Visitor Studies: It’s what you do with it!

16-18 March 2016, Royal Geographical Society, London

VSG Conference, 16-18 March 2016, Royal Geographical Society, London.

“If you only had one post-it?” (copright Andrew McIntryre)

“Tell me a story about your audience….” (various)

As I’m not quite ready to summarise my three days on one post it note, let’s instead think about storytelling. Both ‘Insight Narrator‘ Caroline Florence and Adam Frost and Tobias Sturt from Graphic Digital Agency, (more colloquially known as ‘those guys from the Guardian who do infographics’) talked about the necessity of conflict in storytelling. Both even using the ‘cat sat on the mat’ quote by John le Carré.

“The cat sat on the mat is not a story. The cat sat on the other cat’s mat is a story.”
– John le Carré

So here’s my professional conflict. I am an interpreter, and although visitor studies has always been at the heart of how I work, I am not actually an audience researcher. Yet for the past four years I have been the administrator of the visitor studies group and as such have had a seat at the committee table.
Unfortunately for the future arc of my ‘story’ the conflict ends there. I am sorry to disappoint you but the committee have been very gracious about my lack of in-depth expertise and I have found the job very rewarding and very relevant to the rest of my work. And never more so than this year’s conference.

You might expect a conference about visitor research to involve really in-depth nerdy discussion of methodologies and stats, but instead this year’s conference theme was all about the analysis, the insight and the reporting. One of my real take-home messages was about making sure to spend much more time on analysis and particularly on reporting.

Andrew McIntyre of Morris Hargreaves McIntyre, in his infamous ‘one post it’ session quoted above urged us to do ALL our thinking and conclusions before starting to write any reports. This resonated with me. I have in the past been guilty of reporting like a laboratory science experiment: ‘methodology > results > conclusions’. Andrew urged that we instead give lots of time and energy to the analysis until we’re really sure of our headline ‘one post it’ conclusion, then write the report that supports that conculsion. The keynote speaker on day one, Lamia Daboussey of the BBC, also said in her inspiring presentation “Data can sit in an appendix”. In the majority of situations, I believe they are both spot-on.

Tobias and Adam’s obviously beautiful presentation slides can be found along with most others on the vsg website. Their session was a visual treat but their key take-home messages were around storytelling and also good design (design is not just appearance but also whether something works). The key to the visualisations they produce is first mining the data for the STORY. That’s what we (ok, I) don’t spend enough time doing at the analysis stage. That’s what Caroline and Andrew and Lamia were also saying.

What else did we learn?
From Lamia Daboussey (Head of Audience Planning and Brand Insight at the BBC) we learned that audiences are more fragmented and individualistic than ever before, particularly young people. Thus making segmentation of young people an almost pointless task.
Also from Lamia ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast’…. sage words indeed.

BBC Staff Pass
Every BBC staff pass has the BBC ‘values’ on the back. including ‘Audiences are at the heart of everything we do’. If you work in a genuinely audience-led visitor-centred organisation then that ought to be an easy culture in which to be heard when reporting visitor studies findings. If you don’t work in that culture… well…. you just have to work harder!

Presenting you findings should not just be an executive summary of the report. Think story, visual, emotional, different media. Make you audience WANT to effect change, act on your findings. Or use the presentation as a facilitated discussion of HOW to effect change. Nobody needs an exec summary read out to them! Decision makers are human beings, reach out to them on a human level.

From an interpreter’s point of view
Again from Lamia: “Audience insight needs to be creatively enabling”. You don’t give creatives ‘the answer’ you use the audience insight to ask the right questions and inform creativity. This was a bit of a lightening bolt moment for me. Personally I’ve never found visitor research feedback to be limiting in the design process, but I have worked in teams which have and I have struggled to understand why, but now I feel I do.

On a similar theme, one of the sessions I enjoyed the most was that given by Lindsey Green of Frankly Green + Webb about their work on the digital guide for the Van Gogh Museum. Lindsey talked about an R&D process that really did involve audience research for a change! And in particular she talked about the role of the researcher or designer/researcher in the Design Council’s ‘Double Diamond’ design model.

IMG_3783 I’m not sure how clear this image of Lindsey’s slide is but they identify the role in each phase as:
Discovery – researcher
Define – facilitator
Develop – facilitator / advocate / designer
Deliver – designer / tester / researcher

I found this really useful and inspiring as a way to truly integrate visitor research into the design process for better solutions and creativity, not to limit creativity.

Expertise and Professionalisation
Another theme that emerged in the three days was around respect for the expertise of the audience researcher. Marie Hobson led a session with a provocation on this theme based on her PhD research. I must admit that I had suspected the discussion here to possibly follow the lines of accreditation or training as it appears to have in the Group for Education in Museums and in the Association for Heritage Interpretation. However, I was pleasantly surprised.

Traits of "a profession"

Traits of “a profession”, Marie Hobson

The discussion that emerged here was far more centred around the ‘body of knowledge’. One of the main things I took from the discussion is that we need to be more mindful at all times of the fact that research and evaluation are not the same thing! I have heard arguments for more publishing of ‘visitor studies’ but these arguments haven’t always been clear if they’re referring to research or evaluation. I have been conscious that much of the evaluation I do is deeply pragmatic and focused on a single purpose/project because it is ‘evaluation’and not ‘research. The two words are not interchangeable and I think we would all be better served by being clearer about which is which and also by some practitioners doing more ‘research’.

This reflects some of what Jane Rayner said in her session about how the Science Museum is structuring its audience research department and what they hope to be doing soon. It also highlighted to me that in order to better focus evaluation resources, we ought to all be reading more research!

Why is it often easier to be heard as an external voice?

Why is it often easier to be heard as an external voice?

Jane talked more about consultants vs ‘in house’ researchers and evaluators. She looked at WHY consultants often find it easier to be heard and identified. Her answer to this is to work to develop in-house ‘expertise’. Jane hopes to soon publish some guides on ‘what the science museum has learned about digital’ or ‘…about family learning’ etc. This is the ‘body of expertise’ that Marie refers to when she set out the traits of ‘a profession’.

The whole three days (two days of conference, one day visiting VSG members in their institutions around London) was truly inspiring, and I left feeling very positive about the future of the Visitor Studies Group, my own consultancy and the sector in general. I urge you to join the group and support their work if you care about the advocacy of the voice of the visitor.

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