By: Tanya Treptow, PhD

January 02, 2020


At Slover Linett, our team includes social scientists and strategists from a wide range of disciplines, such as psychology, anthropology, public policy, human-centered design, and arts administration. Because of our kaleidoscope of backgrounds, we get to push each other to think creatively about unusual combinations of research methods to meet our cultural clients’ goals. It’s a unique work environment!

Some of the organizations we work with are just beginning to invest in understanding their current audiences. When an organization is making this important commitment to more data-driven, audience-responsive decisions, we often recommend a quantitative approach (i.e., surveys with closed-ended questions that are analyzed statistically) to capture demographics and motivations—revealing who the institution is reaching, and not reaching, in its community. We strongly advocate for this kind of work, often to set a baseline and sometimes to develop psychographic segmentations. We’ve helped create tools to help move the field forward, such as the “Respectful Audience Surveying Toolkit,” developed in partnership with Nina Simon’s OF/BY/FOR ALL movement.

But for organizations that are ready to grapple with the next step — how to engage new kinds of audiences — we often suggest more open-ended, anthropological and human-centered research methods (i.e., qualitative approaches). I’m excited to share three methods below that inspire me daily in my projects: established qualitative research techniques that we’ve adapted to fit the cultural sector.


1. Journey Mapping to gain empathy and uncover deep values. In journey mapping, we observe and talk with cultural participants — say, exhibition visitors or concertgoers — before, during, and after the experience, often spending an hour or more together to explore their emotional, social, and intellectual ups and downs as the experience unfolds. This process identifies what’s working, what’s not (“pain points”), and what else is needed to set the conditions for full, satisfying engagement.

A similar approach is often used in corporate user experience (UX) or usability research, but in more narrow, close-ended ways. With museums and arts organizations, we find that potential visitors and attendees often have much less conscious sense of their own goals for the experience than consumers in more typical, corporate contexts, such as a purchase process. I’ve learned that it’s absolutely critical in the cultural field to spend extra time helping participants reflect and articulate their hopes and desires at their own pace, while also giving them permission to explore more deeply and express their underlying values.

Only by not assuming that we know the participant’s goals can we gain a truly useful understanding of how they experience a cultural event…and how their experience can be enhanced.


2. Experience Sampling to bring in new voices into the conversation. In experience sampling, we invite non-attendees or non-visitors to “try out” a cultural experience as part of their involvement in our research study. By interviewing them before and after the experience, and sometimes accompanying them to observe and talk with them during it, we get an invaluable picture of how newcomers experience the art-form, organization, venue, etc. It’s a powerful way to identify and detangle multiple barriers and benefits, which non-attenders often experience differently than frequent attenders or “core” audiences.

We’ve found that this approach is often new for arts and cultural professionals, who may already be in deep conversation with current audiences but aren’t sure why other audiences aren’t engaging…or what kinds of changes would be required to both attract and serve them.

Again, experience sampling diverges from much design-thinking research in the corporate world, which often focuses on current or high-potential customers, leaving out the voices of people who are less inclined to participate, buy, or engage. As arts and culture institutions have increasingly committed themselves to inclusivity and equity, and to genuine service out in their communities, empathy-building research methods like experience sampling become even more critical tools to help organizations think about change.


3. Generative Workshops and Panels to move from responsiveness to co-creation. There’s a big difference between starting with an existing cultural experience and starting with the audience’s or community’s deep goals, then envisioning a possible We’ve found that it can be powerful and productive to gather a group of audience members or community residents and use creative exercises to help them articulate their experiential ideals, then generate ways those ideals could be captured and embodied in an arts or culture experience.

When we facilitate these participatory, generative sessions as a one-off, we tend to call them Experience Workshops. When we invite the same members of the public to participate in three or four sequential workshops over the course of a multi-month planning process, we call them Experience-Design Panels. Either way, we often recommend that professionals from the cultural organization — museum curators and exhibition designers, say, or artistic leaders and symphony musicians — participate in the workshops along with the audience members, engaging in dialogue together around specific topics, ideas, and possibilities.

Such workshops are an exciting way for organizations to put their mission language about equity and community into practice. Like the other two methods, these workshops are part of what is often called “design thinking” or human-centered design. But they’re also part of the increasing acknowledgment in our field of the critical question of equity. Last year, Natasha Iskander, a professor of urban planning and public service at New York University, wrote about a fundamental change needed in the design field, noting that “design thinking privileges the designer above the people she serves, and in doing so limits participation in the design process” and thereby “the scope for truly innovative ideas.” There is growing consensus that unless designers of all kinds explicitly prioritize inclusion and equity, they will only reinforce systemic and implicit biases.

At Slover Linett, we practice equity in our generative workshops in part through transparency, facilitating moments where both institutional staff and community participants can share their hopes, fears, and aspirations, creating space for more active, equal collaboration in dreaming up new ideas.


As you may be able to tell, I love these kinds of qualitative experiments; I get to stretch my own mind, listening to others as the experts on their own lives. Some aspects of the nonprofit cultural sector make these methods challenging, but they’re also potentially more rewarding than in consumer contexts. While these three methods have already helped transform our work at Slover Linett, we’re always trying to think of new ways to learn, empathize, and reflect in our research practices. If you’re also pushing the boundaries of qualitative research, we hope you’ll reach out!

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