“What else are we missing?”

(Reading time: 1m, 47s)

Last week, I shared an article I found by Coline Cuau that described how the British Museum used TripAdvisor reviews to improve its service design. Among other things, the researchers found that toilets had a bigger impact on satisfaction ratings for the museum than object labels, and that struck me as an interesting example of how user experience research can upend our expectations.

List member and Executive Director of the CSH Whaling Museum Nomi Dayan replied (shared with permission):

This is thought-provoking because we get degrees in museum studies to study the science of how to write labels, how to use objects to tell stories, etc... but it turns out they really just prefer nice restrooms. They don't teach this in grad school. This makes me wonder -- what else are we missing?

Yes! That question — “What else are we missing?” — is exactly what design research tries to answer.

And that got me thinking more about using reviews to uncover what visitors value.

Reviews fall into the Satisfaction category. Studying reviews can provide insights similar to what you might get from satisfaction surveys. Reviews may be more honest or reliable than surveys because they’re indirect, but they’re not going to uncover any truly new opportunities.

Reviews and satisfaction surveys tend to reveal fixer-upper insights. ("Fixer-upper insights" is a technical term I learned while practicing the art of childhood in Oklahoma and Kansas.) These are things like: pay more attention to facilities, tailor email content to deliver just-in-time visitation information, and so forth.

As valuable as all that can be, none of it is going to reframe the way an organization serves its audience to make it more relevant to more people.

That’s because reviews reflect the mental models and well-established expectations of visitors.

Studying reviews can help you spot patterns to begin prioritizing improvements in perhaps a more objective way, but reviews are bounded by the limits of users’ expectations, just as surveys you produce are bounded by the limits of your own mental model of your organization and its relationship to your audience. (Not you personally — that goes for all of us.)

To exceed those boundaries and limitations, you’d have to study people’s habits and values without regard to the individual museum. You would have to stop asking, “How satisfied are you with our museum?” and start trying to answer the question “What makes different kinds of people satisfied in different kinds of contexts that may have practically nothing to do with our museum?”

Thanks for reading,


Kyle Bowen