Last week I attended the MCN (Museum Computer Network) conference in Minneapolis.  It was an awesome experience—one that on the whole didn’t feel nearly as focused on technology as you might expect for a conference hosted by an organization with the word “computer” in its name.  Rather, the complexities of our relationships—with objects, spaces, and other people—seemed to be on everyone’s mind.  My head is still swimming with post-conference ideas along these lines, so I thought I’d share a few things I’ve been mulling over since returning to DC.

In her riveting keynote speech, Liz Ogbu, founder and principal of Studio O (a multidisciplinary design and innovation firm), challenged us to remember our own humanity when working to create change in our communities.  One thing she said particularly struck me in thinking about my work as an evaluator.  Liz spent three weeks living with and talking to women in Tanzania for a project intended to encourage more people to use cookstoves.  In describing this work she talked about rethinking the data collection process so it is less of a “transaction” and more of a relationship-building process with evaluator and participants on equal ground.  We must not simply come in and “extract” data from participants, Liz argued.  Rather, we need to make them feel like we are “in it” with them.  That difference, she argued, helps builds trust and makes people more willing to share the deep, detailed information she needs to be able to build the best solution.  For Liz, that meant conducting multiple in-depth interviews with women about how they use (or don’t use) cookstoves.  But it also meant getting down on her hands and knees and cooking with Tanzanian women to discover things they may not have thought to tell her but that are nonetheless important for understanding how they decide to feed their families.  In my work in museums, I doubt I’ll ever have the chance to immerse myself so fully in visitors’ “home” environments.  But Liz’s speech did make me wonder how I might work to incorporate more of my own humanity into data collection and establish a deeper sense of trust with visitors that I observe or interview.  Of course, there are still many advantages to taking a more hands-off approach—“staying neutral,” if you will.  But I want to challenge myself in the future to reconsider this as a default.   I think there might be times where it would do me and our museum clients good to approach the data collection process in a way that focuses first and foremost on developing a sense of trust and understanding between evaluator and visitor, so we can ultimately better understand the complexities of the issues at hand.

I wondered too about the implications of collecting data in museum spaces—namely, whether our own comfort in these spaces means we sometimes forget that these are not necessarily places where visitors feel equally comfortable, and how this might affect data collection.  Lack of time and resources certainly makes it difficult to do interviews with and observations of visitors/users in their “home” environments, but I can imagine times when it might be really advantageous to do so.  Take, for example, a museum that wants to learn how teachers use their online resources/collections.  I’m willing to bet the data would be a million times richer if we could go out and conduct interviews with teachers in the their own classrooms and see first-hand how they use those resources, rather than if we tried to learn about their experiences by conducting a phone interview (where we can’t see how what they describe aligns with their practice, and we have to rely entirely on what they tell us when there may also be important factors they don’t think to share).  Sometime we are lucky enough to be able to do this, like in our ongoing evaluation of citizen science programs for the Conservation Trust of Puerto Rico.  Unfortunately, a lack of resources or a desire for large sample sizes often make this approach challenging.

As I chatted about these ideas with others throughout the conference, I became even more convinced of the immense value of doing rigorous, thorough qualitative research.  In my conference presentation on this topic, I shared a few “key competencies” for doing good qualitative research that I hope anyone seeking to understand visitors’ experiences will keep in mind:

Key competencies for doing qualitative research

Key competencies for doing qualitative research

Overall, my biggest takeaway this year is that designing and understanding experiences is never about the technology—it’s about the people.  Having a “digital” mindset towards museum work really just means embracing the many ways that technology allows us to find and tell stories, build and enhance relationships, and discover connections we never knew existed.  Human problems and relationships are at the heart of the “digital transformation” that MCN hopes to advance in the cultural sector.

I look forward to exploring this line of thinking more next year at MCN2016 in New Orleans!

On Wednesday, October 7th from 2-3pm EDT, RK&A’s Randi Korn, Amanda Krantz, and Cathy Sigmond will host RK&A’s second Twitter chat on thinking critically about outcomes, using the hashtag #RKAchat.  To join the conversation make sure your tweets include this hashtag. 

Why this topic?

Last week, Randi wrote a blog about the usefulness of outcomes in museum practitioner’s planning—highlighting that outcomes aren’t just for evaluation as some may assume. In the post, she posits why practitioners may shy from using outcomes more frequently in their work even though their identification and clarification are critical to achieving success (for exhibitions, programs, and otherwise). We would like to hear your take on outcomes, including what value you see in them and the challenges to using them in your work.

Twitter Chat Questions

During the Twitter chat, @IntentionalMuse will tweet numbered questions (for example, “Q1: How do you (or your museum) use outcomes in your work? #RKAchat”).  Your response tweet should reference the question (for example, “A1: We write learning objectives for school programs but not family or public programs. #RKAchat”).

Q1: How do you (or your museum) use outcomes in your work?

Q2: What do you find most useful about outcomes for your work?

Q3: What are the barriers to using outcomes in your work?

Q4:How might you use outcomes for planning your work?

How to Participate

If you do not already have one, create a Twitter account.  On Wednesday, October 7thfrom 2-3pm EDT, tweet using the hashtag #RKAchat.  You can monitor the tweets related to the chat by searching for #RKAchat on Twitter.

Roadmap to Success

When evaluators are called in to evaluate a program, exhibition, or museum, the first question they ask is, “Who is your primary audience?”  After fully addressing the “who” question, the next question is usually, “What are you hoping to achieve among [insert primary audience]?”  This question is code for “What are your intended outcomes?”  While most people associate outcomes with the evaluation process, what many don’t realize is that outcomes are even more vital to the planning process!  As such, it is disconcerting to witness museum practitioners avoiding clarifying outcomes and exuding that they fear doing so.  I have a few ideas as to why some might fear clarifying outcomes.  First, it is very scary for a museum to put itself out there and boldly say, “This is what our museum wants to achieve.”  Fear of failure starts to quickly emerge and squelch the possibility of articulating intentions with any kind of specificity.

Second, some practitioners believe that evaluators should just leave people alone; let them experience whatever, because museums can’t control people anyway.  True, museums can’t control people’s experiences, but they can provide opportunities to affect people’s experiences.  Museum experiences are two-way streets and both parties (the museum and the visitor) play a role and take liberties. Why wouldn’t a museum want to clarify what it wants people to experience and create an environment that purposefully aligns with those intentions?

Third, clarifying outcomes is a difficult process that takes considerable time, thought, deliberation, and prioritization.  If museums want to make a difference in the quality of people’s lives, then all staff will need decide together on the work of the museum and align their actions with intended outcomes.  The first step to planning is articulating results in the form of clear, measurable outcomes.  Articulating results is not an exercise in futility as those results can be used to plan subsequent work!

I appreciate outcomes for two reasons—the first reason is a prerequisite for the second reason:  First and foremost, outcomes provide an excellent roadmap for planning—whether for a program, exhibition, and an entire museum.  Yes, outcomes are a planning tool!  I know it sounds odd because evaluators champion them, but they are most useful for planning.  They clarify what practitioners want to achieve, after which they might ask, “Okay, this is where we want to go, so what do we need to do to get there?”  Outcomes can be used to make decisions about what one needs to do, what one can stop doing, and what one might need to change moving forward.   Oh, and the second reason: outcomes provide evaluators with a gauge for examining evaluation data; without outcomes, evaluation is moot.  However, if I were asked which is more important, using outcomes for planning or using them as a gauge for evaluation, I would say, using them for planning!  When good intentioned outcomes are used regularly to guide a museum’s work, the result is generally a “successful” exhibition, program, or museum experience.  By contrast, when outcomes are only used for evaluation, the evaluation often indicates that outcomes should have been considered in planning and throughout development to achieve a successful exhibition, program, or museum experience.  It sounds like a catch-22, and that is because it is.

If you’re interested in talking more about outcomes, be sure to participate in our next #RKAChat— “Thinking Critically About Outcomes”– on Wednesday, October 7th from 2-3pm EDT.  We look forward to chatting with you!


New York Yankee catcher Yogi Berra poses at spring training in Florida, in an undated file photo. (AP Photo)

New York Yankee catcher Yogi Berra poses at spring training in Florida, in an undated file photo. (AP Photo)

Yes, at first glance you might think that Yogi Berra and evaluation couldn’t be farther apart in ideology.  Not true.  By now everyone probably knows that Yogi Berra passed away last week at 90.  Most know Yogi because he was a great catcher, coach and manager for the game he loved.  My knowledge of and respect for Yogi are in two very divergent directions: I am a baseball fan and aware of Yogi’s greatness as a ball player; he is a Hall of Famer and was respected on and off the field, which is notable in today’s world.

The other way I know Mr. Berra is through his quotations.  I’m sure we all know a few, but I want to share one that I use very often: he said, “If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll end up some place else.”  I recite that quotation during workshops when talking about the value of articulating outcomes for planning purposes and always pay homage to Yogi, saying, “I bet you didn’t know he was a museum planner and evaluator.”  Many people equate outcomes only with evaluation, but outcomes are also invaluable as guideposts for planning.  If you don’t have any outcomes for your exhibition, for example, then you can do whatever you want because it doesn’t matter where you end up.  But developing a program or exhibition without any place to go in particular might end up as a free-for-all—not a good idea for museums that want to make a difference in the quality of people’s lives.  Mr. Berra might be appalled to hear that museums might move forward without any particular direction in mind.  I supposed if those museums came upon a fork in the road, they might just take it!

If you are like Yogi and are interested in being intentional with your work by articulating outcomes for the purposes of planning, then you might be in interested in our next Twitter Chat (#RKAchat), on Thinking Critically about Outcomes.  We’ll be announcing the exact date and time soon.  Stay tuned!

It has been a busy summer!  We are feeling a little bit like Carmen Sandiego with our small staff travelling all across the United States for work and fun but appearing very little on our blog.  Check out our travel map and see just what in the world we have been up to from Memorial Day to Labor Day!   Use this travel map link for optimum functionality (versus through the embedded image below).

Position Opening: Research Associate

Randi Korn & Associates, Inc., a consulting firm specializing in evaluating museum programs and exhibitions, is seeking a Research Associate in its Alexandria, VA office. The Research Associate will be responsible for implementing diverse evaluation projects and services, coordinating contractor data collection teams, collecting and analyzing qualitative and quantitative data, and preparing reports and presentations.

The ideal candidate will have 3-5 years experience conducting evaluation in informal learning settings and a desire to work in a client-centered environment. A master’s degree in social sciences, education, museum studies, or a related field is required. Qualitative data analysis experience is required, and quantitative data analysis experience is a plus. The qualified candidate must have excellent writing skills, be able to juggle multiple projects and work both independently and as part of teams. A passion for museums or other kinds of informal learning environments is preferred.

RK&A offers a competitive compensation and benefits package. For information on RK&A, please visit Interested applicants should forward a resume with cover letter, salary requirements, and two independently written and edited writing samples Please include your last name in the file name of all the documents you send. Closing date for applications is August 24.

Data visualization is a very hot topic in the research and evaluation world right now. As a student of art history and art education, visual communication is something I believe in whole-heartedly and, like many evaluators, have been honing my skills in visual presentation. In reading about data viz, the tip “keep it simple” is ubiquitous. I mostly agree with this statement, but to say you must “simplify” really oversimplifies the problem. I think data visualization expert Stephen Few’s company, Perceptual Edge, highlights the issue well with these three quotes:


Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity. Henry David Thoreau

Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. Anonymous

Seek simplicity and distrust it. Alfred North Whitehead


Simplicity can be distrustful if it is not done with clear intentions. Having clear intentions for data visualization requires a critical knowledge of methodology and analysis to understand what is being lost in the simplification process. What value is a simple graphic if it does not accurately represent the data? This tension between simplicity and accuracy reminds me of a children’s book by Lois Ehlert where a tiger becomes a mouse as shapes are incrementally stripped away. The process of deconstructing a tiger to a mouse is exciting…but when the results are really a tiger and you are making decisions from a representation of a mouse, there is a problem.


So while simple is better, or as we like to say here “less is more,” readers and data viz creators must question simplicity. No one wants to be surprised by a hidden tiger.




Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 187 other followers