This week the OCLC held a Digital Forum West mini conference/symposium at the Getty. I noticed that John Falk was the keynote speaker and weaseled my way in to see his talk, since I am a huge fan and was very curious how his influential theories about free-choice learning in museums might be applied to the problem of digital access.
His talk this morning was especially interesting because his theory about user experiences dovetails with newer approaches to thinking of web visitors in terms of the kind of experience they want, rather than as more traditional audience types (teacher, mom, family, businessman, retired person) and demographics (age, sex, race, location).
Falk argued that looking at traditional demographic info and quantitative measurement of “traffic” (to our physical and virtual sites) is pretty meaningless and doesn’t help museums and libraries achieve their goals. For example, knowing how many 30-year-old Hispanics come to the museum/library is not going to help us figure out how to get more 30-year-old Hispanics to come. Also, knowing someone’s demographic info doesn’t tell you anything about their needs–what they want from us when they come here.
Instead, he thinks we should start to think about our users in terms of their needs, which dictate the kind of experiences they are seeking from us. Based on his almost 40 years of research in the field, he has come up with 5 “experience types” which he says are pretty much universal in all people, regardless of demographic. These describe basic human needs. They are:
Explorers–motivated by personal curiosity (i.e. browsers)
Facilitators–motivated by other people and their needs (i.e. a parent bringing a child)
Experience-Seekers–motivated by the desire to see and experience a place (i.e. tourists)
Professional/Hobbyists–motivated by specific knowledge-related goals (i.e. a scholar researching a specific topic)
Rechargers–motivated by a desire for a contemplative or restorative experience
Another part of his argument (he has authored many books on this) is that a visitor’s experiences with us is just a tiny blip in the larger trajectory of their lives. How does this experience at a museum or library affect that trajectory? And isn’t that what we really want to know? How are we affecting people’s learning? How can we be better perceived as useful to them in fulfilling their needs?
He talked about the research he’s done with the California Science Center here in L.A. He’s been doing visitor surveys for 15 years and, in one example, has been able to show that one exhibition at the science center actually did teach visitors a science concept (biostasis) that they remembered 2 years later.
A friend told me his newest book covers this theory: Identity and the Museum Experience