Exploring key trends in digital experience beyond the museum sector

Charlotte Sexton, Charlotte Sexton Associates, UK, Allegra Burnette, Independent Consultant, USA


There is no generic silver-bullet solution for successfully engaging audiences with museums—or everyone would be taking exactly the same approach. Looking left and right to your nearest comparable organizations might give you some useful working examples to emulate, but what if you were to also look beyond the museum sector to gain understanding and inspiration from the wider cultural and business landscape? What examples would be most relevant to a museum’s operating context, whether large or small? What new approaches might better enable you to meet your mission? And how can digital be better leveraged to improve the visitor experience? Having left positions within museums in the United States and United Kingdom, we have spent the last two years working within the broader cultural sector, as well as researching companies across industries as varied as travel, hospitality, banking, retail, and more. During that time, we’ve had the opportunity to reflect on larger trends, including the development of organizational strategies to bridge gaps, techniques to support efforts, and ways to lead progress. We have also encountered the use of various methods to execute on those strategies and have observed their impact. Perhaps most relevant, we have witnessed how companies are facing the changing relationship of physical and digital and the emerging formats and technologies that enable new kinds of experiences. Where do museums fit within these broader trends, and what lessons can be gleaned and applied within the museum sector right now and in the near future? This paper and associated conference presentation look at key issues facing museums and explore how some of the broader trends and approaches beyond the field can be distilled and used to inform, support, or amplify the work currently taking place within museums.

Keywords: Strategy, Transformation, Digital, Leadership, Trends, Engagement

1. Introduction

This year is the twentieth anniversary of the Museums and the Web conference. One has only to scan the papers from the last few years to see how significantly the role of the Web in museums has changed. For one, it’s not just about the Web anymore—it’s about digital in a much broader sense; so broad, in fact, that we’re nearing a time when “digital” is no longer needed as an adjective, as it becomes an assumed part of doing business.

Digital technologies—when used with purpose—have proven themselves to be an essential mechanism through which cultural companies and organizations can inform, educate, engage, and even delight their audiences (DCMS, 2015). Take for example the British Museum’s first virtual-reality Bronze Age exhibition, which featured objects from the museum’s collection that had been three-dimensionally scanned and placed within a digital representation of the original site (http://blog.britishmuseum.org). Digital technologies can also facilitate and support audiences in their desire to not just consume, but also share and create, as evident in the exhibition Connected Worlds at the New York Hall of Science, in which visitor movements and interactions (both individual and collective) impact the digital environments, illuminating the effect of humans on the real, physical environment (http://nysci.org/connected-worlds/). Regardless of the fact that technologies will continue to evolve rapidly—driven by a mixture of commercial imperative, disruptive innovation, and the doubling of computer processing-speeds approximately every two years (Intel, n.d.)—they have successfully carved out a place for themselves within the day-to-day offerings of cultural and heritage organizations.

As technology has matured and specialist roles have become professionalized, the collective understanding of how best to plan, organize, and embed digital products and services has needed to develop in response to ever more sophisticated audience demands. But despite the museum field’s generally maturing approach to leveraging digital technology and the experiences it affords, issues around organizational culture, working processes, and staff empowerment remain, leaving some organizations unprepared to respond to current opportunities and plan for emerging ones.

In this paper, we’ll look at the expectations of consumers and audiences today, emerging technology trends and opportunities, and the changing practices and evolving structures that result.

2. Today’s audience has changed expectations

Mobile technologies have had perhaps the greatest impact on our daily lives—having a miniature computer in our pockets gives us access to a wealth of information, communication networks, and, yes, a plethora of cat images. A recent survey found that respondents in the United States averaged twenty hours a week spent online on mobile phones and seventeen hours a week on tablets (Forrester, 2014). In the first quarter of this fiscal year alone (Q1 2016), Apple sold almost seventy-five million iPhones (http://www.apple.com/investor/earnings-call/). With the rise in mobile usage, the blurring of the boundary between physical and digital experiences, and users’ increasing movement between devices, the person who’s coming to your museum, browsing your museum’s site, or otherwise engaging with the organization is becoming increasingly accustomed to:

  • Simplified interfaces. Digitally driven businesses like Uber, Airbnb, and others rose to the fore by being very focused on a singular task (hailing a ride and renting a temporary place to stay, respectively) and by hiding all the complexity it takes to make a seamless experience possible. In the case of Uber, this means integrating systems that find available drivers and riders in the same area, match those resources, track them in transit, and execute payment at the end. During its website redesign, airline Virgin America made increasing mobile booking the top priority, and in the process streamlined both the user task flow and the visuals, resulting in an easy-to-use ticket-booking site that stands apart from others more than a year after launch (Burnette, 2014b). The Metropolitan Opera turned to the same design agency for their website redesign project, building a new ticketing interface on their existing Tessitura backend along the way (Burnette, 2015a). However, simplified interfaces are not just about good design or paring things down to a minimum; they also require being laser focused and customer centric when developing the features and flow of an experience. Forrester identifies ease, effectiveness, and emotion as key components of good customer experience that lead to loyalty, and simplified interfaces are all about being easy to use, relevant, and satisfying to the user (Burnette, 2014a).
  • Personalized, contextual interactions. Mobile usage has freed us from being location bound and has driven an increased expectation of the right thing at the right time in the right place. We can comparison shop to get the best prices while standing in front of the item or check in to a flight on our way to the airport and get alerts when there’s a delay. The influx of connected objects, dubbed the “Internet of Things,” brings a growing sea of products that are able to respond to changing contextual information and adapt based on usage. One smart object, the Automatic adapter plug, can be used to link your car to your Nest thermostat, triggering the temperature to adjust at home when you start your car at work. With increased access to behavioral insights through data collection and the ability to connect the dots between experiences, companies are able to offer new experiences that go beyond simply making generic recommendations to creating truly individualized experiences for a specific person. Technologies like natural language interfaces (NLUs) and artificial intelligence create a new breed of digital assistant that can respond to the sound of your voice with information from a Google search, reservations at a new restaurant, or a birthday gift delivery (Burnette et al., 2015).
  • Empathetic content. Emerging technologies like virtual reality (VR) are providing new avenues for content that puts the viewer in the shoes of another. This has been used with emotional impact by filmmaker Chris Milk and his new company, Vrse.works, which created a film for UNICEF chronicling a day in the life of a twelve-year-old Syrian girl living in a refugee camp, which debuted in 2015 at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. As Milk observes, “Virtual reality, fundamentally, is a technology that removes borders… Anything can be local to you” (Studio 360, 2015). And as Jeremy Bailenson of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab further notes, shooting the camera in 360 degrees makes it impossible to focus on any one thing, and because the camera captures the scene without direct intervention by a human operator, the subjects often forget they are being filmed (Studio 360, 2015).
  • Persistent, blended, and sensorial experiences. The average U.S. online adult uses three connected devices—and that number is often higher for younger people (Forrester, 2014). What this means, in part, is an increasing expectation that a task started on one device can be picked up again at any point and completed on another, a la Netflix. Consumer usage trends also stress the need for companies and organizations to consider mobile as an integral part of their overall digital program, as that usage shows no signs of slowing. And with new consumer access to virtual and augmented reality technology through Oculus Rift, Microsoft’s HoloLens, and others, these digital experiences will become more immersive, engaging the senses through different interaction interfaces. Children’s hospitals, for example, have been using VR games for years to distract young burn victims while their bandages are being changed (Bruun et al., n.d.).

While much of the specific technology described above, like the Internet of Things and virtual reality, is still evolving and often overhyped, it is important for museums to note that these larger consumer trends—streamlined, contextual, persistent, empathetic, and sensorial experiences—rise above the specific form of execution, are relevant to organizations large and small, and should be taken into account when planning out future digital initiatives.

3. Museums still lack needed technical and non-technical infrastructure

Like many businesses we speak to, museums are also trying to adapt and change. And while they are making progress, some are still struggling—in part because it requires a sympathetic internal culture coupled with a multi-pronged approach that many organizations aren’t yet ready to embrace into the fabric of their organization. This multi-pronged approach encompasses the following areas:

  • People and structures. Companies with mature digital customer experience efforts understand that starting with empowered employees and thoughtful organizational support leads to better products and services, and they focus on education and collaborative structures and processes. Adobe created a program called Kickbox, which enables employees to pursue an innovative idea for the company, using prepared tools to help them realize their vision. Several of the projects to come out of this program have received further funding and been implemented. And when Mercedes-Benz USA realized that many of its employees, including the customer service teams, had never even driven their cars, they put resources toward a lending program that would give staff access to the vehicles (Cannon, 2014).
  • Practices and processes. While many museums are choosing more agile and iterative practices over approaches that require defining all the requirements up front (Hegley, 2016), these efforts are often ad hoc rather than structured and are usually led by a vigorous few. Breaking out of siloed departmental thinking requires concentrated effort around research and visitor understanding, but unfortunately many museums still publish content based more on availability rather than audience needs or identified interest.
  • Technologies and tools. Too often museums focus on the need to collect data without a clear idea of what to do with it. But, as Forrester’s research shows, museums are not alone in this, as more than half of the companies surveyed said they did not report on key areas of the customer feedback they were collecting, including voice, e-mail, comment cards, social media feedback, and employee insights on customer issues (Schmidt-Subramanian, 2014). While there are some pockets of change around data understanding (such as the investment in a data analyst role at the Metropolitan Museum of Art), the implementation of customer relationship management (CRM) software in museums to connect disparate channels from membership to retail to ticketing is still in relatively early days (Pan, 2016). In contrast, a small, under-resourced nonprofit organization such as One Dance UK, the national body for dance in the United Kingdom, has made the deployment of a new CRM system central to its business planning in order to more effectively manage its membership and funding prospects.

While it’s easy to lament about existing issues around outdated attitudes and lack of resources, it is possible to make progress in institutions no matter their size. Below, we take a look at some of the lessons we can take away from companies and organizations that are tackling these challenges, as well as some more immediate applications you can bring back to your own institution.

4. Learning from leaders

The museum community is one accustomed to generous knowledge sharing. The wealth of papers created out of this conference alone is but one indicator of that. But too often, museums will look to peer organization first for examples and inspiration, when other more diverse cultural organizations and even for-profit companies can provide relevant examples and new thinking. During the time since we left working for single-museum institutions, we have noted that the issues and challenges faced when moving to a digitally mature business transcend size, budget, and type of company or organization. Looking to leaders across industries provides both lofty goals and practical lessons for museums, whether large or small in size.

The following draws out key themes and reflects on their relevance to the wider museum community.

Data and research shape content and features

We’ve moved well beyond brochureware, where an organization’s online presence consisted mostly of published content about programs and exhibitions. Instead, teams are looking at what content and experiences get disseminated through which channel, and how they can make those experiences more targeted to audience goals. Increasingly, both companies and institutions are looking to find points of relevance through a greater understanding of audience needs and interests, taking an outside-in perspective rather than an inside-out one.

What we see

In the broader business world, we see this play out through an increasing use of ethnographic research and other kinds of research and data gathering. Insights gleaned from research are then brought into developing the end user experience. The bank Wells Fargo brought senior executives along for field visits in order to help them gain a better understanding of who their customers are (McCormick, 2015). As Mark McCormick, head of user experience, said, “Ethnography is an enabler to design and decision-making” (Burnette, 2015b). In the museum world, we see projects emerge from a long period of research and prototyping, such as the Pen at the Cooper Hewitt (Chan & Cope, 2015) and Brooklyn Museum’s Ask app, whose team has blogged throughout the project (https://www.brooklynmuseum.org/community/blogosphere/tag/askbkm/).

What this means

Data is not useful if you don’t understand it or don’t use it. Start by outlining not only your data needs, but also what you actually intend to do with that data: how will it be reported, and how will you bring the insights derived back into specific projects and initiatives? To gain a better understanding of your audience, solicit feedback from them, but make sure to mine unsolicited feedback. Tap front-line employees, do observational research, and then analyze and document the insights to be shared across the museum. Qualitative and quantitative research are both important when preparing to map the journey through an experience. And you need to be able to tell a story with the data to help others understand it—the more internal staff understands the cause and effect of the work they are doing, the more investment they will have in the project at hand.

Changing practices enable the vision

Forrester (2014) refers to the twenty-year business cycle that we are in as “The Age of the Customer.” Increased access to information, the proliferation of choice, and mobility—all aided by technology—contribute to creating an empowered customer. Companies are focused on how to meet customer needs in a way that is better and unlike their competitors, and as a result, you see entire industries disrupted, from taxis to hotels to retail to banking. Companies that are making it a priority to be responsive and proactive are changing the nature of how they work internally in order to meet external opportunities and demands.

What we see

In addition to companies focused on developing and supporting a research practice around understanding their customer needs and behaviors, practices like design thinking, which uses a human-centered design approach to identify and solve problems and challenges, are having a resurgence. In order to onboard one thousand new designers, increase the collaboration and productivity of product teams, and improve the user experience of their software, IBM Design established its own design thinking practice based on the work by IDEO and the Stanford d.school. Recently published online for all to see and use at http://www.ibm.com/design/thinking/, the IBM Design Thinking practice focuses on bridging human-centered design with Agile’s iterative development sprints in a way that supports scaling these efforts across an institution as large as IBM. The core leadership team within IBM Design supports and guides the effort as it gets rolled out and permeated throughout the company (Burnette, 2015c).

Simplicity (building products and services that are focused on a particular user need rather than a scattershot of features), agility, and iteration are all hallmarks of the modern, digitally mature organization. And museums are getting there. The Rijksmuseum several years ago streamlined its website to focus on visiting the museum and the collection, paring much of the previous site away (Gorgels, 2013) but increasing engagement as a result. After launch, the average visit length went from about three minutes to over ten minutes, with more than nineteen minutes on the iPad. Within a year, the number of Rijksstudio saved collections passed one hundred thousand (http://www.fabrique.nl/en/portfolio/rijksmuseum/). We also see museums doing more workshop-based exercises to support both empathy and collaboration, as well as emphasizing service design practices that look at both the front and back ends of a service in order to improve the end experience. The key is now to move this from a haphazard, institutionally specific effort to one that we see spreading across the field, in museums both large and small.

What this means

To create a more empathetic and collaborative way of working and develop more targeted and relevant services and products, museums need to understand the different practices and how they might apply them within their own culture. When researching different companies to see how they are implementing Agile, it became evident to the authors of this paper that when a culture wasn’t ready, the practice couldn’t be forced. Sometimes a blend was needed, at least for the interim—design agency Fluid referred to this as “wagile,” a blending of waterfall design and Agile development that they found particularly effective for a client in transition. But in general, getting people away from their desks and collaborating around a common goal, breaking large projects with lots of unknowns into small bites rather than committing to a fixed feature set up front, and not trying to be all things to all people will help museums create audience-centric projects that resonate.

Evolving structures, leadership, and working methods

The global financial turmoil of the past decade (BBC, 2008) has been a (sometimes painful) catalyst for change, and the museum sector has not emerged unscathed. Since 2010, forty museums across the United Kingdom have been forced to close (Museum Association, 2015), and even traditionally well-resourced national museums have had to reevaluate the way they operate. And it’s not going to get better anytime soon—the Network of European Museum Organisations (NEMO) recently reported that parts or branches of 18 percent of the museums surveyed closed or are going to close in 2016 (NEMO, 2016).

Innovation increasingly driven by digital engagement strategies is seen as a means to appeal to both potential funders and a changing demographic of increasingly demanding and digitally savvy audiences. Alongside these two challenges, we’ve also seen the continued maturing of the way digital technologies are used by museums, with an attempt to move away from grafting digital activity onto existing work toward a recognition of the need to embed digital experiences, making them more central and coherent.

These combined factors have generated enough momentum to force change, which has manifested itself in a number of ways that have impacted working practices, internal structures, and individual roles and responsibilities.

What we see

In both the United States and United Kingdom, there has been significant and noticeable churn in digital leadership roles over the last five years, most conspicuously within larger, high-profile organizations, as longstanding staff have moved on, out, and increasingly away from the sector (MCN, 2014). Coupled with the ongoing pressure to reduce expenditure and streamline operations, this has focused organizations to change, and they are increasingly using digital development as a mechanism for transformation. To deliver this, new senior “digital” roles have emerged with increased responsibility and oversight of multidisciplinary teams. In the United States, we have seen organizations such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Museum of Natural History appoint C-level posts (in these cases, chief digital officers) to lead digital activities, which is an important signifier that these museums want to elevate the position of digital within their internal hierarchies. We also note the post-digital movement, exemplified by the emergence of a “chief experience officer” at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image—perhaps a sign that calling out “digital” within a title is fast becoming redundant (ACMI, 2015).

In the United Kingdom, the large national museums have been actively seeking to fill senior (digital) leadership roles from a broader pool of candidates and are increasingly appointing people who have little or no experience of the museum sector and its working culture. Instead, they are selecting candidates with commercial, entertainment, and charity-sector backgrounds. Value is increasingly being put on diverse industry knowledge, business acumen, and IP (intellectual property) and asset exploitation experience. As existing departments and teams are being restructured, downsized, or amalgamated, and as new targets are set for digital engagement and revenue generation, it’s perhaps not surprising that museums feel they now require different kinds of people in these posts. This is still very much a work in progress, and we see this playing out across a number of organizations that are at different stages of evolution, including the British Museum, London with its newly configured Digital and Publishing team; and the Tate with the appointment of a new director of Digital, recruited from its commercial arm.

What this means

Despite the fact that organizations are still in the process of implementing their change programs, we do see some similarities in their approach that are noteworthy. These include a drive to reduce overheads and improve collaborative working by merging existing and complementary teams, stripping out duplicate or redundant functions, and modernizing through the recruitment of new posts with industry-standard job titles and skill sets. By widening the appeal of these roles, new recruits are increasingly coming in from other industries armed with knowledge and experience of Agile, design thinking, and Lean methodologies and are helping to deliver iterative and audience-centric development. To further support new ways of working and internal learning, there has also been a move to take a leaf out of the tech startup playbook by carving out creative, playful, and risk-friendly spaces within museums in the form of “labs.” This approach is directly designed to allow teams that are developing digital experiences the creative space in which to experiment, iterate, and test new concepts—with the potential to allow failure and learning to take place while managing internal expectations. This research and development approach beloved by both small startups and behemoths like Google (http://www.govtech.com/social/Google-Government-Innovation-Lab-Open-for-Business.html) has been adopted at the Metropolitan Museum and has already shown tangible results based on the Cooper Hewitt’s experience of developing its innovative Pen and other interactive experiences for the museum’s recent expansion.

5. Bringing it home

What can you do to help your organization through these changes? Having worked with many different kinds of clients, we are very aware that sometimes the biggest challenge to overcome is in shifting an unhelpful organizational culture in order to create a receptive environment for new ways of working. Even if you sometimes feel like a small cog in a big wheel, don’t lose heart at the scale of the task in front of you, as you have the capability of becoming a “choice-architect” (Sunstein & Thaler, 2008), “nudging” the organization through small efforts toward big shifts in perspective and direction. The following gives some practical places to start.

  • Enlist empowered advocates and outside experts. Internally, this is sometimes a boss with budget or else just someone with enough influence to be able to affect change. Externally, a new perspective can be useful to get people thinking differently (or just listening more). At MoMA, when the digital team was looking to adopt an Agile practice, we kept starting and stopping as we got distracted by other priorities and pulled back into more familiar ways of doing things. It took a discrete project with dedicated funding and focused stakeholders, as well as outside training and collaboration with Agile experts Pivotal Labs, to turn a haphazard attempt into a familiar and established workflow. In contrast, Canterbury Cathedral, which is just at the start of its development journey, has benefited from both external expert advisors and also mentoring to support and build confidence across its staff. Companies sometimes jump-start their efforts by focusing on a “hero” project and then folding the teams and their practices back into the larger organization in order avoid creating another silo or missing the opportunity to share learning.
  • Help people understand cause and effect. Gather stakeholders together in a design-thinking or journey-mapping workshop to collaboratively work through the problem at hand from the audience’s point of view. Exercises like these shift the conversation from negotiating between areas of responsibility to a shared, goal-focused direction. Simple techniques like having staff from different areas and departments interact directly with visitors on the front lines helps develop an understanding of the impact that even small decisions can have on the end visitor experience.
  • Demonstrate moments of success. Don’t just preach to the choir of the converted. Consolidate the findings from your workshops and other initiatives and present the outcomes in order to keep the momentum moving forward, and inform and excite those who were not there or involved. Find a project that can be dedicated to trying new practices, with focused stakeholders who have an investment in the outcome. Companies as large as Capital One bank use an inform-and-disseminate workshop model to spread a human-centered design-thinking mentality across a historically traditional organization (Huang, 2015).

While not a complete list of tactics, these steps can help move an organization from one where each area is focused on its own priorities and goals to one driven by empathy and a shared understanding of the audience, customer, or visitor, and where collaborative practices and processes result in positive impacts and relevant experiences.


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Cite as:
Sexton, Charlotte and Allegra Burnette. "Exploring key trends in digital experience beyond the museum sector." MW2016: Museums and the Web 2016. Published February 1, 2016. Consulted .