What is a visitor journey?

A visitor journey is an interpretive planning tool that outlines what the visitor sees and does in your proposed visitor experience. It’s closely related to the ‘user story’ that software and app developers use: before you get into the nuts and bolts of coding (or in our case, writing and designing) you first make sure the product makes sense from the user’s point of view. You write it up in in a form that your managers, stakeholders, focus groups, or investors will be able to visualize clearly.

What does it look like?

It’s a written piece, about 100 words per product, that describes what the visitor sees, hears, touches, and does. You can write it for a single product that you’re developing.  For larger projects—an entire exhibit, say—you can string many of them together in the order of your visitor flow. This series of paragraphs will serve as an entire narrative of the proposed visitor experience, from entry to exit (or from wishing/planning, through arriving and visiting, to departing and remembering.)

Product: Guard House Recreated

Jim and Terri notice the small house just inside the Upper Battery. They enter the guard house and see it as it was in the early 20th century, when it functioned as a residence. Furniture, fixtures, mementos and clothing are in place, touchable and secure. It’s as if the residents just stepped out. A chair sits unoccupied at a dinner table, inviting visitors to place themselves in the vignette for a photo. Small illustrated interpretive labels highlight the stories of those who lived and worked here. On the walls, subtle still images and snippets of text fade in and out.

When does it happen in the planning process?

Early. The visitor journey is one of the first concrete products of exhibition and program planning. It follows the identification of goals, target audiences, and themes. It’s the earliest product of the ideation or brainstorming phase. It’s what designers use to start sketching.

So once you know what you’re trying to accomplish, what you have to say, and who you’re saying it to, you gather your creative team (interpreters, writers, 3D designer, graphic designer, content developer) and you start to brainstorm things. Somebody tracks what’s being proposed, and starts stringing it together into a potential visitor experience. Then, the interpretive planner (you) sits down and drafts it into a narrative, and presents it back into the group for comment and refinement.

What makes a good visitor journey?

  • It is concrete and specific.
  • It is easily visualized.
  • It describes a single product (and you know it’s a discrete product if it has a discrete message, an outcome, and a dwell time—a length of time, from a few seconds to many minutes, that your target market will reasonably be expected to invest in it.)
  • It is concise (nor more than 100 words per product. I use a database that cuts me off at that limit.)
  • It shows potential to excite and gratify your target audiences. It brings your theme to life. It has strong potential to meet your goals.

What happens after the visitor journey is written?

After the visitor journey is drafted and approved, the planning team use it to get to work. Designers start to sketch it out, or gather reference visuals to imply what it might look like. Writers start drafting sample text. Content developers start digging for stories and photographs and artefacts.

As an interpretive planner, you’ll find that there’s a ton of useful material for you to parse out of the document. Just look at the product below: the product, as written, implies numerous components of various categories. Start putting them into your content matrix.

Product: Dressup with Green Screen

The Visitor Centre’s popular animal dressup activity has gotten a makeover. New animal costumes have been added—and there are plenty for Mom and Dad to try on, too. There’s a small platform with a green screen behind it. The Joneses dress up, and take a photo together. A small screen prompts them: “Choose your animal home”, and the habitat of their choice shows up behind them on the screen. They send the photos to their smartphones and share them online. Millennials Megan and James watch the action and can’t wait to try it—they tell each other they’re doing so ironically, but they all share the images of themselves dressed as bears and deer.

Category:  Audiovisual

  • Green Screen
  • Green Screen Camera
  • Green Screen instruction screen
  • Green Screen  programming and email interface

Category: Infrastructure

  • platform and backdrop

Catetory: Custom Props and Costumes

  • Bear
  • Deer
  • Coyote

Category: Written Content

  • Green screen invitation
  • Instructions
  • Brief texts on wildlife
  • Template text for emails home

Category: Images

  • habitat images, copyright cleared
  • wildlife images, copyright cleared

As the details of the product start to take shape, they can be grouped for costing and for project managing. Each of these components has a fabricator or a vendor or a supplier; each has a cost centre attached to it.

As you continue through the design concept phase to design development, the visitor journey remains the touchstone for your creative team. At every phase, you have something to evaluate your progress against: are you bringing the visitor journey to life? Have you missed anything? Have you taken any creative turns that compromise your visitor journey?

As the interpretive planner, your job is to keep the visitor journey document alive, and hold your team to its essence.


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Get monthly (ish) updates via email from Don Enright. I write about interpretation and visitor experience. I never sell or share my lists.



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