A Suggested Model for Future-proofing Digital Interactives

Last fall, after my experience observing visitors interacting with biological science data through an augmented shark, it got me thinking about how we could learn about future museum visitors by develop cutting-edge prototypes for today’s visitors. Clearly, the tools are going to change, becoming more powerful and ubiquitous. And the digital literacies of our visitors will increase over time as a result. So if the tools will change along with visitor’s abilities to use them, how do we future-proof the lessons for tomorrow that we can glean today?

That lead me to consider the following. Please hang in there with me – I’m still working it through, all these months later, and sharing it with you, in part, to see how it might align with how others approach this topics. So please consider this the start of a conversation.

So while the tech will sure change, and visitors will become more capable integrating digital media into their daily lives, there is one thing that might not change: their personal threshold for how much effort they are willing to put in to learn something new (let’s call this their Learning Curve Threshold) in order to experience something new (let’s call this their Innovation Motivation). When the two are combined, we can discover a visitor’s Zone of Engagement – a window between the point after which the level of innovation is worth the effort yet before an experience requires too much learning.

Screen Shot 2017-01-11 at 4.33.18 PMLet me break this down. All new technology has a learning curve, some more than others. The Museum’s Explorer app, for example, is designed to speak to what visitors already know about how they use mobile phones; Explorer’s learning curve is intentionally designed to be low, to bring in the most people. A new type of wearable headset, with hand controls for manipulating virtual objects, requires visitors to learn new gestures and movements, making its learning curve higher than that for Explorer. How much a visitor is willing to invest to learn a new digital experience is what I am calling here their Learning Curve Threshold.

Meanwhile, their Innovation Motivation describes their interest in and motivation for experiencing something new. Watching a documentary on an Imax screen fulfills a low level of innovation, watching it with 3D glasses increases that level of innovation, and watching it in as a 360 degree virtual reality movie increases that level of innovation even further.

I am going to make a big leap here, with no evidence, so it might be off. But let’s try it out and see where it goes. I suspect the Learning Curve Threshold and the Innovation Motivation map together: the greater level of one the less amount of the other. If the Learning Curve Threshold is low, which means a visitor prefers only experiences that are easier to learn, then their Innovation Motivation is also low. Correspondingly, if their Innovation Motivation is high, and they desire new experiences, we suspect their Learning Curve Threshold is high, and they are more open to learning how to do something new.

Screen Shot 2017-01-11 at 4.37.00 PMAt the same time, and this is where I think this gets interesting as a possible model, the Learning Curve Threshold and Innovation Motivation each push visitors in a different direction in relationship with an experience. The learning required to do something new will serve as a constraint, a barrier in the in the way of visitors accessing an experience. The average visitor will seek out the lowest point on the chart, so they can focus on the experience itself (not what they need to learn in order to begin). If the learning curve of an experience demands greater attention than a visitor’s threshold, the visitor will lose engagement. So the Learning Curve Threshold describes downward pressure on the design of a new experience.

Screen Shot 2017-01-11 at 4.38.29 PMA visitor’s Innovation Motivation, however, pushes in the opposite direction, always seeking the most new innovative experience, the highest point on the chart. If the innovation of an experience is less than the Innovation Motivation of a visitor, the visitor will lose engagement.

Screen Shot 2017-01-11 at 4.38.53 PMEngagement for visitors will happen between those two points, after an experience passes their required level of innovation but before they reach their Learning Curve threshold. This is their Zone of Engagement.

Screen Shot 2017-01-11 at 4.39.06 PMHere’s my big take away. Technology will change. Digital literacies will change. But visitor’s comfort level with learning something new, and their desire for experiencing something new, might stay constant. In other words, does the Zone of Engagement look the same ten years out as it does today for, say, teenage visitors here with their family, a young couple on a date, a grandparent bringing their grandchildren? If so, we can look to understand what different Zones of Engagement look like for different types of visitors. At the same time, we can also explore how different combinations of digital science data and AR/VR tools – with different levels of required learning and innovation – create wider or narrower bands of potential engagement.

About Barry

The Associate Director For Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives at the American Museum of Natural History.
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