17 December 2006

Dutch heritage conference highlights lack of audience understanding

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Dutch heritage conference
Last week Experientia partner Mark Vanderbeeken spoke at a cultural heritage conference in the Netherlands on audience research and playful interfaces. It was a revealing experience.

Current practices in people-centred design, user research and participatory processes have barely affected Dutch cultural institutions.

Culture and heritage institutions have a supply driven approach, and this applies also to their digital and online services. They do a lot, but know virtually nothing about the demand: their (potential) audience’s size, composition, habits, values, needs and expectations, and on what that might mean for the online offerings and the relation between online and offline. They have no empirical tools to gain such understandings and often see demand driven approaches as a threat to their core mission.

Visit our site

This is confirmed by the report “Visit our site” (“Bezoek onze site”) published last week by the social and cultural planning office of the Dutch Government (available as pdf in Dutch only). The report provides an overview of the current state of digitisation of the cultural “supply” (i.e. the enormous amount of materials that together constitute the Dutch cultural heritage), in order to make it “available” to a wider audience.

The introduction already reveals the main issue: “Given the amount of materials, not everything can be digitised”, and therefore “experts set priorities based on the demand of the audience — the presumed demand that is, because information on audience demand is scarce.” [My translation]

“A main reason for digitisation is the wish to make cultural contents available to a wider audience. However most institutions know little about the demand, i.e. the needs and expectations of their visitors, and therefore have no idea to what extent the information they supply addresses a demand.”

The report shows quite clearly that web statistics and a few occasional surveys are about the only information that Dutch cultural institutions have about their online audiences. The various chapters have long sections describing the information that institutions supply and short ones on what they know about their audiences, and this applies across the board: theatre, visual arts and architecture, music, cinema, multimedia, museums, archives, monuments, archeology, and public broadcasting, with libraries perhaps being somewhat of an exception.

The lack of insight in current people research practices is also revealed by the report itself. In a final chapter it addresses the “three methods to understand how cultural information is used on the internet”, which turn out to be web statistics, audience questionnaires and interviews, and general opinion polls. The report doesn’t acknowledge the qualitative research methods that provide an insight in what people actually do rather than what they say they do, such as contextual inquiries, ethnography, task and flow analysis, shadowing, card storing, etc.

Click to the past

“Click to the past” (“Klik naar het verleden”) is the title of a 2006 report (also available as pdf) published by the same Dutch government office. It provides probably the best available insight on the users of digital heritage information online. It is based on a doctoral dissertation by Henrieke Wubs, one of the report authors.

A statistical (cluster) analysis of a national survey of the Dutch population (2003) identified a number of user types, depending on their interest and participation in cultural heritage. The survey, which was wide-ranging and covered many aspects of social and cultural involvement, assessed both physical and virtual visits to cultural institutions.

The clusters are: all rounders (4% of the population), which are very active lovers of the cultural heritage, art lovers (8%), members of cultural heritage organisations (5.6%), collectors (8%), browsers (9%), family visitors (16%), day tourists (11%), passive readers (8%), and the non-active population (30%).

The cluster analysis was then refined through focus group conversations, with the participants representing each of the clusters that were identified. The rich qualitative data provide probably the best available insight into habits, values, needs and expectations of the (potential) Dutch cultural audience.

Museum examples

Revealing were a series of conference presentations on the latest tools developed by top Dutch museums. The world-renowned Rijksmuseum for instance experiments a lot with new online tools, including AJAX applications, rss feeds, widgets and educational games. But they just push things online, based on a hit-and-miss approach, hoping that people will like it.

Villa Koopzicht

One welcome exception was the presentation by serial entrepreneur Jeroen Loeffen of Villa Koopzicht.

Loeffen is a serial entrepreneur. His latest venture is based on a very simple platform to create user- or community-generated web journals. He has been implementing this bottom-up communications approach first in schools and in networks of children and youngsters, learning a great deal about these digital natives in the process.

But he has also convinced the Dutch Postal Services (KPN) and a major insurance company to apply the same system for their own internal communications.

Interestingly, Loeffen confirms that these user-generated journals in a very short time become the dominant communications channels of the organisations involved, who are usually not prepared for this. Senior management are having the most problems with these channels they do not control and see them often as threats. Loeffen’s key task at the moment is consulting management in making a major cultural leap.

His main recommendation to the cultural heritage sector: if you really want to go for participatory processes and give your audience a say, be prepared to fundamentally change your institutions.

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