The Art and Science of Visitor Experience

boy in traditional dress, new caledonia

Visitor experience is 70% art and 30% science.

When I was a young park interpreter, we rarely had access to audience research. In fact, I don’t much recall anyone talking about it: if you were in the heritage tourism sector, you simply did your work (exhibits, activities, orientation, amenities) as best you could, based on what you thought it should look like. We didn’t spend much time on segmenting our audiences, learning about their demography, their values, their patterns of visitation.

Likewise the science of evaluation. We didn’t do much of it. Certainly, we counted bums in seats and clicks through turn styles, and we knew when we had a success or a failure on our hands. But we didn’t really spend much time figuring out why—particularly in parks and historic sites. (I will acknowledge that museums, even back in the 1980s, were far ahead of the rest of us in the field of program evaluation.)

So we’ve done some good work in catching up. Now, we invest heavily in data: we see our visitors not as a generic mass, but as segments. We speak of authentic experiencers or rechargers or emptying nesters or fledgling families, and we make an effort to acknowledge those segments when we create potential visitor experiences.

But I’m worried that it hasn’t made as much of a difference as it should.

As a visitor experience advisor and interpretive planner, I see a lot of heritage attractions in my work. I go to an awful lot of historic sites and parks, and I see a heck of a lot of exhibits. And not all of them are good, or inspired, or memorable.  In fact, after ten to fifteen years of our sector investing heavily in social science analysis and market segmentation…

I see disappointingly little correlation between a site’s investment in social science, and the quality of its visitor experience.

Why is that?

Well, I believe that visitor experience is 70% art and 30% science. And the recent trend toward investing heavily in science—very heavily in many cases—has left the heart of the visitor experience to wither from neglect.

We’ve stopped hiring talented people, and started hiring analysts. Specifically, I’ve noticed of late that many VE professionals have been hired for their ability to interpret social science. Many come from marketing and promotions backgrounds; many have worked in business. And these people have had a positive influence on our profession, to be sure. Market research and program evaluation are vital, and the rest of us had a lot of catching up to do.

But the ability to interpret social science, and the ability to develop unforgettable visitor experiences are not the same skill set. The art and science of visitor experience are a kind of yin and yang—but the balance between them is almost never found in a single individual. In fact, in my long career I can count the number of people who could were good at both on the fingers of one hand.

So where are our VE visionaries? Where are our iconoclasts, our innovators? Where are the creators?

I suspect they’re not even landing interviews.

Good visitor experience is magical. It is original. It is deeply touching, and virtually unforgettable. It is exciting and unexpected. It surprises and delights the audience; it exceeds their expectations and meets needs that they didn’t even know they had. It is art.

A technician or analyst can look at data, and tell you why a product works.

But they can’t create a better program than the ones they’re evaluating.

That requires lateral thinking, courage, talent, experience, vision, and a little bit of risk.

I think it’s the risk part, more than any other, that keeps us from investing in the art of visitor experience. Our organizations are either chronically risk-averse (government) or financially impoverished (nonprofits); few of us can afford to go out on a limb with innovation.

And of course, it’s far less daunting to manage a science-based department than to inspire a team to achieve a little bit of genius.

Visitor experience artists are hard to find, and difficult to cultivate from within an organization. And when you do find them, they can be arrogant; they are sometimes unpredictable; they tend to get frustrated quickly with bureaucracy, and they tend to express their frustration in inconvenient ways.

But they can also put you on the map. A talented product development professional can create the signature experience that every site seems to crave; they can establish your brand and they can put you far ahead of your competitors.

Those who follow my writing will know that I am not discounting the importance of science-based decision making. I am a vocal proponent of market research and program evaluation. I’m not suggesting there’s a dichotomy between art and science in VE: we don’t choose between the two. We balance them. They inform each other.

But we should weight the balance more heavily on the side of art. We won’t be seeing better visitor experiences until we do.


  1. Don, great article! I agree that the trend in VE is to focus on those measurable elements like click counts, participation numbers, social media “likes” and more data. It is risky to take chances with creatively engaging an audience but that approach will usually capture visitors’ minds and provide more of an unforgettable experience. It’s what keeps them engaged long after they’ve left the heritage site, museum, exhibit, etc. That’s what I strive for when I participate on either side of the visitor experience.

    • Thanks for your comments Diane- yes, a little risk, a little creativity (backed with a little social science.) That’s what creates memories.

  2. I see a similar tension between creation and implementation. It’s nigh-on impossible to be good at both (particularly for the same project). The spark of creativity is too quickly doused by the “but how are we actually going to make that work?” pragmatism.

    But you need both. Too many creatives and not enough implementers, and you get lots of great ideas that are poorly thought through and don’t quite work in practice. Too many implementers and you get mediocrity delivered excellently.

  3. Robert Malo

    Good stuff, Don. Merci for the insights.

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