April 11-14, 2007
San Francisco, California

Audiences, Visitors, Users: Reconceptualising Users Of Museum On-line Content and Services

Darren Peacock, University of South Australia; and Jonny Brownbill, Museum Victoria, Australia


How we think about our users shapes the Web spaces we create and their purpose, design, content and functionality. The ways we think about users are an implicit but often unexplored part of planning and managing museum Web sites. However, perhaps it is time we examined these assumptions more closely and directly.

Recent research presented at this conference identified a number of problem areas in defining and categorising users of digital cultural content (Dawson et al. 2004). The field struggles to find a consistent language for describing its objectives, markets, customers, impacts and outcomes. In the absence of an e-commerce bottom line and with often ambitious social agendas for education and access, museum Web sites suffer from a lack of tangible success measures.

Yet at the heart of these frustrations seem to be our confused and conflicting models of the museum Web site user. How can we effectively design, promote and evaluate on-line content without clear and demonstrable models of user needs, motivations, behaviours and satisfactions? Part of the problem appears to be that concepts and constructs borrowed from museum visitor studies and consumer product marketing may be inappropriate to the on-line information space in which museum Web sites exist. As the Web evolves into a more participative space (Carey, Jeffrey 2006) and user goals and behaviours become more complex, the inadequacy of existing approaches looms as an even greater problem.

This paper addresses these issues by proposing a new, more holistic model for conceptualising museum Web site use. It then discusses the application of the model from the practical perspective of site planning and design, using the example of a site redevelopment project currently underway at Museum Victoria, a major natural and social history museum in Melbourne, Australia.

Keywords: users, audience, visitors, marketing, evaluation, usability


Whenever we consider the value of the on-line content and experiences we create, the question of ‘value to whom?’ immediately arises. Is it value to ourselves, our institutions, or to an amorphous ‘other’? What do we imagine, know and believe about those unseen others: the individuals and groups who search out and make use of our on-line offerings? What is the nature of the value that we seek to create for them?

In planning any new project, or in evaluating an existing one, we proceed from certain often unstated assumptions and theories which define not only how we design and build Web sites, but how we measure our success.

In this paper we examine the origins of some common conceptualisations of those people ‘out there’ at the other end of our Web sites and suggest some different ways for thinking about their Web use and the value we might create for them. We argue that some established concepts of ‘audience’ are neither relevant nor useful in the contemporary on-line environment. In fact, we suggest that a new approach in conceptualising museum Web site use is required if we are seriously interested in meeting their needs and effectively driving and documenting our successes. We believe that this new conceptualisation has important implications for how we approach the planning, design, marketing, usability and evaluation of museum Web sites.

So just who and what are we talking about? Audiences, visitors, users: these terms are sprinkled throughout our project proposals, marketing plans and evaluations. They are often used interchangeably. We all have an easy familiarity with these terms and seem to understand what each term means, as well as their close associates: markets, customers, communities and publics. Or do we?

Recent research presented at this conference has identified a number of problem areas in defining and categorising users of digital cultural content (Dawson et al. 2004). Based on a survey of user evaluation research conducted for the Cultural Content Forum, Dawson et al. found a lack of consistent practice and standards in respect of user profiling and performance measurement. Similarly, based on a series of interviews with museum Web practitioners, Michael and Kate Haley Goldman reported the shared perception that there is a “lack of true connection with the virtual user [which] has handicapped the evolution” of museum Web practice (Haley Goldman, Haley Goldman 2005).

In this paper we pose several questions. How and how well do we know the museum Web site user? Is what we think we know based on solid foundations? Do the lenses through which we view Web site users get in the way of truly knowing them? What choices do we have in understanding our site users, and which will serve us, and them, best?

In the first part of this paper we bring forward for conscious examination some of the implicit assumptions and beliefs embedded within our constructs of audiences, visitors and users. In the second part we suggest some new conceptualisations for understanding museum Web site use that may help us to focus more clearly on knowing the people ‘out there’ and meeting their needs.

Finally, we show how these understandings have been applied in the planning process for a major Web site redevelopment project underway at Australia’s largest museum, Museum Victoria, in Melbourne, Victoria.

Know Thy User, Know Thyself

Whether we call it market research, evaluation or usability testing, all these research and validation activities rely on our assumptions and expectations about the people who use our products. None of this information is without its own core assumptions and biases.

Recently deceased guru of non-profit marketing Peter Drucker wryly observed the following ‘realities’ in any rigorous marketing analysis:

Drucker’s observations remind us to critically examine our own assumptions and beliefs if we really want to understand and meet the needs of our Web site users.

Four Paradigms Don’t Make A Whole

As we see it, the study of museum Web site users is caught in a confusion of paradigms. Whenever we talk about the people who might and do access our on-line content and services, we tend to use, sometimes interchangeably, the terminology, constructs and values from at least four different paradigms. Audience and visitor studies, marketing, evaluation and usability analysis have each informed the discussion of museum Web site use to varying degrees.

These paradigms each hail from rather different traditions and perspectives: from the social and communication sciences, from economics and from software engineering. In terms of their core assumptions, epistemologies and methodological approaches, they are all quite distinct. And each also comes with its own prejudices and blind spots.

All of these perspectives pre-date the advent of the Web. They have been appropriated for the study of Web site use in what seems to be a rather arbitrary fashion, without much regard to their suitability and adequacy. Further, indiscriminate mixing of elements from each of the paradigms not only adds to the confusion, but also prevents us from building a sustainable body of knowledge about museum Web site users. This confusion results in research and analysis in the form of inconsistently modeled snapshots of what is happening on-line. Despite the large amount of effort going into user research over more than a decade, we still have a very fragmented understanding of users and the ‘user experience’ on museum Web sites.

One can usually recognise where each of the paradigms is being used by its language and point of view. The term ‘audience’ suggests a subject population, waiting, perhaps eagerly, for something which they can attend. ‘Audience studies’ hail from the heyday of broadcast mass media, when radio and television held sway. The ‘audience’ construct suggests something passive, able to resist perhaps, but not able to ignore media messages and agendas. It represents the worldview of the ‘unassailable voice’ of institutional power and authority so well described by Walsh (1997).

More typically, however, museums have conceptualised their focus as “visitors”, those individuals and groups who attend museums and galleries as a recreational or educational choice. In this conception, the visitor is regarded as having made a conscious choice to engage with the museum, the ‘free-choice learners’ described by Dierking and Falk (1998). Even as ‘virtual visitors’ they have the status of ‘honoured guests’ (Streten, 2000) rather than a captive and subject population. The visitor studies paradigm shows a fondness for ethnographic approaches to studying visitor ‘behaviour’ in situ, eschewing the tower of authority for a more discreet observation point within a gallery space, or from behind the interviewer’s clipboard or one-way glass.

In contrast, market research takes as its starting point the consumer paradigm, where all people are customers, satisfying endless needs and wants through purchases or less tangible cultural ‘consumption’. This perspective typically relies on a behaviourist model of stimulus and response, engineering predictable results through manipulation of variables such as price, promotion and packaging. The marketing perspective seeks out data on supposed predictors of behaviour: demographics, psychographics, and purchasing activity. It also uses surveys of competitors and prospective consumers to identify market ‘gaps’ and opportunities.

Usability analysis emerged from an engineering and design perspective, where the user is conceived of as an active agent pursuing task-based goals. The user (or a surrogate) provides the point of validation for a software product’s efficiency and fitness for use. User-centred design (UCD) is particularly concerned with matching software or Web site functioning and design to the cognitive abilities and processes of the imagined end user. A range of methods has been developed for ‘testing’ usability, the most common being ‘expert-focused’ where the product’s usability is assessed by engineers, and ‘user-focused’ where actual or projected end users perform that task (Harms, Schweibenz, 2001).

Finally, the fourth paradigm of evaluation originated in the social sciences, particularly for the purpose of examining the efficiency and effectiveness of government programs. Museum evaluation practice has assimilated many of the traditions of the education sector, with a particular focus on defining and monitoring learning outcomes. In the evaluation paradigm, the user is typically represented as a client or citizen recipient of government sponsored interventions.

Each of these different but sometimes overlapping constructions of the user has been represented in the review and evaluation activities reported at this conference.

While each of these paradigms may be valid within its own terms, together do they amount to a complete picture of what is happening with museum Web sites? We suggest that each contributes only a partial view, seldom learning from or joining with other perspectives. What is required is a model that more thoroughly integrates these perspectives and draws on the best of what they have to offer in terms of research methods and actionable knowledge. Before suggesting what such a model might look like, we will discuss some of the problematics arising in the use of existing paradigms for the analysis of museum Web users: first, the audience myth, then the use of marketing concepts in museums and the problem of creating usable usability analyses.

What we propose is a better integrated model for planning, research and evaluation, one that avoids some of the pitfalls and inherent limitations of each paradigm and one which links those perspectives into a more a holistic view.

The Audience Myth

Eilean Hooper-Greenhill, writing in the context of the physical museum, defines audiences as “all those who might come, if the experience were judged (by them) to be worthwhile” in contrast to visitors whom she defines as “those who will actually come” (Hooper-Greenhill, 1994). This is a common enough distinction, when the terms are in fact differentiated and not used interchangeably. The idea of an audience as a vast pool of individuals waiting to be persuaded of the merits of becoming a visitor is a powerful and pervasive one in the museum domain. But when we consider it in the context of the on-line ‘virtual’ museum, it is of little practical use and prevents us from better understanding the needs, motivations and expectations of museum Web site users.

The potential audience for an on-line offering is anyone who might actually see it, which effectively means anyone who uses the Internet, at last count more than one billion people worldwide (Internet World Stats, 2007). It is no longer possible to make meaningful assertions about such a large and heterogeneous group. Even within a single developed nation, such as Australia or the United States, the Internet is now used by 70% of the population (Internet World Stats, 2007). In these countries at least, Internet users are becoming more and more typical of the general population.

The idea of audience was a staple of twentieth century communications theorists in their analysis of the so-called ‘media effects’ of mass communications media such as newspapers, radio and television. Yet, as Livingstone (2004) suggests, as we move beyond the broadcast era into one of hybrid and interactive media forms, the concept of audience starts to look obsolete. Content, networks and devices are too various and their users too empowered to connect, create and exchange to talk about a mass market for Web site offerings.

With broadcast media, the choice of the public was simply to watch or not to watch. Even then, as media communication theorists discovered, broadcast ‘audiences’ were far more active in how they ‘consumed’ media programming, constructing their own meanings and uses. With interactive on-line media, as the Web 2.0 phenomena amply demonstrates, the Internet is moving to a more participative model (Carey, Jeffrey, 2006) where, as the Economist recently noted, “the boundaries between audiences and creators become blurred and often invisible” (The Economist, 2006).

The audience concept is an anachronism in the on-line world. Instead we need to use concepts with a sharper focus to advance our understanding of Web site users. Using the term ‘visitor’ as a surrogate, blanket term for audience will not help either. As Ken Hamma has pointed out, “There is no such thing as a general visitor, no such thing as someone just browsing through the on-line collections. In fact, we realized that using the term ‘general visitor’ mainly let us avoid defining the group” (Hamma 2004).

If we are to fully acknowledge the agency of our Web site users, we need to define their visiting more purposively. We need to understand their visiting in terms of its own purposes, not simply as a record of our own achievement. In many ‘visitor studies’ of museum Web site users, there is too much emphasis on who they are and too little on what they want and do on-line and the context in which they do it.

Of course museums have long had their own tradition of viewing audiences as a malleable social mass and of measuring their success in terms of reach and participation. Nineteenth century models of social improvement for the masses – the education and elevation of public taste – underpin the concept of a museum ‘audience’, a captive, if recalcitrant, horde in need of education and instruction.

The contemporary catchcry of “audience development” – for the physical museum and its on-line counterpart – is an echo of these assumptions and preoccupations. In recent years, particularly in the United Kingdom under New Labour, cultural policy and significant institutional resources have been dedicated to ‘audience development’ “as a tool for achieving wider social inclusion” according to Hayes and Slater (2002). These researchers call into question the efficacy of this ‘missionary approach’ and its effects in distracting attention from understanding and serving the needs of those already attending museums.

In a Web context, ‘audience development,’ however worthy its intentions, is equally misguided. A Web audience cannot be developed. There is no ‘audience’ for Web sites, simply people who use the Web for their own purposes. The audience framework obscures this fact and sidesteps the question of what those purposes are and how they are pursued.

The Marketing Problem In Museums

Liss Jeffrey (1994) identified two basic research approaches in the study of ‘audiences’ within cultural industries, a cultural approach “where audiences are assumed to be composed of citizens, or members of the general public” as we have just discussed, and an economic or market model where “audiences are assumed to be consumers who make up potential or actual markets” (Jeffrey, 1994: 2). Just as the ‘public as audience’ has proven an elusive and perhaps illusory concept for museums, the assimilation of principles, practices and perspectives from marketing has also proved problematic.

Marketing concepts came to prominence in museums in the 1980’s. Tobelem (1997) attributes their introduction to four factors:

Yet, as McPherson (2006) observes, the move to a greater market orientation with a focus on “measurement, retailing, consumption and the adoption of commercial values and structures was, and still is, at the centre of the dilemma for the museum professional in the late 20th and early 21st centuries”. As the museum shifts its position, changing and competing conceptions of the users of museum services emerge. “[A]re they consumers, citizens, visitors, users, or some, or all of these, in combination?” asks McPherson rhetorically.

The adoption of marketing values and practices can be seen as part of the larger shift in museum culture from an object and collections orientation to a people-centred view (Hooper-Greenhill, 1992; Weil, 2002). But the shift from viewing visitors as an audience to seeing them as customers or consumers is even more acutely problematic as it changes the nature of the relationship between museum and visitor and brings with it a new set of expectations and demands. In fact, it challenges established power relations between institution and public. “[T]he active and discriminating ‘consumer’ or ‘client’ … h as a contract for the delivery of goods and services, and is in a negotiated situation where he or she has an equal position of power” (Hooper Greenhill, 1992). That is where the true source of tension and discomfort lies.

The ‘laws’ of supply and demand on which the ‘sciences’ of economics and marketing are based provide the mechanism for managing exchanges between producers and consumers. Stuck in the audience paradigm, museums have not typically been interested in understanding the dynamics of demand. The assumption that an audience is simply available means that the museum’s task appears merely to be to make people aware of what it offers. Yet, from a marketing perspective, other factors, in particular competition and the decision-making behaviours of consumers, are just as important in the market equation as the products or services on offer. Competing to obtain and retain user interest is an alien concept to the audience paradigm. The market conception completely alters the relationship of supply and demand for museums, inverting the dependency of consumer on producer to its reverse.

Tobelem comments on the reluctance of museum staff to acknowledge that they exist within a (competitive) marketplace. It is often difficult for museum staff to comprehend that museums represent just one of many leisure choices, focused as they are on their own uniqueness. There is also a certain disinclination to go beyond a superficial knowledge of ‘customer’ interests.

[I]n many museums, what is presented is directed to a theoretical visitor and in the final analysis is addressed to an educated public without sufficiently investigating the means needed in order to adapt the message to the expectations, motivations and respective habits of different visitor groups…. (Tobelem, 1997).

What the marketing perspective offers and insists upon is attention focused on those expectations and behaviours rather than on the museum’s own products and agendas. And this is not just a problem for the physical museum. Our Web sites and also our approaches to evaluating them epitomise the ambivalent, selective and somewhat confused adoption of the marketing perspective within the museum sector.

Facing Up To Competition

Cyberspace is perhaps the most competitive environment that has ever existed. Not only does it have global coverage and low barriers to entry (just about anyone can establish a Web site) but, more importantly, its users can as well switch among a staggering and rapidly expanding array of offerings at an astonishing rate. As well as attracting people to a Web site, holding their attention and generating return visits are some of our greatest challenges. Yet there is surprisingly little discussion or analysis – at this conference or elsewhere – regarding competition and the dynamics of demand in our examination of museum Web sites. We seem to know very little about the market in which our Web offerings compete - a huge gap in our collective knowledge. Out of professional respect or just politeness, we also tend to ignore the question of competition among museum sites and whether this is a good thing or a bad thing for stimulating demand and satisfying users.

Recently, cultural heritage institutions in Australia received a double shock from research which showed a startlingly low use of their on-line resources within Australian schools (a key target group) and a strong and growing preference amongst younger people for the Web sites of major international institutions (Collections Council of Australia, 2006). In the on-line space, competition is global and occurs both within and between established sectors. No Web site is an island, yet we tend to plan and evaluate as if each site is.

We also seem to show little interest in trends in demand. Gratifying as it was to see exponential growth in traffic to museum Web sites in their first decade on the back of exponential growth in overall Internet use, the rate of growth in traffic to museum Web site has most likely slowed to a rate less than overall growth in usage. As a result the share of Web ‘eyeballs’ and clicks going to museum Web sites is most probably declining. Should this be a matter of concern or not?

Use Of Segmentation

Market segmentation (the categorisation of customers into groups according to their buying behaviour or potential) has been a mainstay of marketing practice for more than 50 years. It has been one of the most popular techniques for reporting on existing users of museum Web sites (Chadwick, Boverie, 1999; Semper et al. 2000; Schaller et al. 2002). Users can be segmented according to their responses to survey questions or according to the patterns of their behaviour recorded on the site. Most typically, survey questions seek information about the age, gender, level of education, or Web usage of site users. In a product evaluation situation, where the aim is to obtain feedback on a particular resource, users may be asked to rank, rate or provide a qualitative response to a particular site.

Demographic user segmentations may be useful in meeting and reporting ‘audience development’ targets as they can demonstrate the range and diversity of the user population. At a more sophisticated level of analysis, demographics can be correlated with behaviour to provide the basis for theories of user motivation and cognition.

Psychographic segmentation, where motivation and demographics are combined, is an established practice in visitor studies of physical museum visitors. It is yet to appear in our Web user research. Motivation to use a museum Web site has been surveyed occasionally, but only one attempt has been made to develop a theory of motivation that might provide a basis for psychographic segmentation (Haley Goldman, Schaller, 2004).

At the moment our segmentation practice is limited to snapshot profiles, often based on pop-up surveys with very low response rates that make them unreliable at best. All of the effort has gone into segmenting existing users rather than segmenting the market, which includes those who don’t use museum Web sites, a much larger group.

A recent critique of segmentation practice that appeared in Harvard Business Review challenged all marketers to reassess simplistic and superficial approaches based on demographic and psychological profiles that fail to effectively define strategy. According to the authors, “Good segmentations identify the groups most worth pursuing”, not just apply labels to existing customers (Yankelovich, Meer, 2006). They argue instead for segmentations based on customer needs and behaviour, as well as a more dynamic approach to research.

Segmentations should be part of an ongoing search for answers to important business questions as they arise. Consequently, effective segmentations are dynamic- in two senses. First, they concentrate on consumers’ needs, attitudes and behaviour, which can change quickly, rather than on personality traits, which usually endure throughout a person’s life. Second they are shaped by market conditions, such as fluctuating economics, emerging consumer niches, and new technologies… (Yankelovich, Meer, 2006)

Segmentation practice in respect of museum Web sites needs to become both richer and more deeply embedded within our ongoing marketing and evaluation practices.

Lack Of Strategic Marketing Focus

Many museum Web sites have not been established with a strategic focus or with a sense of their strategic potential. Confusion often exists between marketing the Web site and marketing the museum by using the Web site. Is the Web site simply a medium for marketing, or a product to be marketed in its own right? If it is both, what is the priority and how does one purpose support the other?

The Web site is typically not seen as strategic in and of itself. ‘Virtual visitors’ aren’t as highly valued as physical ones. Too often the Web site is seen solely in a support role: as a promotional vehicle for exhibitions and events, a ‘showcase’ for collections and research, or a junkyard for corporate ephemera.

In a recent essay on performance metrics for art museums produced for the Getty Leadership Institute, Maxwell Anderson produced a comprehensive inventory of measurable indicators for assessing (art) museum success (Anderson, 2004). Of the more than one hundred proposed measures, only five of those related to the Web. More significantly, those five are merely count measures (e.g. number of visitors, number of artworks illustrated on the site). Obviously, there is still a way to go before the Web site is seriously considered as a tool of strategic significance.

As Web site managers and developers, it is up to us to make and prove the argument for the Web’s strategic value. Neil and Philip Kotler, in an article on the role of marketing in museums, note that the core of strategic planning and marketing “is making the right choices of goals and strategies and allocating adequate resources” (Kotler, Kotler, 2000). This is as true for our Web sites as for any other museum activity, perhaps more so because of the highly competitive environment in which they exist. Too many museum Web sites show the signs of inadequate goal orientation or lack a clear sense of the value they are offering and to whom. It is our task in researching and evaluating Web site use to convince and demonstrate to senior management the strategic value and potential of the Web. To do that we need to fully master the techniques and tools of marketing, not merely pay lip service to them.

Usable Usability

Usability evaluation methods (UEMs) have frequently been used in evaluating the effectiveness of museum Web sites (Speroni et al., 2006; Haley Goldman, Bendoly 2003; Di Blas et al, 2002; Harms, Schweibenz, 2001; Vergo et al, 2001; Garzotto et al, 1998). UEMs comprise a range of techniques such as observation, inspection, and testing, and were originally developed from an engineering perspective with a view to improving the functioning and user acceptance of software products. In a Web context, usability has been defined by Garzotto et al. as “the visitor’s ability to use these sites and to access their content in the most effective way” (Garzotto et al, 1998).

Usability testing and inspection methods offer the advantage of rigorous methodologies, extensive quantification of results and close, sometimes microscopic, attention to detail. As a result, they are highly labour intensive activities, typically using small research samples.

A number of concerns have been raised about the usefulness and validity of these methods. Teather (1998) suggests that the conception of the user employed in UEMs is overly mechanical, neglecting the human in the human-computer interaction by reducing the user’s role to just ‘another system component.’ Hertzum and Jacobsen (2003) have pointed to the distorting ‘evaluator effect’ in UEMs which leads to inconsistent and unreliable findings with heuristic usability testing (i.e. testing conducted by expert evaluators according to established criteria). Kate Haley Goldman (2003) notes this problem also and observes that “[to date] there have been no studies on how reliable or valid heuristic evaluation is for museum Web sites.” She suggests instead the use of multiple methodologies involving significant end user testing in combination with heuristic evaluation.

The heavy focus in UEMs on task performance, both by the software and the wetware (users) has also been questioned. As Bolchini and Mylopoulos (2003) argue, “task-based techniques represent the dominant paradigm for the analysis of user requirements.” In the case of Web sites, they argue for a more goal-oriented approach in defining and testing requirements. They suggest that user-centred design should first consider the goals of the user before defining and measuring tasks. They also recognise the importance of considering the goals of stakeholders alongside those of end-users in any analysis.

Obviously, there is much debate within the field of usability design about the effectiveness and appropriateness of its methods. In adopting some or all of these approaches in the planning and examination of museum Web sites, we need to be mindful of these debates and critiques.

This is not to denigrate these methods and their findings, but merely to make the point that they have their limitations and, at best, tell us only a part of the story, often from a particular point of view. We should use such findings with caution rather than with certainty. As with the marketing paradigm, we must seek to improve our skills in using and critically evaluating these techniques.

By now, we hope it is clear that, notwithstanding their potential and achievements as lenses for examining Web users and uses, each of these perspectives, or paradigms, brings its own baggage and blinders to the task of understanding. Perhaps it is time to step back and consider how they might work more effectively together within a more holistic model for designing and evaluating museum Web sites.

New Conceptual Model For Understanding The Museum Web site Use

In proposing a new conceptual model for understanding museum Web site use, we are cognisant and respectful of the large, albeit fragmented body of work and knowledge that already exists, much of which has been represented at Museums and the Web conferences over the past decade. We are following the lead of Michael and Kate Haley Goldman (2005) in seeking to consolidate and if possible advance the nascent field and professional domain of museum Web design.

What we propose here is a more integrated and holistic approach to understanding museum Web site use, taking a broader view of the user experience and its context in order to better plan, manage, evaluate and promote our on-line endeavours. The model aims to address the gaps, silences and missing connections in our current research, as well as to draw on its strengths.

We are also aware that the various research paradigms that underpin our efforts at understanding are not fixed, but also evolve. For example, even as museums slowly and perhaps reluctantly embrace a marketing paradigm, the field of marketing is itself subject to change and revision.

In an influential article published in the Journal of Marketing, Vargo and Lusch (2004) observe, “Over the past 50 years, marketing has been transitioning from a product and production focus to a consumer focus and, more recently, from a transaction focus to a relationship focus.” This is particularly relevant for museum Web sites, which offer enormous potential for moving museums from a focus on visitor transactions to ongoing engagement. According to Vargo and Lusch, “Marketing’s role as the facilitator of exchange becomes one of identifying and developing the core competencies and positioning them as value propositions that offer competitive advantage.” This is now the strategic challenge and opportunity for museum Web sites, both in positioning themselves within the marketplace and in positioning the museum as a whole. This new marketing perspective offers a lot more to our field of enquiry than do simple demographic or psychographic segmentation techniques.

Similarly, the communications research field has begun to apply itself to understanding the experience of Web users in new ways. The Uses and Gratifications theory that originated in mass media research provides a useful approach to studying on-line behaviour in a way which allows for the complex interaction between user and medium, including the ‘social gratifications’ of interactive on-line communities (Stafford, Stafford, 2004). In assimilating paradigms from other disciplines, it is essential that we stay abreast of their evolution rather than applying methods and constructs which have been superseded in their domains of origin.

The model proposed here incorporates four major levels of analysis, each with its own knowledge bases and established conceptual and analytical practices. The four levels: Market, User, Interaction and Product, represent particular knowledge domains, recognisable from the proceeding discussion. What we seek to encourage is a strengthening and consolidation of each, but more importantly, recognition of their interdependence, to break down some of the silos in our current knowledge and to start to apprehend the user experience within the truly complex web of people, markets and technology that is the world wide Web today.

Fig 1: Proposed model for integrated analysis of museum Web site use

Fig 1: Proposed model for integrated analysis of museum Web site use

Too often our attention and research and evaluation efforts are focused on just one of these levels of analysis (e.g. site evaluation through usability testing, studying user motivation through an on-line survey, or analysing Web log statistics to track demand). Yet the links between usability, motivation and demand are rarely if ever examined and tested. There is also often an imbalance in the focus of our efforts. We closely and repeatedly study current users of our sites and seldom, if ever, research non-users who comprise the vast majority of the potential market for our sites.

In some areas, particularly overall demand for on-line museum content and competitor analysis, hardly any research has been done. No study has tried to map or project demand for digital museum content delivered on-line. Yet what good is a highly usable product if the tide of demand is flowing in a completely different direction? Similarly, we may know the demographic profiles of current users down to two decimal places, but does that tell us if they were able to achieve their goals with a particular function on our Web site?

Of course the proposed model does demand a lot of us, both in mastering key knowledge areas and in understanding the linkages between the levels of analysis. However, if we take this more holistic view, it will be easier to see how the pieces fit and, over time, to build a sustainable body of knowledge to improve our practice, satisfy our users and convince senior management of the value of our efforts.

Similarly, it offers a framework for discussion about methodological issues and, hopefully, a basis for collaborative effort in building a consolidated and comprehensive view from which we can all benefit. Research and evaluation are expensive undertakings: the more we can learn from each other and the less we duplicate our efforts, the richer our understandings will become, and more quickly.

Use of a model such as this will promote a move from a snapshot approach to research and evaluation to a systems model of Web user research. The system may be large and complex, but the holistic view should be much more informative than the sum of the parts. In using this model there will be less focus on head counting and more on the potential for relationship building, a strategic focus on developing market share and positioning - not just more Web sites and a greater emphasis on evaluating products not just functionally, but in terms of their adequacy for user needs.

The model can be seen as useful both at the level of the profession (the museum Web development field) and at the level of the individual organisation. It offers a road map for piecing together knowledge of your site’s users and tracking it over time. In the final section of this paper we look at how the thinking behind the model has been applied in a current Web site redevelopment project.

Theory into Practice

Museum Victoria is a major, multi-campus science, natural and social history institution located in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. Established in 1852, it holds Australia’s most extensive museum collections, some 16 million items. The major campus, Melbourne Museum, opened in 2000 and is the largest museum site in the Southern Hemisphere.

Museum Victoria (MV) established a Web presence ( in 1995. Now MV maintains seven core Web sites, as well as hosting another eight sites on behalf of, or in partnership with, other organisations. Over the years, four redesigns have been undertaken. In 2006, MV developed a new three-year Web strategy which involves a major redevelopment and consolidation of the core sites, including the implementation of integrated content management software and a new corporate visual identity system.

The vision developed as part of the Web strategy is for MV’s Web sites:

to be recognised throughout Australia and the world for innovative resources that engage, inform and educate a broad range of users. The ‘core’ Web site will allow easy access to venue specific information and details relating to our collection areas whilst the ‘content’ sites will contribute to our communities’ access and understanding of all Museum Victoria’s disciplines while continuing to lead by example in terms of accessibility, usability and engagement.

The new site will go live in the middle of 2007. Much of 2006 was spent in planning for the redevelopment and integration of the core sites. While the scope of reworking the entire suite of content sites (some 53 micro- or satellite-sites encompassing more than 60,000 unique Web pages) is too great for complete redevelopment, work will be undertaken to incorporate all content into a meaningful and flexible framework allowing easy discovery and sensible contextual navigation.

What follows here is a description of the approach taken in planning for the needs of users of the newly developed site. It is an example in practice of the ideas and methods discussed above for identifying and designing Web sites in order to meet user needs.

Intensive User Research

MV has made substantial investment in visitor research over a number of years and has a well developed understanding of the visitors to its three main sites: Melbourne Museum, Scienceworks, and the Immigration Museum. Detailed visitor surveying and project focus group sessions are undertaken regularly, and a motivational segmentation matrix has been developed to describe our four major types of visitors.

While this research has proven useful in marketing, tracking and evaluation of museum visits, we knew that we need different data and a different approach to segmentation for our Web site users. Even though we (and other researchers) know there is often a significant overlap between museum visitors and Web site users (Thomas, Carey, 2005), we were concerned first and foremost with these people’s Web use, not just their propensity to visit the museum or not.

There are four main methods for discovering information about Web users: two which rely on automated data collection, and two which require direct user input.

Web log files provide a record of site activity that can be analysed systematically and tracked over time. There are a number of limitations and caveats on the use of log data. However, used judiciously, it is an invaluable and underutilised data source (Peacock, 2002).

Web page tagging is a newer method for automatically tracking user behaviour. It relies on scripts embedded within a Web page. It overcomes some of the problems of Web log data, but has its own limitations too. Page tagging is offered as a service by a range of ISPs and market researchers.

On-line surveys using a pop-up form provide a third method of data collection. These have been the primary data sources used in a number of studies reported at this conference (e.g. Streten 2000). However they typically suffer from a low response rate, making them at best indicative and, at worst, completely misleading.

Direct interaction with users, either through Face to face or telephone interviews, individually / singly, or through observation in a usability-testing type scenario, is a final method. Once again this method has its own inherent limitations: what is reported may not be what happens in reality, including the distorting ‘evaluator effect’.

We used all four data sources in building up our picture of the users of our sites, trying to ‘triangulate’ the view and balance out the limitations and biases of each data collection method.

Market Research

This area is often neglected in planning museum Web sites, as discussed above. What we needed was knowledge not just about our own site, but about the market overall. What are the peers and competitors for our site? What are the overall market trends in the sector we are in – broadly defined as education by Web monitoring services such as ‘Hitwise’ ( What is happening overall in terms of on-line traffic? Are there opportunities or risks for which we can plan? We were able to use data from a number of sources to build our understanding of the market in which our Web site competed.

Currently, according to official statistics, 4.7 million Australian households, or 60% of all households, have Internet access at home (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2006). Almost half of those households are now using broadband connections, typically meaning they use the Internet more often and for longer periods. Three-quarters of Australians aged 16 and over have used the Internet at some time. Of those, Internet ratings agency Nielsen//Netratings reports that 56% regularly access educational/study type Web sites in any one year (Nielsen/Netratings, 2005). This suggests a large potential group of users for the MV Web site.

The number of actual users of MV’s sites is more difficult to estimate, as it not possible to accurately ascertain the number of individuals using a site from the number of sessions. Nonetheless, a recent (July 2006) Newspoll omnibus telephone survey of 300 people in MV’s home state of Victoria provides some insight. Of those surveyed, 17% indicated that they had been to a MV Web site. The other 83% had not visited an MV Web site or did not know if they had.

In summary, the overall number of people who have used the Internet in Australia probably now exceeds 10 million. In any one year, possibly half of those use the Web for educational or study related purposes. Allowing for some over-reporting in the telephone survey, perhaps 10% of Victorians (some 500,000 people) have ever used an MV site. With the continuing growth of Internet use, there is considerable potential to increase usage amongst the 5 million + Victorians and other Australians who regularly use the Internet for education/study purposes.

Tracking trends, conventions and offerings of peer organisations in our own sector provided us with valuable insight into how a user might approach a museum Web site generally, and how we might present our information in a way consistent with that understanding and expectation. We chose 12 cultural organisations – local, national and international – and produced a report based on comparison in six areas of site structure, design, features and content. Analysis of these results has shown clear conventions in some areas (particularly in naming and labeling), but a wide diversity of approach in others (e.g. site functionality and services).

Use-based Segmentation

Market segmentation is used to focus attention on the most likely users of the museum’s on-line content and services. Segmentation can be applied using demographic, psychographic or motivational analysis, as discussed above. For Web users, segmentation should first and foremost relate to the needs and behaviours of people in a Web environment. These needs and behaviours are more effective predictors of future Web use than other segmentation criteria. Demographic and psychographic characteristics are secondary to the needs and motivations of people as Web site users. The most direct and effective way to identify and satisfy these needs is to segment the market according to those needs rather than according to secondary characteristics, which at best may inform, rather than predict Web site usage.

Based on quantitative and qualitative research undertaken directly by MV and on its behalf by Nielsen/NetRatings, a broad segmentation of MV Web site users was developed. The four major segments are defined as:

Fig 2: Proportion of sessions in each user segment across MV Web sites (Source: Calculated from the Nielsen/NetRatings survey and page tracking data)

Fig 2: Proportion of sessions in each user segment across MV Web sites (Source: Calculated from the Nielsen/NetRatings survey and page tracking data)

Targeting and Prioritising Strategies

Traffic to MV’s Web sites has increased fivefold since 2000, from 570,000 user sessions annually to more than 3 million in 2005. In the 2005-06 year there were more than 3.5 million user sessions on MV’s Web sites. This was an increase of 19% over 2004-05.

While an upward trend in site visitation is desirable and satisfies basic key performance indicator reporting, our intention is to describe in more detail the benefits to our users and to ourselves. Thus, our objectives for the new Web site are threefold:

  1. extend the reach of the site by increasing the number and range of people in each segment;
  2. enhance the impact of the site by increasing the usefulness and value of the site to users, and
  3. increase the value of the site to the museum in terms of awareness, loyalty, participation and revenue.

A range of strategies will be undertaken to attract, engage and satisfy users, and build traffic, usage and returns to the museum. The major types of strategy that will be employed are:

Potential museum visitors and transactors offer greater long-term value to the museum in terms of engagement, advocacy and support, as well as income generation. While searchers and browsers are also valuable, the priority with those users is finding ways to convert them to a deeper level of engagement, either as visitors or transactors. These are the groups ‘most worth pursuing’ with additional effort and resources, to borrow Yankelovich and Meer’s (2006) phrase. It is not in the museums interest to merely service the searchers and browsers, who offer little in terms of recognition, loyalty or revenue.

Development Of Needs-Based User Personas

Personas are a tool to help understand user needs and behaviours. They represent characterisations of typical users, and were devised to inform usability testing in software development projects. Eight personas have been developed to assist in planning the MV’s Web site redevelopment project. Each persona represents a key user segment. The personas are based on current knowledge of user behaviour and will be developed and refined as part of the usability testing plan for the project. In recruiting user testers, the personas act as a broad set of selection criteria.

The personas are ‘real’ in the sense that they are composite representations of the drivers, goals and circumstances affecting use of the museum’s Web sites. In combination with personas, task scenarios enable the Web site planning and development team to test the site design and performance against typical user activities.

User Research And Testing

The purpose of the user testing process is to assess the Web site redevelopment continually throughout its various stages to inform the process. The research will assess the usability and navigability of the Web site, as well as comprehensibility of Web site labels and functions.

A pool of eight participants has been recruited to represent a range of Web site user types based on our persona descriptions. Participants take part in five sessions lasting one hour, and are paid for their time.

To date, two of the five sessions have been run – the first focusing on global navigation naming and grouping, the second looking at more detailed information architecture.


Two different versions of the activity were conducted. The first group of participants was given a set of five index cards with fixed global navigation labels. They were asked to sort a set of sub-navigation labels into these five categories. The second group of participants was given a broader pool of global navigation labels to choose from (the previous labels plus a few extras). First they chose a set of global navigation labels (limited to four-six labels); afterward, they continued the card sort. In both versions of the card sort, participants were encouraged to add, replicate, or exclude cards as needed. Notes were taken throughout, and a photograph was taken at the end.

General observations regarding what kind of information might be found within top-level groupings have provided valuable insight into users’ expectations. Of particular interest were comments relating to ambiguous or misleading labeling, some of which challenged long-held conventions which in turn led to a few “ah-ha!” moments.

Information Architecture Wireframes

Participants were shown a mock-up of the proposed information architecture of the redeveloped Web site. The mock-up was a basic skeleton of the site structure with clickable links but no images or content. It included navigation across the MV core site, including venue sub-sites, with global navigation and a few layers of navigation below that.

Findings included the following:

While it is not possible to accommodate each participant’s individual preference into future iterations of structure and design, the user testing allows us to confirm our own assumptions (or not!) as well as cater generally to expectations of our defined user-base.

The next scheduled user testing sessions will ask participants to explore and comment on more worked-up design models. In future, as the site nears its final form, participants will perform scenarios to test more complex interactions with our content and services.

Performance Monitoring

Ongoing monitoring and evaluation of Web site usage is an essential part of ensuring that the site achieves its objectives. Quantitative data will be collected through automated tracking tools within the museum’s server logs and Web page tagging. This data will be supplemented with periodic qualitative surveys of users, conducted both through questionnaires on-line and through surveys of visitors to MV venues. We will set and track annual targets and provide the basis for ongoing analysis and review of site design, content and functionality.

In order to manage Web site performance and effectiveness goals, a consistent, standard set of metrics has been developed to track usage of the Web site over time and to identify issues and opportunities for improvement. The metrics cover the following areas:

In addition, MV will continue to track the peer and competitor environments to identify trends and potential opportunities.


The purpose of this paper has been to examine the state of our knowledge about museum Web site users and propose a new conceptualisation to consolidate and advance that knowledge in a rapidly evolving environment. In conclusion, we suggest the following six principles to guide and support future Web site development and evaluation practice.

In adopting these principles and applying the proposed model at the organisational level and to the profession as a whole, our hope is that we will be able to reconceptualise not just our Web sites, but also our relationships with the people who use them and the marketplace in which they exist. Over time, this will create successful ongoing interactions between users and museums, to the advantage of both.


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Cite as:

Peacock, D. and J. Brownbill, Audiences, Visitors, Users: Reconceptualising Users Of Museum On-line Content and Services, in J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds.). Museums and the Web 2007: Proceedings, Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics, published March 1, 2007 Consulted

Editorial Note