What is the role of iPads for 21st century museum evaluation & audience research?

iPads and tablets in general are hand-held devices, they can support all kinds of software, they can provide access to the web and ultimately they are multimedia tools. Due to these characteristics, museum professionals have started to use these devices to collect data for evaluation and audience research.

A specific literature on the topic is still in its infancy, but the browsing of blogs and websites combined with interviews addressed to museum professionals point to the following areas of use:

A) iPads as data collection tools used for interviewing visitors: the devices are used by the evaluator during the interview process, and answers are inputted using a software installed on the device itself (e.g. iFormBuilder). According to my research, this method can be valuable for collecting and analysing both qualitative and quantitative data. Moreover, these devices facilitate the collecting of audio responses too, even though occasional problems with the audio function have  been reported. Consent for the use of audiovisual material can be granted by the interviewed visitors through digital forms.

B) iPads as data collection tools for surveys: the devices are used by the visitor in order to fill in the relevant digital forms (using for example the iSurvey software) and to provide the data required by the evaluator. iPads are generally provided by the museum itself, but personal iPads belonging to visitors may be used too if the survey takes the shape of an online format (e.g. Survey Monkey or Survey Gizmo). Professionals have reported that the use of iPads in this context is positive since the devices act as a conversation starter and usually people get excited about them. In addition, data are immediately collected in the system and people who process data from paper to computer are thus not needed. This method is deemed particularly valuable for numeric and closed ended questions.

C) iPads used for timing & tracking studies: the devices are used by evaluators as drawing tablets: visitors' movements and behaviour are sketched out and recorded accordingly. Software such as iFormBuilder and SketchBook can be used in the process, and some professionals see in the automatic time-stamping function a lot of potential.
Since I've personally used an iPad to conduct a tracking study in the Beauty from Nature: art of the Scott Sisters exhibition here at the Australian Museum, I can add that other operational pros are the following:
- backlighting allows to easily carry out the tracking study in shadowy environments;
- mistakes and inaccuracies can be easily amended without making the paper untidy;
- it is easy to shift from one layer to another when using SketchBook.

However, the process of writing observational notes on the tablet using a digital pen can be more difficult than using pencil and paper. Moreover, the use of iPads may have some limits for tracking activities conducted in big exhibition areas: in fact, the process of magnifying and swiping can become too intense and time consuming, risking to poorly record visitors' movements.

D) iPads used as multimedia tools for evaluating exhibition elements: evaluators capitalize on the multimedia potential of the devices and they use them to evaluate exhibition elements collecting visitors' opinions about videos, images, photos and so on. In this context, iPads have been particularly appreciated since they are big enough for multiple people to see and they can also be handheld: these characteristics make iPads preferable vis-à-vis laptops.

Areas of future employment listed by museums professionals are the use of these devices for concept mapping and for introducing drawings as responses to a question.

Are you aware of other uses of iPads for evaluation and audience research?

For those of you who are interested in iPads and their use for museum evaluation and audience research, I'm sharing the full report I've prepared as part of my experience here at the Australian Museum.
The report is intended as a working document, so feel free to contribute adding your comments on this blogspace.

My personal contact is ire.rubino@gmail.com
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