Do you have an experience design strategy?

In conjunction with its renovation, the American History Museum has sponsored a staff development series, bringing leading consultants, authors and thinkers to SI to challenge our paradigms about museum-going and our attitudes toward an experience design strategy.

A few months ago, we heard from David Norton of Stone Mantel (, presenting research from the influential book, Experience Economy: Work is Theater and Every Business a Stage. For me, the most memorable point in that lecture was his asking the audience to reconsider ‘in-between’ places –  how hallways, lobbies, cafeteria lines, elevators and bathrooms play, in many ways, as significant a role for meaningful experience as the galleries themselves.  Where people gather, orient, chat and debate is as important a design concern as the exhibitions they came to see.

This week, SI staff were treated to a lecture by Paco Underhill, CEO and President of Envirosell, Inc. ( and author of Call of the Mall  and Why We Buy

He started with an acute observation – museum people assume that audiences know who we are and how to use us.  But the idea of a museum was conceived over 100 years ago with a demographic in mind that largely, doesn’t exist anymore.  In his words, “the world is changing faster than you are.”

He quoted statistics of which many are familiar :
– Less than 25% of American families look like the Cleaver household, with married parents & 2   kids 
– Audiences’ visual acuity is highly sharpened because of rapid technology changes
– Time is accelerated.  People expect experiences to fit into a framework of accomplishment
– We are a nation of immigrants
– A museum’s competition ranges from Animal Planet to Playstation 2 to ESPN Zone

With this in mind, he proceeded to ask poignant questions to probe these issues:
– What does family membership mean?  Does that include grandma, cousins, the nanny?
– What are you doing for the divorced dad who has his kids only on weekends?
– Can a visitor find lunch at your museum for different price points – $7, $12, $18 ?  to accommodate both a family, or a couple on vacation?
– How does the Apple store accomplish $200 impulse buys on a regular basis?
– Did you know that the ubiquitous suggests taking a first date to a museum? How are you reaching this audience?
– Can you rate museums in the same way that you do films?
– Can a visitor learn something new at your museum, AND get a margarita?  Is that an appropriate question to ask? 
– The newest tourists are those from emerging markets like Russia and China.  How well can you service them?

These questions and issues are not new.  but being confronted with them again in such a pointed way reminded me of their relevance.  His last challenge?

“If it isn’t fun, you shouldn’t be here.  If you can’t make it fun, then why will your audience come back?” 

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  4. Shawn Parker
    Shawn Parker says:

    The most recent book by John Falk and Beverly Sheppard, “Thriving in the Knowledge Age: New Business Models for Museums and Other Cultural Institutions” (AltaMira, April 2006), deals with this very subject. In fact, they give some great illustrations of what different experience strategies in museums might look like. Some of it is very high tech, but they also describe ways that low-tech, very people-based approaches can deliver what audiences are craving.

    The most challenging aspect of their argument is that museums, used to producing exhibits for a general audience, need to figure out how to target, to identify their core market, consider their strengths and experiences they can offer, and grow strategically. The museum project I work for has been accused of trying to be all things to all people, of wanting to do everything. Obviously, few museums could do everything, if any. Falk and Sheppard recommend matching your experience and audience and building meaningful relationships between them that strengthens your institution and enriches the experiences of your visitors. While museums always ought to reach out to marginalized audiences and avoid further marginalizing underserved communities, one cannot hope to implement one-size-fits-all exhibits and programs and expect everyone to have the same rich experience.

    The challenge is how does one do this when the mission of one’s museum implies a general audience?

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