“The Pen” Questions

What are the questions you think are left unanswered regarding this project? Before he left his role as Director of Digital and Emerging Media at the Smithsonian Cooper Hewitt, we took the opportunity to ask a few more of Seb Chan, now Chief Experience Officer at ACMI in Melbourne. Feel free to add questions and leave comments below, or contact us at info@museumsandtheweb.com

  1. How is the project going to be sustainable and being maintained though time?

Cooper Hewitt is into a new phase now. All the exhibitions have now changed over since the new museum went live which gave the new processes and procedures a good solid stress testing. Quite a few of the ways in which object metadata and object labels were prepared for the opening exhibitions were changed for the following exhibitions as we learned and adapted as we went. The next phase is going to be systematizing these new evolved processes. For the Pen and the technology in the museum to work every time objects on display are changed we also have to change the labels, and the content prepared for the interactive tables need to be checked (even though it is delivered via the API). All the staff – curators and registrars especially – have been through that now, and have a clearer understanding of how everything fits together and the impact their work has on the end experience for visitors.

As described in the MW paper, we continue to tweak the interactive tables. The original hardware was specified with up to 10 docks (on the 84″ units) which we reduced to 6 active docks as a result of user interface testing with Local Projects before opening. The unused docks may be activated in a future iteration of the table software. It was also useful to be able to apply stickers to the table surfaces as both a protective measure, and to allow us to continue to refine the instructional language on the docks themselves.

There were also some minor changes made to the physical Pen – again demonstrating the small, cheap, incremental modifications can be effectively made even to custom hardware. We changed the rubber tips of the pens for a much longer lasting material through MakeSimply and Sistel, our manufacturing partners.

When we launched the Pen in March, the take up was 80% and since then, every month we have gotten better. Now we’re at 97% of Cooper Hewitt visitors using the Pen. Most of that was about getting the script for the front of house staff who were selling the tickets to be better, clearer. The front of house people have gotten to terms with the fact that they have to sell the Pen rather than the tickets. Some of the initial front-of-house staff have also moved on to other jobs and a second round of staff have been trained using a train-the trainer model. The security guards are helping visitors as well, which is great.

An image of the former and current design of the front and back of The Pen visitor instruction cards
Visitor ticket stubs with information about how to use The Pen.

We have also changed the informational visitor cards that are handed out at the entrance.

But at the end of the day, this is not a technology piece, the success has come about because of staff on the floor.

The technology has changed how people behave on the floor. People who would never use an App – especially older visitors – are now using the Pen. The simplicity of the Pen, even when they go to the table is pretty straightforward. There is a staff person at the table when you come in who will show you how to use the table. The human side of it is the totally critical piece and the piece that ended up being more complicated than the technology piece.

2. Knowing what the most successful part of the project is, what would you do differently?

I think we underestimated the human aspect of things a little. We responded quickly to those needs, but if we were to do it again we might handle it in a different way and give it more onboarding time with staff. It was hard to do that because the whole Museum was (re)opening and there wasn’t just the technology but the entire building to get accustomed to.

The fact that we launched the Pen four months after the opening was a good thing. It allowed the Museum come to terms with the building, with the ticketing system, first. Even though we had those four months to get the staff on board, the Pen has its own physicality; the staff needed to be able to experience it before growing comfortable with it.

I can’t emphasise enough how critical people are to the success of technology: the front of house experience, the security guards, the gallery docents. We thought initially that having a video that plays in a loop at the entrance, a postcard and a short conversation would have been enough to explain the Pen to visitors. That didn’t end up being the case. That’s why the take up is so high. People are saving huge amounts of stuff, between 33 and 37 objects per person; it’s crazy – as the museum has 500 objects on public show right now (July 2015).

3.  Since you know what objects are more popular, is this information used in some way, for example for subsequent visits?

Yes, we are looking into this now. What makes the object popular? Is it the location of the object in the gallery or the object itself? Does it changes from room to room? We are also looking at what people do afterwards: we know that 35% come back to look at what they have collected.

We do not capture email addresses at the beginning of the visit; one can use the Pen and go through the experience anonymously. This was a really important default to do with our approach to privacy (this is covered in more detail in the MW Paper). Afterwards, when they access the link to the objects they have collected, they can create an account and associate that account with their next visit. 20% of those follow up online visitors create an account – which we view as a signal for an intention to return as a physical visitor.

We are also about to roll out a new ticketing design. Again, it’s all about making those tweaks to the user experience, creating enough in-gallery scaffolding around the technology. When talking about a museum app, there is usually not enough scaffolding around it. It is like: “The app does that!”, “yes, but show me how to use the app”. Or the app should show me how to use it. The Pen does a little bit of both, because the Pen is very visible as you walk around the Museum. It is really fascinating to see people using the Pen as they walk around with it. It’s very visible, you can see what other people are doing while if it were a phone you wouldn’t know. The Pen has a distinct physical presence.

The Pen gets used a hell of a lot. When you have all the visitors using it, that changes everybody’s experience – the entire Museum experience changes. Imagine every museum visitor using a museum’s App simultaneously? That’s what happening with the Pen. The Pen is also not distracting the way a museum app usually is. The Pen doesn’t say “look at me”, it says, “just use me”.

4.  What are the features in terms of accessibility?

We did a lot of research and thinking around making the museum accessible. Everything has been designed to run off the API, and all our content is mobile web so that someone who is blind or has low vision can run text to speech from his/her own device.

We found it to be clear that people who wanted to use accessibility features often have their own devices and their own way of using them. So what we need to be doing was to make content work with what they have. The mobile web and the API allow that – not perfectly, but in a way that the museum can and will build upon. Again, part of what we are trying to do here was not to overdesign a whole experience but rather say “here is the core” and now we see how we can use it and build on top of that.

Some of the design features of the Pen itself like the vibration actually began as accessibility considerations but then have taken on a life of their own. for all visitors.