Creating visitor centred attractions

The consultation process to reach and engage with new audiences

Just as large commercial organisations rely on market research to effectively position and sell their products and services, museums are learning how to ask the same questions of their target audiences in order to tailor and deliver the best exhibitions and programmes they can.

User experience is important in order to reach new audiences and improve existing services. It’s no longer enough to have great collections on show, it must be presented in a way that engages with and works hard to attract people. Museums must entertain their visitors and research is at the heart of understanding what that means to each target market and the best way to get them interested enough to visit and keep them coming back- or to recommend it to friends. So where do you begin to create a better user experience and attract a wider audience? What will bring them to your doors? Where do you put your focus, and specifically which efforts will attract the audience you most want to engage with?

It needn’t be as overwhelming as it sounds. Via a consultation process involving current and future audience groups, it’s possible to test design ideas, the visitor journey and bring all the components together to ensure a you build the best attraction possible. In essence, consultation tests whether the exhibition concepts would meet the needs and desires of the target audiences – are they interested in the plans and would they visit?

How are consultations undertaken?

Working with the client and any other relevant parties, Mather & Co has helped many of its clients undertake consultations via two main platforms:

  1. Informal audience interviews

Informal interviews often take place in the museum itself within the proposed ‘space’ and involve representatives from all the target audience groups, as well as chosen staff from the museum. Interviewees are selected at random and are asked a series of questions relating to the proposed designs using design visuals as prompts to better explain the ideas.

  1. Focus groups

Focus groups are often assembled and run by an independent third party to maintain neutrality. Mather & Co helps manage the process at every stage. Key audience groups can be brought together in various venues, supported by museum staff and visuals to aid the conversation. Each session is tailored to the audience but includes a presentation of the project and a wider discussion with the group.

With younger focus group members or those who speak English as a second language, a different approach may be taken concentrating on activity that takes into account childrens’ attention span and language barriers.

Working with Manchester City Council at the Central Library on the Archives+ installation, Mather & Co engaged with younger target audiences by including objects from the archives. They saw a North West Film Archive film on Moss Side and looked at archive photos of children across the 20th century. They also discussed their use of libraries and museums, what content they might be interested in at a new venue, and how they might use Archives+. They spent time drawing how they wanted Archives+ to look and what it should contain, as well as suggesting names for the venue. In this instance the focus group was of a less rigid format, due to the young age of the group and open nature of the space that encouraged the young people to pop in and out of the discussions.

Engaging new audiences via focus groups often provides ideas going forward, whilst it makes the target audience feel involved in the content and decision making process. Consultations can continue to be carried out at different stages in the delivery phase to test more detailed designs and prototypes. Only by gathering as much information as possible directly from the target audience can we begin to decipher what they’re looking for and deliver a truly entertaining user experience.

The results from the Archives+ consultation highlighted some really interesting points and provided invaluable input to be fed back into the design.  It worked – Archives+ now reaches a much wider demographic than ever before. There has been:

  • Over 3200 school children visits
  • Over 100 school teachers trained
  • 522 events/activities delivered attended by 18,884 people including 1743 families and 1957 young people
  • 81 volunteers (5785 hours) including 13 young people working as digital journalists and at events.
  • 18% of visitors are from Black and Minority Ethnic community
  • 25% of visitors from outside North West.
  • 90% of young people found it ‘young people’ friendly.

If you’d like to know more about researching your audiences in order to deliver the most engaging museum for them, please contact Sam Withers on sam@matherandco.com