Two months ago the Museum of National History, my employer, launched the National Vending Machine. The interactive installation, currently on display in the Amsterdam Historical Museum, encourages people to discover history through objects. It’s a pilot project and we will use our experiences of the three-month try-out to improve future instalments of the National Vending Machine.
The National Vending Machine is a participatory project. To discover who uses the machine and how these users interact with it, I’ve spent quite some hours observing visitors and I’ve used the website (and especially the visitor part) to get an overall idea about participation and interaction.
Intended participation with the National Vending Machine
In short, a visitor of the National Vending Machine can buy a variety of common objects and discover their historical background. Users are encouraged to add their personal stories to the objects. To buy an object, a visitor needs to make a profile. After paying they get an RFID card with credit to buy one or more objects. After buying an object, a user can see a movie about the bought object. (Read more.)
Observations about the users and use of the machine
- Visitors are more likely to participate when they come in groups
Often, when a member of a group pays attention to the machine, the other group members join in. Of course there’s the statistic advantage of groups, but I’ve observed that before participation with the machine, almost everybody first talks about the machine. Individual visitors have nobody to talk to and move on before buying an object. Group participation results in people sharing an account and many profiles with pictures of friends together.
- People interact and participate in other ways than the intended
Although buying an object is the intended way to participate with the National Vending Machine, a significant part of the visitors interacts with the machine without actually participating (buying an object). I’ve seen groups of elderly women discuss almost every object in the machine, sharing their personal stories, and parents teach their kids about the objects. Others watch and enjoy the participation of strangers and share the experience with them (although they usually merely watch and do not engage in conversation with the stranger).
- Parents use their children as an excuse to participate
Parents with (young) children probably have the highest conversion rate of all visitors, meaning that if one family member is drawn to the machine, this group is most likely to buy an object. Sometimes the kids demand an object (“I want this!”) but more often the parents seem to use their children as an excuse to participate themselves. Although the kid can register (with the parents’ money), parents influence the choice of the object and confiscate it as soon as it is bought to read about it and tell their offspring more about it.
- A reward (movie) encourages repeat-participation
After buying an object from the machine people can watch a movie about the object. These movies are short and often funny. When a user discovers that there’s a movie attached to every object, they seem more likely to buy more objects merely to see the movies. I’ve seen people return the objects they’ve bought after they saw the movie. Visitors who do not discover the movies often buy only one object and move on.
- Participation encourages more participation
Participation goes in waves. I’ve sometimes stood for over an hour without anyone buying an object, to have a queue for the registration kiosk in the next five minutes. When one person participates, others – friends and strangers alike – often take their time to consider this too and look for small change to buy an object. The guards even told me about people actively encouraging others to participate after having participated themselves earlier.
- Conversion from onsite to online is low but high-quality
Users can continue their participation with the National Vending Machine online. Very few, however, have done this in the current set-up. The discussions that were continued online had to do with very private memories or disagreements with the information provided with the objects. People who did go online however, really spent time on their contributions.
- It’s important to make is personal
Users have the option to print their photo on their RFID card. Although this option is part of the registration procedure and therefore not an enticement to participate, it was highly appreciated. Almost without exception people checked the back of their card the second it was printed by the machine. Users who for some kind of reason got a card without photo were heavily disappointed.
Most of the above will not come as a surprise to experts in participatory projects. What most surprised me were the number of ways in which people interact with the National Vending Machine and the importance of the photo on the card. I’m curious about how future instalments will increase or alter participation with the National Vending Machine.
What do you think about participation in this project? From your own experiences, which opportunities do you see? I’d love to read your thoughts on this. Thanks in advance!