The User Experience of Your Space

Posted by Allison Houseworth, Oct 07, 2013 3 comments

Allison Houseworth Allison Houseworth

In the hours before Barry Hessenius’ Dinner-Vention this past September, Devon Smith wrote a post in which she asked “What if an arts organization employed a user experience designer?” As defined by Wikipedia - the dictionary powered by community - User Experience Design is “any aspect of a person's interaction with a given system, including the interface, graphics, industrial design, physical interaction, and the manual.” Apple is the best example of a company that excels in the area of UX design. Everything they create is based on user experience - your iPhone, its packaging, the stores themselves. But how do arts organizations embrace the user experience?

For the last four years, I have taught a course called “Audience Engagement: In Line and Online” to MFA Theatre Management and Producing students at Columbia University. (You can follow us on Twitter at #AlliClass.) Each semester we discuss “Service Mapping,” which is identifying each touchpoint the audience member has with your organization from the moment they decide to go to the theatre to the moment they get home. We start with exposure, move on to research, purchase, and include moments like entering the venue, exiting the venue, pre- and post-show activities. Traditional tech-world UX designers - and often arts marketers! - will focus often on the two stages of service mapping we call “research” and “purchase.” This is where we analyze how easy is it for your customer to find what what’s playing, when, where, and how to buy tickets. Where I see arts marketers - and yes, arts fundraisers, producers and programmers too - really struggle is when we bring the audience into our home - “entering the venue,” “getting to your seats,” “intermission.” Once the audience gets in the door your job is not done. Your audience is, in perhaps not the kindest of terms, held captive. They are, more positively, your captive audience. So what are you going to do with them?

To begin, I’d like for you to take a moment to think about what percentage of your audience is at your venue for the first time, and what percentage of your audience has been at your venue before. Got it? Cool.

Now, let’s think about those repeat buyers first. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that those of us who have done things over and over tend to take those experiences for granted. We know the Starbucks line isn’t really that long, traffic in DC isn’t terrible - it’s normal, we know where the bathroom is located and the best time to arrive to get a good parking space. But for a newbie? The traffic is atrocious. A Starbucks line that long must take more than five minutes to get through. A newbie doesn’t know where to park or where the bathroom is. Doing something for the first time causes anxiety.

So I ask again - what percentage of your audience is at your venue for the first time? Do you have marketing efforts in place, or want to have marketing efforts in place, to bring those people back? Beyond that follow-up email, what are you doing in your venue - your home - to make them less scared, less nervous? To make them feel at home and take care of their experience beyond the art event itself?

My mother, Deb, is an interior designer. Moms teach you a lot, for sure. Some of the things my mom taught me were what a crenelated parapet is, how an open refrigerator door shouldn’t block access to the rest of your kitchen, and how when you put a television in a room your furniture layout is always such that it all faces the TV. Good interior design enhances the “user experience” of your home. So what about your lobby?

Over the course of this last year, I’ve had the great fortune to work with both the Arden Theatre Company and Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company on designing a total of four lobby experiences. In each case we tracked tons of back-end data - downloads, photos taken, tweets, votes, views, and more - to assess the community’s engagement with the installations, but we also did something else: we watched. And when we watched, we learned. And when we learned, we changed. We learned what resulted in the most engagement by watching what the community showed us they wanted in the space, and adjusted to create an even greater user experience. Afterall, when a playwright or director watches and listens to their play in front of a live audience it changes, so why shouldn’t the work of an arts marketer change when they watch and listen to the audience in their space, which is everything but the stage?

In conclusion, I urge you to take the following step: spend one hour in your lobby before the performance and observe your audience. Be a spy. Consider the following:

  • Does anyone look lost?
  • Who has stopped to look at that content you put on the TV screen? How long do they stay?
  • How many people are on their smart phones? Flip phones?
  • Do your chairs make people sit and lose energy, or are they set up in ways that encourage interaction between strangers?
  • Who knows what a D103 and D104 is?
  • What do you overhear?

What you just witnessed is the user experience of your space. Now, knowing that great experiences increase loyalty and drive sales, what about your users’ experience would you change?

3 responses for The User Experience of Your Space


October 07, 2013 at 5:31 pm

Agree! For the average org, 50% of attendees in a given season will be new to you, so this is SO important. Newbies do need more hand-holding, and if they are misinformed their experiences can seriously go awry.

We take a LOT of things for granted when it comes to the audience experience--like you say, from the time they decide to buy to the time they get home. One of our consultants loves to train box office employees to handle newbies with extra care by telling a story about a couple that came to an orchestra performance in a full tuxedo and ball gown. They were mortified to find everyone else wearing khakis and jeans. They never came again.

I also remember Susan Medak of Berkeley Rep speaking at NAMP a few years ago about the launch of "American Idiot". They were attracting a completely new audience for the show, and would often have people show up way late--like right before the act break. They found out that these patrons were used to coming to rock shows where the band (and even the opener) didn't start playing until an hour or so after the advertised time. So, even communication points like "the show starts on time" can be helpful to a first-timer to your org!

(Side note: Berkeley Rep has a fabulous website section about planning your visit, which used to include a video of how to walk to the parking garage to the venue, pick up tickets, etc. I'm not sure where the video is now.)

I love the idea of collecting data on the space and what you observe newbies especially doing and customizing the patron experience and your communications based on that.

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October 08, 2013 at 2:35 pm

We spend so much energy attempting to create for our audiences, that sometimes we do forget to have conversations, observe, and evaluate what we are doing for them. We also could do a better job of following up and following through, especially with first timers.

I like the being a "spy" analogy, yet, I'm still wondering how we can document these accounts into our databases in a way that makes the most sense.

I came across an interesting new CRM program called TheBrain. This program helps make the connections easy to imprint in a visual manner. Perhaps this program could be used for exactly what you are suggesting in this post!

Feel free to take a look, and thank you for pointing out how important it is to work with our audiences instead of just working at them.

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Ms. Rachel Ciprotti says
October 14, 2013 at 6:11 pm

I think your points are both more difficult and more critical for arts organizations whose venues constantly change. This includes groups who perform at places all over town, as well as service organizations which may host workshops and other events in various spaces.

When you are in a new venue, it takes extra time to familiarize yourself with its quirks and then to translate that to your patrons. But since the percentage of people 'new to the venue' will always be higher in these cases, it's so critical to make sure your volunteers, artists, and audience/participants feel as comfortable as possible.

Personally, it is a pet peeve of mine when venues do not give good directions on their websites. Arts spaces are often in odd places, and people need extra help finding you!

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