YOU CAN’T TOUCH THIS: WHAT NOW FOR USER-CENTRED ENGAGEMENT TOOLS IN THESE POST-PANDEMIC TIMES?
Clare Harding & Mark Lochrie
Following their cross-disciplinary project investigating how digital tools could increase engagement between MOSTYN, a public contemporary art gallery, and their audiences, Clare Harding and Dr Mark Lochrie reflect on how COVID has affected audience expectations and behaviours when engaging with culture. This article discusses what we have learnt over the last year and how our collaborative research will now be moving forwards.
In 2018, Clare Harding, an embedded researcher at MOSTYN, a contemporary art gallery in Llandudno, North Wales, along with Dr Mark Lochrie (Lecturer in Computer Science at University of Central Lancashire) and Dr Adrian Gradinar (Lecturer in Design at Lancaster University) created a interdisciplinary team to understand what public art audiences wanted in a digital age. This research also contributed towards Clare’s recently submitted PhD investigating how user-centred design theory and methodologies could be used to create digital tools that would appeal to postdigital audiences – those for whom digital has become a normative presence (Parry, 2013).
Funded by Innovate UK and the Arts Council of Wales, a series of participatory research workshops and user-centred design processes with MOSTYN’s audiences and stakeholders during early 2019 to understand how they wanted to engage with contemporary art. Film about our EDGE workshops can be found here and here.
Our findings led to the development of EDGE – an in-gallery ‘cultural jukebox’. Using an NFC enabled ‘puck’ offered customised curated approaches, as visitors can access specific content tailored towards those who wanted an exhibition overview, such as families, or ‘enthusiasts’ wanting more in-depth information. Accessible and user-friendly EDGE showed contextual exhibition materials, digital art, and MOSTYN’s community work and events and it had almost 24000 interactions within the 10 weeks it was live. A film showing EDGE in use can be found here. Then COVID-19 hit, and EDGE, with its arcade machine buttons and high contact requirements was no longer viable.
Having received further funding, we are now in a position where we can take our findings from the EDGE project and consider how and where our engagement practices identified from EDGE can be reapplied to new mediums to reflect the new cultural sensitivities about shared tools and close interaction. As we emerge from the pandemic, the need for social interaction has never been greater, nor more sensitive. So how might we take the EDGE findings forward now? How can we deploy user-centred processes when we can, at present, no longer physically interact and collaborate?
An outcome of Clare’s PhD research was the creation of a Scale of Motivation for Cultural Engagement (SMCE), which proposes a paradigm for understanding audience motivations when engaging with cultural providers. The absence of verifiable audience data was identified as a major issue for MOSTYN at the beginning of the research, as it is anun-ticketed cultural venue. The Scale of Motivation ‘bootstraps’ four visitor types on the basis of the need for engagement – primary, practical, physical, psychological – and provides a way of understanding audience motivations and behaviours on a macro level that can inform organisational engagement strategy in the absence of formal research procedures.
The scale also acknowledges that cultural providers operate within a continually evolving, digitally-influenced ‘plenitude’:
“…A universe of products (websites, video games, blogs, books, films, television and radio programmes, magazines and so on) and practices (the making of all of these products together with their remixing, sharing, and critiquing) so vast, varied, and dynamic that it is not comprehensible as a whole” (Bolter, 2019, pp7-8)
Therefore the scale also takes into account the multitude of competitors, in real life and online, to win people’s time, attention and engagement.
Understanding what and how audiences define the nature of these motivations therefore becomes the challenge of participatory, user-centred research, as the actual purposes will vary by cultural institution and audience. At MOSTYN, primary motivations for engagement are to see the exhibition physically on show, as that work is only available at MOSTYN and is therefore fixed. Practical motivations were also identified, such as visiting the café or visiting for purely social reasons. MOSTYN was identified as the ideal location but substitutes could be found if necessary, therefore, these motivations are semi-fixed. Physical motivations were identified as visiting MOSTYN as part of a day out. MOSTYN’s location was therefore important, but there are a number of other tourist attractions in the region that could be substituted based on the experience of a day trip rather than mindful engagement with culture, consequently, this is a semi-shiftable reason. Finally, psychological motivations were identified such as visiting for intellectual and emotional reasons. There are multiple other activities and locations which could supply to these outcomes, they are rarely specific to MOSTYN, and MOSTYN’s suitability to deliver such outcomes will be determined by personal preference and mood of the visitor on any given occasion. They are therefore shiftable motivations.
From this perspective, our challenge is now to consider how audience perceptions of the value of digital engagement has changed after a year of relying on tools such as Zoom, Teams, and content-on-demand from Netflix, along with their confidence at returning to physical, in person engagement.
These challenges are faced by all of us in the cultural sector, no matter how successful and innovative our online programmes have been over the last year. Recently Clare discussed this challenge with Danny Birchall, Digital Content Manager at the Wellcome Collection. As he pointed out, while we are all considering new ways to develop ‘touch free’ engagement tools, the public has adapted to using shared public tools such trollies and so perhaps we should not get too carried away with worrying about completely hands-free approach. At the Wellcome Collection, they are looking at using a hybrid approach with audience engagement, utilising social media and in-gallery screens to blend the remote and in-person experience of engaging with exhibitions. While this might be the case for common physical interactions there remains potential issues with interactions where you transport yourself into a digital world such as Augmented and Virtual Realities. The sharing of the head mounted displays or wearables still poses concerns and challenges for technologists, curators and audiences.
Clare’s PhD research also makes a case for the benefits of MOSTYN being ‘visitor-led’. This concept of being ‘visitor-led’ takes inspiration from the concept of practice-led research, from Sullivan (2009, p.62) and Brown and Sorenson (2009, p.156). Being visitor-led means using a cross disciplinary approach to employing audience based, conceptually robust inquiry practices to develop and evolve ways of engaging your audiences. Our EDGE research and processes demonstrated that neither MOSTYN’s staff, nor their audiences could individually conceive a tool that would have responded more aptly to the organisational needs than the EDGE platform. We therefore believe that employing such interdisciplinary and user-centred approaches again now will provide insights into how MOSTYN’s audiences’ concepts of shared space, communal activities and public tools have been affected by lockdowns and social distancing. How can MOSTYN build tools to engage and connect audiences who may not be able to engage physically? Are digital experiences now even more welcome?
The EDGE platform provided a starting point, a real-life manifestation of the design processes utilised. The flexibility of the EDGE platform to be able to host any content (with appropriate software or hardware additions) and to be moved to any location, means that it is an ideal test bed for further iterations and experimentation. Screen aside, the technology behind it fits into a shoebox, so it could appear in a multitude of different formats and sizes.
We had already planned to experiment with further iterations of workshop formats to determine which key UCD elements needed to be included to generate the same, or even better, insights. However, even prior to the pandemic, but increased during the pandemic, Mark has been successfully delivering Sprint and ideation workshops online using tools such as Mural, GatherTown, Discord, Collaborative document platforms (Word 365 and Google Docs). Although online workshops have required more planning and the preparation of additional visual resources with high production values, as well as pre-event training for the participants to ensure they can confidently use online sharing spaces, he has been able to create a new workshop format that has delivered results with school children, undergraduates and organisational clients across disciplines and cultures. He has seen advantages in the openness that Mural can evoke, especially with sensitive subjects, as participants can share their responses anonymously. Bespoke online and offline activities to reduce the amount of ‘screentime’, utilising break out rooms, mobile phone cameras and social media have all facilitated small group discussions, and resource packs sent direct to participants have facilitated remote making processes. As we emerge from lockdown, he is now looking at using blended approaches with online and face-to-face workshops. Further advantages have been identified in such online tools being able to automatically capture and record data, rather than requiring additional scribes, lengthy transcription and the risk of missed detail and nuance.
MOSTYN’s digital pandemic programme supported 60+ artists and utilised new formats for MOSTYN such as digital radio and TV, attracting over 5000 viewers and listeners. We are now consolidating our learning from these activities and considering how we can use such blended formats at MOSTYN and engage with hard to reach and remote audiences as well as those who for personal reasons would rather avoid public interaction at present. The first stage in this process, in May 2021, is an audience consultation survey to measure changes in attitudes and behaviours and determine priorities for digital engagement as we emerge from lockdown. We will be exploring new ways to recruit digital audiences as co-designers for both an enhanced online presence and EDGE 2.0, and designing a new range of novel activities to help us determine and articulate their needs and interests. Centring users, accessibility and inclusivity at the heart of the design processes we will be considering what the audiences of 2026 might require from their cultural providers.
Digital innovation is still an under-resourced area within the visual arts. A change of priorities post-pandemic may see new funding streams now being presented to reflect the revised digital priorities of cultural providers and their audiences. As part of this process, it is hoped that others will now also test deploying user-centred methodologies in cultural settings, taking advantage of the confidence and competence built over the last year.
We have witnessed the adoption of digital tools amongst a wide range of society; location (track and trace), social interaction (ordering food and drinks via QR codes and apps, checking in to venues) and communication (Zoom parties, WhatsApp family and neighbourhood groups). With this increased competence and familiarity with digital tools the authors are inspired and ignited to continue their collaborative research to explore what, how and where audiences now want from their local cultural providers.
Bolter, J. D. (2019). The digital plenitude. Massachusetts: MIT Press.
Brown, A. R. & Sorenson, A. (2009). Integrating creative practice and research in the digital media arts. In: H. Smith & R. T. Dean (Eds.), Practice-led research, research-led practice in the creative arts. (pp.153-165). Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Parry, R. (2013). The end of the beginning: normativity in the Postdigital Museum. Museum World: Advances in Research, 1. 24-39. https://doi.org/10.3167/armw.2013.010103.
Sullivan, G. (2009). Making space: the purpose and place of practice-led research. In: H. Smith & R. T. Dean (Eds.) Practice-led research, research-led practice in the creative arts. (pp. 41-65). Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Clare Harding is a researcher based at MOSTYN, a public contemporary art gallery in Llandudno, North Wales. She has recently submitted her PhD, investigating how user-centred approaches can increase engagement with postdigital audiences at MOSTYN, Wales’s foremost contemporary art gallery. Twitter: @couldbecalmer Email:firstname.lastname@example.org
Dr Mark Lochrie is a lecturer in Computer Science at the University of Central Lancashire. His research interests explore the intersection of objects, people and interactions viewed through the lens of meaningful experiences, woven by physical and digital materials. Twitter: @marklochrie Email: MLochrie@uclan.ac.uk