Designing the visitor experience for galleries, libraries & museums

Over the last few years we’ve done quite a lot of work with galleries, libraries, archives and museums (the ‘GLAM’ sector). During this time we have observed a change in attitude around a visitor-centred approach to designing experiences. What starts with scepticism moves to tacit acceptance and later to evangelism. It’s been wonderful to have been a part of so many GLAM clients embarking on this journey, so it seems a good time to share some learnings.

One of the first steps for any organisation toward being more visitor-centred is to understand the value that the approach can bring. This can be hard because some think it will mean a ‘dumbing down’ of interpretive methodologies, or creating ‘theme parks’ of the museum.

This could not be further from the truth, and I believe it is a legacy of a colonialist mindset around the relationship between knowledge and power (who has the right to tell and interpret stories). Organisations need to move beyond thinking a particular person or department ‘owns’ an area of a visitor’s experience to become visitor-centred.

But why is a shared understanding and ownership of visitor experience important?

Visitor experience is everything a person encounters leading up to, and following their visit. It is not just about the moments they spend inside an exhibition. The entirety of the experience affects how they’ll reflect on their visit. It influences what they will tell their friends about it, and whether they will return. This is why it’s important to have a shared understanding and ownership of visitor experience. To do otherwise will result in fragmented experiences for visitors.

These three tips are a good start to becoming visitor-centred.

1. Observe and speak with your visitors
Getting onto the floor is essential to drawing a connection between what is designed and how it is experienced — and then onto ways to improve these experiences.  It’s also essential to understand how the exhibition fits in with the rest of the visit, from the ticketing and queuing all the way to the café and shop.

Observing visitor experience can be done easily (we will publish a guide on that soon). Speaking with visitors is also more easy than you would imagine. As part of our practice we often do very short interviews to sense-check what a visitor is doing. Three questions, three minutes, not a lot of effort to elicit some highly insightful commentary.

    1. Hello I work at the museum, I was wondering if I could ask you about your visit today? It will only take a minute (give them a chance to say no, but not many will)
    2. I noticed you were doing X, can you tell me about that? (open ended questions are important so as not to bias the answers)
    3. Is there anything we could do to make your visit better today?

2. Create a platform for frontline staff to share their knowledge, and listen!
Visitor service staff are immersed in the experience of the visitor, yet often have difficulty sharing their knowledge. Embracing their understanding of the needs, preferences, and behaviours of the people they see and speak to everyday is an easy way to become more visitor-centred. For inspiration, read about what ACMI did with Slack to lessen the barriers between staff.

3. Test assumptions before making decisions
Probably the hardest step of becoming visitor-centred is to admit you have biases and assumptions that may be wrong and can negatively affect decision making. This can be difficult because expectations in professional work preference the ‘expert’. We all too easily default to an “I’ve done this before” mentality without examining our biases.

Starting with a novice mindset is a key to improving visitor experience because it opens up the possibility of innovation. Continuing to do things “the way they are done around here” will only ever result in the same experiences.

How to do this? One way is to write down your assumptions and evaluate them after you have spoken with visitors. There is nothing like seeing an example of how your assumptions are wrong to help you be more aware of them in the future. Honestly evaluate which of them were a bit off, or just plain wrong. We’ve often heard things like “I made a decision that was completely wrong and all it would have taken is five minutes of my time to check it….”. 

Another way to check your assumptions is to build a prototype and test it with visitors. This might sound scary, but it is something which can be done very quickly and cheaply, and can end up saving you a lot of money from a poor decision. It is amazing what a bit of cardboard and some Lego can do (see picture below).

Get in touch
If this seems like something you’d like to put into practice but feel you may need some help, we’d love to speak to you about how it can be done. We’ve been working with many in the Australian GLAM sector to build internal capability in this area and can help you to start your journey to being more visitor-centred.


NOTE:  A development of internal capability around customer-centred design is sometimes called Customer Experience Maturity or Experience-based Differentiation, and is something we’ve seen in other industries. Forrester have a report all about it ‘The State Of Experience Based Differentiation” (2008).


Four people with cardboard prototype outside a museum

A team from MAAS took the bold step of testing an idea OUTSIDE the museum. This gave them feedback they’d otherwise not have been able to gather.