Relevance is what happens when you're busy researching other things

(Reading time: 3m, 8s)

Sometimes I patrol Heckscher Park, distributing satisfaction surveys to the local fauna and interviewing flowers.

I like to watch the giant turtle — big as a manhole cover — that hunts under the little footbridge. On Sunday, he was slouched over his favorite bar stool near the edge of the water, devouring a duck. 

Then there are the sparrows, wrens, and warblers who come and go as they please. They’re always asking, “What’s in it for me?” 

The geese think they own the park. You can’t walk five feet without stepping in one of their donations.

On my walk, I thought about different ways one could study these creatures.

Design Research: How do different kinds of creatures spend their time? Why do some return to the park? Why do some stop coming to the park? Who has never considered coming to the park and why? What is the context in which the animals make decisions? What are the catalysts for changes in behavior? And how can we use this information to design better experiences and improve the organization?

Audience Research: Many of the questions above but mostly focused on understanding currently engaged park creatures — not so much the deer and seagulls who never set foot within its fences.

Market Research: Shares traits with design and audience research in theory, but, in practice, usually limited to demographics — understanding how many creatures are in the region, where they live, and how we can serve ads to them on social media.

All these forms of research can add value and often overlap with one another. And they could perhaps all be lumped under the “user research.” 

But while I was sitting on a park bench, drawing the geese, I found myself thinking about the purpose of these different kinds of research. I remembered Alan Cooper’s book, About Face: The Essentials of Interaction Design, where he groups user research into three categories, each of which revolve around different user goals:

  1. Experience goals: How someone wants to feel when interacting with a product or service. 

  2. End goals: What someone wants to get done by using a product or service.

  3. Life goalsWhy someone wants to use a product or service — their deeper motivations and drives. (In Jobs To Be Done terms: What progress is the individual hoping to make in their life by hiring the product or service?)

When it comes to museums, staff might ask visitors to complete a satisfaction survey; In that case, they’re addressing experience goals. Or, if they ask “What is your reason for visiting?” as people enter the museum, they’re getting closer to learning something about visitors’ end goals. 

And that may be where the investigation ends — there may be little attention given to that third category, life goals. 

In part, that’s because you can’t arrive at those kinds of insights by simply asking, “What are your life goals?” People aren’t usually able to provide useful answers to such broad questions. You have to dig deeper, and organizations don’t always have the resources to conduct that kind of field work. 

Moreover, contextual research may not appear to yield information that is all that relevant to the organization. 

What about relevance?

Museum leaders worry about relevance a good deal, which to me seems at odds with the fact that relatively few are focused on that third category of life goals (or Customer Jobs). Some may even disregard data they collect that are related to or could reveal insights around life goals.

For example, if interviews reveal that some visitors view playing sports outdoors with their children as an appealing alternative to visiting the museum, that museum leaders may disregard that information because they’ve already decided that they want to view competition (for lack of a better word) in terms of other cultural organizations

So, a clue as to how visitors view the museum’s value in relation to deeper goals and its true competitors — family relationships, outdoor sports — may go unexamined. 

But what better way to remain relevant than to thoroughly understand the fundamental goals of the audience and the real progress they wish to make in their lives?

More on this to come. 

For now — How are you applying these different kinds of research? What are you trying to uncover more than anything else? Experience goals? End goals? How have you tried to think about that third category of life goals? How might we understand the museum’s relevance to different audience segments without studying people’s underlying motivations?

Thanks for reading,

Kyle

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