Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Engaging Users: Users Engaging

Decided it is high time (a week later) that I blog last week's E-Learning Group Engaging Users: Users Engaging event. Claire Ross from Geevor Tin Mine in Cornwall has already written her post on the day so I'll try not to duplicate that but instead just talk about the points that particularly interested me.

The first thing that struck me about the day was the different audience and atmosphere to MW2009 (the last conference I attended). It would seem that broadly speaking 'Learning' people attend e-Learning events and 'geeks' (they call themselves that, I'm not insulting them!) attend MW2009-type conferences but there's not a lot of crossover. I think this in itself is a shame. People like me, and Claire, fall somewhere between these two camps. We're not quite technical enough to be geeks (we can't code for example) but our job is heavily reliant on our understanding new technologies as well as understanding learning issues. It seems that roles like these are still relatively rare and this may be why there is little crossover at present between the two kinds of events but I still think it's a shame and that both could be improved by having perspectives from the other side. This could perhaps turn into another post about the role of the e-Learning Officer and that's perhaps for another time so I'll move on...

As I often find happens with these events, it's not so much that I'm learning new things (although I am) but listening to talks and presentations makes me look at things from new perspectives, make connections I haven't made before and from there get some new ideas.

Frankie Roberto's 'keynote' was a good example of this. Frankie didn't really tell me anything new about how to engage users, but he made me think 'oh yeah, that's a good idea,that's a good way of looking at things' etc.

Frankie's already blogged about his three ideas for museums that he talked about last Tuesday. What got me thinking more was his 8 design principles. Claire's already listed them so I'll just highlight the bits I particularly got out of them:

1. Take note of existing design patterns - just as in real life we have come to accept that certain things mean certain things (a green light means go, a red light means stop), the internet is now at a stage where we're used to certain patterns and it's important to follow those existing patterns if you want to engage users e.g. people are now used to engaging in a number of set ways e.g. entering competitions, commenting, sharing memories etc and it's worth bearing these patterns in mind when you're designing a way of engaging users yourself

2. NABC - ok so Frankie did teach me one thing, I'd not heard of this before - NABC stands for Needs, Approach, Benefits, Competition. It's a way of anchoring a new project to make sure that it serves its users need. i.e. identify what user need it solves, think about how you're going to do it, think about how it would benefit the user and look at what competition there is - who else is also doing it and how they're doing it. It's certainly a model I'll try and use for new ideas in the future.

3. Design for either quality of users or quantity of users. Don't try for both, at least not at first. You either want a small audience really engaging with what you're doing, engaging regularly and putting in a lot of time and effort, or you want lots of people engaging but possibly don't need them to engage particularly deeply. Quality engagement might include something like a wiki or a blog, but quantity might be inviting comments on Flickr for example.

4. As a linguistics graduate, Frankie puts a lot of store in 'key verbs' and as a linguist myself I think he's got a point - he pointed out how really big successful social websites have picked a key verb that identifies what they want people to do on their site - on Facebook it's 'Share', on Flickr it's 'Upload' and these feature all over the sites. It's important to find a key verb that defines the one thing you want people to be doing on your engaging site

5. I really liked Frankie's point about visual affordance - what something is telling you to do with it. It's a design term used in the design of everyday things e.g. doors - if you see a panel at hand height, you know to push, or a handle, you know to pull (mostly!) and it's the same on the social web. Frankie pointed out that buttons (as opposed to links) have come to represent a commitment to something. You fill in a form and then by pushing the button you feel like you're committing yourself a little by signing up to something.

The next speaker was Guy Grannum of the National Archives who was talking about Your Archives - the National Archives wiki launched not long before the BPMA Wiki which I worked on and spoke about recently. It was interesting to hear about another wiki similar to the one I'd worked on, especially in the context of being on the Wiki panel at MW2009 and so having heard about lots of other heritage wikis recently too. I was interested that, rather like the BPMA Wiki, Your Archives doesn't just have one way that users can engage with it - they can, for instance, transcribe documents, or add to the catalogue (or do a whole load of things which are explained in more detail on their What can I contribute? section. If you can judge a wiki's success at all then you could say that Your Archives has been fairly successful, it's got 7,300 articles and has had 167,000 edits and yet, unlike the Science Museum Object Wiki or Placeography Wiki (both discussed at MW2009) it doesn't just have one single call to action.

Moving quickly onwards, I was interested to hear about Caboodle, an upcoming (and soon to be launched) Culture24 Project. Anra Kennedy and Mark Slawinski only had about 5 minutes to outline what Caboodle will do so it was hard to get a real picture, but in a nutshell it sounds like it will give children aged 8-13 the chance to create their own online collections of objects from museums and from their own uploads and will hopefully have the end result of getting more children into museums with their families. It will be useful for schools but is largely intended to be extra curricular and Culture24 also hope that museums will launch Caboodle Clubs to engage children in person as well as online. It's certainly something I'd like to keep an eye on to see how it goes and whether it could be useful for my work.

Ruth Levis then talked about Creative Spaces which I had largely heard about at MW2009 through the efforts of Carolyn Royston, Steve Gardam and others. It was still interesting to hear another person's perspective on it though. Regardless of what you think of Creative Spaces and the National Museums Online Learning Project in general, when you hear the people who worked on it talking about the project, it's abundantly clear that they should be applauded for all their hard work in what was undoubtedly a very complicated project.

The final talk of the day was from Jack Latimer and was about Community Sites, and particularly the My Brighton and Hove site. Around for about 9 years now, it should give hope to anyone who is skeptical about the power of community and the ability of web 2.0 to harness the power of the many and create something more than the few could manage etc etc. This whole project cost £2000 and the website is full of really lovely stuff and is completely maintained by the community. A Brighton resident at the conference also added a nice anecdote - that her local butcher and the community in general actively promote the site and they all clearly feel that it belongs to them and they are justifiably proud!

Lastly, Frankie also used the day to promote another project that he's working on that I've been involved with. Frankie has teamed up with a friend of his - Big Chief I Spy - to revivify the old I Spy books for children in a new way using the power of the social web. Big Chief I Spy has sent old I Spy books to loads of different people and is encouraging them to use Twitter and Flickr and the I Spy Blog to come together and share the fruit of their spying. I've got I Spy London from sometime in the 90s and although I haven't been doing as much spying as I ought to have done recently, it's been a great experience. It's so easy to take London for granted and just walk to work every day with my head down, thinking about what you need to do that day, but I Spy really makes you take a look at the great city around you (or whatever it is you're spying). It's a great formula that museums could use as well to help people engage with galleries more, rather than just wandering around them aimlessly. You can find out more about our I Spy Tribe on Flickr , on the blog: http://www.ispytribe.com or on Twitter by following @bigchiefispy.

On the whole I enjoyed the Engaging Users Day because it made me look at things differently, I met a few new interesting people, heard about a few project I didn't know much about, and came away with some new ideas. All-in-all, just what you want from a conference like that.