Contextual Inquiry + Beta Service Update

(Reading time: 3 minutes, 23 seconds)

Yesterday, I wrote about how Jobs To Be Done interviews could help museums better understand their patrons — going beyond demographics and zip codes to discern people’s ever-changing underlying motivations.

(A note on yesterday's letter: : I usually write each letter in Ulysses early in the morning the day before you receive it. At some point late in the afternoon when my brain is feeling more tired, I print the draft on actual paper in the bleeding real world. I mark up the pages with my favorite pen, correct the copy once more in Ulysses, and then I feed it into a blog on the SuperHelpful website. The next morning, Drip notices there’s a new post and emails me to ask permission to send the email to you. I then give it one last look in Drip, where Grammarly can catch any remaining typos, before sending it on to you.

Yesterday, I skipped the printing step. Reading the email the next day, I noticed all kinds of awkward sentences and fragmented ideas. There’s something about editing offline that lets you see your writing in a new light. I’ll do my best to print each email going forward. Sorry, trees.)

The thing I want to emphasize about JTBD interviews is that the inquiry is around the interviewee’s life — the discussion couldn’t be further from a satisfaction survey that asks people to rate their experience with the organization. The interview isn’t about the individual’s relationship with the organization.

In fact, if you conduct these kinds of interviews, you may not even want to interview your own patrons. You may choose to focus on some segment you’ve identified — say, grandparents who have purchased a gift membership to your children’s museum — and recruit those same sorts of people from anywhere in the country. This can help ensure the conversation doesn’t veer toward an unintended sales pitch or put any subtle pressure on the interviewee. They have no relationship to your particular museum, so they’re free of any perceived obligation.

The focus is on the individual’s personal goals. Often, people hire an organization for a particular job because they want to become some better version of themselves. Or they want to be perceived to be something other than what they believe they are in the eyes of others.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot in recent months.

I’ve written about Kathy Sierra before — I’ve shared her talk, Badass: Making Users Awesome — and I’m in the middle of reading her eponymous book.

Sierra describes how great companies examine the larger context of the product or service they offer, and they try to help their customers succeed within that broader context. She uses a tripod company as an example. No one wants to become an expert in Tripod — they want to become expert photographers. So the tripod company seeks new ways to support that goal through content and product development.

I’d cite Wistia, a video hosting company, as an example of a company that’s doing this well. Wistia produces content that helps people make better videos. Much of that content doesn’t directly market their services at all. (No one wants to become awesome at hosting videos.) And they’ve introduced a newer product, Soapbox, that aims to help people quickly communicate ideas through screen recordings. Soapbox was born of an effort to help people communicate more quickly over email — Wistia winds up hosting more videos, and making more money, as an almost indirect consequence of that effort.

What does this have to do with museums?

Consider the larger context. Are people going to an art museum to Get Better at Looking at Art? In the example yesterday, a young man went to the museum to get better at drawing — or to facilitate visual thinking — and then, on a different occasion, to make a good impression on his date.

You could imagine many motivations for many kinds of people in many situations, but you’d be limited to what you can imagine and your expectations and biases. (No blame there — we all have them.) And the surveys you create for your audiences will have those same limitations.

That’s one reason why surveys don’t generate new ideas or insights all that often. There’s comfort in the numbers they produce — we all love basking in the warm glow of benchmarks — but surveys often just reinforce our assumptions about an audience.

And that’s why one of the upcoming beta services I’m planning for museums and science centers revolves around this kind of qualitative research.

Five museums have now expressed interest in participating in one or more of these beta services. If you’re among those who have signaled interest, I’ll be in touch this week with details.

If you are interested in participating, just reply to this email with a quick “yes” or “interested,” and I’ll add you to the list.

I’m pretty much at capacity, but it’s likely some folks may not participate in or be a good fit for some services, so please let me know now if you’re interested. This will help me better match up each museum with the appropriate service(s).

Thanks for reading,


Kyle Bowen