Visitor-first, mobile-first: Designing a visitor-centric mobile experience

Marty Spellerberg, Spellerberg Associates, USA, Elise Granata, Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History, USA, Sarah Wambold, Metropolitan Museum of Art, USA


We will present the research, process, and results of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History homepage redesign to illustrate a visitor-driven, mobile-first design approach to museum projects. Led by Executive Director Nina Simon, the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History is a Participatory Museum. Everything from our programming to our communications is premised on an understanding of the needs of our communities; we start with the people and work back to the museum. So in redesigning our homepage, we asked, “How can we use knowledge of our visitors' motivations to deliver a focused, user-focused mobile Web experience?” In his book “Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience,” John Falk outlined a predictive model of visitor experience designed to help museum professionals better meet their visitors’ needs. Through research with dozens of museums and thousands of visitors, Falk established his predictive model of visitor experience. This work is widely shared expertise in the field, but most of his suggestions apply to facility and exhibition design. We took it to the Web. Falk’s framework identifies museum visitor motivations as: Experience Seeker; Explorer; Facilitator; Recharger; and Hobbyist/Professional. We will demonstrate how this research was applied to our homepage redesign project, adjusting the visitor archetypes to fit our local audience. Our fleshed-out personas included descriptions of how each intrinsic motivation tracks to museum programming and engagement opportunities; and what kinds of messaging and imagery they may positively respond to. Each identity was then mapped to a section on our homepage, where it informed the visual and content strategy. We will also share the research and analysis that informed our streamlined information architecture and how the visitor-motivation model is being woven into decision making and communication across the museum.

Keywords: web, mobile, personas, visitor motivation, design, content strategy

1. Introduction

Led by Executive Director Nina Simon, the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History is a Participatory Museum. When we are successful, our work helps build a stronger, more connected community. Everything from our programming to communications is premised on an understanding of our communities’ needs. We start with the people and work back to the museum. So in redesigning our homepage we asked, “How can we use knowledge of our visitors’ motivations to deliver an intentional, user-focused mobile Web experience?”

In his 2009 book Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience, John Falk outlined a framework designed to help museum professionals better meet their visitors’ needs. Through research with dozens of museums and thousands of visitors, Falk established his predictive model of visitor experience. While this work is now widely shared expertise in the field, most of the suggestions apply to facility and exhibition design. We took it to the Web.

In this paper, we will present the research, process, and results of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History homepage redesign to illustrate a visitor-driven, mobile-first design approach to museum projects.

2. The Participatory Museum

The Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (MAH) is a museum based in Santa Cruz, California. Our mission is to ignite shared experiences and unexpected connections.

A small museum with two main changing galleries and two permanent galleries, the institution was established in 1983 as a cultural center blending art and history in Santa Cruz County. Roughly thirty years later, as the recession and changing audiences destabilized its institutional success, the MAH was “in the red” with only enough cash to last a few weeks. The board voted to bring on a new executive director, Nina Simon, to shepherd the museum back to financial security. Described by Smithsonian Magazine as a “museum visionary” (Hendry, 2010), Simon’s innovative approach nearly doubled attendance and membership within the first year of leadership.

The MAH has been a home for creative collaboration in Santa Cruz County ever since. Our “community-first” approach dictates the whole of our programming and exhibition design. A few key highlights in the visitor experience include:

  • Participatory exhibitions: Each exhibition at the MAH features a participatory or interactive component. In addition to viewing an exhibition, visitors can deepen their experience and participate with an activity designed just for the exhibition. These include small-scale art-makes that correlate with exhibition content, response cards designed to elicit replies from visitors, and educational games.
  • Third-Friday festivals: Co-created community festivals featuring hands-on workshops, demonstrations, and performances. These happen monthly, with a changing theme each time. These festivals are co-created with over thirty community partners, ranging from LGBTQ activists to firebreathers, food justice organizations to seasoned quilters.
  • Creative Community Committee (C3): A diverse think-tank made up of forty-five community leaders who include artists, activists, farmworkers, filmmakers, and advocates for the homeless. This group meets every other month to share current projects, skillshare around ways the diverse voices in the room can help, and collectively work on community issues.

These highlights illustrate the variety of opportunities visitors have to get involved at the MAH. The participatory nature of these are not limited to exhibitions; each facet of the museum has a chance to go deeper. Much of this direction is in thanks to Simon and her philosophies outlined in her book The Participatory Museum.

“What does a cultural institution look like that gets better the more people use it? Many people—professionals and visitors alike—see museums as getting worse the more people use them. More people means crowds between a visitor and her aesthetic experience. More people means more noise, more fingerprints, more mess … But what if it was possible to design an institution that enabled visitors to enhance each other’s experiences?… This is ‘me-to-we’ design, which enables cultural institutions to move from personal to social engagement.” (Simon, 2010).

Our programmatic approach very much embraces the “we” of visitor engagement. Internally, every design choice made reflects this ethos.

3. Theory of change

Recently, staff were interested in taking this approach further. Collectively, we had developed the MAH mission and vision to an important guiding place for all program and exhibition design. But what was the bigger picture? When working in perfect harmony, what type of impact would this have on Santa Cruz County?

Asking these questions led into the creation of our Theory of Change. In Spring 2014, staff and board members came together to hone in on the desired impact of our work. Through brainstorming and discussion, a common thread emerged: the MAH helps our community grow stronger and more connected.

From there, a few key staff members began to work backward in a flowchart format. What were the pathways visitors might take to arrive at that final impact? Where were the points along the way that were more action-oriented—like connecting with art and history—and where would visitors reach the bigger “a-ha” moments, like empowerment or awareness?

Fig. 1: MAH’s Theory of Change Illustration by Crista Alejandre.

Figure 1: MAH’s Theory of Change illustration by Crista Alejandre

A Theory of Change was born. This chart maps the many paths visitors may take to reach the final impact of feeling “stronger and more connected” with their community peers. The Theory of Change is meant to support the MAH in:

  • Engagement alignment: each existing or additional initiative at the MAH facilitates this final impact of building a stronger and more connected Santa Cruz County
  • Learning organization: data collection and anecdotal evidence measure the journey of visitors inside the museum

It is important to note that in this iteration, the document is just theoretical. To this end, becoming a “learning organization” is meant to collect enough data to prove ourselves right or wrong and to see if the pathways we suggest here are actually the ways visitors reach the final impact of strength and connectedness in Santa Cruz County. Since its creation, the Theory of Change has radically aligned museum programming, lessened siloization among staff members, and created a data-drive for all that we do.

4. Community-first design

All internal decision making begins with the community first. One of the strategies the MAH uses to develop this type of programming is through a honeycomb design (Tench, 2009). With clusters radiating out from the center of “community” where each component begins, this format is meant to visualize the interlocking nature of communities, their needs, project ideas, and who can make them all happen. The honeycomb has been a vital tool in the C3 brainstorming process, where the community think-tank imagines different constituents of Santa Cruz County and the possibilities for involving these groups in the museum. For example, when starting from the community of “families” you may identify:

  • The need for a safe place to gather downtown or to meet other parents and their children
  • The collaborators in town who are necessary to consider when developing family programming, like “mommy-and-me” groups, schools, and youth programs
  • The project possibilities with this community at the museum, including kid-centric programming, family workshops, and family discount membership prices

Most crucially, this design begins with the needs and assets of the community—not the museum. It focuses first on the complex and resource-rich circles that surround the MAH, and how the museum can be in service to them—not the other way around.

With all of the components that make up the MAH’s community-first design, our strategy for the Web easily followed suit. We have thoughtfully designed the visitor experience inside the museum. It was time to reflect that for the visitor experience on the Web.

Fig 2: Honeycomb format adapted for MAH community program design

Figure 2: honeycomb format adapted for MAH community program design

5. Information architecture review and navigation redesign

Our navigation scheme had been established as part of the circa-2011 website redesign. That redesign was initiated by Nina Simon following her appointment as executive director and sought to present the Museum’s new vision and make room for the incoming programming initiatives. Its navigation was consciously modeled after what was then common in the field, as determined by an informal study of thirty-five comparable sites. We had seven top-level links: Calendar; Exhibitions; Learn; Get Involved; Rent the MAH; Blog; and About. These were accompanied by on-hover drop-down menus that revealed related subcategories.

The genesis of the navigation update began circa 2014, in a conversation about how to better reflect the MAH’s specific mission. How could we communicate the importance of the Museum’s engagement with its constituents? We realized that less would be more; that reducing the number of links would serve to highlight the ones that remained. Wanting to put active engagement on equal footing with passive consumption, we consolidated under “Get Involved” and “See & Do”; and for administrative pages that didn’t fall under those categories, we included “About Us.”

The Web had changed since the last redesign. Mobile apps and responsive Web design had introduced a slew of new interaction patterns. While the site had not yet been converted to responsive, we used a mobile-inspired interaction pattern for the second-level links. Whereas the old design used a common drop-down style cribbed from desktop menus, for this design clicking/tapping each of the top-level items triggers a full-screen “shade,” a mobile pattern.

We rolled out the redesigned navigation in April 2015. To gauge the usage of this set, we ran some numbers using Google Analytics, comparing the period after the change to the period before.

  • Before the redesign (March 2014 to March 2015) approximately 75 percent of our visitors were using traditional desktop/laptop computers; 18 percent phones; and 7 percent tablets. After the redesign (May to December 2015) desktop/laptop users had dropped to 64 percent; phones were up to 29 percent; and tablets were steady at 7 percent.
  • We observed some relative shifts in content usage, though the makeup of the top-ten lists remained fairly consistent. In both periods, the landing pages corresponding with the Calendar, Exhibitions, and About links appeared in the top-ten most viewed across all platforms, though on tablets Exhibitions was somewhat more popular and Calendar somewhat less popular. Other pages consistently in the top ten included Jobs & Volunteering information, Staff contacts, and the event page for “Glow” (our annual fire and digital arts festival), as well as the homepage.
  • After the change, we observed mobile users more directly accessed individual event listing pages, rather than category landing pages.

6. Approaching the homepage redesign

With the updated information architecture and top-level navigation launched, we turned our attention to converting the remainder of the site. Cognizant of the resources at our disposal and project timeline, we knew we had to focus our development efforts on aspects that would have the most positive impact on the user experience. For that reason, we decided that the templates governing most interior pages would be modified only so far as needed to work on a handheld device. Primarily this meant removing widths and stacking page elements one after the other. But for the homepage we would go further, stepping all the way back to research and strategy.

Luke Wroblewski, a product leader at Google, is a recognized expert in the field of design for mobile. He’s written that “websites and applications should be designed and built for mobile first … the end result is an experience focused on the key tasks users want to accomplish” (Wroblewski, 2011, p. 7).

Following this guidance, we set out to identify our users’ key tasks. We quickly realized that to pin down tasks, we had to begin by understanding the motivations of our visitors. In their book Universal Methods of Design, Bella Martin and Bruce Hanington (2012, p. 132) write that “for user-centered design, you need to understand people. However, attempting to design for everyone results in unfocused or incoherent solutions.” To correct this, they suggest creating “personas”.

“Personas consolidate archetypal descriptions of user behavior patterns into representative profiles. Crafted from information collected from real users through sound field research, personas provide an ideal solution by capturing common behaviors in meaningful and relatable profiles. Their human description facilitates easy empathy and communication, while their distinctions create useful design targets.” (Martin & Hanington, 2012, p. 132)

We recalled that at MW2015, Ahree Lee and Emily Lytle-Painter had presented on how museums can build experiences tailored to the needs of their various audiences through the use of personas (Lee & Lytle-Painter, 2015). We reached out to Lee, who was generous to consult with our team via Skype. She described work done by the Audience Experience team at the Getty to develop a set of personas that were then then used as common reference for Web, interactive, and exhibition design projects across the organization. Their method involved conducting interviews of visitors and synthesized them into a group of personas unique to the that institution. To begin the process of developing personas unique to the MAH, she recommended we read the work of John Falk.

7. Falk’s framework

Museums, with their vast offerings and varied audiences, face challenges in understanding who their visitors are, why they come, what meaning they make while they are there, and how to effectively communicate with them. Finding ways to measure these aspects in order to inform strategies and tactics can be as challenging.

There are different types of data to be collected about audiences, and some are more useful than others. Demographics provide a categorization of visitors based on characteristics such as age, gender, race/ethnicity, income, education, and occupation. But as John Falk points out in his book Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience, demographics provide only a surface understanding of one’s audiences.

“Demographic descriptions of museum visitors do sometimes reveal interesting patterns, but interesting patterns are not the same as useful patterns. Quantitative measures such as demographics provide too little information about visitors in relation to museums to be useful variables for describing and understanding the museum visitor experience.” (Falk, 2009)

Measuring behavior, like visit frequency or social arrangements (i.e., family, friend, or other socially based groups), is another way to describe museum visitation. This too falls short of providing the framework needed to construct a predictive model for museum visitation.

“Visit frequency is not a quality of the visitor; it is an action of the visitor that is indicative of some deeper attribute that is important. The actual number of visits is just an indicator of this underlying quality.” (Falk, 2009)

Falk posits that the key to understanding museum visitors lies in understanding their motivations for making a museum visit:

“… the museum experience is highly complex. The exact nature of any visitor experience will vary considerably, even among visitors who enter with the same general identity-related motivations. Understanding something about a person’s entering identity-related motivations, as well as their prior knowledge and interests, provides an extremely useful framework in which to unravel the complexities of the visitor experience.” (Falk, 2009)

Falk’s research of museum visitors, based on qualitative data culled from his visitor interviews, aims to provide a predictive model of visitor behaviors based on their goals for visiting that day. Through his extensive interviews with thousands of museum patrons at hundreds of institutions, he identifies five main identity-driven reasons for visiting museums (Falk, 2009):

  • Explorer: motivated by the need to satisfy personal curiosity and interest in an intellectually challenging environment
  • Facilitator: motivated by the wish to engage in a meaningful social experience with someone whom you care about in an educationally supportive environment
  • Experience Seeker: motivated by the aspiration to be exposed to the things and ideas that exemplify what is best and intellectually most important within a culture or community
  • Professional/Hobbyist: motivated by the desire to further specific intellectual needs in a setting with a specific subject matter focus
  • Recharger: motivated by the yearning to physically, emotionally, and intellectually recharge in a beautiful and refreshing environment

Falk’s framework—with its focus on goals and motivations—is highly reminiscent of the user experience research and design practice of creating and employing user personas. Software designer, programmer, and industry giant Alan Cooper makes similar distinctions between marketing personas (based on demographics and observations about behavior) and design persons for UX applications.

“Marketing personas focus on demographic information, buying motivations and concerns, shopping or buying preferences, marketing message, media habits and such. They are typically described as a range (e.g., 30—45 years old, live in USA or Canada), and explain customer behavior but do not get to the why behind it. … Design personas focus on user goals, current behavior, and pain points as opposed to their buying or media preferences and behaviors. They are based on field research and real people,” (Ilama, 2015).

Visitor Studies researchers Emily Dawson and Eric Jensen have criticized Falk’s predictive model for using audience segmentation as its core methodology (Dawson & Jensen, 2011); however ,when considered through the lens of user personas, rather than as marketing research, Falk’s model provides an ability to reconsider service offerings that speak to existing core audiences.

While Falk’s research and writings on the subject are widely held and highly regarded in the museum field for understanding on-site visitation, few have applied it to online platforms. A study conducted by the Indianapolis Museum of Art in 2012 considers Falk’s framework in online applications but ultimately concludes it is not a fit (Fantoni, 2012), citing Falk’s own comparison of online and on-site visitation:

“[P]hysical museum goers are seeking experiences—learning experiences perhaps—but experiences nonetheless. In contrast, the Internet was created for resource-sharing and communication. This distinction shapes the current differences in motivation in the two venues.”

While we can concede that online experiences are different from physical ones, the evolution of the social Web, as well as significant shifts in digital platforms (smartphones, apps, etc.), have changed expectations and perceptions of engagement online. Therefore, not considering Falk’s model as the basis for user personas for museum offerings, regardless of format, seems shortsighted.

In fact, strategy consulting firm brightspot, whose client list is deep with museums, cultural institutions, and universities, presented “UX in 4D: Bringing together physical/digital spaces and services” (Felix, 2013). In it, brightspot strategists suggest Falk’s museum visitor identities as the basis for user personas.

According to usability expert Jeff Sauro (2012), “[P]ersonas identify the person’s motivations, expectations, aspirations and behaviors. Personas bring the ‘user’ to life, providing a specific target to aid developers in designing a final product.”

Through Falk’s extensive interviews, he lays out a deep analysis of each visitor type—how to attract them, what they value, how to market to them, and how to meet their needs. Viewed through the lens of user personas, Falk’s framework provides a detailed narrative from which to focus design and development strategies for the website. Perhaps the most powerful aspect to Falk’s model is that these narratives make it actionable.

As Falk (2009) points out, “One of the key insights the museum visitor experience model suggests is that marketing is important but only if it is the right kind of marketing. Marketing will be successful to the extent that it supports the expectations and needs of each of the major kinds of audiences the museum is likely to attract.”

Additionally, the website is the most visible aspect of a museum’s brand. “For the Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA), those online visits easily surpass the number of visitors to the museum’s physical campus” (Fantoni, 2012); this is also true for the vast majority of museums around the globe. As a far-reaching communication tool, our websites need to elucidate on-site experiences in a way that attracts and resonates with our audiences, speaking to their motivations and solidifying the museum’s brand position in support of visitor goals.

8. The homepage redesign

The previous homepage was intentionally event-heavy, as community programs were a signature aspect of the MAH’s new direction. We suspected, however, that this encouraged “click on what you know” behavior, rather than exploration. We hoped that a new design would push fresh content specifically targeted to the various segments of our audience, encouraging a broader understanding of how visitors can engage with the MAH.

To begin design, we created a set of documents describing the personas, one page each. These were based on Falk’s framework, specifically drawing from his chapter on applications for marketing. But we felt that some were more applicable to our project than others, so adjusted the visitor archetypes to fit our circumstance and audience.

We felt that the MAH’s programming wasn’t especially suited to the “Recharger” type, or at least it wasn’t one of our marketing goals to emphasize this type of visitation. So that persona was out. We also decided not to include a “Hobbyist/Professional” persona in this project. Because this group is made of of heterogeneous individuals, each seeking something personal and specific, the homepage was not the space to focus on them; they’d find their way using the site navigation and search bar. That persona was dropped as well.

We split Falk’s “Facilitator” motivation into two. The adult, such as a parent or grandparent, who is facilitating an experience for children, became “Parent”; and the adult who is facilitating an experience for other adults became “Socializer.” We felt this would allow us to more clearly direct these visitors to the relevant programming areas.

We also felt that we had a specific constituency not common to all institutions and not addressed by Falk. We called it “Community Builder,” and it reflected the motivation of the artists, activists, and leaders in Santa Cruz for whom the MAH is a center. This is a deeply involved community engaged at the top-level of the MAH funnel as advisors, board members, and collaborators. We established a persona to represent this group.

We then created a table that attached existing museum programming and engagement opportunities to each motivation, along with descriptions of the kinds of messaging and imagery they may positively respond to. This gave us representative content around which to design.

The premise of our design was that the events and activities featured on the homepage would be driven by appeals to specific segments of our audience. We decided the clearest way to do this would be to designate each motivation a block of the page. These blocks each contained a set of elements—a tagline, an image, an activity, and a couple of links—to be tailored specifically to the motivation. We also wanted to ensure support for the Museum’s broader marketing priorities, so included a “This Week at the MAH” block at the very top, appropriate for activities of broad interest.

Design began with wireframes and progressed to a working prototype. We customized the management screens of our WordPress CMS to match our content, including notes from the personas directly alongside the content fields. For instance, accompanying the Image field for the “Socializer” block is the cue, “Adults doing fun and engaging things; or adults engaged in conversation.” This is meant to ensure that the focus intended for the page stays top-of-mind into the future.

9. Creating connections

This redesign presents visitors with clear pathways to the content they want: Parents to family-friendly exhibitions; Socializers to free community festivals. More than ever, this content is designed to call out to them loud and clear.

Since we launched our mobile-first homepage in November 2015, we’ve measured success by increased visitation to diverse site content aligned with the diversity of our visitors’ motivations. We’re logging each piece of content that appears on the homepage so that once enough data is collected we can evaluate iterative improvements to our approach. We hope that the ultimate result of this will be an increase in visitation and in engagement.

One of the ways we’ve already begun to extend this work is the National Visitor Motivation Survey, a project that adds Falk-framework motivations to the reporting of Google Analytics. The MAH is one of a number of institutions participating in the study, which will give us a clear view of our visitors’ use of the site overall and the new homepage specifically. This work is ongoing.

We are also interested in connections the framework can promote between an institutions’ website and other program areas. That is, what are the benefits to the overall museum experience when all the people involved in its creation, both the online aspects and off, speak the language of visitor motivation established by Falk?

The MAH’s community-first approach led us to achieve our mobile-first design by gaining an understanding of visitor motivation, a formulation that may be usefully adopted by others in the cultural sector.

“The museum visitor experience cannot be adequately described by analyzing the content of museums, the design of exhibitions, through easily quantified visitor measures such as demographics, or even by analyzing visit frequency, or the social arrangements in which people enter the museum. To get the complete answer to the questions of why people visit museums, what they do there, and what learning/meaning they derive from the experience, requires a deeper, more holistic explanation.” (Falk, 2009, p. 34)

The link between these kinds of intrinsic motivations and user experience personas was articulated by Corey Vilhauer, writing in A List Apart: “Every website needs an audience. And every audience needs a goal. Advocating for end-user needs is the very foundation of the user experience disciplines” (Vilhauer, 2012).

Adopting Falk’s framework allowed us to start with people and work back to our museum. It gave us knowledge of our visitors’ motivations, which we used to deliver an intentional, user-focused mobile web experience. Ultimately, it helped us fulfill our mission to build a stronger, more connected community in Santa Cruz.


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Cite as:
Spellerberg, Marty, Elise Granata and Sarah Wambold. "Visitor-first, mobile-first: Designing a visitor-centric mobile experience." MW2016: Museums and the Web 2016. Published February 1, 2016. Consulted .