Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Designing Interactives for Adults: Put Down the Dayglow

When talking about active audience engagement with friends in the museum field, I often hear one frustrated question: how can we get adults to participate? Many exhibit developers create thoughtful interactives intended for all ages and then discover that old familiar pattern--kids engaging while parents stand back and watch. In children's museums and science centers, this relationship is at its most extreme. Even if adults would like to engage with the interactives, it can be easy to fall into the background, endlessly waiting your turn to get your hands on after the kids in the vicinity have had their fill.

The common museum knowledge on this issue is that adults are timid, that we have lost some of the wonder, impulsiveness, and active creativity of childhood days. But I don't think that theory holds up. Major research studies by the NEA and others demonstrate that adults well into their 60s are highly motivated to participate actively with cultural experiences. They're playing instruments, painting pictures, and cooking gourmet meals in record numbers. They're going to trivia night. They're playing video games. It's possible--likely even--that today's adults are more motivated by interactive experiences than generations past.

And yet in the museum world, we still see interactives as being mostly for kids. We assume that adults don't want to do crafts or play games--that they want the "serious" stuff. And herein lies the self-fulfilling prophecy. If you design interactives for kids, adults recognize that the experience is not for them, and they don't engage.

There are many participatory experiences that appeal primarily to adults, and they are designed distinctly for adults. There's a huge difference between the edgy, DIY beauty of Candy Chang's participatory urban artworks and the dayglow colors, exclamatory language, and preschool fonts of most museum interactives. People of all ages are sensitive to the messages that design sends. I was talking about this yesterday with a group of fundraising professionals--non-museum folk--and one man told me about visiting the Monterey Bay Aquarium with his four-year-old. He told me, "she said, 'Daddy, when I see those [bright] colors and designs, I know that is a place that is made for kids like me.'" If a four-year-old can articulate the design message of an exhibit and respond to it accordingly, surely an adult can as well.

We've been trying to actively combat this at The Museum of Art & History (MAH) in Santa Cruz. When we design interactive experiences, we try to pick colors, fonts, and activities that are geared towards adults but have access points for kids as well. We ask people to do serious work, and they pick up paintbrushes and join in. We frequently meet families who come because they think the museum might be appealing to their kids--putting kids first when it comes to selecting a recreational experience--but then once they're here, the interaction is not kid-focused, and the participants tend to be very age-diverse.

For example, one of the little participatory projects we're doing now is on the butterfly effect. We're showing an installation by artist Shelby Graham which features beautiful photographs of butterflies juxtaposed with images of the bombing of Japan in World War II. Right outside the gallery, we have a simple comment board that says:
The butterfly effect is where small changes can have unpredictable or large effects. 
Have you made a decision with surprising consequences? 
Share your story with other visitors. 
Then there are lots of blank butterflies on which you can write your story and then pin it to the wall. This interactive was developed by intern Lucinda Shawcross. I was initially totally skeptical that people would actually engage in what sounds like a potentially uncomfortably personal or complicated exercise. But I'm delighted to say that Lucie was right and I was completely wrong. This activity is the smash hit of this season of interactives at the MAH.

One of the things that makes it successful is the multiple levels on which people engage with the prompt. The activity attracts about 80% adults--similar to our overall attendance figures--and people of all ages use it to share both silly and profound stories and observations.

The language of the prompt--and the whole idea of the activity--is adult-oriented. It's fun to read butterflies made by kids and see how clearly they are just learning the concept of cause and effect and treating this as a kind of grammatical exercise. There are people of all ages conflating causality with the butterfly effect, and sometimes, a small child's entry like "If I had not gone to school, I would not have friends" is more illustrative of the butterfly effect than an adult's "If I had not gotten clean and sober, I would be dead."

From a design standpoint, a few subtle things make this activity feel adult, or at least adult-friendly. The colors are muted. The butterflies are simple but not overly cartoony. The chairs for the activity are distinctly adult--a rocking chair and an overstuffed armchair. And we give people real pins to stab their butterflies to the cork board.

What are you doing to design interactive experiences that are adult-friendly? What design choices have you seen that scream "kids"?
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