Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Willingness and Active Engagement with Digital Media: Developing a Space for “Reflective Interaction” within an Interactive Museum Exhibit

Overview: Willingness and Active Engagement in a Museum Setting

A museum, through its exhibits, endeavors to impart an experience and share information with its patrons. Of course, it must first pique the curiosity of the participant and then follow through with information presented in an intriguing manner. As interactive technologies mature, museums now have the unique capability of housing long-term immersive, multi-sensory public spaces. This can include surround sound, touch screen interfaces, motion-reactive lighting, and much more. They have myriad tools at their disposal to engage the public and to impart information in such a way as to allow for conscious recognition of a transmitted message, but they must do so keeping the psychological well-being of their patrons in mind. As defined by Friedman and Kahn, “psychological welfare refers to the higher order emotional states of human beings, including comfort, peace, and mental health.”1
In a way, it is a manner of digital storytelling with the key component being immersiveness. Specifically, “the people who participate in interactive entertainments are given two gifts that are never offered to audiences of passive entertainments: choice and control.”2 However, there is no way to force engagement with any particular museum exhibit, even one designed to be interactive. One can only allow room for active participation from the patron. Balancing the methods of interaction with the patrons’ willingness to interact, in combination with issues such as societal trends (the exogenous position3), proves to be an interesting space for further exploration in Value Sensitive Design.

Implicated Value: Willingness

Values are not simply abstract ideas, but often come into being through interaction. One of the values that is directly implicated with the creation of an immersive museum exhibit is the willingness of the patron to interact and then reflect on the subject of the created environment. In this paper, we call this fundamental value willingness.
This value is implicated within this sociotechnical space because of the need for consented interaction with an exhibit piece in order for engaged learning to occur. In some cases, forcing an interaction inhibits acceptance of new information or reflective interaction with the space.

Stakeholders: Direct and Indirect

Direct stakeholders within the context of an interactive museum exhibit include the designers and the museum patrons. Both interact with the ultimate design of the space, though from opposite ends of the user-creator spectrum. The indirect stakeholders are those who interact with the museum patrons and those whose information is represented by the museum exhibit. Dependent on the type of information that is being shared and the intended purpose of the exhibit, the effect on the museum patron will vary (i.e. they might wish to share information with another person or might act differently after exposure to a learning stimulus), as will the outcome that effects the “owner” of the information.
For example, an exhibit about global warming would have the intention of having the patron decrease their carbon footprint or to otherwise engage in “green” behaviors like recycling. The first step would be informing them of the problem and then providing solutions. In this case, the direct stakeholder of the exhibit would be the patron while the indirect stakeholder would be the global environment.
One of the main conflicts includes the desire of the designer and museum to communicate the message effectively through a designed interactive environment. This must take into account the ideas of free will, active engagement, and what to a patron is worthwhile. While entering the museum in the first place does indicate one level of willingness to engage with the experiences provided therein, we are speaking of the level of engagement required for effectual communication of the sort required to influence a mentality or behavior. That could only be precipitated by a broader and deeper sense of willingness.
In regards to contextualizing this value in terms of the interacting human, we will mention some attributes connected to lowering the activation threshold of interest and willingness for a patron. Curiosity and fascination serve this purpose, but to encourage deeper levels of engagement beyond the superficial we must see what other elements effect receptivity. Additional fields that may prove informative in this context include human-centered design, everyday-life information seeking4, and additional Value Sensitive Design methodologies regarding trust and social capital.

Additional readings:
The paper “Designing an Immersive Environment for Public Use” by Robertson, Mansfield and Loke provides a sample situation that explicitly remarks on the participatory and human-centered design process of creating a “multi-user, immersive museum environment.”5


1 Friedman, B., & Kahn, P. H., Jr. (2007). Human values, ethics, and design. In Sears, A. & Jacko, J. (Eds.). The Human-Computer Interaction Handbook: Fundamentals, Evolving Technologies and Emerging Applications, 2nd Edition. pgs. 1241-1266.
2 Carolyn Handler Miller, (2008). Digital Storytelling: A Creator's Guide to Interactive Entertainment. 2nd ed. (Amsterdam: Elsevier, Focal Press), pgs. 55-56.
3 Friedman, B., & Kahn, P. H., Jr. (2007). Human values, ethics, and design. In Sears, A. & Jacko, J. (Eds.). The Human-Computer Interaction Handbook: Fundamentals, Evolving Technologies and Emerging Applications, 2nd Edition. pgs. 1241-1266.
4 Savolainen, Reijo (2008). Everyday Information Practices: A Social Phenomenological Perspective, The Scarecrow Press: Lanham, Maryland. Chapter 7, pgs. 183-199.
5 Toni Robertson, Tim Mansfield, and Lian Loke, "Designing an Immersive Environment for Public Use," in Proceedings of the Ninth Conference on Participatory Design: Expanding Boundaries in Design, Vol. 1 (2006), 31-40 (Trento, Italy, August 1-5, 2006), pgs. 31-39.

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