Designing digital experiences for families

Martha Henson, Frankly, Green + Webb, UK, Alyson Webb, Frankly, Green + Webb ltd, UK, Lindsey Green, Frankly, Green + Webb, UK


Are you doing enough to meet the needs of your family visitors? Families are a major audience group, but making sure they have a good visitor experience is often left to the learning or programming teams without integrating it into the overall approach. And whilst families may seem to be an obvious target for digital products, many seem to assume that they are a homogeneous and consistent unit. In fact, a family group may cover a range of ages and knowledge levels, have varied attention spans, and have more practical requirements than adult-only visitors. Also, we know that most parents are keen for their children to learn and engage with objects in the museum, but often despair at guides in which they only engage with what’s on the screen. So, how do you design good digital products for this diverse audience group? Firstly, we will suggest, by making sure you have a clear understanding of their needs. You can only do this by talking to and observing your family visitors. Frankly, Green + Webb use audience research to help create successful digital experiences for the cultural sector, especially on mobile. We’ve uncovered a range of fascinating family behaviours which we will share in this session, some of which may surprise you. We will start the session by looking at methodologies for carrying out family research. We will then share findings from work with family audiences for the Van Gogh Museum, British Museum, Museum of London, and Natural History Museum of Utah. From this, we have developed a set of principles that all museums and galleries should keep in mind when designing for families, based on a service design approach that aims to integrate digital into the whole visit experience for greater impact. Some short activities within the session will give you the opportunity to see how you could apply these principles to your own institution.

Keywords: data, design, research, families, mobile, digital

1. Introduction

Families may seem like the natural audience for a wide range of museums. Particularly at museums with free entry, an entertaining and educational trip at no cost certainly sounds like a great deal. Families may also seem like the natural audience for a digital experience; they increasingly use mobile devices for play and learning, and they may need additional help navigating the space and interpretation which could be provided by a family-friendly guide.

However, as readers of this paper who have small children will no doubt have found, the logistics of navigating the museum (plus the cost of food and travel) amongst other challenges means it isn’t always the easy choice. And whilst some parents may welcome digital tools, others balk at the idea of their children spending the visit looking at a screen. Even those who are keen will quickly get frustrated if the experience is adding complexity to their visit.

Designing digital products for families is therefore not as simple as you might hope.

At Frankly, Green + Webb, we have worked on a number of projects recently that looked at family use of digital, including:

  • An evaluation of the Museum of London’s blended learning programme, which used iPad apps as part of family and schools’ workshop sessions
  • User research for the Van Gogh Museum to develop and test its new family guide
  • Qualitative research for the Natural History Museum of Utah (NHMU) on its Utah Futures multiplayer in-gallery game
  • Design research for the British Museum’s playful new family guide (Martha Henson, as a freelancer)

In this paper and session, we share the findings from this research and suggest some principles for designing for families.

2. Don’t forget what you already know

There is a great deal of knowledge in museums about designing good content for families that resides within learning or front-of-house teams. For some reason, though, when it comes to designing digital experiences, this understanding is frequently forgotten. In some cases, the separation between digital and learning teams means that the latter are not involved in a way that makes best use of their expertise. In others, the digital aspects overshadow the content and mechanics, and educators perhaps undervalue their own experience, assuming digital to be somehow fundamentally different.

At heart, though, the principles are the same. Digital products for families should have the same ease of use and clear objectives as the paper-based activities and facilitator-led sessions that have worked very well in museums for a long time. If this isn’t possible, a non-digital solution is perhaps better, but given the affordances of mobile and online, there is surely much potential for providing families with memorable, powerful experiences. To do this, we mustn’t lose sight of what we already know and should build upon that foundation.

3. Assume nothing

It is vital to understand the nature of the family audience specific to your own institution. If it is a new audience you hope to attract, perhaps doubly so. To create the best experience, you will want to understand their needs and motivations, as well any frustrations and pain points that are likely to have an impact.

It is likely that there will be some gaps in existing knowledge about this (“Are these audiences comfortable using their own devices in the gallery?” perhaps, or “What is it that we aren’t currently helping families with that they really need help with?”). The best way to get robust, in-depth data that will help you make good strategic design decisions is to speak to the target audience.

In the case studies mentioned above, this process was invaluable. Whilst it was useful to look at what other institutions had found in similar projects, it was clear that there were still differences in the way that visitors interacted with each museum. For example, at the British Museum, almost every family group interviewed was intending to see the mummies or the general Egyptian collection, making a beeline for that before switching to a different, more aimless browsing mode. This will be different at museums without such prominent “hero” objects.

Also, both there and at the Van Gogh Museum, family behaviour was markedly different between local and international groups: international tourists were generally more focussed on the needs of the parents, because the adults saw this as their own one chance to see the museum and its collection for themselves. In contrast, local visitors were more relaxed and more willing to focus the visit on the needs of the children because they had the option to easily return.

Another trap to avoid is assuming that a family group consists of two parents and 2.4 children of a similar age. In reality, they are much more diverse than this, and not just in terms of single parenthood. At the Van Gogh Museum, for example, we realised that that the target family audience the guide had effectively been designed for bore little resemblance to the actual audience that was using it in practice. The ideal audience was close in age, child focussed, fairly highly engaged, and stuck together during their visit.

In reality, family groups could have a wide age range, sometimes multiple families were visiting together, sometimes groups would splinter off to see the museum separately, and they might even be multilingual within the group. The attention spans and interests within the group would also be very variable. The guide experience needed a degree of flexibility to work for this inconsistent audience.

4. Tailor research methods to family needs

Having advised that you talk to this audience, we should admit that family groups can be tough to do qualitative research with. However, you can use strategies to make this process more effective.

A major issue is a practical one: at the end of a museum visit, families are often tired and hungry. An offer of food and a sit-down as an incentive to take part can therefore be appealing. Think about the space in which you will do the interviews; is it likely to be noisy or distracting for the kids?

It can help to interview families at both the start and end of their visit. When they arrive, they are fresher, and this is a good point to ask some general questions and find out about their intentions for the visit to later compare this with what they actually did. Finding out why that might have differed (they got lost, something caught their eye, or they ran out of steam, perhaps) could illuminate some of the pain points for this audience.

Another challenge is getting useful information from children. They are often quite shy about answering direct questions, perhaps wondering what the right answer is. So instead, you get the parent-filtered version about they liked or didn’t, or what they might have learned. This isn’t necessarily bad, as parents make the ultimate decision about what activities to do, so it is vital to understand their impression of the visit.

But if you want to find what impact it had on the children, you might have to get creative. You could ask them to draw their favourite thing, or ask more indirect questions. Particularly fruitful inquiries at the British Museum were about unanswered questions that they had at the end of their visit or asking what object they’d like to take home with them, and why.

Quantitative information can still be useful, too, though. For example, data on what people are searching for on, or to get to, your website (such as “family fun activities” or “buggy parks”) could be clues as to the needs of your visitors. We do know that this audience is especially likely to plan its visit in advance.

5. Families need context, flexibility, simplicity, and clear value

So what did we learn in our research about creating good digital experiences?

Logistics and family dynamics may have more impact on a visit than your content. Many young families set an implicit time limit on their visits. They know their kids can do about two hours maximum in a museum. Logistical issues (travel, going to a cloakroom, queuing for food) eat into this. They are therefore usually quite pressed for time. Considering how practical aspects of the museum visit might be chipping away at this time and therefore the success of your digital product, can they be made easier?

It’s also important to think about the space the experience will take place in. Are the acoustics echoey, and is it difficult to make yourself heard when busy? Are crowds likely to be blocking certain objects? Are there seating spaces you can make use of? (some visitors prefer not to stand to do interactive activities or watch video) Is the interpretation or a key object visible from child’s height? In-gallery observation and testing can be very helpful for pinpointing these sorts of issues.

Of course, this is really about service design—ensuring all the different elements of the visit work together rather than against each other.

Be flexible. Family groups may have one child who is really into the subject matter, and one who just wants to run around and let off steam. (As an aside, this doesn’t necessarily correlate with age, so segmenting visitors by age is often less useful than by interest level and attention span.) They may need to break up the visit for food or toilet breaks. They may have one member who wants to see something in particular, or no idea where to go at all. They may find themselves drawn to objects that aren’t included in your guide or tour. If you create a rigid linear digital experience that doesn’t account for this, it is unlikely to work, but something modular and flexible might.

Help parents be good teachers. Many parents see their role as being to facilitate the learning of their children, but may not have strong skills in this area, and museums don’t make it easy. The interpretation can take time to wade through and turn into child-friendly language, by which time kids have moved on. How can you help them or relieve them of this responsibility?

And don’t try to do too much. Adults, let alone children, will struggle to take in more than a few key overall messages. It’s best to set no more than three or four learning objectives that relate to plausible interests and needs. For this visitor group, these could include skills and behaviour (sharing with others, learning how objects can give us clues about the people who used them, interpreting art).

The experience of the parents is important: they are gatekeepers and participants. At NHMU, the determining factor in dwell time at the in-gallery game was the parent’s enjoyment and perception of value in the activity. This was true whether they were actually playing the game with their children or just spectating. When it stopped being entertaining for them to watch, or they felt it wasn’t teaching anything useful, they would move the group on.

Other research has shown that some adults may feel uncomfortable doing silly things in gallery, or having their children run about or make noise, even if it’s part of a museum-sanctioned activity. So an activity has to appeal to parents, or they have to perceive that their child is getting something useful out of it.

Furthermore, the experience should not be a burden on the parents. They have a lot to do already, without being entirely responsible for understanding and overseeing the use of a digital product, and you can’t assume that a child will be able to do this. Children aren’t always confident using technology, especially if there is a creative element that they have to make decisions about. We saw this at the Museum of London: though most children are used to mobile devices, some still struggled with the actual activity, which is about more than just knowing how to swipe or use other typical mobile functions.

How can your staff help? This might be part of the role of a sales desk or visitor services staff, but somebody has to be there to help with onboarding or support when something goes wrong. In a fixed digital interactive, having a staff member on hand to guide the experience could make it even more powerful as a learning tool and give parents a chance to relax from this role themselves.

Context is king. It may be painful for curators to hear, but a lot of visitors (not just—but especially—families) don’t want more object-specific detail. Instead, what they want is to understand the object’s place amongst the people it came from, what they were like (what they looked like, even), why it’s important, and how it was used. Visitors need a solid background to slot more detailed information into; otherwise it just becomes an exhausting sea of disparate facts. Digital could be great for this! Bringing past civilisations and object functions to life, for example (a model boat in motion, perhaps, or an electronic device being used).

Some visitors also want to better understand how objects have come to be in the museum in the first place (and to discuss any ethical issues around this). Others want some sort of background to what the museum even is—don’t assume this is obvious: “But I thought British Museum would just be for British things!” said one confused visitor.

6. Sell the sizzle, not the sausage

The final challenge with families, having created a fabulous experience that meets their needs and provides the kind of clear, contextual content that brings your objects to life, is to convince them that they should use it. Your marketing for any digital product will be even more important for this (time-pressed, money-conscious) audience than for others.

The good news is that child-led families in particular are often seeking out activities that they can do together. But they also bring lots of assumptions about mobile experiences being isolating, for example, or worry about heads-down screen time. So just describing your product is unlikely to work; instead, you must tell them how it will make their visit better.

Specifically, address concerns identified in your research in marketing copy, and use language which is actually meaningful (test this with the audience, too; they may not understand your museum terminology). Consider having one information and handout point for all family activities, perhaps staffed by someone who can make relevant suggestions.

7. Conclusion

As mentioned above, the one message to take from this is that families should not be taken for granted—they need to be understood on their own terms, and you can harness research and institutional knowledge to do this. However, a second message might be that they are also an audience with unmet needs, which means that there is great potential for digital to help.

Cite as:
Henson, Martha, Alyson Webb and Lindsey Green. "Designing digital experiences for families." MW2016: Museums and the Web 2016. Published February 15, 2016. Consulted .