FEATURE23 March 2015

Measuring experience


The UK is home to many world-class visitor attractions, the success of which is built on imagination, ingenuity and expertise. Collectively, the efforts and developments have been classified as the UK experience economy.


One of the most interesting experience economy components that the UK has to offer is visual arts. Running uninterrupted since 1769, the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy is among one of the most established brand experiences in the world.

Over the summer of 2014, Northstar, in collaboration with the London School of Economics, conducted an ethnographic study at the Royal Academy of Arts, exploring the Summer Exhibition audience and their motivations.

The study was designed to help the Royal Academy to understand their customers in order to be able to better target new generations of visitors, as well as to help refine the future instalments of the exhibition. It also enabled Northstar to conceptualise and road test a new research approach.

Collecting Moments

Academic anthropology is time-intensive. Anthropologists spend months, or even years in the field before producing a detailed and considered analysis of their observation. By contrast, the length of time available to conduct fieldwork and write up findings in the commercial world can usually be measured in days and weeks.The challenge for the Northstar team was to develop a method that carried the intellectual spirit of academic anthropology, but could be conducted within a limited timeframe and was non-interventionist in design.

Looking at the various anthropological approaches, the team conceived the idea of ‘micro-anthropology’ to gain a better understanding of how visitors experience art.

The approach centred on the belief that to understand an experience it was imperative to explore it within its context. The objective was to identify a set of small/micro moments that helped contribute towards the overall experience: effectively focusing on recording granular conversations, interactions, gestures and movements within the exhibition context. This was to be repeated across a large number of visitors.

This was a counter point to traditional ‘customer/experience life cycle’ models of analysis that are often overtly deterministic and are better suited to analysis of service delivery and management (not experiences). It also challenged the notion that ethnography by default required a lot of time and involved a limited number of subjects.

Gigantic Jigsaw

The Northstar team developed an approach that relied on the following techniques:

  • Discrete-participation: focused on ‘discrete shadowing’ of visitors to the Summer Exhibition. The fieldworker watched and documented (not filmed) their movements and listened-in to conversations for a few minutes. This can be best explained as a hybrid of Time and Motion studies (Taylorism) and overhearing conversations in a public place.
  • Micro-observations: general observations of the visitor in interaction with the overall environment, lasting from a few seconds to several minutes. This relied on a more classical user experience analysis and involved collecting photographic evidence. However unlike UX there was no specific task to fulfil – it simply recorded an experiential map of the exhibition area.
  • Context conversations: conversations with visitors lasting only 3-4 minutes to understand who the visitors were and their reasons for visiting the exhibition. Extreme care was taken to make these discussions as ‘non- interview’ like as possible

In all the team collected sixteen hours of data and four hundred photographs. In effect we created a gigantic jigsaw.

Early Trends

After granular analysis of the various types of information collected, we analysed three types of experiential trends with a direct impact for the Royal Academy.

  • Control: Summer Exhibition is characterised by its lack of signage, allowing visitors to have a sensorial, rather than a directed experience. Visitors explore the exhibition via an unique sense of control over their own visits, resulting in each visitor potentially having a totally different experience.
  • Family: rituals focusing on family and traditions become apparent among visitors at the Summer Exhibition. Rather than the single person archetype of other exhibitions, attending the summer exhibition has become an annual event for many families.
  • Divergence: the variety of artists and types of art offers a sense of inclusivity, despite the exclusivity of the status and prestige of the exhibition. Equally, there is a sense of both the familiar and non-familiar present as a result of the eclectic art and familiar art exhibition setting.

Unbundling Experience

At Northstar we understand that there are fail-safe methods of asking questions, recording answers and providing insights. These have worked very well across the goods and service stages of a market economy. This harks to a simpler, tangible and straightforward world where you could hold, feel and assess your way around an opportunity.

We believe that understanding an experience economy will take a different approach to what worked in a goods and service market setting. We have to start engaging with respondents differently. We have to understand that it is more effective to be respondent-led and researcher-curated.

Noah Roychowdhury is principal at Northstar UK.