Designing for participatory projects: emergent best practice, getting discussion started

I was invited over to New Zealand (from Australia) recently to talk at Te Papa in Wellington and the Auckland Museum.  After the talks I was asked if I could share some of my notes on design for participatory projects and for planning for the impact of participatory projects on museums.  Each museum has a copy of my slides, but I thought I’d share the final points here rather than by email, and take the opportunity to share some possible workshop activities to help museums plan audience participation around its core goals.

Both talks started by problematising the definition of a ‘museum website’ – it doesn’t work to think of your ‘museum website’ as purely stuff that lives under your domain name when it’s now it’s also the social media accounts under your brand, your games and mobile apps, and maybe also your objects and content on Google Art Project or even your content in a student’s Tumblr.  The talks were written to respond to the particular context of each museum so they varied from there, but each ended up with these points.  The sharp-eyed among you might notice that they’re a continuation of ideas I first shared in my Europeana Tech keynote: Open for engagement: GLAM audiences and digital participation.  The second set are particularly aimed at helping museums think about how to market participatory projects and sustain them over the longer term by making them more visible in the museum as a whole.

Best practice in participatory project design

  • Have an answer to ‘Why would someone spend precious time on your project?’
  • Be inspired by things people love
  • Design for the audience you want
  • Make it a joy to participate
  • Don’t add unnecessary friction, barriers (e.g. don’t add sign-up forms if you don’t really need them, or try using lazy registration if you really must make users create accounts)
  • Show how much you value contributions (don’t just tell people you value their work)
  • Validate procrastination – offer the opportunity to make a difference by providing meaningful work
  • Provide an easy start and scaffolded tasks (see e.g. Nina Simon’s Self-Expression is Overrated: Better Constraints Make Better Participatory Experiences)
  • Let audiences help manage problems – let them know which behaviours are acceptable and empower them to keep the place tidy
  • Test with users; iterate; polish

Best practice within your museum

  • Fish where the fish are – find the spaces where people are already engaging with similar content and see how you can slot in, don’t expect people to find their way to you unless you have something they can’t find anywhere else
  • Allow for community management resources – you’ll need some outreach to existing online and offline communities to encourage participation, some moderation and just a general sense that the site hasn’t been abandoned. If you can’t provide this for the life of the project, you might need to question why you’re doing it.
  • Decide where it’s ok to lose control. Try letting go… you may find audiences you didn’t expect, or people may make use of your content in ways you never imagined. Watch and learn and tweak in response – this is a good reason to design in iterations, and to go into public or invited-beta earlier rather than later. 
  • Realistically assess fears, decide acceptable levels of risk. Usually fears can be turned into design requirements, they’re rarely show-stoppers.
  • Have a clear objective, ideally tied to your museum’s mission. Make sure the point of the project is also clear to your audience.
  • Put the audience needs first. You’re asking people to give up their time and life experience, so make sure the experience respects this. Think carefully before sacrificing engagement to gain efficiency.
  • Know how to measure success
  • Plan to make the online activity visible in the organisation and in the museum. Displaying online content in the museum is a great way to show how much you value it, as well as marketing the project to potential contributors.  Working out how you can share the results with the rest of the organization helps everyone understand how much potential there is, and helps make online visitors ‘real’.
  • Have an exit strategy – staff leave, services fold or change their T&Cs

I’d love to know what you think – what have I missed?  [Update: for some useful background on the organisational challenges many museums face when engaging with technology, check out Collections Access and the use of Digital Technology (pdf).]

More on designing museum projects for audience participation

I prepared this activity for one of the museums, but on the day the discussion after my talk went on so long that we didn’t need to use a formal structure to get people talking. In the spirit of openness, I thought I’d share it. If you try it in your organisation, let me know how it goes!

The structure – exploratory idea generation followed by convergence and verification – was loosely based on the ‘creativity workshops’ developed by City University’s Centre for Creativity (e.g. the RESCUE creativity workshops discussed in Use and Influence of Creative Ideas and Requirements for a Work-Integrated Learning System).  It’s designed to be a hackday-like creative activity for non-programmers.

In small groups…

  • Pick two strategic priorities or organisational goals…
  • In 5 minutes: generate as many ideas as possible
  • In 2 minutes: pick one idea to develop further

Ideas can include in-gallery and in-person activity; they must include at least two departments and some digital component.

Developing your idea…
Ideas can include in-gallery and in-person activity; they must include at least two departments

  • You have x minutes to develop your idea
  • You have 2 minutes each to report back. Include: which previous museum projects provide relevant lessons? How will you market it? How will it change the lives of its target audience? How will it change the museum?
  • How will you alleviate potential risks?  How will you maximise potential benefits?
  • You have x minutes for general discussion. How can you build on the ideas you’ve heard?

For bonus points…

These discussion points were written for another museum, but they might be useful for other organisations thinking about audience participation and online collections:

What are the museum’s goals in engaging audiences with collections online?

  • What does success look like?
  • How will it change the museum?
  • Which past projects provide useful lessons?

How can the whole organisation be involved in supporting online conversations?

  • What are the barriers?
  • What small, sustainable steps can be taken?
  • Where are online contributions visible in the museum?

Conference notes: Museums and Galleries Scotland’s ‘Collaborate to Compete’

My really quite rough-and-ready notes from Museums and Galleries Scotland’s ‘Collaborate to Compete’ conference.  I’ve already posted my introductory notes for the session on ‘Entrepreneurship and Social Media’, so these notes are about the keynotes and the other sessions I attended.

The first speaker was Jeremy Johnson from Australia’s Sovereign Hill, on ‘Engaging with China: the new horizon for cultural and heritage tourism’.  He talked about their research-led marketing program aimed at getting Chinese visitors to Sovereign Hill, which included marketing work in China, hiring Chinese-speaking staff, and developing tailored tours and experiences.  They’ve also hosted Chinese student[?] teachers in their education department and organised touring exhibitions.  They also had to deal with talking about racism in the past treatment of Chinese Australians in Sovereign Hill – their technique is apparently to ‘tell it how it was’, but because Chinese Australians were ‘extraordinary contributors to society’ it was easy to focus on the many success stories.  In general, they’ve developed some experiences to meet the expectations of Chinese visitors, but still, ‘the museum product has to be respected’.

Top quotes included:

  • ‘you must be able to answer the question “what would make someone visit your museum?”‘ – there must be a compelling reason to visit
  • China is like 56 countries wrapped up into one. ‘Saying you’re going to China is like saying you’re going to Europe’
  • ‘Develop a market strategy to deliver visitor experiences at the right price’. The best marketing strategy can be undone if visitor experience does not meet the promise. Cultural awareness training essential for all staff and volunteers.
  • ‘Bear in mind China isn’t a democracy, not everyone gets access to Google’.

I then went to the first ‘New Partnerships’ seminar, where I heard lessons from the ‘Curious’ project at Glasgow Museums, including the possibility that ‘sustainability can be about working with different people at different stages rather than the one group of people working with the museum during the whole process’, and that ‘people put together objects in ways that curators never would’ (e.g. a ceramist put together objects from different parts of the world based on the presence of finger marks in the clay); partnership successes: mutual benefits, increased understanding, new opportunities, positive feedback; partnership challenges: managing expectations (also finding the right people to talk to), organisational structures, a draw on resources, tracking increases in visits.

In the same session, people from the ‘Smart Collaborations’ project talked about conceptual frameworks for collaboration, with a focus on attracting and retaining visitors within an area – it was hard to see the slides, but it seemed to be about designing experiences for tourists. The top tip was: don’t be afraid to use offers, vouchers, or other deals to attract customers; and capture data when getting people in.

The plenary talk before lunch was Stuart Dempster (JISC’s Strategic Content Alliance) on ‘Sustaining Digital Resources’ [earlier report at Business modelling and sustainability, new one will go live there next month ?]. If the digital age is a game-changer for institutions, how can bricks-and-mortar organisations not only be on the web, but of the web. What skills, licensing need to be in place? They’ve been looking at business models, including the effects of economic downturn and government cuts. Funded projects must deliver value to users, not just driven by curatorial concerns; a key concern is how to generate new forms of income with integrity.

Tips for communicating value to adminstrators: have a seat at the table whenever decisions are made about digital resources; engage administrators early to develop shared sense of responsibility for the project; have an advocacy campaign with users outside the institution so you’ve got voices of support when needed; identify different types of stakeholders and work appropriately with each – identify champions if you can.  Sustainable projects: empower leadership to define the mission and take action; create a strong value proposition; creatively manage costs; cultivate diverse sources of revenue; have a system of accountability.  Collaborations need consensus, communication, capacity, trust, metrics…

After lunch, Alphonse Umulisa, Director General of The Institute of National Museums of Rwanda spoke on ‘Repositioning Cultural Tourism’. Previously at the Museum of London, his job is to raise awareness about Rwanda’s history and heritage sites – difficult when Rwanda’s history is so painful. They’re trying to look forward to the future, and forget the past, but even knowing where to start was hard.  He said you can’t learn history in schools in Rwanda – it’s not taught – but you can learn Rwandan history in museums. The museums had to change from research institutions to learn how to attract tourists, and they had to get Rwandans visiting museums again. His talk was both utterly humbling – the Rwandan government’s vision for 2020 is for every family to have a cow – and inspiring – his motto is: ‘discover your museums, cherish your heritage’.

Tony Butler has posted his own notes from his inspiring talk on how the Museum of East Anglian Life transformed itself from a failing organisation to a thriving enterprise, and about his aim to make it a participative institution, a space for co-creation or to help people look at the world differently and to place the museum in the rhythm of daily life.

After my session on ‘Entrepreneurship and Social Media’, I went to a workshop on ‘Smarter Museums’ with Anne Murch (who prefers the concepts of resilience or entrepreneurship to ‘sustainability’).  The workshop covered the principles of a ‘thinking environment’: appreciation, attention, equality, incisive questions. We did a really interesting (and at first, challenging) exercise in pairs, where you had to either just listen, or just talk, for three minutes, before swapping with your partner.  It’s hard – if you’re meant to be listening, you want to encourage the person talking, or if you’re talking, you want to stop and let the other person have a go.  We did it again later, and it was much easier.  We were also asked to consider “if we knew that together we can have a thriving museum that provides the very best experience for our visitors, what would the org look and feel like? What is the shift we need to make to deliver this?”, and the importance of diversity as both the identity of the people that are shaping the future plans and the ideas that are generated. A team that takes a ‘diagonal slice’ across and down through the museum can be effective – the people with least power are often most creative and least encumbered. Another suggestion for better meetings was to frame each agenda item as a question.

The event closed with the launch of the National Strategy Consultation by Fiona Hyslop, Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Cultural & External Affairs National Strategy Consultation, with a speech that was a lovely celebration of the contribution of museums and cultural heritage to Scottish life.  The document itself outlines the context, guiding principles, vision, themes and objectives of the proposed sector consultation process, which will lead to the national strategy for Scotland’s Museums and Galleries.  (Interestingly, Australia is also running a ‘Digital Culture Public Sphere‘ consultation for input into National Cultural Policy.)

Innovation crunch?

Slightly old (mid-December) news, but I’ve had deadlines/been on holidays: Google Shutters Its Science Data Service:

Google will shutter its highly-anticipated scientific data service in January without even officially launching the product, the company said in an e-mail to its beta testers.

Once nicknamed Palimpsests, but more recently going by the staid name, Google Research Datasets, the service was going to offer scientists a way to store the massive amounts of data generated in an increasing number of fields. About 30 datasets — mostly tests — had already been uploaded to the site.

The dream appears to have fallen prey to belt-tightening at Silicon Valley’s most innovative company.

What do stories like this mean for innovation in 2009, as we lurch on in a state of financial panic/crisis? And as with layoffs at Flickr, there’s possibly a salutary lesson for cultural heritage organisations investing resources with even the biggest companies – always make sure you’ve got backups and an exit strategy.

Thumbs up to Migratr (and free and open goodness)

[Update: Migratr downloads all your files to the desktop, with your metadata in an XML file, so it’s a great way to backup your content if you’re feeling a bit nervous about the sustainability of the online services you use. If it’s saved your bacon, consider making a donation.]

This is just a quick post to recommend a nice piece of software: “Migratr is a desktop application which moves photos between popular photo sharing services. Migratr will also migrate your metadata, including the titles, tags, descriptions and album organization.”

I was using it to migrate stuff from random Flickr accounts people had created at work in bursts of enthusiasm to our main Museum of London Flickr account, but it also works for 23HQ, Picasa, SmugMug and several other photo sites.

The only hassles were that it concatenated the tags (e.g. “Museum of London” became “museumoflondon”) and didn’t get the set descriptions, but overall it’s a nifty utility – and it’s free (though you can make a donation). [Update: Alex, the developer, has pointed out that the API sends the tags space delimited, so his app can’t tell the different.]

And as the developer says, the availability of free libraries (and the joys of APIs) cut down development time and made the whole thing much more possible. He quotes Newton’s, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants” and I think that’s beautifully apt.