Lessons Learned: Evaluating the Whitney’s Multimedia Guide

Dina Helal, USA, Heather Maxson, USA, Jeanine Ancelet, USA


What are visitors’ motivations for using multimedia guides? What do they value most about the experience? Whitney Museum Education staff worked with Audience Focus Inc., a research and evaluation organization, to conduct an evaluation of the Whitney Biennial 2012 multimedia guide. Comprised of audio stops for adults and children, audio transcripts, and videos, the multimedia guide allowed adult visitors and children ages 8-12 to hear directly from artists as they spoke about the thoughts, processes, and ideas behind their work in the Whitney Biennial 2012 exhibition. Multiple methods were used to gather data, including questionnaires, observations, and focus group discussions that targeted different demographics. This paper shares the evaluation findings and subsequent changes made to the Whitney’s multimedia guide as a result of the study. We will identify the challenges that staff face as we plan current and future mobile projects and situate our study in the context of other relevant research in the field.

Keywords: art, artists, multimedia guide, evaluation, mobile strategy

1. Introduction

In preparation for its move to a new building in 2015, the Whitney Museum of American Art has been giving thoughtful consideration to its interpretive plan and strategies, including its use of mobile devices and digital media in the galleries and beyond. While audio tours have been available at the Museum since the early 1990s, in 2011 the Whitney made the transition from a traditional, push-button audio device to an iPod Touch platform that can support multimedia components. Although the Whitney has long been interested in shifting to a more sophisticated multimedia device, staff had no prior experience in developing apps and lacked the internal infrastructure for in-house app production. Thus, the Whitney’s first multimedia guide, which was produced for the Biennial 2012 exhibition, represented an important change within the Museum, as well as among staff who faced a significant learning curve in developing the navigation and structure of the guide and understanding how visitors would use the content on site.

With the development and implementation of the Biennial 2012 multimedia guide coinciding with other strategic planning at the Museum, the Whitney used the opportunity to conduct a comprehensive evaluation study and contracted with Audience Focus Inc., an evaluation, interpretive planning, and professional development organization, to lead the study. The purpose of the study was to better understand visitors’ current use and perceptions of digital media at the Whitney, as well as their thoughts and opinions about how they might use and value these tools in future art museum experiences. The findings from this study are discussed in detail in this paper (Ancelet, 2012). Because this was the first iteration of a multimedia guide (it was the first time that the Museum offered audio stops, audio transcripts, visual descriptions, closed-captioned videos, and variable text size on one device), staff also wanted to learn more about how visitors were using the devices and what specific components of the guide they were using most frequently. Additionally, because of a limited budget and Education staff’s interest in learning how to conduct future evaluations, the study was designed to help build staff capacity in evaluation methods and approaches—specifically in how to conduct focused visitor observations and collect consistent data.


Figure 1: Start page of the Biennial 2012 multimedia guide

2. The Biennial 2012 multimedia guide

During the planning stage, Whitney staff identified several new opportunities for audio and multimedia interpretation of the Biennial 2012 exhibition, including the chance for visitors to hear directly from contemporary artists and for content providers to try out new ideas—such as creating Biennial audio stops specifically for children. The Biennial exhibition also presented many challenges when conceptualizing the multimedia interpretation, including the lack of a unifying theme, a non-linear exhibition layout, and the fact that many visitors were unfamiliar with the art on view. Additionally, object labels were sometimes placed in fairly inaccessible places for aesthetic reasons.

Once ready for public use, the multimedia guide was offered free of charge on iPod touch devices leased from Antenna Audio. Antenna produced the application for content delivery, while Whitney staff created all content. The guide featured fifty Biennial audio stops for adults, thirteen Biennial audio stops especially for children, and nineteen videos, including an introduction to the exhibition and the voices of curators and artists. Additionally, the multimedia guide included content specifically for Access audiences, including transcripts of the audio stops, variable text size, and all closed-captioned videos.


Figure 2: Biennial 2012 multimedia guide menu, keypad, and track list sortable by audience

A major challenge for staff was organizing the range of content and navigation for diverse audiences so that all visitors could find what they were looking for without too many screen taps. In addition, the menu needed to be specific to the flow and experience of looking at artwork in the Biennial galleries. We wanted to build on templates that we had already established for two previous exhibition-related audio guides, transitioning from an Antenna Audio Explorer mp3 player with hard-button keypad to a screen-based keypad. After conversations with curatorial and education staff who were concerned about the heads-up, heads-down experience—that visitors would look at the device and not the works on view—we intentionally “siloed” the videos as a separate menu item to encourage visitors to watch them in the cafe or interstitial spaces rather than in the galleries.

As with the design of any exhibition, program, or interpretive content, compromises and decisions had to be made in order to have a final product for the Biennial opening. Expecting that some of these same key questions and challenges (e.g., heads-up/heads-down) would surface in developing future digital media experiences, Whitney staff investigated some of those questions by going directly to visitors and asking them to weigh in on the discussion.

3. The study: What did we know already, and where could we find out more?

The Whitney’s shift from a traditional audio guide tour to a more robust multimedia guide parallels current trends in digital media offerings in art museums across the globe. Over the past decade, museums have increasingly begun to supplement or enhance the standard audio player by adding videos, games, interactive orientation maps, downloadable podcasts and audio, and zoom functionality. These are now available via multiple platforms, including cell phones, iPads and iPod Touches, and Twitter and text messaging tours (Proctor, 2010). While the development of new technologies continues at warp speed, and museums, for the most part, keep up in their adoption and implementation of those new technologies, researchers and evaluators likewise have been looking for valid and reliable methods to study the nature and value of visitors’ experiences with digital media in museums and other informal learning settings. As Othman, Petrie, and Power (2011) found through a review of the literature they conducted when attempting to develop new scales for measuring the “multimedia guide experience” among visitors in “cultural spaces,” Audience Focus also found that while many examples of measures exist for user experiences with new technologies in general, very few of those measures were developed specifically for art museum experiences. Additionally, while it is likely that many museums have conducted evaluations of their multimedia devices or related technology-based interpretation, very few have published the results (Fletcher, 2010). Moreover, many of the studies conducted on digital and new media have focused primarily on usability and accessibility issues. While such formative studies are extremely useful in producing context- (or device-) specific feedback necessary to make immediate improvements, they are less likely to answer the key questions that might apply across organizations and digital platforms related to visitors’ overall experience with and perceptions of digital media experiences in museums. Thus, this study was designed both to explore in a very qualitative and open-ended way how visitors were using and valued the multimedia device experience, and to incorporate and build on (in a more quantitative and close-ended way) the small body of research that has already been conducted on multimedia experiences in museum settings (e.g., Butler, 2010, 2012; Celentano et al., 2010; Othman, Petrie, & Power, 2011; Filippini-Fantoni et al., 2011; Luke & Ancelet, 2011; Luke, Ancelet, Butler, & Hershorin, 2011; Proctor, 2010; Rung & Laursen, 2012; Stein, 2010).

In the end, seven key questions guided the study:

  1. What are visitors’ motivations for using the multimedia guide?
  2. To what extent (and in what ways) do visitors make use of the guide?
  3. What are visitors’ perceptions of the guide?
  4. How do visitors benefit from the multimedia guide experience? What is the value?
  5. How do visitors respond to the interpretive approach of hearing from the artists?
  6. What are visitors’ future interests in using new and digital media at the Whitney?
  7. What do we know about family audiences in particular? How do they make use of the guide, and what do they value most about the experience?

These questions addressed visitors’ experiences rather than specific technology, usability, or navigation questions that related directly to the Biennial guide, as it was assumed that content would be discussed based on these questions and usability issues would inevitably emerge as visitors tried out the device in the galleries. Additionally, the purpose of the study was less about making changes or improvements to the Biennial guide itself, and more about using the findings from the study to influence decisions about a multimedia guide for an upcoming exhibition, as well as support decision making around digital media interpretation policies and practices across the entire Museum.

4. The participants

In order to collect the data necessary to answer the seven questions above, multiple methods were used, including a combination of: 1) an online questionnaire with general adult visitors who used the multimedia guide during their Biennial experience, 2) focused observations of selected audiences (including two family groups) as they used the multimedia guide in the galleries, and 3) follow-up focus group discussions with the same selected audiences who were observed. Whitney staff also conducted two focus groups of deaf and hard-of-hearing visitors, but the results are not included in the scope of this study.

During a two-week period of the Biennial 2012 exhibition, Whitney volunteers and interns recruited participants for the online survey by approaching visitors as they entered the Museum and encouraging them to use the multimedia guide and then complete an online questionnaire about their experience two to four days following their visit.

  General Adult Visitors (Online Questionnaire) Selected Groups (Focused Observations) Selected Groups (Follow-up Discussion)


149 adult visitors 33 people 66 people


68% visited as part of a group 54% visited as part of a group


Even distribution of ages 12 adult Museum members12 college/young professionals12 children (ages 8-12) 23% adult Museum members29% college/young professionals48% families


71% Caucasian 80% Caucasian


74% reside in the Northeast (mostly NY/NJ) All local to NYC All local to NYC

Visit Motivation

65% came to see a specific exhibition (primarily the Biennial)

Prior Visitation

68% return visitors 91% return visitors

Figure 3: Survey and focus group participants

A total of 149 general adult visitors responded to the online questionnaire. Whitney staff recruited focus groups (two groups of Whitney members, two groups of families with children ages eight to twelve, one group of young professionals, and one group of college students) to participate in a trial of the multimedia guide and follow-up discussion during two-hour increments on scheduled days and times. A total of thirty-three focus group participants, including children, were observed using the guide in the galleries.


Figure 4: Participants in a focus group discussion

Following their exploration of the multimedia guide, participants were asked to join other focus group participants in a discussion. Audience Focus facilitated a series of six follow-up focus group discussions. Whitney Education staff sat in on the discussions, observed, and took notes; discussions were also recorded.

During the focus group discussions, participants were asked to reflect on their use of the multimedia guide, as well as their perceptions of and reactions to the guide and the perceived value/benefit. At specific points during the discussion, participants were asked to answer a few questions individually on a written form, primarily to collect some close-ended rating scales and demographic information to triangulate findings with survey respondents, but also as a way to collect data from all participants, even those who were not observed or who were less vocal during group discussions.

5. What did we learn?


Figure 5: Motivations for using the multimedia guide

Motivation and Perceived Value – Learning, Freedom and Control, and Satisfaction

Most visitors who used the multimedia guide said they wanted to access additional information about the art and artists on view, and perceived the multimedia guide as a way to extend their understanding of the art by having access to information that might not be available solely through the wall labels, or through their own prior knowledge and understanding. Other visitors said they felt the multimedia guide would support their preferred learning style and approach for engaging with the art, which, for the most part, was a preference towards listening over reading, and, in some cases, a preference for greater freedom and control in deciding where and when to engage with the art. Finally, some visitors said they used the multimedia guide out of curiosity about the technology and/or interest in what content it held, while others used it simply because it was available and free. These findings largely support research conducted by Rung and Laursen (2012), which found that visitors’ top four motivations for using an app created for a temporary art exhibition of works by French artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec at the National Gallery of Denmark (Statens Museum for Kunst) that featured similar components to those offered by the Biennial multimedia guide were: to access new kinds of information, to “try it out,” to “be in control,” and “to have a nicer experience.”

Overall, visitors’ motivations for using the Biennial multimedia guide mapped to their perceived value of the interpretive tool. Visitors valued the guide for helping them increase their understanding of the Biennial artists and works of art. These visitors also explained how the guide enhanced their engagement with the art and supported a more focused looking at the artwork by helping to “slow them down,” a phenomenon that was also described by visitors in the Rung and Laursen study (2012). Visitors in this study also valued the freedom the multimedia guide afforded them and viewed it as a welcome alternative to wall labels. Visitors felt they benefited from having more choice and control over their experience, and appreciated the range of content and interpretive strategies available via the multimedia guide. Specifically, these visitors said they enjoyed having the freedom to stop and start the audio when they chose, the option to read (transcripts) or listen (audio), and the option to “hear more.” In fact, many of these visitors suggested adding features or making changes to the guide to make it even more responsive to their desire for control over the experience. This finding is supported by previous research that shows having freedom and control over their experiences (including how, when, and to what degree they want to engage with an artwork) is paramount to visitors when visiting a museum (Proctor, 2010; Rung & Laursen, 2012) and suggests that digital media might be one way to help satisfy this need.

Same As An Audio Guide?

In many ways, visitors used the Biennial 2012 multimedia guide as if it were a traditional audio guide. While the guide contained a variety of components, (including audio, video, and text), as well as multiple ways to access those components (by entering a number into a keypad found on a wall label, and/or scrolling through a list of artists on the device itself), most visitors focused the majority (and in some cases all) of their time using the audio, which they accessed in the traditional way of searching for a number on the label and then entering that number into the keypad located on the device. Because most museum audio tours have followed this design and format in the past, it is likely that museum-savvy visitors quickly recognized the approach and used the Biennial multimedia in the way that best fit their prior experience of such interpretive technologies. A study conducted at the British Museum that examined the ways visitors accessed a mobile device for orientation and wayfinding also found that when given three choices for accessing information on the device, typing numbers into a keypad was the most commonly used strategy (Filippini-Fantoni et al., 2011).

A specific perception to note is some visitors struggled with calling the Biennial 2012 multimedia guide “multimedia,” which to them meant more than “just an audio guide with a few videos.” This finding supports Proctor’s proposition that current museum tours (even those labeled as multimedia) do not differ much from the traditional audio tours initiated in the early 1950s, at least in so much as visitors perceptions of and criticisms of all standardized museum tours, regardless of platforms, remain unchanged (Proctor, 2010). Incorporating more interactive and “multimedia” functionality into the guide was especially important for families in this study, with many parents (and children) agreeing that the current iteration of the kids’ tour was not up to par in terms of asking questions and providing engaging, interactive experiences for children. Participants in other groups (especially the young professionals) also encouraged the Whitney to make future iterations of the guide more authentically interactive and true to their definition of multimedia.

Thus, if the desire is to create a truly multimedia device that is perceived as being different from the ubiquitous audio tour, museums will need to risk breaking the mold and putting more emphasis on components and interactive features that reach beyond traditional audio and standardized, linear content. Visitors in this study were helpful in offering the following suggestions: incorporating questions as an effective strategy for encouraging looking, adding movement to the home screen to stimulate interest, and having pop-up prompts that ask questions or provide additional information. Other suggestions included having opportunities to sketch or draw, incorporating activities such as tracking the artwork that visitors have seen and rewarding them when they have completed the task, “favoriting” works of art, and clicking on specific areas of an artwork to find out more about that aspect of the work.

Art is Still the Focus


Figure 6: Heads up: Focus group participant engaging with the artwork

One of the top concerns among art museum practitioners in developing multimedia experiences has been “the heads down versus heads up experience” (Rung & Laursen, 2012; personal correspondence with art museum practitioners), or the fear that visitors will spend more time looking at the device than at the art. This study found that, by all accounts, visitors’ engagement with the art while using the multimedia guide was high. Visitors were observed engaging in behaviors such as visually referencing between the guide and the works of art, leaning in to look more closely at the art, walking around the art to view it from multiple vantage points, and pointing out something in the work of art to others in their group. Similar behaviors were observed among visitors in two other studies that were designed to investigate the degree to which technology adds to and/or detracts from visitors’ engagement with real objects. In one study conducted at the J. Paul Getty Museum of an in-gallery interactive that was designed to encourage looking at the three-dimensional Augsburg Cabinet, researchers found that visitors who used the interactive technology were significantly more likely to engage in closer-looking behaviors than were visitors who did not use the interactive (Luke & Ancelet, 2011). In another study of visitors’ behavior in the Museum of Fine Arts Boston’s “Behind-the-Scenes” gallery, findings also showed that interactives that were intentionally designed to encourage closer looking were successful in supporting that behavior among visitors (Luke, Ancelet, Butler, & Hershorin, 2011).

Other evidence from this study that supports visitors’ use of a heads-up approach is that most visitors were observed accessing the multimedia guide directly in front of, or near the works of art being discussed, and only seemed to engage in the more “heads-down” approach while sitting down. Participants from the young professionals group in particular explained how they are highly unlikely to watch videos while standing, or while in the galleries moving about. Some participants suggested that in order to increase use of the video features as part of a multimedia experience, there should be more places to sit down, as well as a “heads-up” display that projects graphics onto a screen.


Figure 7: Heads down: Focus group participants using the guide away from the artwork

Nonetheless, many visitors did make use of the “portable” nature of the multimedia device and were observed accessing the audio near an artwork, then walking away, while still listening to the content and exploring the galleries at large and/or looking at a different work of art. This behavior contradicts previous findings (Proctor, 2010) that showed visitors continuing to look at an object until the end of an audio or video commentary whether they were interested or not, presumably out of perceived “obligation” to complete the task.


Figure 8: Kids using the multimedia guide

Solitary or Social?

Unprompted, visitors naturally discussed whether multimedia experiences should be more solitary or social, and, like most museum practitioners, were undecided on which it should be. In an ideal world, visitors said they would appreciate a platform that allowed for both types of experiences, where ultimately they would have control over which type of experience they want. When asked to imagine what a “social” multimedia guide experience might look like, visitors presented the following ideas: incorporate a “splitter” so more than one person can listen to the audio or video components simultaneously; have clearly indicated stopping points so people can talk about what they just heard; provide more comfortable places to sit so people can relax and talk about what they’ve seen; add social media functions (e.g., sharing pictures on social media sites such as Facebook, pinging people nearby); incorporate question prompts that would encourage visitors to discuss topics with others in their group; and finally, design different versions of the multimedia guide—one if you are visiting alone (or want a solitary experience), and another if you are visiting with someone else (or are visiting alone and want a social experience).

Visitors Need Guidance

Many visitors struggled with the overall orientation and wayfinding through the galleries and suggested a multimedia guide could make it easier to locate artworks and their corresponding content in the future. Visitors suggested building in GPS, incorporating QR codes, including an interactive floor plan instead of typing numbers on keypads, and—perhaps most importantly—ensuring that there are clear instructions of where to go, and what they can see and do via a multimedia device.

The Power of Voice

When discussing the value of the multimedia tour, visitors conveyed an overwhelmingly positive response to hearing the artists’ voices and perspectives. Visitors also rated hearing from the perspectives of the artists as the approach they would be most interested in for future digital media experiences. This finding supports front-end research conducted at the Indianapolis Museum of Art (Stein, 2010), Dallas Museum of Art (Butler, 2010), and Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art (Butler, 2012), all of which found that visitors rank “hearing from the artists’ perspectives” as a top preference for accessing works of art.

In addition to hearing from artists, visitors also highly rated hearing from experts, such as curators and museum directors. Other approaches that visitors rated include having contextual images and videos, and zoom and x-ray images. These combined findings show that for the most part, visitors prefer to have access to a variety of approaches, including a balance of expert perspectives, the voices of the artists, AND explanations from the people who study, select, and critique the works. Regardless of which voice or perspective is selected in the end, visitors were very vocal in explaining how important it is that the style of narration is lively and energetic, rather than static and didactic. Some specific suggestions for narration with future multimedia guides included having children narrate child- or family-based experiences, using child-friendly vocabulary and language, resisting the lecture-style approach as much as possible, and making the tone of voice more conversational and natural.

Perceptions of Overall Value: Is the Jury Still Out?


Figure 9: Outcome statements

Most visitors responded positively to the Biennial 2012 multimedia guide, referring to it as informative and educational, fun and interesting, easy to use and understand, and an overall value-add. Visitors also likened the device to other touch-screen devices (e.g., iPod Touch, iPhone), with many describing the technology as “modern,” “innovative,” and the “future of museums”;  however, not all visitors perceived the multimedia guide in a positive light. A few found the guide challenging, confusing, distracting, overwhelming, lacking in information, and/or of little value. Such opposing viewpoints existed across all audiences, suggesting that perceptions of the guide and its value were more individual in nature, rather than reflective of a particular type of visitor.

6. Changes And challenges


Figure 10: Screenshots of summer 2012 multimedia guide showing landing page for exhibitions and page with choice of audio or video

Based on the feedback from this study, Whitney staff made significant changes in the next iteration of the multimedia guide, which included three concurrent exhibitions and no kids’ tour. Although the keypad was the most popular way to access the audio stops on the Biennial 2012 multimedia guide, we got rid of it for this version in order to alleviate an additional step (and multiple screen taps) for visitors accessing the audio stops. We also thought it would help make things easier for visitors who had less experience using touch pads. Thus, we offered track lists with artwork titles and stop numbers for exhibition-related content. We changed our minds about visitors looking at video instead of the art, and un-siloed videos by adding a screen for each artwork with a choice of listening to an audio stop or watching a video (if available) at the stop level. If video was not available for a particular work, the screen defaulted directly to the audio stop. This modification allowed us to simplify the navigation to three buttons instead of four. We also changed several design elements, shortened the help section, and increased the size of the transcript text and buttons to make the guide more user friendly and easier to operate.


Figure 11: Screenshot of winter/spring 2013 multimedia guide showing reduced navigation

For the next iteration of the guide with content for three exhibitions in Winter/Spring 2013, we have made further modifications, reducing the navigation to two items: 1) “On View” for the exhibitions; and 2) an “Info” section that leads to four screens: how to use this guide, accessibility features, membership information, and general information about the Whitney. Each item in the track list for one of the exhibitions, American Legends: From Calder to O’Keeffe, has a selection of choices including an “About This Artist” section with biographical information and a photographic portrait of the artist, an audio stop, and a video if available. We have also further refined the design, type, and nomenclature. Wayfinding, increased interactivity, social media, and uploads of new content continue to be challenges that we need to address as the Whitney develops its digital media and mobile strategy for its new building.

Listening to the visitors’ voices in a systematic fashion has pushed us to refine the user experience in our subsequent multimedia guides. As content developers, this evaluation study has enabled us to recognize the balance between giving primacy to the artists’ voices while having more editorial oversight in order to keep the content engaging for visitors. Kids’ and parents’ comments made us think further about participatory, interactive features and question prompts for future guides that would encourage kids and families to talk about the art together. Ultimately, we believe that it will be invaluable to undertake further studies that will make us more reflective and incisive about both our practice and the product.


Special thanks to Whitney Education staff who helped with the multimedia guide study—Kathryn Potts, associate director and Helena Rubinstein Chair of Education; Anne Byrd, Audio Guide producer; Sarah Hromack, head of Digital Media; and Hilary Greenbaum, head of Graphic Design—for their contributions to the Whitney’s multimedia guide, the evaluation, and this paper.


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Cite as:
D. Helal, H. Maxson and J. Ancelet, Lessons Learned: Evaluating the Whitney’s Multimedia Guide. In Museums and the Web 2013, N. Proctor & R. Cherry (eds). Silver Spring, MD: Museums and the Web. Published February 14, 2013. Consulted .

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