Earlier this year we trialled a project to track visitor movement in museums using beacon technology. We wanted to know where visitors go once they purchase their admission and we hadn’t used beacons before so it was a bit of an experiment for us.
Beacons are positioned at relevant static points within a space, and exchange data with your smartphone or tablet when in range. When a visitor walks within range of a beacon we can collect and analyse this data to anonymously track their movement within the galleries.
For this project we decided to switch this method around: we placed iPods in the museum pre loaded with an app and gave visitors beacons instead of cloak room tags. There were a few reasons for this. We didn’t have devices to hand out or a roll out strategy or signage. Based on our research we found that asking our visitors to download an app was likely to be a barrier to the project. Switching things around allowed us to take ownership of the issues that mobile devices encounter such as wifi connection, data allowances, and battery life and to have a bit more control.
We placed iPods in 4 locations:
- Front of House which is where the visitor first arrives
- Entry to Voyage to the Deep exhibition
- Exhibition Exit (via the gift shop)
- New Under 5’s kids space Mini Mariners Play
- Our museum supports a Windows environment. Our decision to use iPods placed us outside our IT department’s advice so we had to make our own way. We chose to use the public WiFi which kicks you off after about 15 minutes of inactivity. This meant that the devices couldn’t send the data they collected in real time. To overcome this I had to check in each day and manually connect them to our WiFi which was a big challenge
- Our public WiFi restricted access to the Apple Store so when our tech project partners needed me to download some things I couldn’t do it. I had to create Apple ID’s and make up fake secret questions and answers before I could even download anything and I ended up having to take the iPods home to complete the downloads. It caused significant delays and I probably wore out my welcome with our tech partners
- Because we owned the devices we had to manage their battery life. Three of the devices were near power points so we had them connected to chargers which worked well. One of them had a battery pack which I checked in daily to change out and recharge. We didn’t use Apple branded battery packs and they didn’t always connect or charge smoothly
- We gave our FOH team the box of beacons as is and asked them to hand them out instead of cloakroom tags and it turned out this was not enough preparation or support
- We had seen samples of much smaller beacons but when we got the delivery the beacons were really big. They didn’t look like cloak room tags and visitors questioned why they were being given them. They had no numbers on them, they didn’t fit in visitors’ pockets and our Front of House team ended up spending a lot of time trying to explain what they were and convince visitors to take them.
- Trialled during school holidays which is a time when we have a high visitor volume. We thought this would be great as we would be able to capture a lot of data but in reality it put pressure on our Front of House team during their busiest time and they couldn’t devote resources to explaining why our visitors should take a weird looking cloak room tag
- Didn’t hand out enough beacons or gather enough data to result in a successful trial
We learned that we need to make some changes to our project before we begin the next iteration:
- Bring in our FOH team much more and give them more support
- Smaller beacons properly prepared to operate as cloak room tags
- Explore ways to overcome internal IT issues like WiFi
Most importantly we learned that it is ok to have a go at something new even if it doesn’t go as planned. Don’t be afraid of trying – and failing with new technology and ideas.