Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Getting Attention, Broad and Narrow

The goal of any attraction, exhibit, or any shared experience is simple: to max out the rewards of visitor time and focus to optimize the experience and the memory so important to return visits. 

For Americans, at least, who count and measure time as a form of currency, nothing is worse than the report that an attraction was a waste of time.  Which means money and energy were squandered, which could have been better spent elsewhere.  Part of the value of an experience is how easily it can be found, and then, how easy or difficult it is for people to engage with it.

How do you get and keep audience attention in an attraction / exhibit?  This is the basic question of where and when in the process guests are prepared to receive information.  Not all content is equal (the “what”), and context (the “where and when”) rules how or whether we pay attention.

Nothing happens in a vacuum.  A solitary experience is far different that a shared one – just ask any golfer who hits a hole-in-one with no one else there to see it. The social group is the validator of the experience. The group can be an emotional multiplier – enthusiasm is contagious – or exert a dampening effect. If you think you had a great experience but your companions don’t share your enthusiasm, you will soon start to rethink your own experience.


One notable example of this dampening effect occurred shortly after the stage version of Disney’s Lion King debuted on Broadway in 1997. At the time, there was a lot of hostility in the New York theater community to the very idea of Disney even coming to Broadway. We won’t mention the name of the theater critic, but his early review praised the show highly – an opinion not shared by his colleagues. After a few weeks of negative reviews by his peers, he saw the musical again and wrote a second review.  Basically he said that somehow he had been duped by the Disney magic and the play wasn’t nearly as good as he thought it was the first time. His memory of his first stellar experience was sabotaged—retroactively--by colleague negativity.

We are social primates.  So the experiences of the people around us shape our own expectations and experience, and we affect theirs. In order to entertain – and by entertain we mean in the original sense of the word – “to attract and hold attention” – you have to understand what else is going on.  Where is your audience mind being pulled, in which directions, while you are trying to show footage, deliver key information, or display science laws or live animals?

Attention Span

Years ago the Washington Zoo was studied to see how long people would look at the live exhibits in their enclosures.  The answer was an average of eight seconds.  And much of that tiny time slice went to reading the usual fence-mounted signage.  Museums didn’t do much better – under an hour is all that visitors will spend in a North American museum of any size.  In contrast, though, the average theme park stay was eight hours or more, with the highest repeat visits.  This is why the theme park is the gold standard for experience design.  What’s going on here?  How is it that attention is far better in a low-level or no-reading zone?


First off, the Disney Imagineers who designed the original park worked with images, not words.  They understood that the best designs are those that work with the way people already think and react to the world around them.  That is why there is was very little directional signage in the original Disneyland (aside from stylized “art” signs), and the reason that the park has always been high on the list for international visitors—you don’t have to speak English to understand what’s going on and what you should do.  It also adds to their exceptional export value.  They are essentially artworks that function as total immersive environments.   Immersive experiences don’t work like books (which demand close visual focus and control) – they invite the entire body and all the senses.  And reading divides attention away from the group, into the introversion of eyes and brain processing.

At the other end of the scale, take botanical gardens and arboretums.  These garden environments insist on Latin classification tags and even dense botany-textbook extracts, a kind of technical communication that for any visitor not already an expert, is especially fatiguing to read in public venues. 

Who is your real audience?

These places tend to be treated as research venues with signage by and for specialists. They project the way the people who work there want to be perceived by their colleagues.  But for the casual visitor who just wants to enjoy the majesty of a white oak or the exotic intrigue of orchids, it’s not helpful, and lends a touch of elite disdain to the experience.  The question is suddenly, “Do I know enough / am I educated enough to even be here?”  No such question occurs in a theme park, which deals with our shared history and archetypes, those icons and events we most treasure and identify with.

You may have to make a momentous decision about who your audience really is – who you want to attract, and why.  Expert audiences have quality attention to pay to your holdings or environment, and this is the attention that most curators, researchers, scholars, directors, and many designers actually identify with.  Art museums were originally galleries of painting and sculpture for sale, not improving institutions trying to educate the non-art-collecting public. The public-education impulse dates back to Carnegie and his crusade to lift American taste into the middle class, and continues in grants and evaluation programs for the widest possible audience

But the managerial class for public venues, especially art and history based, is most interested in expert-to-expert communication; that’s where their personal and career reward lies.  Hence the signage in Latin, footnoted exhibit labelling, expert treatises and lectures that need translation for any public understanding. 

The way the mind attends to, takes in, and understands any content is by broad themes, not scholarly documentation—that’s the genius of the themed environment.   


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