There are so many great things about surveys. They can measure participation or discontent, help you understand who is visiting (or not), and even give you ideas for things your visitors are explicitly interested in.
Ah. But note a specific word choice we made there. Explicitly. While surveys are great for many things, there are limitations as well, including the challenge of uncovering what people don’t know they want, or perhaps don’t know how to articulate.
Let me explain a bit more.
It is not unusual for our qualitative work (the work where we interact with individuals on a one-on-one basis, or where we ask open-ended questions) to actually appear, at first glance, to conflict with our quantitative work (e.g., surveys), where we have mostly closed-ended questions. Upon closer examination there is often no conflict at all, but this illustrates the strengths and weaknesses of two very different forms of research.
So let’s give a hypothetical example. If we were to ask mothers in a quantitative survey what their favorite things about weekends are, they might choose a response that has something to do with family time. But if we were to ask them in qualitative research to tell us about a recent weekend they found particularly enjoyable, they might also say something about alone time. The family time would thus be the explicit desire, but the alone time might be an unvoiced desire that they may find difficult to articulate, not know they actually have, or may not want to admit to.
These unvoiced desires, in whatever context, do not detract from the explicit ones, but they provide more depth to research and give us greater insights into how to better serve visitors in a meaningful, and memorable, way. That is, in ways they don’t explicitly ask for, but respond to.
We sometimes think of it this way. Explicit desires are the things you highlight in your promotional materials, and you also have to deliver them. The unvoiced, perhaps unacknowledged, or even unknown, desires are the ones you deliver in addition to the explicit ones, and are often the ones that make a museum visit go from good to meaningful, possibly even transformative. Delivering them may also surprise and delight your visitors.
Why are we suddenly discussing this on our blog? Over the past several years, we have surveyed over 100,000 museum-going households, so we have learned a lot about explicit preferences. And, over the past several years, we have done a great deal of qualitative work as well, mostly for our clients. That work has helped us uncover some of those fuzzy, nebulous, sometimes esoteric things that visitors emotionally respond to, but may not consciously know they seek or may find difficult to articulate.
To begin to get a handle on all of this, we launched a field-wide survey this winter with 40 children’s museums from across the country. And while the bulk of the survey was, yes, quantitative and explicit, the real heart of the survey, the intellectual reason why we ran the survey, was two open-ended questions designed to begin to uncover those unvoiced, perhaps difficult to articulate, desires that emotionally connect visitors, both adults and children, to museums and the stories they have to share.
Next week we’ll begin sharing the findings from this research project. We’ll start off by quickly going over the methodology and some of the quantitative findings, and then turn our attention to a more in-depth examination of particularly meaningful experiences adults and children have had, both in and out of museums.
Needless to say, we can’t wait to share!
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