A newsletter on progress-space research and audience development for cultural leaders. One reader calls it, "sometimes funny"

Sometimes I feel like this newsletter covers too much territory. One week I’m sending you videos about usability testing, and the next, I’m writing about value propositions or applying Jobs To Be Done (JTBD) to museums.

Then, I’ll step away and realize that everything orbits around one thing: Uncovering and removing the barriers that prevent people from engaging* with organizations.

  • What is the value of overcoming usability issues or improving accessibility? You’re uncovering barriers that certain people in specific contexts face as they try to complete some essential interaction.
  • Why are value propositions important? They help people overcome uncertainty as to why they should visit.
  • What good are user interviews? They help reveal life goals that motivate visitation, and they can reveal unseen affinities among different audiences.

It’s all an expression of a single challenge in some sense.

How can we classify the barriers to engagement?

In JTBD parlance, barriers can be divided into two categories: Anxiety or Inertia.

Example: A zoo finds that, for some parents, outdoor sports compete with the zoo for family time. The goal is not to “Spend time outside”. Yes, they enjoy being outside together, but that’s more like an end goal. The underlying life goal for the parent is more like, “Become closer to my child.” Playing soccer together on Saturday mornings is just a vehicle to help mom build a relationship with her child as she grows older.

Going to the zoo could help mom realize that progress she’s hoping to achieve, but there are things that prevent her from adopting the new way (zoo) and reducing her reliance on the old way (soccer).

  • Inertia: Mom thinks, “We always have the soccer field to ourselves on Saturday morning, which is nice.” Choosing soccer feels easy.
  • Anxiety: Mom thinks, “Will we be able to find parking? Will that be an additional expense? Would public transportation make more sense?…” You can see how this thinking could loop back to inertia.

The image above is an adaptation of Kevin Kupillas’ diagram in his article, “May the Forces Diagram Be With You, Always”.

There are also things that can push and pull mom toward the zoo:

  • Push: “She seems like she’s getting a little bored with soccer.”
  • Pull: “She really likes animals — Maybe we’d talk more if we were just walking around together, rather than kicking a round object over the grass for hours.” (Ok, that’s how I would describe soccer, but you get the idea.”)

Simulation reveals less obvious, but still critical, types of barriers.

There are probably more nuanced ways to classify the barriers to engagement for cultural organizations than just Anxieties and Inertia, but they may all fall under one of those two umbrellas. Some can fall under both categories.

For example, usability and accessibility problems could be related to Inertia or Anxiety. If mom has to use a new website to buy tickets for the zoo, it may be easier to just not bother and continue playing soccer for another few months — Inertia. If the checkout system is clunky, mom may wonder if it’s safe to enter her payment information and soccer is free, so… Anxiety.

These are challenges that are best revealed through simulation — testing. People won’t be able to describe these kinds of obstacles in an interview or survey because they don’t even know they exist or they take them for granted.

If, for example, someone can’t figure out how to renew a membership online, they may assume it can only be done at the museum. In that case, they may not imagine an alternative is possible. They shrug and think, “That’s just how it is.” They may then postpone renewing until their next visit, and they may not think to complain when you issue the member satisfaction survey. But testing can reveal problems like that.

Museum leaders often seem to underestimate the impact of usability and accessibility challenges. It surprises me how few museums seem to devote resources to overcoming online accessibility issues, given how much museum leaders value inclusion. I know museums don’t ignore accessibility issues on purpose — They’re just not top-of-mind. That’s why testing is so important. It puts you in someone else’s shoes.

More on tackling usability and accessibility challenges tomorrow. I’ll share some testing results of the Long Island Aquarium’s website — a website that is doing a good job communicating value to visitors in many places and is also preventing some users from completing important tasks in some ways. (The story of every organization’s website, right?)

For now, I hope you’ll steal the JTBD “forces” diagram above, as I have, and put it to use as you study your organization’s audience. If you do use it, write back and show me how you apply it. I’d love to see what’s pushing and pulling people toward your museum and what may be preventing them from engaging with your organization.


*I think of “engagement” as a catch-all for audience behaviors like visitation, enrollment, and donating. There are other forms of engagement, like specific behaviors that are indicative of learning, but those are largely dependent on overcoming the barriers to visitation, whether we’re talking about on-site or online.

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