Museum Digital Collections User Types & Expectations

Rachael Cristine Woody

Rachael Cristine Woody

March 20, 2019

In a previous post we reviewed a museum’s potential income streams and how a museum’s online presence contributes to the health of those income streams. To review, the majority of a museum’s income will arrive with a set of expectations regarding how the museum meets visitor needs—and this includes digital visitors.

In order to effectively meet digital audience needs, we first need to understand the types of users who engage with museum online content and what their expectations are. Or, said another way: who they are and what they want.

Digital User Types

There are two main distinctions regarding digital users: natives and adapters.

  • Adapters were alive before the advent of the internet, email, and social media.
  • Natives have never known a time where a majority of those things (internet, email, social media) didn’t exist.

Those two groups of museum digital users can be further divided into an additional two groups: researchers or hobbyists.

  • Researchers have a specific purpose in mind when they view and engage with digital content.
  • Hobbyists are the casual visitor who will view and engage with content as they find it.

Generally speaking, researchers can be seen as active in their online engagement, whereas hobbyists can be passive.

Museum Digital User Expectations

Each museum digital visitor type has a set of expectations that aren’t mutually exclusive from other user types. This is a good thing, because historically, museum collections management systems haven’t allowed for the creation of different museum portals geared toward each user type—although Lucidea now offers options for this. While some expectations may be different or in conflict, the important part is to make sure you understand each user type and where the overlap of expectations converge. This is the sweet spot where the museum will find it can meet the majority of user expectations—something to actively strive for in order to support healthy digital user engagement.

Digital Natives

Digital natives have the greatest potential for museum content engagement because it’s part of their natural impulse. This user type is one that:

  • tends to trust in user generated content versus institutionally generated content;
  • can spend a significant amount of time on a variety of devices but is generally on a mobile device; and
  • will likely have the least amount of patience with poor navigation structures and stuffy institution content.

As discussed in a previous post, Reimagining Museum Engagement for Younger Generations, digital natives expect: the ability to engage, instant access to answers, make easy connections to other artifacts, tap into social and collaborative learning areas, and discover a compelling story that offers critical thinking opportunities.

Digital Adapters

Digital adapters are, by their very nature, a dying breed. Hold on, I’m in this group too! As are many museum professionals. However, it’s important we recognize the future digital users of museum online content will increasingly be a digital native. Adapters are all of us who were born pre-Internet and have adapted to its inescapable presence in our lives. Adapters tend to:

  • trust in institutional authority versus user generated content;
  • can also spend a lot of time on a variety of devices; and
  • may have more patience with poor navigation structures but will also have less intuition regarding how digital content can or should respond.

Adapters may have fewer expectations given our adaptation to the Internet—and have experienced it in its rawest and most unrefined forms. (Remember dial-up?) But it can be safe to say adapters would appreciate a majority of what digital natives have come to expect: ability to engage, instant access to answers, and easy connections to related resources.

Digital Researchers

Digital researchers can be natives or adapters and engage with the museum’s online content with a specific purpose in mind. Researchers will want quick and efficient access to the museum’s collections management system that allows for filtered searches, the curation of a personal research collection, and a mechanism to capture object information and export it for research purposes. All three are high priorities for this user type.

Digital Hobbyists

Digital hobbyists can be natives or adapters and engage with the museum’s online content in a passive or browsing fashion. Hobbyists will want the main museum landing page to obviously convey the areas of online content available. Basic, general museum information needs to be noticeable and up front, and the museum will need a clear navigation structure to assist the hobbyist in their museum content engagement.


The four main user types discussed above are the most common user types for museums. There are, of course, many variations of these user types. As such, it’s important that museum staff endeavor to identify who the museum’s digital users are, what they want, and how the museum’s digital collections could be delivered to better meet user needs. While not all user types will have matching needs or abilities, there will be enough of an overlap for the museum to confidently evolve its online content for the better.

Rachael Cristine Woody

Rachael Cristine Woody

Consultant, author, and blogger Rachael Cristine Woody advises on museum strategies, collections management and grant writing for a wide variety of clients. Learn about Lucidea’s Argus solution for museum collections management and digitization and read more of Rachael’s blog posts here.

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