User Testing vs Research

When I think of the term ivory tower, I have a very clear mental image.  A glistening white tower, rectilinear in its aspect, is poised atop a rocky outcropping, on a lonely island.  The beach, an access point to the tower, has a pier on it.  Museums are like that beach.  There are in the same vaginitis as the ivory tower.  They have the same zip code, if you will.  But, they look drastically different, and their level of access is incredibly different.

Museums sit on this interstitial point between academia and so many other things: leisure spaces, K-12 classrooms; studio classes; edutainment.  In terms of understanding visitors and the types of digital interpretation that they produce, they can learn some things from both disciplines.  First, museum studies and information science both offer fruitful research that can inform practices.  But, second, research and user testing are not the same thing.  Research is in depth and large scale.  Research is often predicated on big numbers in order to be able to demonstrate statistical significance.  In museums, run by people with graduate degrees earned through rigorous research and rousing defenses, there is an important role for this type of visitor research.

But, user testing is a different sort of animal.  It is something that can be done in one day.  It can employ as few as three people to demonstrate a trend.  In other words, you are not writing a full report to show to the board of trustees.  Testing help you keep the digital project going, and make sure you are on the right track.  User testing is a check and a balance rather than chapter and verse on your project.

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