Balancing Public Engagement and Learning In Digital Projects

Birds of a Feather
Annie Conway, Chicago Architecture Foundation, USA, Jill Farley, Chicago Architecture Foundation, USA

When designing digital experiences for cultural institutions, we often create a false dichotomy between digital “engagement” and learning experiences that are digital. But is there a difference between learning and engagement in today’s digital museum? If we engage audiences in our content, which is learning content, they should be having a learning experience, right?

In 2013, The Chicago Architecture Foundation completed a digital strategy that synthesized insights about our audiences and articulated engagement strategies to better connect with them. The digital strategy was transformational for CAF: it armed us with clear information about what our audiences wanted from us and and an actionable user-centered design process that we could use to build on these insights.

However, as we began digital projects that came out of the strategy, we saw some internal tension between these two concepts of “learning” and “engagement.” These projects, particularly the development of our first mobile app, forced us to consider how learning and engagement differ across very different target user groups.

As we worked through the app and other digital projects in 2014, we realized that it is not about us and our internal divisions, it’s about our users and what they want. This paper will explore how we reconciled engagement and learning goals in our recent digital projects, and what had to change organizationally to support this new approach.