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Watching the watchers: visibility and mobility in visitor experiences


Abstract and Figures

Mobile devices are increasingly being used to enhance visitor experiences in museums, galleries and in other public spaces. We describe some of the strategies which parents used to manage their children's experiences with a tablet application in a theme park and some problems that arose as a result. We argue that the same problems of visibility which face group visitors are similar to those experienced by researchers attempting to evaluate such systems in the wild. We offer some design solutions through the use of recording system states and events, and using them as a resource for visitors and researchers.
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Watching the watchers: visibility and
mobility in visitor experiences
Patrick Brundell, Stefan Rennick-Egglestone & Paul Tennent
Mixed Reality Laboratory, University of Nottingham, Nottingham, UK
{pat.brundell, stefan.rennick_egglestone, paul.tennent}
Abstract. Mobile devices are increasingly being used to enhance visitor experiences in
museums, galleries and in other public spaces. We describe some of the strategies
which parents used to manage their children’s experiences with a tablet application in a
theme park and some problems that arose as a result. We argue that the same problems
of visibility which face group visitors are similar to those experienced by researchers
attempting to evaluate such systems in the wild. We offer some design solutions through
the use of recording system states and events, and using them as a resource for visitors
and researchers.
Digital technologies such as smartphones and tablets are increasingly employed in
museums and other public attractions. They tend to be designed for use by
isolated individuals; however, visiting public attractions is typically a social
activity with between friends, families, and educational groups (e.g. Ellenbogen,
2002). There is often little support for multi-directional social interaction between
multiple visitors, and the technology. This lack of support for social interaction
around museum technologies has been recognized for a number of years (Vom
Lehn, Heath & Hindmarsh, 2005). In tandem, some research has investigated
mobile device use in galleries and public spaces (Lonsdale et al., 2005). This
work has been important for revealing some characteristics of the use of mobile
devices in this setting with consequent implications for system design.
This paper focuses upon a specific problem which people face when visiting as
a group, and one which is exacerbated when using mobile technologies. That is,
the problem of group accountability, or the visibility of visitors’ activities to other
group members. This problem is compounded when typically; parents are
engaged in dual roles of managing children’s experiences and also being domain
experts. In addition, not only is visibility a problem for co-visitors, it is also a
problem for researchers engaged in the design and evaluation of such systems.
We use examples of family behaviors at a science theme park while using a
prototype mobile user experience (UX) to illustrate parental management of
childrens experiences and some of the consequences of invisibility. This paper
draws on an analysis of a corpus of material collected during an evaluation of a
tablet-based UX which was specifically targeted at group visitations of families
with young children. We provide an analysis which supports an understanding of
visitor activities which are at times, complicated by the technology. We also
highlight some of the problems that researchers face when evaluating mobile
devices “in the wild”. Finally, we offer some technical and design solutions which
may support collaborative activities and also assist in the evaluation of such
Experiencing a tablet device at Cité de l’Espace
Cité de l’Espace is a science centre near Toulouse, France, which specifically
focuses on space exploration and technology. Exhibits presented outdoors include
a model of the solar system and a number of full size replicas the Mir space
station and Ariane 5 launch vehicle. A prior ethnographic study had highlighted
the importance of families with young children at Cité. Alongside school groups,
such families are a key part of the visitor base for this attraction. The tablet based
user experience was designed to deliver narratives which linked together outdoor
exhibits, and which aimed to support an immersive and integrated experience for
visitors. The application was focused on the telling of fictional stories through
interaction with a variety of media types including spoken monologue, video,
images, games, augmented reality content and quizzes. Media was carefully
designed to be appealing to a younger audience, with a focus on families with
children aged between seven and twelve, who are the most frequent visitors to the
museum. Some of the media was intended to be consumed at specific exhibits;
some was more loosely tied to physical location.
For the purpose of evaluating this application, we recruited eight local families
with at least one child who was aged between seven and twelve. Each family was
asked to explore the tablet experience through a single story in whichever way
they wished. Some families were given one tablet to share; other groups had two
devices. We video-recorded their experiences from a distance, audio-recorded
their discussions using lapel microphones, and conducted a short semi-structured
interview at the conclusion of the visit. For data analysis, multiple video and
audio sources were synchronised.
A significant theme which emerged from qualitative data analyses was the work
that parents did to manage, support and focus their childrens activities. Within
the museum studies domain, there is a general understanding that parents often
have to work to support the experiences of their children (Cone & Kendall, 1978;
Durrant et al., 2011). Ellenbogen (2004) reports work suggesting that parents
often take on the role of educators and may use specific mediating behaviors.
During our evaluation, all parents were observed making efforts to manage and
support their children at points during the visit. This work included helping with
the tablet application, navigation, teaching, and directing attention. Some of the
efforts made by parents to support children may be illustrated with the
observations we made around the physical handling of the tablets.
The family groups exhibited consistent patterns of orientation around the
devices. Some patterns were determined by the degree of parental control. Some
parents kept physical ownership of the device, showing and inviting interaction,
but rarely let it go. There was evidence when parents used this approach of
children disengaging with the experience (see image right in Figure 1).
Figure 1. Parents managing the experience with physical control
Some parents relinquished some control but supported the childrens activity.
This pattern was seen frequently with younger children where parents took the
weight of the tablet, directed interaction, and scaffolded learning by making
connections between media and exhibits. Many parents physically directed the
experience, in an “over the shoulder” manner. There was some evidence, even in
the youngest children that lack of device control lead to frustration and
Direct physical control of the device was less evident with older children. For
these children, the work of parents seemed to focus more on discovering what the
children were experiencing and discussing content to provide a greater depth of
understanding. However, attempts by parents to manage the experience were
frequently present, but often problematic due to a lack of visibility - if there was
any physical distance between parents and children, parents could not see what
the children were doing. This made management of content, expert advice, and
the correct linkage between content and exhibits almost impossible. In Figure 2,
below, a parent is trying to find out what the child is doing in an attempt to
manage content which was being consumed away from the correct exhibit.
Figure 2. Attempts by parents to manage without ownership of the device
Some parents gave up control to their children, relinquishing almost all attempts
to manage. There was often considerable physical distance between visitors,
sometime even out of eyesight. This behavior was more evident when a family
group had multiple devices. A mother and son, each with their own device,
rapidly separated once they had entered the site. Problems arose when the child
failed to fully understand that content was linked to exhibits, and became lost.
The mother returned to help, but, she was unaware of what content had been
missed, and was therefore unable to assist. Post experience, those parents who
had given up control, mentioned that they had wanted to know what their children
had been doing at various points in the experience, but often had no idea.
Some parents managed the experience and offered assistance by controlling the
device, which lead to frustration for the children. Other gave control to the
children and struggled to see what was going on. Parents were then forced to look
over the shoulder of children, stay physically close or ask them what they were
doing: activities which some children found intrusive. We also saw examples
where children with their own tablets, wanted to know what one another were
doing, and failing to be able to see.
Evaluating mobile systems
When evaluating such systems in the wild, researchers are faced with similar
problems to those experienced by parents. There is motivation to observe from a
distance to avoid disrupting the UX, and consequently, many activities are
invisible. Interactions between visitors and mobile devices in galleries are like
many other ubiquitous computing environments; mobile, distributed, presented on
small devices, and potentially mediated through invisible sensing systems.
Traditional observational methods, including ethnography often use video and
audio data to support field notes. The problem for evaluators is not so much that
we don’t have suitable observational methods but that we can’t see what is going
on to sufficient degree. Brown, McGregor and Laurier (2013) employed screen
capture and wearable video cameras to gather data on the use of smartphones. A
small group of studies have logged system activity to reveal the activity of users.
For example, the MyExperience system (Froehlich et al., 2007) allowed recording
of both device usage and sensor information, and in situ user experience and
How might visitors and researchers see what is going on at a distance? The use
of records (or live streaming) of system activities, or log-files may provide a
solution. It is possible for records to be made of system states and events. These
recordings may be in the form of time stamped log files. However, observing
ubiquitous computing goes beyond ‘simply’ logging machine states and events to
record elements of social interaction and collaboration conducted and achieved
through the use of ubiquitous applications as well. For example, sensor data,
location information, textual interactions may be logged alongside machine states
and UI events (Benford & Giannachi, 2011). System logs make a range of digital
objects created, used and salient for interaction available to be exploited as an
analytic resources. The challenge for system designers (or visitors if given the
opportunity) is which data to select from the possible range of information
recorded by systems, and what to display. The problem is one of reconciling the
various fragments of interaction recorded by computers and by analysts (e.g.,
audio or video recordings, transcripts and system logs) and turning them into
tractable resources (Crabtree & Rodden, 2009). The techniques of cleaning,
filtering, and visualising (or re-representing in other ways) the data are not trivial,
requiring specific technologies of observation but may be similar to those
required to allow visitors to observe each other.
We observed families engaged in a shared visit to a theme park with a mobile
application designed to augment visitors’ experiences. Observation suggested that
parents took up roles including management and domain expertise. We identified
difficulties with the visibility of group members to each other. This is not only
their physical visibility, but also the visibility of their activities on small screens
and perhaps invisible sensing systems. We observed problems which resulted
from: attempts by parents to keep the children's activities visible and control the
experience through physical management of devices. These included frustration
and disengagement by children. Other problems arose when parents gave up
control of devices to young children, such as media content being played at
inappropriate places, out of the designed context and thus diminishing the
childrens experiences. We suggest that some problems may be alleviated by
increasing the visibility of the experience system to co-visitors through providing
channels of system information. Co-visitors should be able to tailor the
information to their requirements, which might include all or only subsets of
perhaps: location information; representations of current, historical or future
media content delivery. Smartphones may provide a ubiquitous and capable
companion to tablets that could allow parents to effectively support the
experiences of their children.
The problem of user visibility is also identified as an issue for researchers
evaluating mobile and ubiquitous systems in the wild. Previous research has
identified this problem and some solutions have been offered such as head
mounted cameras worn by users. We suggest that recording, reusing, re-
presenting system logs may provide a solution to invisibility, while being more
flexible for analysts and less intrusive to users of mobile experiences. These
“technologies of observation”, while requiring careful design in and of
themselves alongside the system being implemented, seem to be potentially
applicable and practical for both the contexts of experience management (eg.
parents) and experience observation (eg. researchers).
This work was supported by the CHESS project (, which is co-funded
by the European Commission (Grant No. 270198),
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ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
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Performing mixed reality
  • S Benford
  • G Giannachi
Benford, S., & Giannachi, G. (2011). Performing mixed reality. The MIT Press.
Rethinking interactivity: design for participation in museums and galleries. Work, Interaction & Technology Research Group, King's College London
  • D Vom Lehn
  • C Heath
  • J Hindmarsh
Vom Lehn, D., Heath, C., & Hindmarsh, J. (2005). Rethinking interactivity: design for participation in museums and galleries. Work, Interaction & Technology Research Group, King's College London. Retrieved January, 26, 2006.