Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Why we take audio tours

I must be honest that the audio guide desk is not something I regularly head for in museums. Why? My immediate response would be that a) I don’t have time and b) I have listened to too many overly didactic and drawn out commentaries. I have blogged before on the technology challenges to the traditional audio guide (January 2011February 2011, August 2012February 2015). A few years on from some of those blogs, the predicted smartphone take over has not happened with the audio tour still very much alive and well. My view is that visitors have decided the distraction of a further visual aid in what is already a highly visual experience, particularly in an art museum, is too much of a sensory overload.

Technology aside, it is fascinating to see what drives people to take up audio tours through new research by the British Museum, entitled 'An audio state of mind: Understanding behaviour around audio guides and visitor media'. Their starting point was the perceived low take up (160,000 out of nearly 7 million visitors) with the aim being to increase this and also understand how visitors use the audio guides.

Amongst a number of interesting discoveries:
  • Time plays a key role (I can empathise with that) with many visitors presuming the audio tour will take a long time (though the definition of ‘a long time’ varied between three and six hours) and force them to spend more time than they had.
  • It appears that the traditional visitor segmentation of streakers, strollers and studiers (see my blog from October 2011) is poorly servicing our understanding of visitors, with people moving between segments during visits, displaying much more personalised and flexible motivations and identities.
  • Confidence plays an important role, namely whether the visitor feels they can successfully negotiate the museum unaided, relying on labels.
  • Many visitors come knowing what they want to see, but once they have done so, they tend to wander aimlessly, a perfect time to take up an audio guide, if they could be corralled to be offered such.
A couple of other points. This research is from a paper due to be given at Museums and the Web 2015 in Chicago next week. Having been to three previous ones, the MW annual conference, now in its 19th year, remains for me the most wide ranging of the mainstream museum technology get-togethers, the others being the more US based MCN (Museum Computer Network) and the more European based MuseumNext.

Also I liked the way this project was put together. Described as an ‘agile‘ project, it had a small team of one staff member, three free lancers and an intern, a defined time scale, a project room, daily ‘scrums’, an initial research phase, and then a prototype testing phase, resulting in some really useful outputs.

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