Monday, September 3, 2012

Making things easy for visitors

As readers are no doubt sick of hearing, I just finished a 14-day road trip visiting historic sites up and down the eastern seaboard. I learned a ton, and loved (almost) every minute of it. (I'll be honest, the very loud coyote at our campsite in Fredericksburg was not my favorite.)

One thing I kept bumping up against time and time again was whether a museum or site had made it easy for visitors to get there or not. You'd think this would be basic, right? And yet. After perusing several dozen websites in an attempt to get directions, hours, and other visiting information, here are my thoughts on making this process as easy as possible.

1. Always, always provide a GPS address.
I can't even tell you how many sites provided only directions from major cities, or major highways. Those are helpful things. I'm not saying get rid of them. What is absolutely crucial is an address to which those who may not be familiar with the area can point a GPS. Don't have a street address? Follow Appomattox Court House National Historic Park's example and provide tips for using a GPS, including specific coordinates.

2. Make your hours easy to understand.
Lots of places have hours that change seasonally or even daily. I get that. Make sure your current hours are at the very top of the page. Change that page regularly if you must, but don't make me dig through a whole page to find the "July - August" hours. Don't be like Monticello, which makes you click on a calendar for the exact day you're visiting. (In all fairness, Monticello also has the very nice feature of putting today's hours in a prominent place on their front page, which is terrific for spur of the moment visitors but not as much for those planning ahead.)

3. Give me an estimate of how long it will take to visit your site.
Is your site or museum enormous, like the Manassas National Battlefield (5,500 acres)? Is it relatively small, like Appomattox Court House? Will I spend all day there, or can I do it in two hours? Yes, I know we'd all like to have visitors spend the whole day luxuriating in our collections, but realistically, people are on a schedule and it is enormously helpful to give them an idea of whether they'll feel frustrated or satisfied if they only have three hours in a location. The best example of this that I saw was the Fredericksburg-Spotsylvania National Military Park, which provided tiered suggestions depending on how much time visitors had to spend.

4. Extra information for special interest groups.
Some of your visitors have accessibility issues. Some have small children. Some are avid history geeks looking to follow the particular steps of a particular person at a particular time. Every site is going to have additional groups that may have a particular interest in a particular part of their site. Providing information for those groups will really help enhance their experience. At the very least, every site should contain some basic information on accessibility features and accommodations, as well as some basic information on bringing children. Going further than that - providing, say, a one page sheet about how to find information on a particular ancestor's regiment at you battlefield - can go a long way toward garnering support among people whose passion is invaluable.

5. Try having a one page printout with all necessary information
I printed out a lot of pages of directions, hours, and "what to do" information. Some sites had as many as three or four different pages with this information, and when they printed out, it used up twice as much paper as necessary because of the way the website had been coded. (I'm looking at you, Stone Mountain.) What if a site created a one-page PDF that included an address, directions, hours, highlights, and contact information that visitors could print out? Make sure it's clean, easy to read, and above all, useful. (While I'm at it: if there is a page on your website that you think people will print out - ANY page - make sure you have an option to print it out cleanly.)

Does anyone else have suggestions to add to these? Frustrations in traveling or visiting? Something you think a particular museum or historic site does really well?

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