I recently had the privilege of interviewing Karen Plemons, who works in Program Evaluation in the Education department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Long before our interview, two friends who work in Educational Programming had enthusiastically encouraged me to reach out to her to learn more about UX at the Met (or her experience with UX in general). So when I had eventually emailed requesting an interview, I was fascinated to hear that her job isn’t technically UX, but Program Evaluation. She explained that with her role being Visitor / User Research, she performs UX when needed (which, as it turns out, is quite a lot!). What I learned from my interview is that even though the names are different, Visitor Experience and User Experience share the same principles and evaluation methods, and that the older and more studied school of Visitor Experience is becoming more and more interested in including the UX field in museums today.
Education and Background
Karen holds an MS in Museum Education from Bank Street School of Education.
Though at first it may seem Museum Education and User Experience are distinct fields, in fact her Museum Education background prepared her in layered, multivalent ways for the elements of her job that is UX.
Karen’s discovery of Museum Evaluation happened at Bank Street. While still a student she was involved with the Visitor Studies Association and did freelance data collecting for consultants. From this hands-on experience she learned how to conduct interviews, what makes good interview and survey questions, and how to present her findings.
Visitor Experience Vs. User Experience
Museum Education’s emphasis in understanding the visitor, and its mantra that self-driven, informal learning is a lifelong experience, seamlessly translates into the central interests of a UX product designer.
Though Visitor Experience and User Experience involves the same methods and process’ (described below), because they are approached as separate fields of study Karen describes having to “code-switch” her language depending on her audience. Internally in the Education department, the vocabulary she uses is “visitor research” and “visitor studies”. Other examples of code-switching would be “user journey interviews” (following someone through a museum experience) vs “cognitive walkthrough” in UX.
To further illustrate the similarity between UX and Visitor Experience, Karen points out that the goal of both fields is design ways to help people understand systems and new processes. Both tap into the idea of life-long learning and that “scaffolds” (or mapping strategies) are needed to help users & visitors engage with the product, museum space, or website.
UX at the Met and other Museums
The language of UX was only recently introduced to the Met. For instance, a data analyst was recently hired and for the first time the Museum is seeking to hire someone whose title is Director of UX. But when Karen first arrived, the museum didn’t think there would be enough work for someone who did only UX, which is why she is in the Education department. The Museum’s official UX designer designs the actual material (website pages, pamphlets) but Karen works with the Education program leaders to determine what their goals are and how to create the desired outcome.
Karen says that there are only a handful of museums in the country that has an evaluator imbedded internally. MoMA has someone and “there is at least one place in San Francisco.” What is often the case is that any given department’s employees find themselves overlapping with UX methods even though that is not technically their job description.
One of the biggest elements of her job is understanding what visitors’ expectations are, resulting in the use of surveys, interviews, observations, and card sorts. She writes the reports herself and presents the findings to program leaders.
Card sorts are used to determine which program name is the most clear (“clear,” “somewhat clear,” “not clear”) accurate, and the most compelling. Visitors sort cards in terms of clarity and are asked what they think it means. An important distinction she made is something clear is not necessarily accurate, which a card sort can clarify.
Card sorting is also used for information architecture relating to the website, which is often performed by the staff.
Preference-based card sorts are used with kids to see what topics and themes they’d be interested in learning about. Because young children haven’t yet cultivated abstract thinking, the physical cards are ideal for them as opposed to a survey’s ranking system.
I loved learning that the card sorts take place in the museum galleries. Karen rolls out a large cart into either the Great Hall or a gallery wing, with the sort taking place on top of the cart. This way, participants are already engaged in the “product” they are analyzing.
Karen was extremely passionate about the idea that what many new products / experiences are missing is the understanding of how to teach people how to engage with the product or experience: “More than giving content information, a good deal of what it means to be an educator is facilitating conversation.” As a result (like user research) visitor research is more than anything else advocacy for the visitor.