a bridge. But they should be sticky.

Sticky is not synonymous with good. Good content is compelling on its own merits. It keeps people engaged, and motivates them to return—if returning will give the user another positive experience. Sticky seeks to turn that “if” into a certainty. That’s why it’s frequently applied to web 2.0 applications, where users generate and manipulate content, as opposed to more standard content providers. A great book is good content. A great diary is sticky. An informative site is good. An active chat room, a useful tool—sticky.

So where should sticky live in the museum? An obvious place to start is wow phenomena, APE-style interactive exhibits—the shadow wall, the hatching chicks. These are explorations that react to your input, something you can participate in, something wondrous enough to dissipate all “ifs” about the value of a return visit. But exhibits are mostly about content, and it’s hard to create content that is malleable enough to be sticky.

Sticky is best in the packaging of experiences—the way you interact with the content. Google Maps is a great example. The content they are providing is not unique—and arguably, it’s not even the best of its kind. But the way the software allows you to drag your viewing window around the map is so fun, so excellent, that the program becomes captivating. It’s not just a map. It’s an experience.

I sat here for awhile trying to think of museum experiences I’ve seen that are sticky, not gimmicky. The exhibit ones are easy—lots of installation art bits, sound floors to dance on—but the packaging isn’t coming to me. I’m still a skeptic on the use of handhelds in museums, but the basic concept of having a way to interact back with the content—static or not—is the right direction.

I’m learning from the Sheep that if you want to create a place for users—not just visitors—you have to prioritize sticky over almost everything else. When content is framed by a sticky experience, the user feels like you created something fun and wonderful for them to experiment with—which leads to more engagement with the content, brand love. And then they buy memberships. And they come back.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

2.0 at Work: Why You Should Use Flickr

I love Flickr
Originally uploaded by jodi_tripp.
Okay, pop quiz. You're developing a heavily themed exhibition. The scenic contractors need to know what a "degraded plaster" wall finish means to you. Your boss is in California picking out antique fountains. The framers need a reference for the curved arch. Five stakeholders in different cities want to see the work that's been done so far. Where do you go?

For those who haven't seen it, Flickr is a photo-sharing site. You can upload photos to it, tag them, share them, comment on them, and search for them. But there are lots of sites for these activities. So what makes Flickr so useful?

1. It has the most photos from the most people and places.
This isn't a set of proprietary or stock images. It's photos taken all over the world by pros and amateurs. Where else can you find Pakistani bathroom signage or Mexican biker teens while researching a project?

2. Tagging makes photo search flexible and powerful. I used to use Google Images to look for quick visual sources. Now I always use Flickr. On Google, images are only searchable by the titles given to them. On Flickr, they are searchable both by title and by tag. Even better, people have created specialized sets (i.e. "Urban Decay") that encompass a wide variety of content. Great for references for wall finishes and graphic detail.

3. Sharing is really easy. We've done FTP (too complicated for some). We've emailed photos (heavy, annoying, easy to misplace). We save to network drives (no one knows where anything is). On Flickr, we can upload our own photos, tag favorites from the entire site, and get dedicated web addresses for each flickr account member (a person or a project--your choice). And you can make it private or public, flexibly.

4. Commenting and review functionality. You can upload four new photos of options to your site, tag them "Giant Squid Layout," and get people's comments and preferences. You can set up automatic emails to go out when things change on the site. You can move things from "For Review" sets to "Done" sets. You can have blog style discussions in the comment body and all of that text is recorded for posterity.

5. It's (mostly) free. You can do a lot with your free account, or get a pro one for $25. I'm not there yet, but...

2.0 web applications have been a tough sell in my department. We tried hosting a wiki for an exhibit--too much effort. Heck, we're not even that great at using our network drive. But we've adopted Flickr easily and it actually increases our efficiency, productivity, and teamwork. Three generations of folks are using it.

Beyond the workplace uses, some museums are taking advantage of Flickr's 2.0ness to do neat projects--check out Jim Spadaccini's reflections on using Flickr for an exhibition website with the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology.

And finally, on a related note, Kathy Sierra's recent post on "user evangelists," which may have subconsciously triggered this Flickr lovefest. Then again, I did find 42,822 photos matching "I love flickr." I'm not the only one.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

QUESTION Part 2 (And a Query on Professional Learning)

The morning after I wrote the post on questions as a basis for exhibit design, I bolted up in embarrasment. I HAD heard about an exhibition that tried to do this!

At ASTC 2006, Darcie Fohrman talked about an exhibition called QUESTION at the Cantor Arts Center in Stanford in 2004. The staff brought in Darcie and artist Michael Brown to help them create "An experiment that provokes questions about art and its presentation in museums." The curators identified all kinds of questions: "Is there such a thing as bad art?" "Why should I look at something that is disturbing?" "Have I looked at this object long enough?" and "This looks like something my child could do. Why is it in an art museum?" and tried to create an exhibition in which those questions would be--if not addressed--wrestled with, batted around, and played with.

As Darcie put it: "In the museum field, we know that learning happens when there is discussion and conversation. We want people to ask strange questions and say, 'I don't get this.'"

You can read more about QUESTION here and here. I wish I had seen it. Darcie's presentation was exciting--to advertise QUESTION, posters with blank spaces and question marks were put out like political picket signs. Throughout the exhibit, people were encouraged to talk back.

So now, a quick secondary question which has more to do with professional development. If I hadn't been at that ASTC talk, tossed through the night, taken decent notes I was able to find--how would I know about QUESTION? In fact, even now, if I want to know more about it, what are my options? Above, I linked to a press release and a news article. I could contact Darcie or the folks at the Cantor Arts Center. Maybe it would be covered in Exhibitionist. But I probably wouldn't hear about it from a friend, like a movie or a book. I wouldn't hear it on the radio. I can't go to a virtual version of it, and there's no substantive web content to speak of.

So, as Kathy McLean has often asked, how do we get the experiments, the exhibits, the history of museums into the hands of professionals and interested folks? Give me the surf movie of exhibits. Give me the compilation CD. Give me something so I don't forget about QUESTION and all the other amazing things I've never seen.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Game Friday: I Feel... Connected?

Okay, not quite a game, but a lovely visualization: We Feel Fine. This application pulls "I feel..." statements from thousands of English-language blogs all over the world and maps them in several beautiful ways. According to the creators' mission statement:

At its core, We Feel Fine is an artwork authored by everyone. It will grow and change as we grow and change, reflecting what's on our blogs, what's in our hearts, what's in our minds. We hope it makes the world seem a little smaller, and we hope it helps people see beauty in the everyday ups and downs of life.

You can sort by feeling, age range, gender, even the weather. You can compare the most frequently cited feelings in the last few hours across different metrics. You can follow the swirling dots of feeling or just let the words scroll by. I'd love to see this in a museum with Jeff Han's touch technology--the thoughts and feelings of all kinds of visitors, grouped in all kinds of ways.

As a work of art, We Feel Fine is delightful. As a symbol of what kind of personal information can be gleaned automatically from the web, it's both dazzling and frightening. Each quote is pulled from a blog, and with one click you can move from the application to the blog of origin. Talk about primary sources...

But how useful is it? This is another example of an application (like the Hope Garden) that DOES make the world seem a little smaller, but beyond that, there's not a lot of depth to the experience. Huh. That 82 year old woman in London had a lousy day. The college student in Maryland feels ambivalent. The various movements on We Feel Fine give me different ways to see the data, but there's no window into deeper connections and meanings. The Findings page is just numbers. To me, this is low on the emotional/social learning/touching/feeling totem pole.

Or maybe it's just the first step. Making all this data accessible--and growable--can enable the next group of people to take it to the next level. Social connections? Meaning with a capital M? Where would you take it?