Enhanced Information Experience in Art Museums: How Using Multimedia Mobile Tour Guides Affects Visitor’s Engagement (2015)


I conducted a research project at Museum of Fine Arts in Boston to learn how using multimedia mobile tour guides affects visitor's engagement with the exhibits. I used mixed methods--observation, survey, reaction card, and interview--to collect data from the museum visitors. It was a good field research experience for me to study how people interact with information in the real world.



Backgrounds

In the digital era, people have access to a wide range of information, all by simply browsing the Internet from their homes. This makes the museum noteworthy, as it is a place that people still visit to get tangible information. Meanwhile, a growing number of museums are offering multimedia mobile tour guides to their visitors in order to support them with information discovery in the museum. Using the tour guides, visitors can get information from both exhibited objects (physical world) and by interacting with the guide (virtual world). In other words, they are able to experience a museum while coming and going between two different worlds.

According to museum statistics by Fusion Research + Analysis in 2012, museums expect mobile tour guides to help their visitors engage (94% of US museums) and learn (88% of US museums). However, while museums invest resources for these goals, only a limited number of visitors use the guides (Lee, 2014). This discrepancy must be examined, by looking into how users are using the guides.

There have been a limited number of studies focusing on the influences of the guides on visitors. The predominant research on museum mobile tour guides focuses on testing high-end technology guide prototypes or functions on museum-side or product-side, while studies about how museum visitors experience using mobile guides are very limited.

Research Purposes

As a user study, this study aims to investigate how the guides affect a visitor’s information experience in art museums, with the setting being the MFA. Among information experience elements, we focus on engagement, which is regarded as a core factor of information experience.

Research Questions

The study has two research questions.

RQ1. Does using mobile guides make any differences in visitor’s degree of engagement with exhibits?
RQ2. What differences in engagement are made by using mobile guides?

Research Setting

The Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in Boston, one of the representative art museums in the world, is the chosen research setting. The museum offers a multimedia mobile tour guide (MFA Guide) on an iPod. As visitors use the iPod guide, they get additional and contextual information about selected art works. The interpretive content includes text, audio, and video. Visitors are supposed to control the guide by touching an iPod’s screen to read, listen, or watch the contents. The guide is offered for free only for visitors who are blind, low vision, Deaf, or hear of hearing. Otherwise, the museum charges $5 for members, $6 for nonmembers, and $4 for kids 17 or under.

After consulting with Head of Planning and Evaluation at the MFA, the research will take place in the special exhibition room (Gund Gallery). Recently, the MFA opened a special exhibition “Hokusai” on April 5. Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849) is an internationally recognized Japanese artist. A selected group of 142 works are exhibited in the room that are divided into 7 different sections according to the subject matter of all of the paintings. The MFA Guide offers 19 supportive multimedia contents with general and contextual information about each selected painting. Several contents cover multiple paintings. The research will be mainly conducted in the 1st and 2nd section of the exhibition: Urban Pleasure; and View from Mount Fuji. The first two rooms have relatively more paintings which have contents on the guide compare to other rooms.

Research Design

The study adopts between-group design to compare a treatment group and a control group. Participants in the treatment group will use the MFA Guide, while participants in the control group will not use the guide. By comparing results from these two groups, the study will figure out how using the guide differentiates a visitor’s engagement in the museum.


The study focuses on engagement, among elements comprising information experience. Bruce et al. defined information experience as “a complex, multidimensional engagement with information.” There is no agreed-upon definition for the concept of engagement, but the study uses a definition by Laurel which appears several times in related articles and is fit for characteristics of this study: “Engagement means that a person can experience a mimetic world directly, without mediation or distraction.” The study defines elements of engagement as behavioral, cognitive, and affective, based on related articles.

Methodology

The study will use mixed methods, combining both the qualitative and the quantitative. Observation, survey, reaction card, and an interview will be used to fully understand samples. Each participant will spend approximately 60 minutes to complete the study.



Significance of the Study

(1) Regardless of resources museums are investing in multimedia mobile guides. However, not many visitors are using the guides. This study hopes to fill in the gaps in research on how visitors experience a museum when using mobile devices and provide knowledge on visitors’ mobile guide use.

(2) Most of the studies on multimedia mobile guides aim to test new technology or prototypes, rather than understand users. More research is needed to fully understand how visitors respond. The proposed study will offer a starting point for further user studies on the use of mobile guides in art museums.

(3) The immediate and practical significance of this research study is that it will provide concrete data and insights about how visitors interact with the mobile multimedia tour guide of the MFA. Furthermore, it will help the MFA to have a deep understanding and ides for improvements of the guide.

Results

The result of the study has been delivered to MFA. The report can be found here.