Remember, this was all new to you once upon a time.

Digital Media
October 3, 2014

The days are shortening, the leaves are crisping and suddenly lanyard suppliers are in high demand. Yes, conference season is upon us once again. Recent visits to Lets Get Real 3 and Museum Ideas 2014 have got me thinking. Their themes, Is Your Content Fit for Purpose? and Museums in the Era of Participatory Culture put the the user squarely at the centre of everything we do. But how easy is it really to put your audience first?

In his Let’s Get Real talk on what architectural fails can teach us about building digital products, Michiel Van Iersel provided the brilliant analogy of desire lines. Those tracks you see across stretches of grass where countless people have created an unofficial path by walking the way they want rather than using designated footpaths.

A slide by Michiel Van Iersel from Lets Get Real 3
© Michiel Van Iersel. Photograph: Elizabeth Bullock

The lesson for digital media content producers is clear: people still want the park [content], they like that it has been provided, but they don’t want to be told how to use it.

If you produce great content and send it out into the world, it can be used in some pretty amazing ways.

We live in a participatory culture, but we can’t be too prescriptive about how people participate. Museums are in a privileged position of having hundreds and thousands of people who trust us and want to consume our content, but they also want to consume it in their own way. We need to make sure we are talking our audience’s language – literally and figuratively – rather than forcing through our own agenda.

So how do we fail to speak our audience’s language? Well, hands up who knows what WID stands for. SMCG? FTF*? V&A employees put your hands down, everyone else, stop looking bewildered because you shouldn’t have to know. These terms (department acronyms, if you’re curious) and others like them mean a lot to the people who work inside this building. They have been carefully thought out and can have great institutional significance. And it is so easy to forget that they mean absolutely nothing to the outside world. This issue of internal language creeping into external output came up more than once during Let’s Get Real – clearly it’s something of which every museum has to be mindful, mainly because it’s so easy to do – we use these terms every single day.

And it’s not just terminology. The same rule applies to the structure our website. A little anecdote to illustrate the point – recently, our webmaster email was contacted by a user frustrated by how difficult it is to find out on our website whether or not you can take photographs in the V&A. The user pointed out all of the different ways that they had tried and failed to find this information. Now, we do have a web page that details this info (go on, see if you can find it), so our internal need, to convey an important Visitor Services message, has been met. Or has it? When a user who is unfamiliar with our site tries to find this page, they struggle. If our vistors can’t find or understand our message, then we have failed. No excuses. Back to the drawing board we go.

The same goes for social media. It’s so important to produce content for an audience that works in the way that they do. During his excellent Museum Ideas talk, Sree Sreenivasan, Chief Digital Officer of the Metropolitan Museum of Art presented PowerPoint slides that were, by his own admission, tweetable.

Sree Sreenivasan, Chief Digital Officer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC, United States
Sree Sreenivasan, Chief Digital Officer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC, United States. Photograph © Andrew Lewis.

Of course! We all know everyone loves to tweet pictures of slides at conferences. This was a speaker who knew exactly how this specific audience ticked and how they would behave in one particular moment. Perfectly tailored content. So, does your audience really want to read on Facebook about your brilliant new display, or are they more likely to use Pinterest, Twitter, or Instagram? Perhaps this subject is actually huge on Tumblr. What are your audience likely to need and where will they need it?

So what makes this so hard? It’s easy to cite the age old ‘them and us’, Digital vs Curatorial conflict.

Watercolour of two boxers
Curatorial and Digital, locked in the eternal battle.
Watercolour, John Burley Waring, 1846. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The ‘C’ word was practically taboo at Let’s Get Real, and The Science Museum’s Hadrian Ellory-van Dekker even jokingly apologised for being a *whisper it* curator at the beginning of his Museum Ideas segment. However the ‘curators are too academic’ vs ‘digital is dumbing down’ argument is a lazy excuse when the result is that together you are neglecting your users’ needs. Digital Media gives curators the tools to expand the audience of their collections, and curators give content editors insight into where the hidden gems can be found. We are all on the same team, really, and that team’s priority should be its audience.

One of the most popular talks of Museum Ideas came from Nick Gray, founder of Museum Hack– a New York-based company that run independent museum gallery tours, aimed at people who don’t like museums. When you get down to the nuts and bolts, these slightly anarchic, fast paced tours are so fun and so successful because they are delivered with passion by people who love the objects they are showing but are also constantly aware of the audience to whom they are speaking. By carefully tailoring their tours, Museum Hack give people exactly what they want while simultaneously opening up a world of cultural heritage to people who previously thought museums had nothing to offer them. A neat trick if you can do it.

Digital Media teams need to constantly be thinking like visitors. User testing and audience research are vital tools, but we shouldn’t wait till the next big survey to get into the mind-set of a visitor. Our places of work (both physical and digital) may become as familiar as second homes, but we were all first-time museum visitors once upon a time – just think how different it is when you take your mum round a gallery, compared to when you just walk through on your way to a meeting. Let’s face it, it’s always so much easier to critique the visitor experience of a museum or website with which you are unfamiliar. All those little flaws become oh so apparent when you don’t know where you’re going and haven’t got a clue what exhibitions are on. We digital bods need to get back into the galleries and reconnect with our museums. Start seeing them as a visitor again.

Sometimes thinking this way can lead to small changes that make a big difference. If you are a regular user of our website, you may have spotted something different recently. We took a moment to imagine looking at our homepage, through a new visitor’s eyes. What would they need to know, what weren’t we telling them?

Screenshot of the V&A website homepage
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

“Ooooh, Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty! Is that an exhibition? Is that on now?” Well no, it isn’t, there are still more than five months to go. With the simple addition of a little extra text however, suddenly everything is clearer.

Screenshot of the V&A website homepage
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

We know our website and our public programme like the backs of our hands. Of course we do, we deal with them every day. And with that familiarity comes complacency. It is so easy to forget that not everyone knows your content as well as you do.

So do try and forget that you work at a museum. Try to be a visitor again. What do you want to do, what do you want to see, and what would you like to do next? Now… is that really how you should word that Facebook post?

*Well done to everyone who guessed Word and Image; Sculpture, Metalwork, Ceramics and Glass; and Furniture, Textiles and Fashion.

About the author

Digital Media
October 3, 2014

Former Content Editor in the Digital Media department. I love finding interesting stories and unusual objects hidden in the V&A Collections. I blog about all things digital media, with the...

More from Lizzy Bullock
2 comments so far, view or add yours


Brilliant. Education departments are often in the same boat as Digital Media. (How does it feel to walk into an exhibition of a “famous” artist’s work when you have never heard of that artist? What aspects are off putting or need to be explained?) We need more tricks for thinking like our audience – the longer you are immersed in a museum’s culture (and the collections content), the harder it is to think like a visitor.

Looking at your website day by day makes me wanna work harder T.T because I love these design~~~ I want to bring them home T.T Thank you for sharing. sooo many great design.

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