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We The Curious is Bristol’s science centre. It runs events, welcomes school groups, redirects lost aquarium visitors, and has one of the best processes for tracking down lost children we’ve ever seen. The entry foyer has to do a lot.
Some of the team at We The Curious have been with the centre since way back, before a National Lottery Millennium project transformed a rundown railway goods shed into what was then the At-Bristol Science Centre.
The charity runs community outreach events, hosts conferences and weddings, welcomes 70,000 schoolchildren a year, and aims for the public areas of the building to feel welcoming to anyone, regardless of whether they can afford to buy a ticket to the exhibition space. All of these people come through the entrance zone, alongside all the visitors to the centre itself – around 2,000 people on a wet February half-term day, all needing tickets and wanting to ask questions about the Planetarium shows.
The team has been trying to meet the ‘one space, many requirements’ challenge since the centre was a building site. They’ve moved the ticket desks around, taken the walls down, stuck signs up, moved the ticket desks again, and the space still won’t do everything it needs to.
Each problem they solved presented another problem: taking the walls down meant that people felt comfortable just being in the space, but left them with no idea where to go when they wanted to buy tickets. Making the ticket desks more prominent made them easier to find, but then the space felt too transactional, and people felt less comfortable being in it.
We The Curious are about to completely redevelop the ground floor, which includes the foyer space and entrance to the centre itself. This time, the team wanted to know in advance that their changes would actually make things better for visitors. Lydia, Head of Operations, explained: “I was really concerned about falling down another hole of coming up with ideas and not testing them. We needed to know what our visitors wanted from the space.”
We’d already worked with We The Curious on designing a better, more visitor-centred online ticketing experience. Continuing that work from the centre’s digital space into its physical space was a natural progression, especially as digital self-service becomes more and more intricately woven into our analogue experiences. Think about how different getting on a plane is now, for example.
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Via a mix of visitor interviews and observation, we investigated people’s ability to navigate and find information, the tasks they wanted to complete, and the order they wanted to complete them in. We also paid attention to their emotional contexts and responses to the space – airports tend to be pretty navigable, for example, but that’s not quite the vibe We The Curious are after.
We also interviewed people from as many of the centre’s teams as we could get our hands on, and listened to what they needed from the space, too.
There’s a lot going on, it turns out. Event attendees need to know where to go. Everyone else wants to know how much tickets cost, and how they can acquire them. Parents want to let the staff know that little Evan has made a bid for freedom and would they watch out for him please; Evan himself would like to plant this interesting thing he’s found in the shop in the plant pot behind the information desk.
Some of this wasn’t a surprise to the We The Curious team – they’d been managing around all these conflicting requirements for years – but having a document containing all of those bottlenecks and workarounds was eye-opening.
Lydia said: “We can’t just pretend those problems aren’t there any more. Having that in-depth, unflinching analysis of what the space was and wasn’t doing gave our team permission to make some difficult decisions with the evidence they needed to make them the right way.
We started that process with them. We took that list (and some Lego; Lego always helps with difficult problems) and made it the basis of a co-creation workshop. We helped the team begin to navigate the complexity of trying to solve for multiple needs at once, and left them with a huge list of ideas to prototype before they collaborate with the exhibition design firm in a few months.
Lydia told us, “that user data was really important. We’ve spent years basing the foyer on what we think our visitors want, not on what they actually want.” That’s about to change.