Ten things I wish I had known ten years ago

Museums are complicated places to work and many of our colleagues aren’t deeply experienced with digital. Here are ten things I’ve learned the hard way which might help you get things done.

John Stack
Feb 20, 2018 · 11 min read

1. Gold plate some things.

Your digital estate probably has multiple facets and functions, including some or all of: marketing and promotion, press and communications, research publications, tickets and e-commerce, online recruitment, digitised collections, learning resources, and so on.

You’re not going to make everything as perfect as you or your stakeholders want with the resources, time and budget you have. So, you have to prioritize.

Select a couple of content areas of your digital roadmap or project to gold plate and which you will demonstrate to your board and stakeholders because they almost certainly don’t care about your awesome new ticketing checkout. Sorry. I know how hard you’ve worked on it and it definitely is important and you should do that anyway, just don’t make it the only awesome thing.

Once you’ve decided what you’re going to gold-plate, stay focused on it, keep fighting for the resources to work on it, make it outstanding and keep talking about it and why it is a priority.

Gold plated BBC Micro personal computer, 1985. Science Museum Group Collection. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0

2. Make the case for ongoing investment.

Digital is always a work in progress, and a digital project doesn’t “finish” until it is decommissioned.

So, the post-launch phase of your digital project lasts until you retire the product and that’s a fantastic opportunity to keep improving and refining things based on real world user behaviour and audience research, but this is rarely understood by most of your colleagues.

Furthermore, this approach is at odds with how museums and most of their funders operate, which is based on a capital investment and project-based model which tends towards a “sawtooth” funding with periods of investment followed by no investment.

So, you need to explain the rationale for ongoing investment and secure the resources for ongoing maintenance and enhancement. This is hard. So, make it another one of the things that you talk about all the time.

Tip: If questioned ask, “Are Google or Amazon are ever finished?”

Regardless of if you can or can’t secure ongoing investment, you’re going to need to proactively manage the life-cycle of digital products and both decommission old things that are unsustainable — some of which will be your colleague’s pet projects which won prestigious awards ten years ago — and also keep some old things running longer than is desirable for one reason or another — maybe because it is someone’s pet project that won a prestigious award ten years ago. Humm…

Pro tip: If your website is funded by the UK government it may well be archived by the UK Government Web Archive run by The National Archives in which case you can show your stakeholders that it will live on forever. If the archive isn’t already archiving the site, email them. They’re really helpful and friendly.

3. Show. Don’t tell.

Most of your colleagues totally cannot picture what you’re talking about when you describe what you have in mind. Even if they are nodding while you’re talking. Which they probably are.

You’ll need to get adept at communicating what you have in mind. There are multiple ways of doing this including sketches, wireframes, diagrams, paper prototypes, and other visual tools of user centred design and you’ll need to work out the best method for each stakeholder or area.

Ultimately, a written document is a good way of communicating at both a high, strategic level and also once you get into the minutiae of implementation, but there’s nothing quite like a mock-up to get buy-in for your vision.

But be careful with what you show as some colleagues can take things literally and assume that you’re building exactly what you have shown. They can also be prone to skipping to the easy bit — page icons, button colours, etc. — rather than focusing on the important things in the mock-up like “Is this the right approach to have the impact we all want to achieve?”

“Rough sketch of James Nasmyths’ apparatus by which most perfect sound speculae may be cast with absolute certainty. Contrived in 1839, and used with great success even since”. Signed “James Nasmyth, April 12, 1879”. Science Museum Group Collection. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0

4. Seek the right balance of technology.

It’s almost inevitable that your website will always be run in multiple software systems. Overall, that’s probably more of a good thing than a bad thing, so forget that “one system to rule them all” thing right now. Seriously. It’s not going to end well.

Having a loosely coupled set of systems in your technology estate means you can update and develop them more easily and even run multiple technology initiatives on the different systems at the same time. That said, a multiple system approach will limit or make more complex the development of some functionality.

So, it’s a really tricky balance to get right and you’ll likely encounter the situation where a stakeholder wants to achieve something that requires some gnarly integration or plugging in some whole new piece to technology. On these occasions it’s always worth spending the time to dig into what they’re trying to achieve and exploring some lightweight options using existing things before committing to major technology implementation or integration.

Why? Because system integration can be a pain to implement and then forever afterwards… especially if you’re dealing with annoying legacy systems that were not really architected to be integrated in the first place, which is basically the case for most museum collection management systems, in case you hadn’t noticed.

That said, the benefits of integrating systems can be huge, so do it … but only where the impact is huge. Really huge.

Control Data CDC 6600 super computer. Science Museum Group Collection. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0

5. Take some new photographs.

The web is a visual medium, and almost all your website’s photos are almost certainly totally unsuitable, inconsistent in style, and taken by a dozen different people over as many years. Sorry.

If you redesign the website, rebrand your organisation or have any other opportunity to do so, pay someone professional to take some a completely new set based on a new photography style guide.

Whatever budget line you put into your spreadsheet for this is too low, you’re going to need more photographs than that. Once you start spending on this you’ll quickly realise that you need to spend more. I’ve always added more money to this budget line no matter how much I initially put in there. (This might be something you gold plate. See point 1)

Tip: While you’re about it, commission some video too. It’s not that expensive and because curators now go on media training, it’s a lot easy to get them to produce a 5-minute video than to get them to write five hundred words of text.

6. Maintain the overview.

Museums are siloed places filled will passionate, smart, talented people working in areas of deep specialism.

However, with few exceptions these are not digital people, and their view of digital is generally quite narrow and focused on their particular area. As a result, without close oversight the digital experience will fragment very quickly as everyone works in their own direction.

However, users / audiences / customers / visitors (see, we don’t even have one name for them) don’t expect the digital offer to be a conglomeration of different things; they expect a unified experience across all digital elements and this is really hard to pull off in a large, complex organisation.

So, who has the responsibility for the oversight of the whole user experience? It’s probably you. So, tell colleagues that this is important, point out some bad examples and explain what you’re doing and why. If your organisation has any sense, it’ll understand what you’re doing and why it is important.

Tip: If you want to show how bad this can be, give a university website as an example. They’re always in dreadfully messy shape once you get under the surface. But in that instance perhaps it doesn’t matter as the audiences for physics and psychology are different, even though they are next to each other in the site map. Discuss.

7. Dodge curveballs.

Sooner or later someone is going to say that the organisation should have a app for wayfinding, or sophisticated personalisation for visitors, or something else which you know isn’t good idea and for which definitely isn’t easy to do a lightweight proof of concept to test out. On top of which there’s probably already a backlog of work and a roadmap of other things that need doing.

Sometimes the person saying it will be someone high up in the organisation; you don’t want to make an enemy of them. Sometimes it will be someone junior and new to the sector; you don’t want to crush their spirit.

You need to get adept at understanding what people are attempting to achieve because they probably don’t know how to articulate the problem they are trying to solve, so they are articulating a solution.

Maybe they mean, “The website should work harder to connect audiences with the right events for them”, or “Digital could help connect visitors with parts of vast collection displays they would like”, or “The organisation should make a step change in its digital output”, or “We should learn from the business world about how to keep customers engaged with our brand.” None of these are bad ideas. You need to dig down to find them and then work back up to some possible solutions rather than discussing the proposed solution.

Marconi International Marine Communications Company Limited, Direction finding (DF) receiver. Science Museum Group Collection. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0

8. Know the legal stuff.

There are lots of pieces legislation and whatnot to comply with along with lots of best practice for doing so. You’re going to need some level of knowledge of: disability discrimination legislation, accessibility best practice, privacy policies, browser cookies, data protection, terms of use, click-wrap and browse-wrap agreements, and copyright law as it applies to digital. Yikes!

Probably only some — or perhaps none — of this is in your job description, but you’ll need to know it anyway, not least because even if your organisation is lucky enough to have a general council they are probably not an expert on absolutely all of these aspects. And they rest of your colleagues definitely aren’t.

Copyright in particular is a knotty issue in museums with tensions between aiming for global reach through open content and generating income from image licensing. Furthermore, there are differences in laws in the UK and other locations, and occasional naïvety in the museum about how copyright is assigned and owned.

It’s not unusual to find that a large, old website as multiple legal pages which overlap or even contradict each other. Fear not. It will feel good to get this shipshape, so take that on that task. Plus you’ll also sleep better.

Dehydrated sugar cookie space food from NASA Apollo Programme. Science Museum Group Collection. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0

9. Know your audience.

Historically, museums have measured digital audiences in relatively unsophisticated ways, and funders have also requested only top line metrics like visit numbers. To be honest, this is still the case for most organisations and funders, and these top-line numbers can lead the organisation towards a relatively crude set of success metrics and to a correspondingly unsophisticated conversation around digital and its impact.

So, there’s probably a huge opportunity to drive some change here. There are now dozens of tools you can use from analytics to surveys and heat maps. (Make sure you have a bit in your Privacy Policy about the use of any analytics tools. See point 8.)

Using these tools to quickly get a better understanding of audience need in a given area is a great way to move forward with colleagues who want to jump to implementing things more quickly than you’re comfortable with. (See points 4, 6 and 7).

The key to using digital analytics to drive change is to talk about that research in ways that your colleagues understand and to tell stories that they can confidently retell to others. This is entails much more than presenting a dashboard of numbers as it requires an interpretation of the results which will take time and energy to get right.

Tip: You might want to get someone who has expertise to audit you Google Analytics set up and tracking as it’s probably not implemented as well as it could be.

A Professor filling and explaining to an audience the nature of a balloon. Science Museum Group Collection. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0

10. Make change when you can.

You’ll almost certainly want to driving change in the organisation and change that extends beyond your own department. You’ll see that most of these things that I’ve learned — and many of them learned the hard way — are about working with colleagues and making effective change rather than on implementing digital things.

So here are some final thoughts on implementing change from a digital department:

Firstly, make friends. You can’t go it alone. You’re going to need a coalition to help you. This is critically important it you want the change to stick. Put lots of energy into understanding your colleagues’ work and what they are trying to achieve.

Secondly, museums are risk averse and digital projects feel very high risk and poorly understood. Proofs of concept, prototypes, side projects and short trials are a good way to get things going and building support.

Thirdly, funders are way more interested in digital as they used to be, so you should have more ideas for digital things than your current roadmap supports. You might just get lucky.

Fourthly, grab opportunities when they arise. Anything from a key person leaving and advocating for someone who “gets digital” to be their replacement, to using a funded project to build some critical piece of infrastructure, to discovering a colleague with an interest in trailing some new forms of content.

Lastly, go with the grain of the organisation (Thanks, to Matt Locke for articulating this point to me). Some of the changes might feel small but they’ll definitely add up over time. I promise.

Thanks to Dave Patten for kicking these ideas around with me over the last couple of months. Thanks to Gavin and all at Cogapp for organising MCNx London and for Doug for filming it :-)