Stop, Listen, and Learn: Community Focus Groups at a Museum of Art, Culture, and Creativity

Anna Foucher

August 21, 2017


inclusive interpretation; quality of experience; blind and low vision; audience evaluation

What is this study about?

A cross-departmental team from the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) participated in all facets of the Access App project, representing the art museum perspective during user experience development, content development, and evaluation with local audiences. This case study looks at PEM staff’s experience hosting a focus group with local blind and low vision users and their visiting companions as part of testing the Access App Project’s beta application.

About the author

Anna Foucher is an Interpretation Planner at the Peabody Essex Museum. She served as Project Coordinator and Evaluation team member for the Access App project.


In early June 2017, PEM reached out to Boston area locals through the Perkins School for the Blind and the Massachusetts’ Visually Impaired and Blind User Group (VIBUG) to participate in a focus group around the beta version of Access App. The evaluation team wanted to gain a sense of user reaction to crowdsourced descriptions and the extent of their impact on enhancing or increasing engagement with objects via the use of assistive technology.

This focus group proved to be not only valuable for learning about Access App (Evaluation Report), but it was also eye opening in helping us at PEM understand more about the range of existing relationships we have with our local blind and low vision community and their expectations as visitors/non-visitors alike.

PEM worked with museum evaluation consultant and educator Marianna Adams of Audience Focus on the evaluation strategy for beta testing of Access App. Marianna led and facilitated the conversation with focus group participants.  Representing PEM were staff and interns from interpretation, evaluation, and a volunteer guide who leads tour experiences.

Our focus group turn-out was great.  The conversation included a mix of 7 people who are blind and low vision and their visiting companions (most of whom were sighted).  They described themselves as:

  • A mother and son, one blind one sighted who, despite both working within walking distance to PEM, had never been to the museum. They were not all that interested in the arts nor did they feel there was really anything for them at the museum, but were psyched to participate in the group when they heard about the existence of Access App
  • A husband/wife pair who are visually impaired, live a 10-minute walk away, come to PEM frequently for their kids, and were excited by the prospect something at the museum being developed for them too
  • A legally blind woman and her husband with strong backgrounds/degrees in art history, familiarity with museum environments, and a love of art
  • A man with extremely low vision and an interest in art history who has come to PEM over the years as his vision became more and more impaired and expressed appreciation for the ability to ‘re-access the museum again’

Feedback from the group was relatively familiar to those of us on the Access App team, but resonated on a different level hearing it directly from individuals who were open and honest about their experience, expectations and needs from PEM and museums in general.  Key takeaways included:

  • A strong desire for independent access to information and not wanting to be limited to visit on days when there are ‘special tours.’ The ability to visit when it suits them, just like anyone else.
  • Promises and pitfalls of existing museum audio tours and frustrations with a disconnected experience due to lack of location awareness
  • Reality of museum fatigue which is especially strong for visiting companions who are having their own primary experience and serving a secondary role as describer/interpreter – need for focus, structure, highlights, and the ability to filter content
  • Barriers/guard rails for a cane or foot as being good things to support independent navigation of what can be challenging spaces – not wanting to feel on edge about bumping into the art
  • Wanting to know as many visual details about how the art is presented, how it exists in the gallery environment, as the visual characteristics of the art itself
  • The expectation for a certain quality of objective verbal description as baseline for forming initial personal interpretations
  • Understanding that verbal description is a learned skill, and not something that comes naturally to people. Empathy for app describers and museum staff from sighted visiting companions who have learned to be good describers from years of experiencing different environments with their blind or low vision companions.

The day’s conversation was especially eye opening for other staff present for the focus group with a strong interest in making the museum more accessible writ large, but uneasiness on how to best approach it.  Our guide, who was on hand to observe the focus group and lead participants on a post-group tour, had a personal interest in expanding awareness of the needs and preferences of blind/low vision audiences in tour-based experiences at the museum. The simple question of wanting to know what a painting’s frame looked like sparked a lightbulb moment for him, and he was receptive to honest feedback over the course of his tour on ways to improve and things to keep in mind. He came away from the day’s experience with a changed perspective on what a tour at PEM could look like and a bit of eased anxiety on how to approach it.

  • It was incredibly valuable to also hear from the perspectives of the companions and support networks to blind and low vision visitors.
  • PEM’s post-focus group team download became a springboard for larger discussions about the delicate balance around managing users’ expectations; and, inspired by our guide’s enthusiasm, ways of encouraging a culture of evaluation at the museum and approaches to building accessibility awareness internally including volunteers.
  • This initial focus group for Access App is a great first step towards building longer lasting relationships with people who are blind/low vision in our community and opportunities for continued feedback as we re-envision installation experiences and reinterpret our collections throughout the museum and expansion which is planned through 2019.
What I / we would do differently

We wish we had done a lot more of talking to our anticipated users earlier on in the project not only to test the value and viability of crowdsourced verbal descriptions and the impact of Access App in art museum settings, but to learn more about the overall experience of blind and low vision audiences at PEM (or not coming to PEM!).   Predictable but true.

Like many projects of this nature, Access App wrestled with restricted resources, a continually revolving roster of project partners, and other challenging project logistics and we didn’t have quite the agility to test and make the types of iterative changes the project would have benefited from.

What I /we would not change

Opening our doors to the users/audiences that we were creating this app for is something we’re glad happened.  Addressing and combating the feeling of marginalization by visitors with disabilities when they’re not able to fully participate in an experience has been a driver throughout the Access App project. The last thing we ever want to hear is ‘there’s nothing here for me.’

The conversations not only impacted how we looked at Access App functionality and value, but it also unearthed larger realizations about what the Peabody Essex Museum is and is not offering for blind and low vision visitors, and how can we continue to make steps towards creating more inclusively designed experiences and environments.


Oftentimes as practitioners we lose site of the boots-on-the-ground use and value of a project versus the conceptual philosophies around its reason for being. Spending time with the community(ies) that you’re creating something for is an invaluable way to help bridge that gap and work towards ultimately improving the experience for all.