A Tale of Two Exhibits: “It was the worst of times…” Part One

An earlier version of this was posted among the Reviews at MuseumMobile.

Last month, I had two very different mobile experiences in one afternoon. I took a mobile tour on a Segway, and participated in a large-scale SCVNGR trek. I was looking forward to both, and had bike like mad to get from one to the other in time. At the end of the day, I felt let down by both. Looking back, they both left me feeling like I’d been marginalized and boy did I not like that feeling.  It doesn’t happen to me too often, so I think it was a good thing for me, because it reminded me how awful it feels to be willfully ignored.

#1) Boston Glider Segway tour

I had the opportunity to spend a couple of hours cruising around Boston as part of a Segway tour with a group of colleagues. I have a great job! It was a mobile experience of a very different sort, but it shared a problem with many handheld museum experiences, an unfortunate focus on the technology at the expense of the user.

The Segway is an interesting device. If you’ve never tried one, you should.  They’re dead easy to use after about ten minutes and “wicked fun” as we say.  And on the surface, it would seem to be a great way to “see as much as possible” which is something tourists have been trying to do since tourism was invented.  A guided Segway tour of Boston’s waterfront should be a big hit, or so I reckoned. In downtown, you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting something historic or worthy of note. The tour promised basic Segway training, and an hour out on the town with a guide who could talk to us through little radio receivers we got as part of the package. And yet, by the end of my hour-plus tour, I was more tired than if I’d been walking, and had seen less than if I had been walking.  What happened?  If I had to guess, I’d speculate that the people who worked on the tour were far more invested in the Segway than in the users’ motivations and experience. The tour actually did a great job of letting me experience a Segway. It just billed itself as a sightseeing tour of Boston, so my motivation (seeing sights) got trumped by their interest in their shiny object.

A perfect example of this misplaced focus is “Seg leg.” It turns out that you need to keep your feet motionless on a Segway, and I do mean motionless.  While you’re leaning and back forth and left and right to control the device, your feet are doing nothing. Try standing completely still for an hour. It aches after awhile.  So a constant undercurrent of the Segway experience after twenty minutes is, “Can I move my foot? No! Now? Oooh, red light! I can shift… Ah…” Not so conducive to focusing on the sights. When we returned our Segways and several people in the tour mentioned their leg fatigue, our guide laughed and replied, “Oh yeah. We call it ‘Seg leg.’” and continued collecting our headsets. If you love Segways as much as they do, you put up with it, or wear it as a badge of pride. If you’re a first time or casual user, you suffer. Not a great way to build word-of-mouth buzz.

Our tour covered an enormous amount of ground, easily a couple miles of the waterfront.  And yet, I took no pictures of our day out sightseeing.  Because you need both hands to drive, and if you never stop, you never get the chance to do that other thing tourists have been doing for ages; taking pictures of each other.  The tour route was obviously optimized to let us travel as long as possible between intersections and congested pedestrian areas.  And to make sure we covered as much ground as possible, we never stopped. We stood in place at red lights, but we never stopped and took time to be where we were.  It would’ve been a challenge to get us all off our Segways and back on again, so I can see how the tour planners would not want to do that.  But as a tourist, I wanted to be able to take a picture occasionally, and the experience didn’t allow it. So I breezed along, trying to hear what the guide was saying and wishing I could stop.

I won’t get into the tour content, because I missed a lot of it. I was at the end of the line and apparently their transmitter didn’t have quite enough range to get to me. I listened to a lot of white noise, a lot of wind over the tour guide’s mike and occasional content.  Compared to the care they lavished on making sure the machines were working and we were securely helmeted, the ostensible actual point of the exercise – the tour – received pretty cursory attention.

As we walked back to the Museum and debriefed each other, it became clear that we all experienced the same dissatisfaction. It was good to be on the receiving end of someone else content design decisions.  I often wrestle with exactly this kind of issue. In a science museum, you often wind up with shiny new devices that people think you ought to do something with because “They’re amazing! Have you seen what this can do?”  Technology is seductive and the lure of a solution seeking a problem can be hard to resist.  But resist! If you let your focus get stuck on what the shiny object can do instead of what your audience wants/needs/expects, you’ll probably get yourself in hot water.