Tuesday 29

Testing the understanding of our exhibits with visitors during the design phase

Posted by Experimentarium on 29 Mar 2016

Sheena Laursen from Experimentarium, the science centre and RRI Tools Hub coordinator for Denmark, explains how it is possible to test the understanding of science musum exhibits. She illustrates it with a real case of a more than 1 million-Euro project opening later this year.

Very often we have to walk on unknown paths with our new science centre exhibits. When we talk about classic “one-person-one-experiment” cases, it is more simple to make mock-ups during the design and construction phases. But when it is about a complex and integrated set of exhibits, it is much more difficult. In order to serve the interests of our future guests and to act responsibly to our resources, we must not hesitate, but try to find answers to our questions during the development phase of exhibitions.

Often developers and designers will fall back and rely upon “their experience”. They will say that it is impossible to test, because the totality can never be reproduced during the early stages of development.

That is not true. If you know what you will achieve in the various elements, and have specified the behaviour and learning, you are looking for, it is possible to establish mock-ups of rather big and complicated matters. The investment is proportional with the final size of your exhibition, but the risk you are taking is also multiplied, and can you risk not to test?

PICTURE 1: Mock-up of exhibit showing transport of goods from cities in Denmark to cities in Asia via ocean ports.

World trade and logistics with a giant ball track

A big ball track has 24 workstations where 24 people and an additional 40 visitors can interact as co-workers. The ball track is a model of the world transport and logistics aiming to:

  • Put together a consignment of goods where they are produced
  • Select the transport type and send the goods off
  • Offer an experience of what it means to be transport workers and sailors around the world
  • Direct goods along the way, so that they arrive quickly and safe to the recipients at the other end of the world

There are no requirements for where the guests should start, or any demand of rotation, for the interaction to be fun and interesting.

At the workstations, the youngest visitors can work intuitively and get "things done" without bothering older visitors who might be working with more targeted assignments. Assignments from 6 years are presented without words in the first three levels. In the highest level words are added (from 12 years).

PICTURE 2: Test work in session, touchscreen by paper, evaluator to the right.

Test showed that young visitors could see our main objectives

Test visitors were from grade 3 to grade 7, we made four tests, each time making the model a bit more advanced and each time testing a limited number of parameters.

Visitors could, from the very first trial, identify the balls with the simple labels as representing goods. They could also from the beginning see that there was a transport flow from a town in Denmark to a country in Asia. They could also see the idea of the ships in the ocean.

From the tests we could see:

  • Visitors took the work at each workstation very seriously and stayed for the full test: They did the job and repeated happily the job over and over.
  • The ships were popular, and when we made the ocean more challenging, it became even more popular.
  • The difference in the ships (what to load) were understood from the very beginning and was respected.
  • When we introduced CO2 emissions it was understood by the older kids as expected.
  • The means of transport (represented by hoist + lane + graphic) was not very well understood, so environment with towns and lifting devices needs to be re-designed.
  • The aeroplane should not go all the way, only to the import harbour.
  • The interaction at the import harbour should be revised, as it wasn’t interesting enough to engage visitors.

We invested time and money to this extensive test, but it was also very useful. It told us, where we can use a first and simple solution, and where we should invest and revise the concept.

With the real ball track in production we will also perform tests with kids:

  • The real version of the ports are with a two-way flow (goods goes both ways) - how is it understood?
  • The lifting device and lane is illustrating means of transport - is it now better understood than during the test?

Sheena Laursen

Sheena Laursen works on RRI Tools at Experimentarium in Copenhagen, the RRI Tools Hub coordinator for Denmark

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