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Designing a visitor experience can be shaped by an understanding of behavioural science. But, before we get into the intricacies of this, we need to clearly define what ‘behavioural science’ exactly is.  In its most basic sense, behaviour science is the study of human behaviour. Through systematic experimentation and observation, we can study why individuals engage in specific behaviours, such as what triggers emotional responses to a phenomenon, what builds connection, what elicits a specific feeling such as empathy, and what attracts and holds attention. With a human’s capacity to feel and experience a vast array of emotions, behavioural science becomes a very broad label. But, when we consider what we need to use behavioural science for, we can start to whittle down what human experiences we need to analyse.

Understanding Behavioural Science in Visitor Experience Design

Consumer behaviour is a branch of behavioural science that analyses a specific demographic of consumers’ behaviour when they interact with a product or service in a marketplace, whether it be an actual shop or online. This branch of behavioural science is very effective in informing marketing, sales and product placement strategies. This is one of the most common examples of humans being analysed and many of us don’t even realise it.

This is where we need to introduce the concept of ‘designing a visitor experience based on behavioural science’. An engaging visitor experience in a museum or science centre will be guided by multiple subdisciplines of behavioural science. Designing a visitor’s experience based on behavioural science will look at cognitive science, psychology, sociology, and anthropology.

Before we get into each sub-discipline, let’s look at the overarching objective of using behavioural science in designing a visitor experience. An interactive and immersive exhibit has the potential to influence a visitor to change the way a person interacts with the world. After engaging with such an exhibit, someone may learn something profound and choose to live in a way that is better for society or the environment. This is the potential of exhibits in museums or science centres. It may even spark the interest of a young mind to pursue a career in science, technology or engineering. To achieve this, we need to understand how behavioural science can be used to demand attention, elicit emotion, and embed a memory.

Strategies for Attention: The Power of Multisensory Stimuli

This is the ‘Attention – Emotion – Memory’ formula that deploys behavioural science at each stage to design thought-provoking, engaging and empowering exhibits.

With this formula in mind, let’s explore the sub-disciplines used to grab attention. Basic human psychology will help us identify effective strategies that trigger a desire to engage in a display. The human brain will easily respond to multisensory stimuli, framing, disruption, rewards and mystery. 

Multisensory stimuli through touch, sound, and sight triggers Automaticity. This is our desire to respond to something based on a sensory appeal or draw towards this type of display. Framing triggers people in a way that challenges their views and understanding of something, and their subconscious response will be to challenge back. A Disruption trigger shocks a person into providing their attention or will immediately immerse them into a new experience. This can be abrupt sounds and lighting, or immediately redirecting their expectations. Rewards promise something attractive through involvement. Mystery sparks curiosity, one of the most effective human desires. When we are in a curious headspace we want to learn.

These are the most effective psychological tactics that are used in grabbing a visitor’s attention. Once attention is gained, an exhibit now needs to elicit emotion. This is where sociology and anthropology can play an important role.

Eliciting Emotion through the Social Sciences

Sociology introduces us to the ideas behind why society has formed in the way that it has, what is the purpose of a community, how are they formed, and why are they important. It explains the development of religion, cultural norms and beliefs, politics, and crime, to major radical changes in world societies. Integrating sociology into the design of a visitor experience connects us to others. As human beings, we have an innate desire to feel connected. Being connected to family, friends and the rest of the world, is in fact important for our survival. Anthropology, the study of the development of human societies and cultures, also connects us to this lineage. When we feel connected, we become emotionally invested.

Now that we have covered two parts of the ‘Attention – Emotion – Memory’ formula, let’s look at ‘Memory’. When an exhibit has successfully grabbed a visitor’s attention and built a connection, the visitor will likely remember their experience. However, with the amount of available information that the world has to offer, this ‘memory’ can become deprioritised or diluted. Therefore an exhibit should aim to offer an experience that will not only be memorable but also spark a desire to pursue something outside of the science centre or museum. This is how these establishments can act as a source for positive change. 

Embedding Memories: The Role of Visitor Participation

The best method for embedding a long-term memory (LTM) is through visitor participation when a visitor will play a part in encoding an experience into their personal narrative. Encoding uses our physical ability and cognition to embed the experience into the stories that create our identity. The experience that we had with an exhibit is now aligned with the type of person we see ourselves as in the world.

Following the ‘Attention – Emotion – Memory’ approach with subdisciplines of behavioural science, formula_D aims to create these experiences that will empower visitors to create a more sustainable society.