Venturing down the digital trail

The interpreter in the form of a mountain biker.

I am a mountain biker.

Ok, lets keep it relevant… I am a mountain biker and an interpreter.

I started mountain biking in 2001, and it was love at first ride. I used to spend every spare daylight hour I had out on the trails around Wellington with my mates. I used to read all the magazines, watch all the movies and spend hours wandering through bike shops marvelling at the shiny new bikes. I found a huge amount of joy in discovering new trails and mastering the trails I knew well.

Now, I would never claim to have mastered mountain biking but by 2006 I was pretty competent, knew my way around a bike pretty well and could find my way down most trails as good as any. When this contentment happens, ‘the search’ starts. It’s the search for something new and exciting, a chance to add a new layer to my mountain biking experience.

A friend of mine floated the idea of night riding, which basically consists of strapping the brightest light you can find to your head and tearing through the forest in the middle of the night. I had my reservations about this new idea – lights were expensive, it was colder at night, it was risky as it would be harder to get help if someone was to get hurt.

All reservations considered and addressed, we ventured out into the night for a ride. It was amazing. We rode the same tracks we had ridden for years, but when put in a new light became a brand new experience. I got that extra boost of energy and excitement for riding again.

While the search as a mountain biker led me to night riding, the search as an interpreter has got me looking at digital experiences. I, like a lot of interpreters, have my reservations about digital experiences. They tend to be expensive. They can be too difficult for visitors to use. Maintenance of content can be frustrating and time-consuming. Then there were download size issues to consider, and how to encourage visitors to download the app onto their phones in the first place.

Recently, after considering and addressing all these reservations, we at Wellington Zoo rolled out the STQRY app.

A STQRY code placed at exhibits that visitors scan using the app on their smart phone. If you scan this code now with your phone using any QR code scanner it will prompt you to download the app.

The app, developed by a Wellington-based company, allows visitors access to text, images, maps, videos, links (and much more) through their smartphone. Visitors can either search an alphabetical list of animals and exhibits or they can scan QR codes at exhibits to access relevant information.

The approach we took to the development of content was that it should complement what visitors see at exhibits. In other words, it encourages them to interact with the physical space around them. It is designed to be another layer to the experience. It is not a replacement for other forms of interpretive media, just another opportunity where visitors can customise their own experience.

A preview of the STQRY interface.

Just like night riding boosted by buzz for mountain biking, developing this experience for our visitors has given me that extra boost of energy as an interpreter. It is an opportunity to shed a new light on our experience and engage visitors in a way we have not done before. That, for me as an interpreter, is exciting. What a ride!

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The power of a person

Being a front-line interpreter for over 20 years, I recognise the importance of personal interactions in our visitors’ experiences.  A live interpreter can provide a more powerful experience than any sign, exhibit, or app possibly can.  Unfortunately, as budgets grow ever tighter and technological possibilities more flashy, managers rely increasingly on non-personal interpretation.

A few weeks ago, my daughter and I took a day off work and school to go to Orana Park to learn more about big cats for a school project. Upon entering, we asked if there might be an opportunity to talk with one of the staff about the cats.  The woman at reception immediately arranged for us to meet their education manager, Toby, at the lion enclosure in

Toby sharing his enthusiasm with children during Conservation Week 2011

half an hour.  Unfortunately, Toby got tied up with a school group and missed our meeting.  We gave up waiting and headed to the café for a bit of a warm up.  Ten minutes later, Toby searched us out and sat down with us. We had a lovely discussion with him, learning all about the park’s cats, and answering all the questions my daughter needed to answer for her project.  Toby was personable, knowledgeable, and passionate about the animals and the work the park is doing to conserve them. He provided us with the information we wanted, while also clearly expressing the messages that support the park’s mission. His search for us after missing our appointment showed a real interest in our experience as visitors.

I have been to Orana Park many times, and have been reasonably impressed with their signage. But until this trip, I’d never felt any sort of emotional connection with the park. With his infectious enthusiasm, Toby made the emotional connections that made my visit memorable, and left me and my daughter wondering how we can support the park in its mission.  She is now baking and selling cookies (decorated to look like cat faces) in order to raise money to adopt a cheetah at the park.

How many opportunities to really connect with visitors do organisations miss because they rely entirely on non-personal interpretation?  Or because their interpretive staff are poorly trained?  How much more support (political, community, monetary) would heritage sites gain by having living, breathing, passionate interpreters spreading their messages, rather than static signage? I don’t have an answer to this, but as interpretive sites lean more and more on technology to deliver interpretation, we need to remember the incredible power of a person to communicate.

How does your interpretive site use personal interpretation to communicate your message?

Interpretation on Holiday

It’s not easy being an interpreter on holiday. The usual suspects on the list of tourist must-sees are generally littered with all kinds of interpretation. From museums to zoos, heritage sites to malls and casinos; it’s hard not to notice the signs, models, QR codes, spelling mistakes, bad typefaces … the list goes on. Sure, there are also artefacts, animals, chain stores, and poker tables there too, but they are the things that an interpreter’s travelling companions tend to notice. It gets a bit hard when they’re pointing out the warthog in front of you and your only reply is “yeah, but they haven’t italicised Phacochoerus africanus”

So, while on holiday last week, I left the travelling companions behind and made for Melbourne Zoo. It was a case of long-time listener, first-time caller for me; working at Auckland Zoo I’d heard plenty about Melbourne Zoo, but had never visited. One of the main reasons I wanted to visit Melbourne Zoo was to check out their onsite conservation messaging. Another example of just how hard it is to be an interpreter on holiday!

Most modern zoos (well, the good ones anyway) focus their interpretive messaging on conservation. What really differs are the tools they use to engage visitors with these messages, and to inspire them to take action. While some zoos will focus on the programmes they support, financially and with staff time, others will focus on the educating visitors on the issue, while others will highlight the actions that can be taken to alleviate or remedy the problem.

Melbourne Zoo has long been recognised as a leader in conservation messaging through the campaigns they’ve built around simple actions. From Wipe for Wildlife (switching to Australian-animal-friendly recycled toilet paper) to They’re Calling On You (donating old cellphones to help save gorillas), Melbourne Zoo’s campaigns focus on everyday visitor actions. These campaigns extend offsite, through smartphone apps, websites and PR, so it’s easy for they’re easy to understand without visiting the zoo itself. However, the onsite messaging has the role of complementing the species on display, the species whose role it is to inspire visitors to care, to take action.

What struck me was the simplicity of the messaging. There was no complicated explanation around the enormity of the issue. There was no detailed rundown of conservation status or population decline. There was simply the action that you, the visitor, could take to make a difference, today. These conservation campaigns covered a range of species, which spanned the globe and still maintained a strong Australian-focus.  To me, it appeared to be a simple, effective example of turning ‘heavy’ problems into ‘light’ actions.

Presenting complex issues and driving change are challenges that interpreters face no matter what arena they work in. Melbourne Zoo’s conservation campaigns are just one example of how interpreters are taking on that challenge.

So, how are you telling these stories?