Measure twice, cut once: The importance of evaluation
The most effective method of measuring how well your themes and messages 'get through' to visitors is to ask them! This can be done at three stages:
Effective evaluation goes beyond simply asking whether visitors enjoyed their experience by addressing questions such as:
This type of evaluation is used in the planning phase to decide what content, messages and themes will be incorporated into the exhibit. It examines the knowledge, interests, needs and attitudes of potential visitors and uses this to shape the scope and content of the proposed exhibit. Conducting this form of evaluation is important as otherwise, considerable time and effort may be wasted designing exhibits that do not capture visitors' interest, do not answer visitor's questions, or interpret features that visitors already know about.
What do you know about x?
What would you like to learn about x?
Would you be interested in a display about x?
Rate the following topics in order of interest.
Formative evaluation is conducted during the developmental phase and involves using mock-ups and prototypes to test whether particular approaches and methods are likely to work. This enables designers to test, revise and re-test inexpensive versions of the exhibit with potential visitors. The biggest advantage of this procedure is that it reduces the chance of making costly mistakes and ensures that the prototype is as close to 'perfect' as possible prior to building and installing the final product.
What do you think will be the main messages/themes of this exhibit/sign/display?
Which way would you walk through the display/attraction?
Are objects displayed in a logical sequence?Does the 'mock' signage and interpretation make sense?
Are signs clearly worded, visible and accessible?
Does the display address questions and issues that are interesting/useful/relevant?
Do elements of the exhibit compete with each other, and if so, which elements attract your attention?
Are there any signs/exhibits that you ignored?
This type of evaluation is conducted on real exhibits and usually involves real visitors. If you are asking questions, it is important to ensure that these are specific and that they probe why and how particular aspects of the attraction 'work'. For example, visitors could be asked to immediately recall specific facts, ideas and concepts that were presented in the exhibit or to paraphrase the main messages and themes contained in the text.
If possible, questions should be open-ended (eg. 'This exhibit made me realise that..'). This applies whether information is collected through questionnaires, face-to-face interviews or focus group interviews. Information can also be collected via visitors' books, though these should not be the sole form of evaluation as they have limited validity and are not statistically reliable.
What are the main messages/themes of this exhibit/sign/display?
What elements did you particularly like/dislike and why?
How long did it take you to go through the exhibit?
Is this too long/short?How does this exhibit compare to others you have seen?
Is it original, and if so, in what way?
Are there any changes/improvements that would increase your enjoyment and understanding of the topic/display?
Informally talking to and observing visitors is also useful in determining how well displays and signs are working. If visitors consistently ask the same questions, fail to use the display effectively, seem lost and confused, or voice similar misconceptions, staff can conclude that the display and/or explanatory signage should be revised.
More formal observation is also useful, as one of the best indicators of an exhibit's success is the length of time visitors spend in front of it. For example, people generally spend little time looking at exhibits that are confusing or uninteresting, whereas those that are appealing, attract and maintain their interest for much longer.
Issues that could be addressed through observation:
- Is there sufficient space for visitors to circulate comfortably?
- Are tactile and interactive displays robust enough to withstand daily use?
- Do visitors access and use the display in the way intended?
- Are there any bottlenecks?
- Are there any signs/displays that are being ignored or missed? If so, what changes can be made to counteract this?
The importance of conducting evaluation cannot be overstated, as unless this is done rigorously and consistently, considerable time and resources may be wasted developing products that fail to make connections with your target audience.