RK&A at 30: Handling Tensions between Evaluation and Visitor Experience

Emily’s post inspired me to think about how I have also embraced some of the messiness of our work, but in another vein—the tension between evaluation and visitor experience.

As an evaluator, I love order. Evaluation, by definition, is the systematic examination of the successes and shortcomings in the context of intended impact—systematic being critical to the definition. The detail-oriented thinking required in evaluation tasks such as research design, sampling plans, data collection protocols, and analysis plans is something I enjoy and think I am good at. These tasks are important for evaluation to be systematic, which is ultimately essential to produce trustworthy data from which museum professionals can make decisions.

But sometimes, evaluation systems get in the way of what I consider my core professional value—helping museums provide outstanding visitor experiences. I was first drawn to visitor studies work because of negative visitor experiences—not ones I experienced myself but ones I produced as a result of being a security guard who had to enforce museum rules. Museum experiences have been crucial to my personal growth, and I want nothing more than for other visitors to have the opportunity to have that same types of experiences.

Therefore, I have very much learned to embrace some of the messiness involved when evaluation and visitor experience interact. When I train data collectors, for instance, I emphasize the importance of following the protocols so that we have high-quality data to work from. However, I also emphasize that our intent is that the protocol is never to the detriment of the visitor experience. This is the point in the training where I normally share a (funny-in-retrospect) story about a data collector who so rigidly tried to follow the sampling protocol that we received a complaint from a visitor that she felt the data collector was flirting with her husband—definitely not a positive visitor experience and a very confusing phone call to take!

Maybe it is due to where I am professionally and personally in life, but like Emily, I too have started to find peace in the messy aspects of our work. I am not sure I would go so far as saying I relish the messiness, but it certainly teaches me a great deal about being human.

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