Taking Assumptions with a Grain of Salt

As Shelley introduced in her last post, we have the very ambitious goal of overhauling our visitor experience through an initiative funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies through their Bloomberg Connects program. We knew that to do this right, our visitors had be key players in the process. We also knew that we have a lot of assumptions about our visitors’ wants and needs. So it was vital for us to test those assumptions by working directly with our visitors.

Meetings with staff from across departments helped gather ideas that would later be tested with visitors.
Meetings with staff from across departments helped gather ideas that would later be tested with visitors.

We began with a series of internal meetings (lots of meetings!) of staff from across departments to determine what we (think we) know about our current visitor experience and our visitors. Out of these meetings came a list of things we know about ourselves and questions to help guide our thinking:

  • We know most of our visitors come for our special exhibitions. How can we direct traffic based on visitor needs and interests? How can we activate the permanent galleries (so more people visit)?
  • Visitors regularly ask staff for recommendations. How can we help visitors customize their experience?
  • Our building is challenging to navigate and we have lots of stories to tell. When there is a lot of content spread out in the building, how do we help visitors find it?
  • Visitors like having the opportunity to interface with staff. What are the best ways to provide access to curators, experts, and other staff? Where are people most effective and what expertise is needed?

These and other questions helped us hone in on the key elements of this initiative: that it be personal, conversational, and begin in the lobby and echo throughout the building. To successfully reach those elements, we narrowed our focus to three tasks: we would need to provide access to experts; reconsider how we direct visitors throughout the building; and create ways to facilitate conversation.

An agile planning process was used to craft pilots so we could learn and adapt as we go and never work too far ahead.
An agile planning process was used to craft pilots so we could learn and adapt as we go and never work too far ahead.

So this series of meetings provided us with a basic framework based on our assumptions. Next we had to figure out how to test those assumptions. We adopted an iterative planning process used by the technology sector called “agile” (more on that later). This adaptive planning approach has allowed us to keep momentum and truly learn we a go, in this case through rapid-fire pilot projects that address a particular question. For each question, we developed a pilot that directly involved our visitors, often by placing staff in the galleries to speak with them.

In my next post, I’ll summarize our first pilots and discuss those important early learnings. In the meantime, we’re hiring.  If you have a degree in art history, love engaging with visitors and think like an educator you should take a look at this.