Passively Asking for Input: Museum Exhibits and Information Retention

One of my main research interests is in user experience design; specifically, how people see and remember information. Certain aspects of “seeing” information are passive; that is, we see something without needing to do anything. This is akin to seeing a “Return Materials Here” sign over a book drop: you see this area fills a function that you need, but other than looking for it and finding it, you don’t have to do much else. But how much of this do we actually acknowledge, little less remember?

Countless times I’ve seen patrons fly past signs that tell them exactly where they need to find a certain book or when our library opens. It’s information they need but for some reason they haven’t gotten. So how can we make this more efficient?

I visited the Boston Museum of Science recently and participated in their Hall of Human Life exhibit. Now, anyone can participate in an exhibit, especially in a science museum: turn the crank to watch water flow! Push a button to light up the circulatory system! Touch a starfish! I’ll call this “active passivity”: you’re participating but you’re doing so at a bare minimum. What little information you’re receiving may or may not stick.

A young boy looks at images of feet on a screen

Who knew feet could be so interesting? (Photo courtesy of the Museum of Science, Boston)

The Hall of Human Life is different because it necessitates your input. You must give it data for the exhibit to be effective. For instance, I had to see how easily distracted I was by selecting whether I saw more red dots or blue dots while other images flashed across the screen. I had to position a virtual module on the International Space Station with only two joysticks to see how blue light affects productivity. I even had to take off my shoes and walk across a platform so I could measure the arch of my foot. All of my data is then compared with two hundred other museum-goers who gave their time and data based on my age, my sex, and other myriad factors such as how much time I spent sleeping the night before and whether or not I played video games.

But that’s not all of it. In order to do these things, you must wear a wristband with a barcode and a number on it. This stores your data and feeds it to each exhibit as well as keeps track of the data the exhibits give back to you. This way, you can see from home how many calories you burn while walking and how well you recognize faces out of a group.

Thus, in order for people to remember a bit of information, they need to experience it as much as possible. That’s all well and good for a science museum exhibit, but how would that work in a library, where almost all of our information is passively given? We need to take some things into consideration:

  • The exhibit didn’t require participation, it invited it – I could’ve ignored the exhibit and kept on walking, but it was hard: there were bright colors, big pictures, lights, and sounds. It got your attention without demanding it. Since we humans love bright lights and pretty colors, the exhibit is asking us to come see what the fuss is about.
  • The exhibit was accessible – I don’t necessarily mean ADA-type accessibility here (although it fit that, too). As I said before, the exhibit hall was bright and welcoming. In addition to being aesthetically pleasing, each station had a visual aide demonstrating what the exhibit was, how to participate, and how your results matched up. It directed you to look at different axes on a graph, for instance, and if it wanted to show you something in particular, it would highlight it. This made it easy for anyone of any age to come and play and – gasp – learn.
  • The exhibit prompted you for your input – Not only did it prompt you to participate, it would ask you questions: “Does the data we’ve collected match what we thought we’d get?” “Do you think age, sex, or experience will affect on the results?” “Were your predicitons right?” The exhibits asked you to make decisions before, during, and after the activity, and it encouraged reflection.

You’re probably saying to yourself that as library staff we do try to invite participation, to be accessible, and ask for input. But it’s not as effective as it should – or could – be. It’s not feasible for all library systems to get touch screens and interactive devices (yet), but we can mould our information to require less active passivity and more action. Using bright colors, welcoming imagery, and memorable, punchy explanations is a start. Some libraries already have interactive kiosks but they may not offer a video guide to using it. Adding more lighting and windows can make a space more lively and inspire more focus in our patrons.

There’s still a lot more to learn about visual communication and how humans process and store information, and I certainly don’t claim to have all the answers. But these are the questions I’m starting to ask and starting to research, and by the looks of things, it’s not just libraries and museums that are doing the same.

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