It’s Makeover Time in Interpretive Planning and Design!

“Experience world class transformation!”  This opening line for a book advertisement sure grabbed my attention. This leading descriptor was for World Class, a new book by William Haseltine, describing a remarkable turnaround of an underperforming, money-losing medical center ranked at the bottom for quality and safety, into a patient-centred, high quality ranking institution generating a financial surplus. In our field who wouldn’t want to be a visitor-centred high quality ranking institution generating a financial surplus. This month’s blog is not about the World Class book per se, but served as a catalyst to think about makeovers and transformations.

Frankly, interpretive planning and design is in need of such a makeover, and that might require a bit of a transformation. Businesses and organizations that want to thrive are always looking for a chance to up their game when visitor focus is involved.

credit Bill Reynolds (it is worth learning from local coffee shops who know how to plan a welcoming space)

credit Bill Reynolds (it is worth learning from local coffee shops who know how to plan a welcoming space)

We like to think that our EID blog readers are Interpreteers (swashbuckling interpreters of course) that are always looking for smart practices to up their game.

This World Class call to action reminded me of an article we received by John Veverka, well known training instructor and consultant in heritage tourism and interpretive master planning. He also shares our concern with stale, outdated interpretive planning and the need for state-of-the-art “experience” based interpretive planning. John’s article, written a few years ago, was titled Interpretive planning for the next millennium

Veverka is quite clear that what "experience" based planning does is to stop us from treating the visitor as a passive element at our interpretive sites. “We must plan not just interpretive media and services, but rather plan for a wide range of experience opportunities for visitors, from active and passive, to entertaining or quiet places of reflection.” The reason that most of our interpretive sites exist has to be based on a balance between managing and satisfying the needs of our site as well as being proactive in considering the needs of the new millennium visitor.

He advocates for incorporating some messy ideas from the marketing and business economy perspectives into the interpretive planning foundation. One established planning foundation is the historical objective-based planning where the site would define classic learning, behavioral, and emotional visitor objectives. Then benefit-based return-on-investment planning, primarily from the management perspective, is often layered on. In the new millennium we must be ensuring benefits are considered not only for the resource and the agency, but also for the visitor.   

Benefits: Product of the Product

John mentions the marketing concept of selling the "product" of the product as a way to keep benefits in mind. Our products for example, could be a self-guided storyboard, a guided walk, an exhibit, a reenactment, etc. The “product” of the product however, is what the visitor gains from this interaction. In our EID work we aim to incorporate these into our “visitor outcomes.”

Veverka provides 3 questioning examples from the marketing world:

·       Are companies selling drills (the product) – or holes? Customers only need a drill because they want a hole. The "hole" is the product of the product (which is the drill).

·       Are companies selling cosmetics (the product) – or hope? The latter because they want you to feel younger, happier, more attractive (the product of the product).

·       Are companies selling automobiles (the product) - or "status" or “rugged individualism” or …? It is not about the car’s features but it is about how you feel about yourself and how you appear to others.

What values ARE we “selling” at our heritage institutions?

credit Bill Reynolds

credit Bill Reynolds

We want the visitors to value preservation of these heritage places but why should they? Because a visit to these sites can expose us first hand to these treasures that then can stimulate feelings and can fulfill many valued aspirations such as:

·         Accomplishment - sense of satisfaction

·         Beauty - giving pleasure to the spirit and senses

·         Community - providing a sense of unity/oneness, connection and belonging

·         Enlightenment - understanding through inspiration

·         Creativity - contributing something of your own doing

·         Harmony - experiencing natural relationships and feeling whole

·         Well Being - overall physical and mental health

·         Validation - recognition of oneself as worthy of respect

·         Wonder - awe in the presence of a creation beyond one's comprehension

The business world and the wellness sphere have a buzz phrase relating to this – go to a retreat in order to advance (your state of innovation and wellbeing). Heritage site visits could serve that purpose as well as assist people who value or want to:

·         raise and partially satisfy their curiosity,

·         be surprised, and delighted

·         challenge their perspectives

·         reduce their stress, unwind and gain a feeling of being restored

·         engage in social interactions

·         exercise and entertain both hemispheres of the brain (Left and Right directed)

 Is your site satisfying these wants? Try reviewing the site design and interpretive programmes against these checklists. How well are you letting potential visitors know that the site offers these benefits. Are you marketing products (trails, exhibits, etc.) or benefits (i.e. product of the product) that the visitor will receive?  Are you gathering testimonials and sharing them? Are you encouraging visitors to let their friends know about the site on social media?  Is it time for a makeover?

Remember you still want to sell the car or cosmetics in the end. You are tapping into these visitor benefits to accomplish why you exist and the need for support. Engaging in social interactions, for example, simply for the sake of social interaction misses the point. And most important these value laden experiences must be tied to the site purpose.

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Exercising Left Brain - Right Brain 

The last bullet point above about left brain hemisphere (LH) and right brain hemisphere (RH) exercising warrants some further analysis because in reality both halves play a role in nearly everything we do. Do our interpretive experiences cater to both?  We tend to favour interpretation aimed at right brain thinkers (linear, logical and text oriented). In a “makeover” experiential world, we need to rethink ways to incorporate both hemispheres for visitors in terms of what they perceive and value.

Daniel Pink, author of A Whole New Mind, has said that we are in the throes of moving from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age. His premise is that business success and personal fulfillment will be based more and more on the values of high touch/high concept because high tech logical reasoning is no longer enough. High concept is the work in demand involving non-robotic capacities as in…

·         detecting patterns and opportunities,

·         creating artistic and emotional beauty,

·         crafting a satisfying narrative, and

·         combining seemingly unrelated ideas into something new.  

Heritage sites are a breeding ground of inspiration for these skills. If we were to position our sites in this way, who would you invite in to help out?

Pink says, "… for nearly a century our approach to life has been reductive and deeply analytical -the knowledge worker - manipulator of information and deployer of expertise." Interpretation has followed suit. A makeover is needed to appeal to the nonlinear, intuitive, holistic, and context oriented right hemisphere directed person.

 You can’t discuss right brain-left brain values and visitor benefits without delving into the subject of visitor attention and motivation. Funny thing is, when reading the note from John Veverka it jolted another memory recall – I need to check out the interpretation journal, interpNEWS, that he regularly compiles for the profession’s benefit. 

If you want to become more familiar with the work of John Veverka visit  In the left side index column under heritage interpretation training center you will find over 30 courses they offer, as well as interpNEWS, an international e-journal John edits.

Lo and behold, the latest version of interpNEWS, January- February 2019, had an article titled, Engaging Visitor Attention: The Role of Interest, Workload, and Value by Stephen Bitgood. It further enhanced my deep dive into values and benefits at heritage sites.

Value is the engine of engagement

Stephen Bitgood is one of the preeminent scholars in visitor studies and has produced volumes of helpful research. His article states, “…visitor studies have repeatedly found that the deeper the level of engagement the more visitors learn, and the more likely visitors report satisfaction with their experience.” And don’t forget…visitor satisfaction is an aim that can translate to visitor support.

This specific study relates to the reading of exhibition content and the number of words per text passage as a key determinant of engagement level (the “less is more” adage comes to mind). Research shows that the major reason people choose to engage with interpretive material is based on value or benefit/cost, so you want to increase the benefit and decrease the cost to achieve greater perceived value. Greater the perceived value, the more likely visitors will deeply engage. 

Bitgood also witnessed that decreasing the visitor’s workload (time and effort) to engage with interpretive material meant a decrease in the perceived cost to engage. This appears to be most critical. The article hints at a direct correlation between visitor workload and words per text passage. (Note: the author provided no optimum range however). EID’ers believe that decreasing workload and increased engagement is directly correlated to the amount of text that directs visitors to action…to do something.

Remember visitors will participate in interpretive experiences based on a range of total body aspirations and different brain hemispheres. Which of the values mentioned above is your site ready to explore? Makeover anyone?

If you have an article or mini-case study to share on these topics, or if you would like our perspective cum analysis on any other interpretive matter, please write a comment and we will respond.