Visitor Experience and Problem-Space Thinking

As an interpretive planner and visitor experience advisor, I spend time helping my clients increase their reach, revenue, and relevance. It’s work that I love—particularly when it helps bring genuine transformation to my clients’ operations.

Over the last few years, one of the questions I’ve always asked my clients to help them identify their heritage site’s unique market position is this:

What can your visitors do here that they can’t do anywhere else?

I’ve finally come around to the realization that I’ve been asking the wrong question.

I mean, on the surface it’s a good line of investigation, and it should help uncover a site’s unique selling proposition, a pillar of any marketing plan. But here’s the thing: when I ask that question in a heritage tourism setting, I always get answers like, “Easy! This is the ONLY PLACE ON EARTH they can see the final resting place of Herkimer Johnson the Third!”

Or, in a park setting, something like “This is the region’s BEST please to see arthropod faunistics in action!”

And honestly, there are people for whom those things matter. Really, there are. In the parlance of John Falk’s visitor types, they are the hobbyist-professionals. Hobbyist-professionals are that super-geeky minority—the railway aficionados, the lighthouse tourists, the dinosaur geeks, the avid aquarists—who know and love your subject matter as well as you do. Make them happy, and they will be your most rabid stans, as the kids say (“stan” being a portmanteau of stalker and fan).

But for everybody else? Trying to sell them on a visit to your site strictly on its Herkimer Johnson III value?

Seriously. That plus five bucks will get you a latte at Starbucks.

Enter problem-space thinking and its potential to find the way to your visitors’ hearts. The “problem space” is an idea we borrow from the world of product development. First, we inhabit our clients’ world of challenges, problems, pain points, frustrations, and desires. We fully understand and account for what they’re up against in the problem space before we move toward the solution space, where we design the product (in our case, a potential visitor experience) that responds to the clients’ needs.

Can you see how this type of thinking changes your view of your visitors? Almost nobody wakes up in the morning and says, “God DAMN I really wish there was somewhere I could go today to see where Herkimer Johnson III kicked the bucket.” I mean, they don’t, right? And they never will. By hanging your hat on an obscure interpretive curiosity, you’re offering a solution to a problem that simply doesn’t exist. Now, I’m not saying that the Herkimer Johnsons of the world aren’t important. And I know that a great interpreter can take any utterly obscure historical or biological curiosity and make it genuinely exciting and relevant. That’s what good interpreters do, and that’s why I love the creativity and passion of interpreters.

But it’s not going to get those visitors through the door for you.

So what are our visitors’ problem spaces? What real-world problems are we able to solve?

The answer to that question varies by visitor type, of course. Different kinds of people are working through different problems and challenges as they make their way through life: young families have different challenges than singles in the dating scene or seniors with mobility issues. But here are a few worth investigating.

“My in-laws are coming this weekend and I just need something—please God anything—to make them happy for a few hours.”

“I’ve got the kids this Saturday morning and I need something safe, fun, and maybe educational so they say great things about their time with me when I take them back to my ex-spouse.”

“I’ve got a second date with somebody REALLY promising and I need them to think I’m kind of smart and progressive and edgy.”

“I am so Covid-bored I just want to BE in a space with other thinking human beings for a while.”

“My kid is suddenly into science and I am really excited for them and I want them to meet successful women who do science for a living.”

“I am so sick of never seeing people like me reflected in the heritage sites I visit.”

And so on.

Suddenly, you see a world of possibilities for both your product development and your promotions programs.

And suddenly, you realize that your competition might not be the businesses you thought, and that can be huge.

If you were hanging your hat on being the region’s ONLY shrine to Herkimer Johnson III, but suddenly discover that most of your visitors are really just looking for an effortless and fun Saturday morning out, you realize that they have many choices. Suddenly your competition is the local wave pool or playground. If your market is seniors looking to spend time with their friends, suddenly you realize that your competition might just be the local doughnut shop.

And when you make realizations like that, your solutions space (and your promotions program) has to look a little bit different. You start to create visitor experience products that emphasize how you’re solving their problems by creating the benefits they are seeking.

When we realize that the prime problem space our visitors inhabit is simply how to spend an agreeable few hours with family and friends…. well, we take a second look at our confusing websites and our slow admissions desks and our chronically-unavailable washrooms and our interpretive signs full of jargon and our docents who can’t be heard intelligibly for love or money and…

We suddenly realize why our visitors are going to the mall instead. We start to understand why, more and more, our potential visitors are just staying home to watch Netflix. And we start to brainstorm ways to increase the value of our offer and turn our parks, museums, zoos, aquariums, and historic sites into solution spaces.

Here’s the most relevant equation I have seen in a very long time:

Value = (Benefits to the Visitor) – (Hassle + Price)

Until we truly understand what benefits our visitors need—and figure out how to offer them those benefits for a decent price and a minimum of hassle—we’re never going to get them through the door to meet Herkimer.

And that would be a crying shame.

Learn More

  • Kyle Bowen writes a lot about “visitor progress” in the museum sector, which is a lot like problem space thinking. Link here.
  • More about problem space thinking here.


  1. Hi Don;

    I enjoy reading your blogs. Just a small note about a typo: line 13, “please” should probably be “place”.


  2. I have been feeding a seagull since it was still young with brown feathers…now it is fully grown it has become spiteful towards my 2 cats ..some time blocking their entrance to my house…what can you suggest to get rid of the seagull

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