Individualised experiences – the boundaries of behaviour

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By Niels de Jong

In my previous post I briefly touched on precision versus accuracy. I will now elaborate a little further on that notion, looking at the way visitors behave in a cultural context.

Here, the challenge is: how individualised (precise) do our cultural experiences need to be, in order to match the needs of a maximum of visitors (accuracy)? When have we crossed the threshold of a common denominator and are we personalising for the sake of it, just because we can?

Before I start with trying to formulate an answer, let me briefly point out the difference between “needs” and “wants”. For most people, it’s relatively easy to point out what they want. However, they generally struggle describing what they need. This leads to a discrepancy between what people say they want, or need, and their actual behaviour.

Surprisingly, most visitor research is focussing on describing visitors in terms of demographics, and less on their needs and motivations. But nobody visits a museum because they are 21 year old.

So, let’s assume that in a cultural context we want the experience to be optimally matched to our individual needs but we are not equipped to describe those needs in an accurate way. Then, how will those involved in creating cultural experiences know what visitors really need?

It may come as no surprise that the best way to start is to look at how visitors behave. How they are actually moving in a cultural context might tell us more than anything about how they prefer their experience to be.

In that respect, the ground-breaking work done by researchers Veron and Levasseur stands out. In 1983, they published Ethnographie de l’exposition, where they identified four types of visitors based on their movements through the Louvre:


  • The ant likes to follow a specific path and observes almost all objects;
  • The fish moves around in the centre of the room and usually avoids looking at details;
  • The butterfly is guided by the physical orientation of the exhibits and stops at objects frequently;
  • The grasshopper spends a lot of time observing selected items, while ignoring others.


So what does this tell us? Well, it shows that when looking at actual behaviour, we can group visitors into categories that might tell us something about their needs. And maybe, these needs are not as individual as we might think. Stay tuned for the next chapter, where we will be looking into this in some more detail!

- author