‘Engaging digital audiences in museums’ conference

A quick report and Storify summary from Wednesday’s joint Museums Computer Group (MCG) and Digital Learning Network (DLNet) conference, ‘Engaging digital audiences in museums‘, which was held on 11 July 2012 at the University of Manchester.  I’m the Chair of the MCG and was on the Programming Committee for this event so I make absolutely no claim to impartiality, but I thought it went really well – great speakers and workshop leaders, enthusiastic and friendly participants and a variety of formats that kept energy levels up during the day.

My notes are sketchier than usual as I was co-chairing some of the sessions and keeping an eye on the running of the event, so this is more of an impressionistic overview than a detailed report.  There are already a number of other posts out there, and we’ll have the post from our official event blogger and illustrator up soon for more comprehensive accounts.

For the MCG, this event was experimental in a number of ways – in running an event with another practitioner organisation, in the venue, in running parallel workshops, buying in commercial wifi, and in devoting part of the day to an unconference – and I’m curious to know what response we get in the evaluation from the day.  (If you were there, our short feedback form is online.)

The event was designed to bring museum learning and technology staff together because we felt we were missing opportunities to benefit from each others skills and experience. I know technologists are grappling with measuring impact, and learning people with reaching new audiences in different ways – hopefully each group would have something to offer and something to learn, though it might mean seeing past each others jargon and understanding different views of the world. (This ‘Interloper Report‘ and comments from MW2012 provide some insight into the potential.) We planned the day as a mixture of inspiring talks and opportunities to get stuck into conversation about topical issues. It was also a day for making connections so we’d included coffee breaks, lunch and the unconference so that people could find others interested in similar things or to put faces to names from the MCG and DLNet lists and social media.
The various tweets I’ve added to storify do a reasonable job of covering the day, but I’ve left out things like the QR code discussion. Other conversations about generic learning outcomes have taken on a life of their own – for example, Rhiannon’s post ‘Generic Learning Outcomes – friend or foe?‘ seeks to understand why non-learning people don’t seem to like them.

I thought Nick Winterbotham‘s presentation of the Group for Education in Museums (GEM) ‘self-evident truths’ was interesting, and some of his points were picked up and retweeted widely:

  • Our heritage is not about things it is about people
  • Everyone has a right to know about and be at ease with heritage
  • Heritage embraces the past and present of all cultures
  • Heritage is essential as the cradle of everyone’s tomorrow
  • Heritage encompasses all literature, science, technology, environments and arts
  • The multiple narratives of heritage deserve respect
  • Learning is an entitled journey, not a destination
  • Heritage learning is an entitlement for everyone
  • The development of heritage learning skills must be a perpetual excellence
  • Learning is not simply a justification for cultural spending, it is THE justification for cultural spending

Nick advocated for a world where no-one hesitates at taking a risk in learning, and said that we love art, digital culture because of how we feel about it, not what we know about it. He urged us to focus on how your audiences live, learn and love your subject matter; to acknowledge the intellectual generosity needed; and find the big idea that will transform your organisation.

Matthew Cock talked about the challenges of audiences, particularly around mobile. The three-pronged model for audiences in museums: attract -> engage -> impact.  He asked, when you see someone in a museum with a phone, what space are they in? Are they engaged, distracted, focused? Is it a sign of disrespect and disengagement or a sign of bonding with the group they’re with? And how do you know?

He talked about the work Morris Hargreaves McIntyre had done to understand their audiences and their varying motivations for visiting: social – museums as enjoyable place to spend time with friends and family; intellectual – interested in knowledge; emotional – experience what the past was like; spiritual – creative stimulation, quiet contemplation, etc.  (See also MHM’s Culture Segments report). How does this connect to using mobiles to engage people? People have different activities – chat, read, recording audio or photo, playing media back, share something via social media etc. Each fulfills a different need. The challenge is to match specific things you can do on a mobile with your motivations for visiting. He referred to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to think about the needs a museum satisfies in our lives and the experience economy.

People are seeking venues and events that engage them in a memorable (and authentic?) ways – we’re shifting from buying lots of stuff to seeking unique and engaging experiences. The visitor wants to walk away with the engagement having effected a transformation (the impact point of the three-pronged model). Measuring that impact is really hard. Evaluation can look at lots of things but it’s hard to understand the needs of our visitors and what works for them in this space.

Later I asked what Learning people like Nick could tell us technologists about measuring impact, but it seems like it’s the holy grail for their field too. Nick did mention that we go from a stage of cognitive to affective impact over time after an experience, which is a good start for thinking about this.  Judging from the response on twitter, I’m not the only one who thinks that measuring the impact of a museum experience and understanding whether it’s ephemeral or lifelong is one of the big tasks for museums right now.

John Coburn‘s presentation on the Hidden Newcastle app harked back to the buzz around storytelling
a few years ago, but it also resonated with conversations about the different types and purposes of museum websites – an app that’s not about sharing collections or objects but about sharing compelling stories fits firmly in the ‘messy middle‘.  In this case, ‘it’s the story that creates the impact, not the object. The value of the object is as the source for the story’. I love that they wanted to create intrigue about the people and the times in which they lived and compel exploration.

It was a difficult choice but I popped into the ‘tech on a budget’ workshop where Shona Carnall and Greg Povey presented some interesting ways to use existing, readily available technologies to create interactive experiences.

I’ll leave the detail of the other presentations to the storify below and other people’s posts and skip to the unconference.  Because time was short we asked for session ideas and votes from the podium, rather than letting people write ideas and put their votes up on a shared board.  After the unconference we all gathered again to hear what had been discussed in each group. The summaries were:
  • Commercial side of commissioning cool things: reluctant to put a price on it, but UK has cultural expectations around free museums which makes it harder to charge. Digital is received as god given right, something that should be free. But how come the West End theatre is able to charge so much for a ticket? Museums providing paid-for entertainment not just a browsing experience. We pay for entertainment but we don’t expect to be entertained in museums. 
  • Learning outcomes: friends or foe? Attitude is sometimes that learning outcomes are rubbish – decided generic learning outcomes (GLOs) are a really good thing. It’s not about shoe-horning facts into everything or pure knowledge transfer – it’s also about inspiration, experience, skills, wonderment. The wondrous Romans! Trying to change the stigma about what learning actually is, it’s an experience as much as formal education. Maybe ‘aims and objectives’ a better term than ‘learning outcomes’.
  • How do you evaluate wonderment – with difficulty. What is it? Element of surprise, something being visceral, physiological responses. Are adults too cynical for wonderment? ‘Smiling Victorians’ – challenge expectations. Imagine writing a budget to get iris recognition to measure wonder! Hard to measure or evaluate it but should always aspire to it.
  • Coherent experience, call to action in gallery to online with mobile in gallery: talked about pressure museums are under to introduce next tech, be whizzy, or is it addressing a real need? Can you piggyback on software that’s already out there?
  • Reaching different audiences: particularly teenagers: find out what inspires them, tap into that. What are the barriers to engaging them? They’re creative, maybe we should work with them to create digital offers, empower them. Apps for apps sake – under pressure to deliver them.
  • Big ideas: intellectual generosity. (Goodness! There was a long list of the characteristics MCG and DLNet would have if they were an animal or a tool…)  We are intricate explosions. Intricate – all the stuff we’re talking about is detailed and a little fragile but explosive because the world will catch fire with what we’re doing.
  • Failure confessionals: web content management systems – maybe simple is the way to go. Failure is a good thing, and at least we didn’t screw up like the bankers.
  • Social media audiences: does it make sense just to have one FB, twitter, etc account per org? Keeping a brand together is good but it doesn’t always make sense to lump all audience conversations into one channel.

And with the final thanks to the student volunteers, programme committee, unconference organisers and speakers (and particularly to Ade as local contact and Rhiannon as the tireless organiser that made it all happen), it was over.

We’re already looking ahead to the MCG’s Spring 2013 meeting, which may be an experimental ‘distributed’ meeting held in the same week or evening in different regional locations.  If you’re interested in hosting a small-scale event with us somewhere in the UK, get in touch!  We’re also thinking about themes for UK Museums on the Web 2012, so again, let us know if you have any ideas.

Notes from Gamecamp 4, London

Here are my thoughts from Gamecamp 4 (#gc4), an unconference held at London South Bank University on Saturday, May 14. Overall I had a great time, and managed to put some faces to names as well as catching up with people I knew. I don’t think I learnt anything startling, but some of the sessions were great for helping me rediscover bits I already knew and clarify thoughts on other things. That might be a sign that I’ve been spending too much time thinking about games lately, or that the field is so huge and diverse that the chances of any session being on a topic that interests me and having the same approach (e.g. not video games) is smaller.

I also ran a session on ‘hacking museum games‘ with Katy Beale to try to find out whether the excellent people at the event thought it was possible to run a hack event to produce new games with museums, get a sense of who’d be interested and hopefully learn from other people’s experience with hack-type events with people new to games. I’ve written up the notes I took at the time, but would also love to hear from people who have more thoughts.  It wasn’t in that session but based on other activities going on at the unconference I decided my new dream is to have a museum zombie larp.

So, onto notes from other sessions… They’re really rough, sorry!  I haven’t got the names or twitter IDs of the speakers, so please let me know if you know them.

5 tips to improve your game run by Graham McAllister
1 comparing controls (before building) – e.g. do a heuristic comparison of control methods like direct manipulation, d pads with requirements eg small controlled movements, big movements
2 tutorials – the art of integrated game tutorial design – make a list of everything you want the player to be able to do. Think of the ideal player (probably you cos you’ll really know your game). Is there a safe space to practice the skills you want people to learn?  Integrate tutorials into gameplay – how? Use characters to deliver instructions. Can show them, tell them (text or audio) or get them to practice it.
3 involve users – but if you’re play testing, don’t ask them what they think. Ask people to draw their experience at the end – they remember the initial experience and the end, maybe something big in the middle. They won’t remember the details afterwards. So how? Record it then walkthrough. Biometrics or observe the video and take them back to the moment afterwards and ask them, you’ll get much better detail. [I nearly asked if anyone else did usability test-style think aloud testing but figured probably not as most people seemed to be video game developers]
4 recruit users – demographics; psychographics (internal motivations etc)
5 ux acceptance – define success tests. Write success tests for game ux acceptance – things the player should experience, not technical stuff; gives you something to keep working towards.

Suggestion from discussion – get a mirror and play through it, use your foot on the mouse to replicate experience of playing your game for the first time. [Great idea for empathy with newbie players]

[Update: I’ve come across some really detailed notes from this session, so go read Five tips to improve your game if you’re interested in usability testing for games. Also, I didn’t go to this session but there are some good notes on Can User Centered Design help games? (GameCamp report), and it’s encouraging to hear that it had a good turn-out. For some reason I thought there was resistance to user-centred design in games, presumably from the same school of ‘it makes boring, safe products’ (which is only true if you’re doing it wrong, as the notes point out), but maybe there’s not.]

The failure of the fail state.
This was a quite interesting discussion, partly because people seem to have inherently different preferences, as well as variations dependent on your preferred game genres.  Posited it’s better if you can die and then carry on… When is a fail state too much fail – balance between tension, high stakes and too harsh a penalty?  Or too binary – do you need to reload the game, can you recover from errors, what consequences do you need to live with? Discussion of the difference between creating tension because the stakes are high vs when game is completely over unless you re-start it’s not good.

Other random notes from tweets:

@naomialderman pointed out ‘moral choices in games are mostly shit’ – yes! Crap moral scenarios put me off otherwise interesting games

Themes across sessions: ‘all narrative is interactive’; we narrativise* experiences when we remember or reconstruct games *made-up word [actually, I can’t really remember what inspired this, I must have had a sugar rush.]

It’s always amazing the difference room setup makes in an unconference – a circle feels collaborative, desks facing the front can be ‘us v them’ [Owen Stephens pointed out that the circle setup is called ‘cabaret’ style – lovely!]

Oh noes, a FAIL! Notes from the unconference session on ‘failure’ at MW2009

These are my really rough notes from the unconference session at Museums and the Web, written up quickly in order to capture the essence of the discussion and open it up for comment.

Susan Chun, Dana Mitroff Silvers, Bruce Wyman and I began and were later joined by Seb Chan and Jennifer Trant.

I explained my motivation in suggesting the session – intelligent, constructive failure is important. Finding ways to create a space for that conversation isn’t something we do well at the moment.

Susan started the conversation by pointing out that there were different definitions or types of failure. Defining ‘failure’ more precisely is useful.

Types of failures include: over budget, badly implemented, badly specified, future failures.

Dana pointed out that we needed to define success as well as defining failure. A more nuanced understanding of failure is important, especially when hoping to encourage more people to talk about failure. Discussion about choosing the right metrics for success – the right metrics may vary depending on whether you’re a funder or a department or whoever.

Funding models can set you up for failure.

Bruce pointed out that it’s not the failure that matters, it’s what you do with the failure.

Some apparent failures may not really be failures.

Are you funding the process or the product?

Not having the mechanism for exposing the knowledge is a failure.

The definitions of failure and success need to include the net gain for an organisation or in new/improved processes as well as the product.

What kind of environment is needed so that people can publish judgements of their own success or failure?

Susan suggested the MCN project registry would be a good place for this information.

What if it was routine to talk about what failed or succeeded in each project? Funding should reward people who talk about failures. Discussion about space for reflection on ‘lessons learned’ in project summation.

Agency is important – you talk about the failures of your own projects, other people don’t dob you in.

Dana – talking about failures in a project should be a normal part of MW papers.

Label it ‘lessons learned’, not ‘failure’.

Susan – [Remove roadblocks about what happens if funders hear you think your project failed in some way -] Talk to funders about requiring an examination or reflection of each project for failure in the same way the issue of open source development was tackled. Pro-active approach!

Me: when you’re putting in for funding, you should have to show that you’ve talked to people with similar projects about the lessons they learned.

Susan – put ILMS (Institute of Museum and Library Services) reports online. [A small but practical thing to do]. Change the culture of secrecy.

Funding can be a carrot and a stick. Without that, institutional change is hard.

Points of resistance (some summing up):
understanding how to define failure/success
culture of secrecy
fear of exposure to funders
lacking the jargon to describe failure (which would also help normalise the process of discussing it openly)

Jennifer – if there aren’t any negative consequences, why can’t you talk about it?

General discussion about the need for early, continual dialogue about projects. It’s difficult to talk about failures if you’re not already talking about the project. Paraphrasing Seb -talking about it already in an informal context, like a blog, may help here.

Iterative, transparent reporting is important. It also helps other people talk about failures.

Susan – other causes of failures are project that never happened. Whether they missed their time, didn’t get funding, whatever. Consider those as failures too, and talk about them. Everyone benefits, whether that’s the person with the great idea that never got to see it happen, or people who’ve built on it later.

Talk about nascent projects. Exposing them to comment early can help prevent failure. Like the old crack about voting, public discussion about projects should happen early and often!

Hoarding ideas is pointless.

We need a template for talking about failure. Prompts or questions for consideration.

It’s not just overall project failures, it can include institutional, departmental or structural failures.

Dana suggested confessional sessions, perhaps at the next Museums and the Web conference. Jennifer and Seb took it up, suggesting YouTube captures with disguised voices and silhouettes to make it easier, and encouraging discussion of failures by type or theme.

Discussion about the role of commentators, respondents in sessions. The voice of the one that didn’t work.

Find an acceptable form of critical questions so that people can help prevent other projects failing, make the most of the experience out there.

Putting my money where my mouth is, one final comment from Seb was about a possible failure of the unconference sessions in not getting people together again at the end to report back. This was received constructively, and might happen during the final plenary.

Bathcamp report

This is my quick and dirty report from BathCamp, held in Bath last weekend. In summary – it was ace, and I went to sessions on the myth of engagement, how to run an Open Space session, social learning, CakePHP, managing complexity in software, learning Chinese online, the art of espresso, and a Delicious pecha kucha. I’ve included my notes on some of the sessions I’ve attended, and some ideas for the future in this post. My #bathcamp photos are here and there’s a general pool here.

There was a dinner on Friday night for people who were already in the area, which was a good chance to meet some people who were interested but unable to make the Saturday/Sunday.

The sessions:
The myth of engagement (Jack Martin Leith)
Engagement means it’s not a message from the organisation to the audience. ‘Buy-in’ means you’re being sold something. Work with people, don’t treat them as audiences or something to speak ‘to’. It should be a conversation or a dance. It means letting go of brand so it can belong to users. Flickr are a good example of how to do it – look at the ‘you’,’your x’ in their menus.

Engagement should be a code word for: inviting participation, including, involving, joining in with, conversing with, playing with, creating with.

Commands: tell
Messages: sell, test, consult
Conversations: co-create

Shell are really good at engagement, and do lots of research, as do the army (which makes sense, because they’d really need people to be engaged and committed).

Open Space (Jack Martin Leith)
This session was on how to run Open Space events, and on the comparative strengths of barcamps and open spaces.

Open Spaces set the theme as a question.

How you invite people is central. Attention is given to welcomes, orientation on arrival. The space is very important. The facilitator doesn’t do anything unless someone tries to spoil the vibe or close the space. Put the principles on the wall to remind everyone. The circle is critical in open space.

If you host a session, you agree to write a report (or get someone else to write it). [I think this is vital – it means the ideas, conversations, learning or connections aren’t lost, and can be shared beyond the session.]

People sign up for sessions once proposed sessions have been put up on the wall. This helps with planning, space allocation and coordinating sessions.

Social Learning (Laura Dewis)
Smart profiles [?], informed network of peers.

The system adapts to learner now. There was a slide on the OU (Open University) ecosystem – lots of different applications or sites linked together.

OU story – can tell the story of where you are with your course, how you’re coping, others can support you. Study buddies… connecting with others with same interests, recommendation ‘other people who’ve done this course also did…’

Cohere – semantic web. Deep learning.

Wider ecosystem of tools. They don’t talk to each others. Identify which make sense in learning/teaching context, how can they talk to each other, build on it.

Ecosystem of content – content partnerships.

Learning profiles can become CVs of a sort, showing what you’ve actually learnt and are interested in.

There was some discussion about online identities, overlap, professional vs private identities – I’m glad to see this acknowledged. Also discussion on the effect on brand.

Q: How much engagement from academics? A: A lot of buy-in, but also resistance to putting some content online e.g. video on youtube more than written course materials, as it’s better intellectual property. Developments that OU do doesn’t always get into mainstream education, they can be seen as stuff that OU would do but that traditional universities wouldn’t.

According to Brian Kelly, edu-punk is over, edu-pirate is in.

CakePHP, Mike (?)
It’s an MVC framework.
Nice pre-defined validation stuff.
[I wonder how cake compares to django? And if the validation fields for things like phone numbers are internationalised?]
Scaffolding – stuff already built into framework. [controllers for table input?]
How configurable is the scaffolding? [e.g. year field on date is really long but you might want to limit the range of years].
You can use basic class methods, helpers, components if not using scaffolding.
[This was one of a few useful demos of various application frameworks, including this Django one I didn’t get to]

Complexity in software stuff (Alex)
Why is complexity a problem? In case it’s not obvious – maintenance, debugging is harder, cost of new staff learning the software is more expensive, and less complexity makes life easier for developers (most importantly!).

There’s a body of knowledge on dealing with the complexity of software. Human experience codified. Looking at different metaphors.

Learning Chinese (Chris Hall)
The potential for learning on the internet is untapped.

Examples of autodidacts – Sophie Germain – French mathematician during 18th C. A hero for his learning. [And a possible modern bluestocking?] She had theories accepted by pretending to be a man until she was famous enough to be accepted regardless. The ability to reach out to others and explore ideas with them is really important – she wrote letters, but now we have the internet to enable autodidacts. [Does this mean autodidacts become socialdidacts? Though I guess the motivation still comes from the individual, even if they can learn with others.]

For Chris, learning Chinese was a muse, a focus or lens for learning about social networking and the potential of internet too.

Some interesting bits on the differences between western and Chinese web sites – more meaningful characters (rather than letters) mean lots of information fits in just two characters, which makes layout easier – consistent length of terms in e.g. navigation items.

Chinese users don’t trust search engines, and don’t have a culture of using search – they look for lists of links. But this will probably change.

Useful examples of using delicious in a RESTful way with bookmarked dictionary and translation sites.

Then a great example of using Ubiquity with Google’s translation API for in-page translation of someone else’s web content. Ubiquity makes it easy to use web APIs.

And we learnt that EEE’s implementation of the Chinese alphabet is phonetic – the keyboard goes by the sound of the word. I’ve always wondered how Chinese dictionaries work, and I guess they might use a similar technique.

The Art of Espresso (Sam)
Espressos have an intense flavour, they’re not necessarily strong.
Mmm, crema.

You can get good results for reasonable money e.g. £100, but steer clear of anything below £50. The pressure ones (e.g. stove top) are ‘really nasty’ and not espresso machines (ha!). Pump machines. Semi- vs fully-auto.

Grinders – grind coffee as close to using it as possible. Don’t keep coffee in the fridge. You can keep it in vacuum flasks in the dark. Espresso needs an almost powdery grind. Burr grinders are better than blade. Decent grinder c £50.

Sam covered the basic flavours from different regions – South American coffees are nutty, chocolately, quite sweet, African – darker, smokey, stronger (?) – your classic italian espresso
Asian Pacific coffees are citrussy, fruity, sharper.

I was way too excited about this session – I love proper coffee, and was having trouble staying awake so I really appreciated the espresso I had. I even got to have a moment of Australian-in-England coffee snobbery with a guy from Sydney (sorry, England!).

I went from this session into:
Delicious pecha kucha (Mark Ng)
The idea is that you provide your delicious username (e.g. http://delicious.com/miaridge) and a script picks up your ten most recent bookmarks, and you have a certain number of seconds to explain each bookmark to the group. This was a bit scary after a fresh espresso on an empty stomach, but a fun challenge. The range of interests from a small bunch of geeks at one event is remarkable. I ended up having a great conversation about some of the challenges and big ideas in cultural heritage IT with some people in this session.

Later there was pizza and a tub quiz organised by Darren Beale, before we headed off to the pub and finally a burger from Schwartz’s and War Games on the projector for the night owls.

On the way up I’d realised how exciting it was to see an idea that came out of discussions at Museums and the Web in Montreal in April become reality in Bath in September. Between changing jobs and being off-line quite a lot in the lead-up, I wasn’t able to help out as much as I could have liked, so my thanks to those who actually made the event come together:
Dan Zambonini, Frankie Roberto, Laura Francis, Lisa Price, Mike Ellis, Stephen Pope, Tim Beadle. And my thanks to the sponsors who made sure we had food and drink and were generally very comfortable in the venue. And finally, it wouldn’t have worked without the friendly and engaged participants, so thank you everyone! Frankie’s put together a list of everyone’s twitter accounts to help people keep in contact. Darren‘s also linked to a bunch of blog posts about bathcamp.

If I’d run a session, I think it would have been a really open conversation on ‘what can cultural heritage IT do for you?’ – a chance to explain why so many of us are excited about digital heritage, and to hear from others about what they’d like to see museums and other organisations do, what kinds of data they might use, how they might use our content, what excites them and what bores them.

I’d also like to run a session blatantly aimed at picking the brains of some of the very smart people who come to unconferences – ask everyone to pick their favourite museum, exhibition or object, check out the relevant website and coming back to tell us one thing they’d improve about that website.

During the planning process the focus of Bathcamp changed from cultural heritage to a more general event for Bath/Bristol geeks, with some digital heritage ring-ins from further afield. I’m going to a spillover session for BarCampLondon5 and I’ll be interested in how that compares.

I’d still really like to see a MuseumCamp or DigitalHeritageCamp – I think it could be a good way of reaching out from the circle of cultural heritage geeks who have the same ideas about the Right Things To Do to engage with the rest of our sector (museums, galleries, libraries, archives, archaeology, even the humanities in general) – the people who would produce content, work with our audiences, sign-off on projects or push new metrics and evaluation models to sector funders. There’s also some discussion of this in the comments on Frankie’s round-up of bathcamp.

In the spirit of getting things done, I’ve created a digital heritage ning (ad hoc social network) as a central place where we can talk about organising a digital heritage barcamp – specifically in the UK to start with, but there’s no reason why it couldn’t be used to share ideas and organise events internationally. You can sign up directly on the ning if you want to be involved – it’s open to everyone, and you don’t have to be working in digital cultural heritage – an interest in how it can be done well is enough.