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A bench with two seats

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to hear Joshua Gutwill, a researcher at the Exploratorium, speak about Instrumenting Chaos: Understanding the Visitor Experience in a Free-Choice Environment. In the Q&A part of the talk, someone asked if exhibit design was approached differently for boys and girls. Joshua replied that the museum creates all of their exhibits for everyone, but that they had also observed something quite interesting with regards to gender and engagement.

At an exhibit with one seat, if a boy was sitting in the seat engaged with the exhibit and a boy and a girl were waiting, the boy would continue his work with the exhibit until he was finished. If, however, a girl was sitting in the seat engaged in the exhibit, and the children were waiting, even when she hadn’t finished her work, she would leave the seat to give the next child waiting a turn.

The research team was quite interested in this finding. With further exploration of the phenomena, they discovered that if the exhibit had a bench with two seats, when two girls or a boy and a girl were sitting together they would both finish their work before passing the turn to the next child. This small change led to both boys and girls maintaining their engagement and completing their experience.

I love this story. This kind of story doesn’t come from interviews, focus groups, or analyzing audio transcripts. It comes from really watching people in the world (and on video) do all the things they do and rarely have words or even thoughts for and iteratively inventing ways to artfully tweak the existing world to make new experiences and interactions possible.

I’m currently learning more about the Exploratorium’s research and design project, Fostering Active Prolonged Engagement, from their excellent book of a similar title, Fostering Active Prolonged Engagement: The Art of Creating APE Exhibits. It’s a fantastic resource for thinking about how to do iterative research and design in all the sorts of places and spaces where people are free to chose their next action, attraction, and interaction.


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