April 9-12, 2008
Montréal, Québec, Canada

User Expectations

Steven Smith, United Focus Pty Ltd, Australia


This mini-workshop session will explore the current and emerging trends in users’ expectations of their on-line experience with museum Web sites. What do they want to see and do on museum Web sites? How do they want to interact with the content? How has Google changed the on-line landscape and users’ experience of culture and heritage on-line? The paper will also explore the challenges and opportunities these trends pose for museums.

Keywords: users, user-generated, content, Google, social, networking


This mini-workshop explores the issue raised in my work with organisations such as the National Museum of Australia and the National Archives of Australia, the History Trust of South Australia, and my research into Web site usability issues. The paper is also based on a study I conducted for the Australian Government in 2007, in conjunction with International Conservation Services (, on the Australian cultural and creative sectors’ technical capabilities in the digital environment.

The research for that project and my other work suggest that over the next few years we will see user expectations and behavior alter in the following key ways:

  • Audiences will expect and want to interact more and more with museums on-line.
  • The sharing of information and knowledge will not be restricted to the old model where the staff member is the sole repository of information and where the communication channel was largely one-way.
  • Visitors will expect museum Web sites to know/remember who they are, and to be able to personalize their on-line experience.
  • Improvements in the speed and access to the Internet will put information, and therefore power, into the hands of the users.
  • An increasing number of regional and remote on-line users will have access to a broadband connection which will make the provision of interactive features and content in video and audio formats more and more relevant and increasingly in demand.
  • The domination of search engines as the means of finding information on the Internet will increasingly force museums to present content in a manner friendly to search engines.

Three or so years from now, on-line interactivity will be more sophisticated, utilizing new high-definition transmissions and 3-D modeling; e.g. high-definition, interactive, live presentations featuring museum curators explaining objects or issues.

What Influences Users’ Expectations?

The expectation that users have of a museum’s Web site will be influenced by a number of factors; the degree of influence that each factor exerts on the user will differ from user to user.

User Background Factors

These factors include users’:

  • level of experience using the Web and the Web conventions to which they have been exposed - to illustrate this point I will demonstrate the chief characteristics of successful Web sites based on our Web site Best Practice Database
  • age, cultural and religious background
  • understanding of the museum’s role and purpose
  • appreciation of the culture and purpose of museums and of the difference between museums and other cultural organisations
  • personal experience as a physical visitor to the museum
  • level of experience with cultural Web sites
  • reason for visiting the museum’s Web site; e.g., for research, interest or visit planning
  • level of understanding of the history and culture of the material presented in the museum
  • speed and quality of access to the Internet
  • intention to visit the Web site; e.g., the visit may be totally accidental.

These factors in turn influence the expectations users have of a number of aspects of a museum’s Web site.

Major Areas of User Expectations

Chief among these are:

  • Scope and depth of its content - from no expectation to those who have visited similar Web sites and expect the same scope and depth.
  • Accuracy and quality of the content - researchers who expect the content to be absolutely accurate, complete and up-to-date to those who just want brief information quickly.
  • Design - from the expectation of those whose experience with museums is that of buildings stuffed with animals, to those who have visited the museums and expect to see the design and edifice of them reproduced in the Web site.
  • Usability - experienced Web surfers and users of museum Web sites expect it to be very user-friendly, whereas novice users have lower expectations and even blame themselves if they can’t find content or use a functional element.
  • Level of interactivity - from students who have their own MySpace site and contribute content to YouTube, to people who have no expectation of interacting with Web sites.

User Habits And Behaviour

On-line audiences are becoming far more Web savvy and demanding. They are using the Internet to book airline tickets, do their banking, research products and services and for social networking and gaming. Older age groups are becoming more at ease using on-line technologies. They are accessing on-line videos on entertainment and news Web sites, and audio files through iTunes, and having video-conferences with friends using Skype. The libraries offering wireless access to the Internet are finding that on closing their physical doors at 5.00pm, the laptop users sit outside the building to continue their access to the Web via the virtual front door.

The Internet and mobile technologies are increasingly important tools in the day-to-day lives of more and more people. The boundary of their working day is blurring due to more readily available and ever-present access to computers and the Internet. The ‘working week’ is stretching across the whole week and across the day. More and more people are working from home and operating from home offices.

People are increasingly more impatient users of technology; less in awe of it and more likely to provide informed criticism when it is not easy to use. If it is not on-line, they are less likely to access the information, product or service. In addition, there is an expectation that they will be able to conduct business on-line, such as purchasing a concert ticket, whenever it suits them.

The number of hours people are spending on-line is increasing while the number of hours they spend watching free-to-air television is declining.

The cultural and creative sector is affected by this trend as much as any other sector in the economy. Simply providing a Web site with text and images is fast becoming a liability, as the informed and expectant on-line audiences search for information and objects, download podcasts and videos, book tickets, participate in social networks and register for e-newsletters.

Whereas once on-line audiences would accept without question whatever was delivered to them on-line by cultural and creative organisations, they are now demanding and discerning users with their own agendas and with heightened expectations, borne of experiencing the on-line offerings of global entertainment companies.

User-Generated Content

There is an increasing demand by users for interaction with cultural and creative content rather than passive reading of a Web page. For museums, this may mean providing functions in the long term such as user commentary on content, allowing users to create and curate their own exhibitions, enabling users to tag content, and providing an ‘ask an expert’ functionality.

The enormous popularity of sites such as MySpace, Flickr, YouTube and Second Life points to users’ desire to generate their own cultural and creative content. It also challenges what we understand to be cultural and creative on-line content. Up to now, it has been understood, implicitly if not explicitly, to be content generated by professionals employed by cultural organisations. The rise of user-generated content challenges this understanding, as does the popularity of Wikipedia. As a result, the position and role of researchers and curators in the on-line environment is changing.

Today’s consumers of cultural content are not willing passive recipients of content chosen for them by others. They can create and are creating their own content. The under-twenty generation is less afraid than older age groups to create content and show it to the world. Their members seem less inhibited by creative and intellectual modesty and more relaxed about sharing their creativity.

Creative content born in these on-line spaces is considered temporary. Its creators are more relaxed about the shelf-life of their creative output and more likely to discard it themselves as they move on to something new. This approach is in stark contrast to the way in which professionals in the cultural and creative sector have been trained to conduct their work. Indeed, government owned organisations in the sector are subject to various laws that require them to preserve and archive certain information and transactions.

Social media have redefined the famous notion that everyone gets fifteen minutes of fame: it is now closer to fifteen weeks.

Organisations in the cultural and creative sector need to provide the necessary on-line tools and support for social media, and embrace its interactive philosophy, if they are to remain relevant in the digital environment. For museums, this means considering ways users can generate and publish content on the site and ways museums can support their associate organisations in doing so.

The Google Factor

Nielsen NetRatings ( reported that Google was the most visited Web site in the USA and UK in the week ending 14 January, as it was in Australia in December 2007. Yahoo was not far behind it. For museums, this means they must ensure their Web site content ranks highly in search engine results or they will be bypassed by users. The ranking needs to be high on the first results, as research indicates that 97% of users only look at the first search engine results page, and only 47% of those scrolled to the bottom of the page (Nielsen, 2006).

This requires content authors to consider the way in which Google ranks pages when they compose on-line content, and it requires the Web site to be optimised for visibility to search engines. Neither of these considerations is always at the forefront of curators’ minds when composing content for exhibitions.

The Museum of Victoria, Australia, has reported that only five percent of its on-line visitors entered its Web site via the home page. Most of their virtual visitors came through a link found in a Google search. This percentage would be repeated in most major cultural organisations in Australia and elsewhere. If an organisation’s on-line content is to be found via Google, then it must be structured, written and presented in a manner that maximises its visibility to Google.

The rewards for achieving a high ranking on Google are high. The Australian War Memorial ensured its Web site was Google-friendly; the result was a ten-fold increase in visitation to the Web site. The Powerhouse Museum in Sydney achieved similar success by heeding the way Google ranks Web pages.

Google is changing the way people think about information and search for information on-line. Users are increasingly searching for a phrase rather than a single word. They are asking Google the question, as they once did of the librarian. This trend will grow as Google’s search technique becomes even more sophisticated. This will make the need for cultural organisations to be Google-friendly even more compelling.

Social Networking

This conference will feature many presentations on social networking in the museum on-line world. Suffice it to say here then, that the increasing take-up of social media and of social networking on-line (e.g. MySpace, FaceBook) creates an expectation amongst some in the target audience (e.g. students) that a Web site will be a many-to-many interactive space, not a one-to-many space.

For museums, this means providing on-line tools that allow and encourage interaction between the user and museums and between users/visitors; e.g., they facilitate interaction between school groups that have visited a museum, and the museum itself.

It also means having appropriately trained staff with the resources and time to attend to sustaining a growing the social network.

Users’ Improved Access To The Web

The variety of methods by which people access the Internet is increasing (e.g., via wireless connectivity in cities), as are the technologies by which they experience Web site content - laptops, PDAs, mobile phones and MP3 players.

The National Archives of Australia report that by mid-2007 they were logging up to 800 mobile phone accesses of their Web site per month. If a museum is to cater to its audiences and their needs and expectations, it needs to consider providing content in multiple formats or specifically for a format that suits the nature of the content; e.g., a podcast or RSS feed.


A museum that fails to ascertain and monitor the habits, preferences and requirements of its on-line audiences and fails to meet those expectations will ultimately lose audiences, and in this digital environment, will most likely fail to fulfill its mission.

Cite as:

Smith, S., User Expectations, in J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds.). Museums and the Web 2008: Proceedings, Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2008. Consulted