Last week I attended the MCN (Museum Computer Network) conference in Minneapolis. It was an awesome experience—one that on the whole didn’t feel nearly as focused on technology as you might expect for a conference hosted by an organization with the word “computer” in its name. Rather, the complexities of our relationships—with objects, spaces, and other people—seemed to be on everyone’s mind. My head is still swimming with post-conference ideas along these lines, so I thought I’d share a few things I’ve been mulling over since returning to DC.
In her riveting keynote speech, Liz Ogbu, founder and principal of Studio O (a multidisciplinary design and innovation firm), challenged us to remember our own humanity when working to create change in our communities. One thing she said particularly struck me in thinking about my work as an evaluator. Liz spent three weeks living with and talking to women in Tanzania for a project intended to encourage more people to use cookstoves. In describing this work she talked about rethinking the data collection process so it is less of a “transaction” and more of a relationship-building process with evaluator and participants on equal ground. We must not simply come in and “extract” data from participants, Liz argued. Rather, we need to make them feel like we are “in it” with them. That difference, she argued, helps builds trust and makes people more willing to share the deep, detailed information she needs to be able to build the best solution. For Liz, that meant conducting multiple in-depth interviews with women about how they use (or don’t use) cookstoves. But it also meant getting down on her hands and knees and cooking with Tanzanian women to discover things they may not have thought to tell her but that are nonetheless important for understanding how they decide to feed their families. In my work in museums, I doubt I’ll ever have the chance to immerse myself so fully in visitors’ “home” environments. But Liz’s speech did make me wonder how I might work to incorporate more of my own humanity into data collection and establish a deeper sense of trust with visitors that I observe or interview. Of course, there are still many advantages to taking a more hands-off approach—“staying neutral,” if you will. But I want to challenge myself in the future to reconsider this as a default. I think there might be times where it would do me and our museum clients good to approach the data collection process in a way that focuses first and foremost on developing a sense of trust and understanding between evaluator and visitor, so we can ultimately better understand the complexities of the issues at hand.
I wondered too about the implications of collecting data in museum spaces—namely, whether our own comfort in these spaces means we sometimes forget that these are not necessarily places where visitors feel equally comfortable, and how this might affect data collection. Lack of time and resources certainly makes it difficult to do interviews with and observations of visitors/users in their “home” environments, but I can imagine times when it might be really advantageous to do so. Take, for example, a museum that wants to learn how teachers use their online resources/collections. I’m willing to bet the data would be a million times richer if we could go out and conduct interviews with teachers in the their own classrooms and see first-hand how they use those resources, rather than if we tried to learn about their experiences by conducting a phone interview (where we can’t see how what they describe aligns with their practice, and we have to rely entirely on what they tell us when there may also be important factors they don’t think to share). Sometime we are lucky enough to be able to do this, like in our ongoing evaluation of citizen science programs for the Conservation Trust of Puerto Rico. Unfortunately, a lack of resources or a desire for large sample sizes often make this approach challenging.
As I chatted about these ideas with others throughout the conference, I became even more convinced of the immense value of doing rigorous, thorough qualitative research. In my conference presentation on this topic, I shared a few “key competencies” for doing good qualitative research that I hope anyone seeking to understand visitors’ experiences will keep in mind:
Overall, my biggest takeaway this year is that designing and understanding experiences is never about the technology—it’s about the people. Having a “digital” mindset towards museum work really just means embracing the many ways that technology allows us to find and tell stories, build and enhance relationships, and discover connections we never knew existed. Human problems and relationships are at the heart of the “digital transformation” that MCN hopes to advance in the cultural sector.
I look forward to exploring this line of thinking more next year at MCN2016 in New Orleans!