Technology won’t solve your cultural organization’s problems. At least, not on its own.
At IMPACTS, we’re often asked to look into the data-informed pros and cons of onsite technology usage, in terms of what visitors expect and how they behave.
Increasingly, we’re asked about augmented reality and virtual reality, and when (or if) this tech is worth the investment. (Spoiler: There are some cases where experimentation makes sense, but be wary of implementing “technology for technology’s sake.” If there are more pressing technological needs that aren’t meeting audiences’ baseline expectations, then fancy tech “extras” will benefit from additional consideration.)
Before deciding whether any kind of technology is a good idea for your organization , there are several considerations to keep in mind. To help inform that decision, we wanted to share some thought-fuel we’ve found useful.
The key to successful use of onsite technology
We’ve boiled our findings and assessments down to one, simple sentence that may be of service to cultural organizations:
Successful onsite technology helps people – in a way they want to be helped – to feel connected or inspired, or to carry out a desired behavior.
Digital engagement is engagement. That is, it’s more about engaging people in helpful or meaningful ways than it is about technology for the sake of using technology.
Sure, it sounds obvious, but some organizations seem to forget that technology is a tool, not a strategy in and of itself. It’s not the presence of screens and buttons that matters, but how the screens and buttons facilitate connection. Let’s break down the sentence.
Successful onsite technology helps people…
People are the focus. If you’re talking about technology for guests and you’re leading with, “Successful onsite technology helps the organization…” then you’re probably starting out on the wrong foot. People are at the crux of what cultural organizations do, so they should reasonably be at the crux of any initiative that we carry out on their behalf.
That is, if we want them to actually use it…
Perhaps the most popular example of cultural organizations overlooking the needs and behaviors of attendees when it comes to onsite technology is in regard to mobile applications. There was a time not too long ago when several organizations invested in mobile applications without considering visitors’ needs, and the result was an industry’s worth of mobile applications that do not increase guest satisfaction.
How do we put people at the center? Successful technologies often “meet people where they are.” Onsite technologies that don’t address a visitor’s needs or desires is not likely to be as successful as one that puts them first. It’s about the visitor – and helping to engage, inspire, or aid them in the experience in a way that is engaging, inspiring, or helpful to them.
…in the way they want to be helped…
How that need or desire is addressed matters, too. If people want to be helped with something, but they can only be helped if they first do a thing that they don’t want to do, then the technology may be missing the mark.
For example, consider a visitor who wants to look up more information about an object (or performer, animal, artwork, etc.). They whip out their phone, but are frustrated to discover they need to jump through several hoops to use the Wi-Fi – perhaps taking time to enter personal information or register an email account.
This visitor wants to find out more, but by making it difficult to gain Wi-Fi access, the organization is not “helping people in the way they want to be helped.” Offering Wi-Fi is intended to be helpful (and can increase onsite satisfaction), but the barrier of time and attention required to access that “help” may not be worth it to some.
This is only one example. Even more frustrating is when an organization forces people to use technologies in order to do something that may be easier for the guest without technology (such as wayfinding in some instances) or with a different technology (such as social media or mobile web).
After all, people prefer technology that makes life easier. Research shows that they crave connection and convenience. Think twice about deploying technologies that make life harder – or have time or access barriers around them that make them difficult to use.
…to feel inspired or connected, or to carry out a desired behavior.
What do we want the technology to do, and what the “problem” we want it to solve? Technology may help aid an organization in serving as an expert source of information, increase guest satisfaction, or to inspire wonder or curiosity by creating connections to stories or content. It may serve to educate and meaningfully engage people, or may even help motivate people to become members, donors, visitors, endorsers, subscribers, or advocates for your mission. Once an institution determines what the technology’s purpose is and how it benefits the user – and, in doing so, the organization – then the follow up question may be, “why this approach instead of another?”
Considering the purpose of our programs and projects – and if they are likely to fulfill that purpose, given the best available information – is often a healthy practice. This may be especially helpful in the case of technological initiatives, as they can be particularly costly, and some “showier” projects can be willfully mistaken as magic bullets for an organization’s woes simply because they have to do with technology.
On a related note: We are tracking uses of onsite technology and we have not uncovered a reliable “magic bullet.” There are few onsite technological initiatives we would broadly recommend for cultural organizations aside from offering easily accessible Wi-Fi. This doesn’t mean onsite technological initiatives are necessarily a bad idea! It means only that we’re not seeing VR, for instance, as a broadly effective tool for engagement for most cultural organizations at the moment.
We have, however, uncovered some offsite technologies that have proven more reliable in moving the needle in securing visitation. These include good customer relationship management tools, great social media content and responses, and easy-to-use ticketing systems. These aren’t as sexy as a gallery tour on an augmented reality headset or a location-aware mobile app for wayfinding with games intertwined, but when organizations don’t do these baseline things well, they tend to suffer in meeting people’s needs and expectations.
Two ways technology is used onsite
Creating and deploying new, onsite technologies is a big conversation for individual organizations. In fact, we’ve been asked to speak with several boards of directors about this topic in 2019 alone. To aid in the conversation, we encourage leaders to consider onsite technology from the point of view of a visitor. Generally, we find technology can be used onsite in one of two ways:
This kind of technological initiative weaves seamlessly into the onsite experience and is easy for guests to use (or stop using) as they desire. Technological facilitation aids in the flow or streamlines operations in a way that does not disrupt the visitor experience for the sake of technology. This is when technology truly “meets audiences where they are” by making something easier.
Examples of technological facilitation include easy-to-use kiosks or exhibits with which audiences can immediately engage on their own, without devoting time to learning how to use the technology. Easily accessible Wi-Fi, Google Maps wayfinding (for some entities wherein this is relevant), onsite social media use encouragement, and technological experiences embedded into an exhibit fall into this category as well. So does onsite ticket-purchasing, when it is done well.
Essentially, this is when technology becomes a part of the experience that makes life – or feeling inspired – easier. Think of Apple, for instance. The company aims to make it’s products simple and easy to use or upgrade from one device to another, without users needing to break open a manual. The technology “meets users where they are,” and there isn’t a need to sit down and “learn” a whole new system with every purchase. The aim is to open the new Mac, boot it up, and seamlessly start using it.
This kind of initiative interrupts the onsite experience in order to “onboard” somebody with the technology. Instead of diving right in, people must pause to study, read, or become acquainted with a “user’s manual” of some kind in order to use that technology. The bigger, fancier technologies that some organizations are considering right now may fall into this category – such as augmented reality or virtual reality.
These aren’t inherently “bad” uses of technology, but they often come at a high potential cost to the visitor: their time. It’s the responsibility of an organization to consider this cost, and if people will still use and enjoy this technology given the “onboarding” time or potential frustration that is prerequisite to usage.
One very common example of “technological intervention” is audio tours. Some folks love these – and others avoid them like the plague! There are some benefits to audio tours: Though the delivery methods may be different (think wands, or iPod touches, or calling in to a number on a cell phone), audio tours are no longer new to most audiences, and so the onboarding is shorter. If you’ve done an audio tour before, then you have an idea how they next one will work! However – as organizations with audio tours know – just because they are available as a technology to lend context to the experience doesn’t mean everyone will use them. The experience that an organization provides will still be judged by users and non-users alike. If we want everyone to have additional context, we’d need the integration of that context to be seamless and integrated into the experience rather than an add-on.
Though most fall into one category or another, some technologies can be both facilitators and interveners, depending how they are used. Some mobile applications can facilitate the experience if they are downloaded at home, engaging, and easy-to-use onsite. Others are barriers to engagement, if the app must be downloaded onsite with spotty Wi-Fi and requires a “learning curve” to use.
“If we build it, they will come,” is a great movie quote that does not generally apply to cultural organizations, and it certainly doesn’t apply to their onsite technologies. Consider this: Guests tend to have their mobile devices on them at all times, and nearly 60% of guests use social media onsite in relation to their visit! Yet organizations have difficulties getting people to use mobile applications. And the phones are already in their visitors’ hands!
Here’s another interesting thing to consider: At IMPACTS, we’ve found that AR and VR have an embedded benefit that is the opposite of technological. Precisely because these technologies are frequently unfamiliar to visitors, an AR or VR experience often requires a one-to-one interaction with a staff member or volunteer. These kinds of interactions increase visitor satisfaction in a meaningful way… but the verdict is still out on if a personal interaction with a fancy technology increases visitor satisfaction any more than a personal interaction without technology.
For context, a human providing wayfinding help to individuals increases visitor satisfaction a whopping 10.4% on average for exhibit-based organizations and 5.1% on average for performance-based entities. (It’s lower for performance-based organizations because people already expect this kind of help. Think: Showing folks to their seats or helping them quickly find the bathroom during intermission.) We see this bump only when the wayfinding comes from a human, not an app, signage, or maps.
Often, the things that look like magic bullets in the industry are the opposite. They are the outcome of hard work, careful consideration of audience needs, testing, and realizing that technology is a tool and not a strategy in itself. Our goal in sharing this article is to encourage organizations to truly consider how they will use technology onsite from a guest’s perspective, rather than their own perspective. Generally, we’ve seen much more success with technologies that involve technological facilitation rather than technological intervention.
Technology can best enhance the onsite experience within cultural organizations when we put audience behaviors, expectations, and experiences first.
Technology itself is a just a tool – how we use it to help our visitors is what truly matters.
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