Browsing, Following, Searching, Researching

From observing thousands of visitors within gallery spaces and exploring their responses and outcomes, we have identified four broad behaviours that describe how visitors select and start to make meaning from objects or exhibits: 

  • Browsing: wandering, selecting attention-grabbing objects at random.  

  • Following: looking for stories to follow; will engage with a sequence of objects led by the museum. 

  • Searching: focusing their engagement on an object or theme, determined by their pre-existing knowledge; often consuming all available interpretation. 

  • Researching: engaging deeply but totally on their own terms, relying on their specialist knowledge.  

We have found that these four broad modes of behaviour are equally applicable in object-rich online environments as they are in physical galleries.

We measure these modes through in-gallery observation and through survey questions, to help our clients pinpoint which presentation strategies are working well and where visitors need more help.  

The model below describes the modes in terms of how visitors select objects and the type of interpretation they need to engage.    

(We also sometimes use a fifth mode – Choosing – to identify Searching visitors who seek to engage with one particular object rather than a theme or area in detail.)

Browsing and Following visitors lack contextual knowledge and so look for explanation from the venue, ideally delivered in a rich sensory format.

Searching and Researching visitors have pre-existing knowledge which they bring to their interaction: they need easy access to detailed information.

Each type of behaviour is equally valid and can lead to a satisfying visit experience. However, we have repeatedly found that visitors who only browse randomly through an environment come away with a limited experience of the richness of objects on display, limited engagement with learning and other outcomes and a limited/short-lived sense of fulfilment.

While both Browsing and Following visitors are enjoying an essentially passive visit experience, soaking up the venue’s offer, Following allows passive, less knowledgeable visitors to connect objects together and access key themes by following the museum’s own narrative. 

If cultural venues are committed to developing visitors’ engagement with their collections, we believe they should provide experiences that propel visitors along from Browsing to Following to Searching (and ultimately perhaps even to Researching). 

Elinor is MHM's Chief Executive...