GLAM: Design Research for the University of Oxford Gardens, Libraries & Museums

Imagine bringing history and culture to life

The University of Oxford’s Gardens Libraries and Museums (GLAM) asked Modern Human to help them uncover the genuine needs of people planning cultural visits. They wanted to understand how they use digital touchpoints before, during and after their visit, and why people who will never visit Oxford use their websites. The result was an audience framework based on real behaviour and motivations, that would allow GLAM to enhance access and engagement to the University’s globally significant collections.

The University of Oxford’s Gardens, Libraries and Museums (GLAM) is home to an extensive range of globally significant collections, ranging from Egyptian mummies and classical sculpture in the Ashmolean Museum, to an unrivalled collection of early scientific instruments in the History of Science Museum. A key aspect of GLAM’s mission is to enhance access to and engagement with these collections by harnessing the power of digital technology. GLAM asked Modern Human to help them to develop a strategy to fulfil this mission, starting with developing a deep and shared understanding of the motivations and behaviours of their audiences, and how digital access and experience features as part of their broader experiences of the Gardens, Libraries and Museums.

We started by conducting a review of GLAM’s existing audience data and research. What this review highlighted to us was that while previous surveys and focus groups had amassed a lot of facts and findings, they lacked the deep and impactful insights needed to facilitate anything truly meaningful. Modern Human’s goal is always to go a little deeper. We want to understand the needs, goals, motivations and values that drive behaviour, not just witness the behaviour itself.

In order to achieve a deeper, more nuanced understanding of GLAM’s audience we conducted design research using a combination of ethnographic methods, which allowed us to examine key moments in the visitor journey and better understand the needs, goals and motivations of those interacting with the collections. This included diary studies and shadowing, allowing us to explore how visitors interact with and respond to GLAM’s collections and the existing digital touchpoints, as these interactions occur. We also conducted interviews with people planning to visit the collections and people who had already visited, so that we could understand their preparation activities and post-visit actions. Social media listening provided additional context to our research. We analysed social media posts made before, during and after visits to the gardens, museums and libraries and associated digital resources. We identified different types of posts and their reach, and examined the sentiment and subject matter of each post to identify clear social media behaviour patterns.

61 Shadows
21 diary studies
68 Interviews

Our research allowed us to create an audience framework, which included a set of high-level audience archetypes based on the motivations and behaviour of visitors, as well as a set of situational pen portraits.These draw upon the motivations and behaviours described in the archetypes, and add specific detail relating to what people in common situations might need. For example, a secondary school teacher preparing a school visit for a group of year 9s and someone planning a day out for a close friend with a particular interest in Egyptology would both fit within the same archetype - they’re both motivated by creating an engaging experience for others, however they each have specific situational needs.

Our audience framework included 6 strategically important behavioural archetypes that could help GLAM understand the real needs of their visitors, however we were struck by the fluid nature of behaviour. What our research clearly showed us was that these visitor archetypes are modal: while visitors to the GLAM collections and digital archives initially access the collections as a particular archetype, this can change throughout the course of their visit. Some visitors are more fluid than others and can switch between several archetypes during a single visit, whilst other visitors may enter and exit reflecting the motivations and behaviours of a single archetype. This switch in archetype usually occurs when an individual’s response to the collection stimulus activates other behaviours during the visit. This in turn changes their motivations and behaviour whilst at the venue or digital resource.

For example, during our research, a professor visiting the UK for an academic conference decided to make use of some unforeseen spare time by visiting a museum, something she loves to do when visiting a new city. She entered the Ashmolean as one archetype, simply looking for things that are new or novel to spark her interest. During the visit she came across the Beazley collection of Greek pottery. As a professor of musicology currently teaching a seminar on the music of the ancient Greeks, she switched into a different mode, and, thinking about the needs and interests of her students, began to gather information that she could later use to create impactful learning resources. Once back home in Italy, she visited the Ashmolean website as a third archetype to access the online collections and gather research material whilst writing about her own research interests.

Having identified that a GLAM visitor can inhabit numerous archetypes, even throughout a single visit, it became apparent to us that deepening their experiences as a visitor was not simply about mapping and designing for a single journey, but rather designing numerous entry and exit experiences with multiple reasons to re-engage.

Our research revealed to us that each of the different archetypes have different satisfaction points on a 4-tier visitor hierarchy of needs. From the bottom of the hierarchy upwards the needs are: enjoying the current experience, creating significant memories, developing understanding, and creating new ideas. The further up the hierarchy the archetype satisfaction point, the greater the willingness to invest personal effort in satisfying their needs, and the deeper the likely engagement with GLAM. Some archetypes are all about enjoying the moment, so putting additional effort into increasing their enjoyment of their visits does not occur to them. The experience speaks for itself. Others want their experiences to be significant and memorable so will invest effort upfront in the planning and preparation stages of the visit, but do little post-visit. Their engagement with GLAM is visit-based and fleeting.

We also identified something that we referred to as ‘The Oxford Effect’. Visitors are aware of Oxford’s historic reputation, and so feel secure in the knowledge that there will be related attractions in the vicinity. These visitors are consuming Oxford as a whole, with cultural attractions supporting their experience of the city rather than acting as a destination in their own right. This in turn impacts on the way they prepare and plan for their visit to Oxford, and reduces their risk of a poor experience. Much as the majority of visitors to Disneyland would research and read reviews related to Disneyland as a whole, rather than the individual rides, many visitors review Oxford as a whole, instead of researching what’s on at the independent gardens, libraries or museums. ‘The Oxford Effect’ impacted certain types of visitors more than others, and was reflected in the archetypes we created.

The research that Modern Human conducted and the audience framework we created has formed the basis of the digital strategy for the University of Oxford Gardens, Libraries and Museums. Our work has enabled Oxford to identify genuine user needs and realistically prioritise them against each other where they diverge or compete. This has led to a more cost efficient view of the digital experience that is more focused on the features and experiences that make a meaningful difference to the visitor experience. The deeper understanding that the archetype framework provides has enabled Oxford to create several new creative responses to their visitors needs. These would not have been apparent, except for the richer and more nuanced understanding that our work provided. Modern Human continues to work with the University of Oxford on their Gardens, Libraries and Museums digital programme.