What is ‘visitor experience’?

When I was little, I wanted to be a graphic designer. More specifically, I wanted to be the person that designed the artwork for CD covers. What I ended up doing instead is a bit harder to explain: I design experiences in heritage attractions. What does that mean?

When you go for a day out and you visit a tourist attraction or even a countryside car park, it’s not always a happy accident if you have a nice time. That experience has been designed so that it goes as smoothly as possible, so that you don’t have to worry about getting lost and you can concentrate on the reason for your visit in the first place. Everything from the signs on the main road, to the car parking, to the What’s On board, to the menu in the cafe; all of it is carefully planned to make sure that you, the visitor, get what you want and need from a day out, and that we, the organisation, are going to get you to keep coming back. This is what we call ‘visitor experience’.

In some respects it’s not that different to designing the artwork for CD covers (from what little I understand of that process, I had moved on to wanting to be a vet by age 10). Yes the band wants to get across who they are and what their music is all about, but the listener needs something too. They need the front of the CD to be attractive, something that they would be proud to display on a shelf. They need it to be distinctive, partly so that they buy it in the first place but also so that they can find it in amongst all the other CDs in their collection. And they need it to be functional. Does it contain all of the information they need? Has it got a track list? Do they even know the name of the band?

The thing that’s slightly different with visitor experience is that you are indeed dealing with experience. So that’s not just the experience that your organisation wants to put out there, and it’s not even what you personally deliver. Sure it is a major contributor, but really it’s dependant on the individual visitor. Where have they come from, and who with? Have they had an argument in the car and started their visit in a bad mood? It goes back even further than that when you think about their reasons for visiting; what do they do for work, what are their interests? Are they already an expert in Georgian architecture, or are they expecting the basics? These things are completely out of our control, often impossible to know before an individual sets foot on site, and I’m not sure it’s as relevant to the design of a CD cover. If it was, and I was the designer, I don’t think I’d ever get it finished.

But that’s the joy of visitor experience. It’s never really finished. It’s always changing. The experience has to evolve, because audiences are changing all the time; the world around us is changing all the time. People are looking for experiences that are relevant to them; why waste your hard earned money or a precious day off on something that doesn’t serve you well? It has to mean something. You can’t design an experience that suits absolutely everyone, but you can layer it to reach as many people as you can.

You need to make sure that each visit means something to those who invest themselves, their time and their money, at your place. It’s a precious investment, and a big responsibility to get it right.