Digital labels reboot #TBT (and the #COMPASSConference too!)

sarah angus

Framework for Digital Label Evaluation c. Sarah Angus

Yes, it’s been a long time between #throwbackthursday posts, but was inspired this week by some twitter flurry about some fascinating work undertaken at the National Museums of Scotland (NMS): Data-led design: using visitor behaviour to inform touchscreen content (and, anything with data-led in the title is bound to grab my attention!).

Their findings are complementary to some work at Te Papa (New Zealand) who published a nice and useful set of findings from their study How your behaviour has changed the way we make digital exhibition labels:

  • Larger objects on the screen more likely to be read
  • Not all visitors will use a touchscreen
  • Visitors use the touchscreen for up to two minutes
  • Use the technology for what’s it’s good for – for example zooming in
  • Visitors will choose their own pathways, so don’t try and be too prescriptive or linear, although the NMS data did show that visitors follow a linear path to some degree

These findings complement years of research around how important choice is in learning, for example:

Key factors that support an individual’s learning are being able to choose both what they want to do and how they access information, especially in informal settings such as museums. Dewey (1916) recognised that education was not about ‘being told’ or ‘telling others’, but an active construction by the learner. Park (1994) found that 89% of those surveyed in the United Kingdom agreed with the statement People get more out of learning that they have chosen to do than they get from learning they are made to do. Griffin (1998) demonstrated that school children visiting a museum were well-able to be self-directed learners, and consistently declared their satisfaction with museum visits that provided them with choices (Kelly, 2006).

On a slightly different note is a paper given at the Human Computer Interaction conference, asked the question Digital Exhibit Labels: Enhancement or Distraction for Museum Visitors?, where a “team of learning scientists and computer scientists collaborated with museum curators to analyse the role of digital display technology in visitor learning in a collections-based exhibit”. The resulting paper can be downloaded here: Digital Exhibit Labels in Museums: Promoting Visitor Engagement with Cultural Artifacts.

There’s also some interesting work and literature reviews from work undertaken by Sarah Angus for the Australian National Maritime Museum: Digital labels: case studies, research, implementation.

Finally, the idea around checking in with floor staff about findings (NMS) is a great one – but comes with some caution, as this earlier #TBT demonstrates: Great Expectations: Do Museums Know What Visitors Are Doing? The lesson here being that a wide range of data sets need to be used in order to draw conclusions  but I guess we all know that…

This topic is particularly relevant as we prepare to launch into the COMPASS conference at the Exploratorium – two days of insights and learning about mobile, location-based technology, looking at the current state of play and where are we headed. Follow along on Twitter #COMPASSconference.

Oh, and while it’s Wednesday here in San Fran, it’s technically Thursday in Australia so I think I can get away with it!


  • Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and Education. New York: Macmillan.
  • Griffin, J. (1998). School-Museum Integrated Learning Experiences in Science: A Learning Journey. Unpublished PhD, University of Technology, Sydney.
  • Kelly, L. 2006. Understanding Museum Learning from the Visitor’s Perspective. Unpublished PhD, University of Technology, Sydney.
  • Park, A. (1994). Individual commitment to lifelong learning: individuals’ attitudes: report on the quantitative phase. Research series No. 32. Sheffield: Employment Department.
  • Roberts, J., Banerjee, A., Hong, A., McGee, S., Horn, M. and Matcuk, M. (2018). Digital Exhibit Labels in Museums: Promoting Visitor Engagement with Cultural Artifacts. In Proceedings of the 2018 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, Paper No. 623.

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