Journal of Interpretation Research
Volume 22, Number 1

Evaluation of Interpretive Media Use and Effectiveness at a Nature Center

Marisol Mayorga
Ph.D. Candidate, GTA
Department of Horticulture and Natural Resources
Kansas State University

Ted T. Cable
Department of Horticulture and Natural Resources
Kansas State University

Chris Mullins
M.S. Graduate Student
Department of Horticulture and Natural Resources
Kansas State University


This exploratory study is a contribution to the body of research on exhibit evaluation. It applied the concept of zones of tolerance to assess the effectiveness of interpretive themes in two exhibits at Dillon Nature Center in Kansas. It also assessed the use of QR codes installed along the Woodard Interpretive Trail, and analyzed visitors’ attitudes toward this technology. Major findings indicate visitor thoughts were within the narrow zone of tolerance for one of the exhibits and outside of that zone of tolerance for the other. QR codes are not widely accepted yet at the center, but visitors’ attitudes towards the technology show potential for future use. Last, it is essential for the nature center to research their visitors’ profile to facilitate better interpretive encounters with their audience. These results, although limited in scope, provide insights to managers and interpreters involved in evaluating the meaning-making process and considering the use of interpretive technologies in their sites.


zones of tolerance, QR codes, exhibit evaluation, thematic interpretation, nature center

Interpretation in Nature Centers

Nature centers serve communities by preserving or restoring local landscapes for learning and fostering sustainable lifestyles (Gross & Zimmerman, 2002). Interpretive exhibits at these places, therefore, should be planned and designed as a portal to help visitors connect with their heritage, and reflect on their role and interactions with the ecosystem.

Dillon Nature Center in Hutchinson, Kansas, is a 100-acre park with an arboretum and four trails that guide visitors through a variety of landscapes, including woods and prairies, ponds and marshes. It also has a 10,000-square-foot visitor center with a large meeting room, a classroom, a library, a gift shop, and a nature display gallery.

The purpose of this exploratory study was to evaluate the effectiveness of two interpretive exhibits found in the visitor center using the concept of zones of tolerance. It also assessed the use of QR codes installed along the Woodard Interpretive Trail, and analyzed visitors’ demographics and attitudes toward this technology. Finally, this study provides recommendations to the center for improvement.

Zones of Tolerance

Interpretation based on themes—statements that intend to provoke the audience to think and create meaning—is a well-established theory and best practice in the interpretation field (Beck & Cable, 2011; Ham, 1992; Ham, 2013; Knudson, Cable, & Beck, 2003; Lewis, 1981). Ham (2013) strongly emphasizes the need to verify that interpretive encounters and products meet the four qualities of interpretation (thematic, organized, relevant, and enjoyable). The use of themes helps to organize the interpretation, which makes it easier to understand the information, and gives the audience the opportunity of creating their own connections and meanings about heritage (Ham, 2003; Serrell, 2015).

Knudson, Cable, and Beck (2003) highlight that for an exhibit to be effective, it must have a strong theme, be based on careful research, use content and design that help convey the theme clearly, and offer a visitor experience opportunity that makes that theme memorable. While there is extensive empirical research related to exhibit evaluation based on design, learning objectives, or visitor behaviors and satisfaction (e.g., Bitgood, 2000; Falk & Dierking, 2012; Moscardo, 1996; Yalowitz & Bronnenkant, 2009), there is almost no empirical research that has studied the effectiveness of themes, whether for exhibits or other interpretive approaches. A study that stands out is Tarlton and Ward’s (2006), which found that children who participated in a thematic interpretive program were three times more likely to identify the theme and main points of a program, as well as having a statistically significant increased ability to recall and apply the information presented, when compared with children who participated in a non-thematic program.

Beyond assessing information recall, Ham (2003) highlights the need to evaluate if visitors are capable of recognizing the big idea. A new approach to verify if an interpretive product provokes in the audience thoughts intended by the designers, is the concept of zones of tolerance (Ham, 2013). This approach uses qualitative information to identify the meaning visitors make as a result of their interactions with the exhibits, which is an empirical way of evaluating interpretation’s success in provoking thought (Sandberg & Ham, 2015). The zone of tolerance is the thematic “comfort zone” (Ham, 2013, p. 152). It is where the visitor’s personal ideas, meanings, or themes provoked by the interpretation are expected to be. Depending on the objectives of the interpretation, this zone of tolerance will fall into one of three possibilities: unrestricted zone, the wide zone, or the narrow zone.

In the unrestricted zone, the audience’s thoughts may be very diverse, as happens during storytelling and theater performances. In this zone, the interpreter promotes a broad diversity of opinions and discussion. In the wide zone scenario, there is still room for personal meaning-making and interpretation, but the designers impose some limits on what they expect the audience to take away: it must be “philosophically and factually consistent with [the] intended theme” (Ham, 2013, p. 157). Last, the narrow zone allows very little variation among themes the audiences will create from their experience. A narrow zone is commonly seen in nature centers where interpreters narrowly define learning outcomes (e.g., facts about species, ecosystems, historical events, and phenomena related to the nature center) for visitors. For this reason, the narrow zone of tolerance is the one that was used at Dillon Nature Center to conduct this exploratory analysis.

In this case, the staff chose the Underground Theater and the Tornado exhibit (part of the Nature Forces exhibit) for the study. For these exhibits, the nature center has specific objectives for the visitor to learn about life underground in the prairies of Kansas, and nature forces (e.g., tornado formation) and impacts over the area. The themes for these exhibits are, respectively, “The prairie soils of Kansas are teeming with life” and “The landscape is shaped by forces of nature: weather, wind, water, and sun.”

Upon entering the Underground Theater exhibit, a recording explains how different organisms live and use the ground beneath the prairie. For instance, it talks about the growth cycles of a cicada and the roots of the bluestem grasses found in prairie ecosystems. The exhibit also displays the use of prairie dog tunnels as home for burrowing owls and badgers.

The Tornado exhibit—part of a bigger exhibit, Nature Forces—is an interactive exhibit that allows visitors to push a button to create a water tornado. The water tornado forms and dissipates after 30 seconds. This exhibit also shows panels on the opposite wall about tornadoes that have struck the area and other weather-related facts.

QR Codes

A QR (Quick Response) code is a type of matrix bar or two-dimensional code. Visitors with smart phones can download an application that scans this code with the phone’s camera. The phone converts the code into a wireless network or webpage address in the telephone’s browser. Visitors can then download detailed information, photos, or videos related to the scanned item.

Studies related to QR code current usability and endurance are inconclusive, nonetheless. Some studies in marketing show that even though smart phone ownership is growing, the QR code scans are not increasing (MarketingCharts, 2013). This raises some usability concerns as they are regarded as “merely a transitional technology, albeit one with a long shelf life” (Shin, Jung, & Chang, 2012, p. 1418).

Despite these concerns, other authors point out a variety of uses for QR codes. For instance, in museum studies Schultz (2013) shows how the codes are used in promotional material, to link with maps and instructions, to create cross-institutional mobile phone audio-visual guides between museums, and to connect physical exhibits to its library holdings.

Lorenzi, Vaidya, Chun, Shafiq, and Atluri (2014) suggest other potential uses of QR codes for national parks like aid in navigation of the park, integration of thematic map data (i.e. vegetation, landscape, trail routes), use of augmented reality and gamification in exchange for rewards for the visitors, and integration with social media networks.

In this case, the QR codes at Dillon Nature Center were located on wooden posts along the Woodard Interpretive Trail loop. They were positioned in front of objects of interest such as a tree or a flower and the codes directed the visitor to a website that interpreted these elements of heritage.


As Ward and Wilkinson (2006) indicate, the best way to answer if a program is effective is to ask the audience. This evaluation was carried out between July and October 2014 using a visitor survey. Visitors were surveyed during 30 three-hour sampling periods. The sampling dates and starting times were chosen with equal sampling effort on weekends and weekdays as well as mornings and afternoons. When visitors decided to leave the nature center after viewing the exhibits or walking the trails, they were asked to participate in this survey.
The survey included 17 questions related to visitor demographics, exhibit use, and personal meanings or ideas they created from them. For the QR codes, questions related to visitors’ awareness and use of codes, and their attitude about such technology.

Questions to determine the visitors’ thoughts after viewing the exhibits were open-ended. Four permanent staff reviewed responses related to exhibits and determined through their own judgment and their exhibit objectives if the answers fell within their zone of tolerance. Questions that determined attitudes towards QR codes and apps, included a 5-point Likert scale divided in the following range: positive attitudes = 4 and 5; neutral = 3; negative attitudes = 2 or 1.


Visitor Demographics
Two hundred and sixteen visitors were asked to participate and 195 took the survey, giving a response rate of 90.3%. Of the 195 people surveyed, most visitors (68.5%) were from Hutchinson, whereas about a quarter (23%) were from surrounding towns in Kansas. There was one international visitor and an additional 8% were from out of state. Half of the visitors surveyed used the interpretive facilities (Visitor Center and/or the Interpretive Trail Loop) at the site. A slight majority (51.3%) had visited the Visitor Center previously. The three most common reasons for visiting the site were fishing (29.2%), to use the playground (17.5%) and to be outdoors (12.8%). Only 7.2% of visitors specifically said they came primarily to enjoy the Visitor Center. Slightly more than half of the visitors were male (51.3%). The average age of respondents was 47.3 years. Most visitors came in family groups (53.8%), whereas couples made up the least encountered group with 11.7%. Those coming alone (20%) and with friends (14.3%) accounted for the other visitors. The average group size was 3.5.

Zone of Tolerance Evaluation of the Exhibits
Of 82 survey respondents that went into the Visitor Center, 54 visited the Underground Theater, and 42 viewed the Tornado Exhibit. When asked about their thoughts after seeing the exhibits, 68.5% of those who engaged with the Underground Theater exhibit gave responses within the narrow zone of tolerance with answers like “the burrowing owl lives underground;” “how cool it was that the animals use each other’s tunnels;” or “Bluestem grass needs water, so their roots go really deep to get it.” Answers that did not fall within this narrow zone of tolerance were, for instance, “caves make amazing surround-sound acoustics,” or “it was dark.” Of the 42 respondents that visited the Tornado Exhibit, when asked what they got out of the exhibit, only 12 (25.5%) had responses that landed within the narrow zone of tolerance. Responses that fell outside the zone of tolerance included such comments as it was “fun,” “cool,” or “I liked pushing the button.”

QR Code and Trail
Of the 195 parties surveyed, 35 walked the Woodard Interpretive Trail Loop, and only eight people used the QR codes along the trail. Those eight who used the QR codes reported that they indeed learned something about the species described. The 27 visitors who did not use the QR codes gave the following explanations for not taking advantage of them: 51.8% said that they did not notice them; 33.3% said that they did not have a smart phone; and 14.8% gave other reasons for not using them, including “wanted to focus on nature, not on technology.”

All visitors, whether they walked the trail or not, were asked if they owned a smart phone, if they have ever heard of a QR code, and if they have ever used a QR code before. Only 54.4% reported owning a smart phone. Most visitors (87%) reported that they knew about QR codes, but less than half (46%) had used a QR code.

When asked on the five point Likert scale (1=not desired, 5=strongly desired), 70.2% responded positively, 17.5% neutrally, and 12.3% negatively towards putting out more QR codes, with an average score of 3.9. About adding newer technology (like apps) at the nature center, 57% responded positively, 28% neutrally, and 15% negatively, with a mean of 3.7. These results represent a neutral to slightly positive attitude towards putting out more QR codes and using apps to interpret heritage at Dillon Nature Center.

Implications for Management and Future Research
An important aspect of every interpretive program, and a key for the survival of our profession, as Ward and Wilkinson (2006) suggest, is to conduct defensible interpretation. Through evaluation, we can, for instance, increase the effectiveness of a program, determine if its goals and objectives are met, and confirm if it fulfills the visitor’s needs. Even though this study was exploratory and results cannot be generalized to other sites, some trends and recommendations can be extracted for planning, and for future research of interpretive media at the center.

As expected in a nature center that serves primarily the local community, half of the visitors surveyed were local residents and repeat visitors, for which Dillon Nature Center offers tremendous opportunities to get outside and develop connections to their community and natural surroundings. One of the management limitations, however, is that the center does not know how many visitors it receives, nor their profiles. The only record of visitation is the log book they have at the visitor center, but is not an accurate record since many people do not go there. As this study shows, only 42% of the visitors entered the building, and it is reasonable to assume that not all of them signed the log.

Because the visitor profile is important to design materials and make them relevant to the audience, not knowing who the audience is affects the quality of interpretive planning and its implementation (Beck & Cable, 2011). For example, relatively few people walked the Woodard Interpretive Trail and very few used the QR codes. Most stated that they did not notice them, but even if they would have noticed them, almost half of the visitors do not currently own a smart phone.

At this point, therefore, the QR codes could complement, but probably not substitute paper guides. It might be possible, however, that over time more people will switch to smart phones and become more tech savvy as is the national trend (IDC Research, Inc., 2016). This, and the positive attitudes toward QR codes—which is consistent with Schultz’s (2013) findings in her study about use of QR codes in libraries and museums—support the possibility of adding more QR codes or developing apps for the center.

Interestingly, since many visitors were “regulars” at the Nature Center, it was common to see the same people coming to the Center on several sampling days. Though they were never surveyed twice, multiple people came up to the researcher to say that they either paid more attention to the exhibits or used the QR codes that were on the trail after having completed the survey on a previous visit. The Nature Center staff should feel good about their loyal visitors, but it is important to draw attention to new activities, services, products, and special events that continually will recapture their interest and keep them engaged (Beck & Cable, 2011). If the center chooses to add more QR codes or apps, it will need to make them more conspicuous and inviting for people to notice them, not only at the center, but also through the webpage and social media. Also, as Lorenzi et al. (2014) suggest, to increase the adoption of this technology, it should link to interactive content, clearly state what the code will do when scanned, place the QR codes in visible places with instructions on how to use them, and have a strategy for accessibility and late-technology adopters.

In terms of exhibits, results revealed that the Underground Theater exhibit was generally effective in provoking responses by visitors within the narrow zone of tolerance. Most answers given by visitors about what they learned from the exhibit were what the nature center staff wanted according to their learning objectives and the narrow zone of tolerance.

Although people seemed to enjoy turning on the funnel cloud in the Tornado Exhibit’s water column, the exhibit was not effective in provoking thoughts within the narrow zone of tolerance. Several changes could improve the exhibit. First, the nature center could better label each part of the exhibit (Bitgood, 2000). In this particular case, although staff wants visitors to learn about the tornado-making and destruction process, this is not explicit. A sign with a diagram that explains how tornados form might better convey that idea.

Another possibility could be to find an underlying theme that connects the different parts of the Nature Forces exhibit. Although this exhibit addresses forces related to the region where the nature center is located, its underlying theme is too general. To make it more relevant for this audience, staff could ask, for instance, what is the connection between fossils, tornados, and wind energy? When that connection is not easily made by the visitor, it is unlikely that the visitor will recall much from the diverse elements of the exhibit (Bitgood, 2002; Falk & Dierking, 2012; Knudson, Cable, & Beck, 2003). One alternative might be to make connections through the idea that the forces of nature have always shaped the lives of plants, wildlife, and humans in central Kansas, and then encourage the audience to reflect how their lives have been shaped by these forces.

Ultimately, all nature centers need to have an interpretive plan that clearly states the goals of the center, the objectives for the different interpretive products (like exhibits and trails), and the theme(s) that guide the interpretive efforts. Even though in this case Dillon Nature Center has clear learning outcomes for its programs, as Sandberg and Ham (2015) point out, a future question would be if the didactic impact is enough, or if the nature center would want to add more opportunities for visitors to reflect on the importance of nature in their lives or the positive or negative impacts the visitor could have on their natural surroundings. In this case, further qualitative inquiry would help to explore deeper insights of the audience that would be evaluated within a wide zone of tolerance.

In terms of future research, we cannot overemphasize how important it is to know the visitors as a prerequisite to creating new interpretive materials and facilitating better interpretive encounters (Beck & Cable, 2011; Falk & Dierking, 2012; Serrell, 2015). For this, quantitative analysis could and should be carried out to have a better perspective of numbers, preferences, and patterns of use. Also, knowing who does not come to the center and why, might be as important, so potential barriers can be eliminated or minimized (Beck & Cable, 2011). Qualitative assessments on the other hand will allow a deeper understanding of the audience psychographics such as motivations, values, and interests of those that repeatedly visit this sanctuary.

A follow-up assessment of user preferences and effectiveness of QR codes would be a useful contribution to the literature. Also, even though this study was limited to two exhibits and one trail, continuous assessment of other interpretive materials and programs (i.e., brochures, school programs, other exhibits and signs) could improve visitor experiences and create better opportunities to connect with local ecosystems and develop more sustainable lifestyles.


Beck, L., & Cable, T. T. (2011). The Gifts of Interpretation (3rd ed.). Urbana, IL, USA: Sagamore.

Bitgood, S. C. (2000). The Role of Attention in Designing Effective Interpretive labels. Journal of Interpretation Research, 5(2), 31–45.

Bitgood, S. C. (2002). Environmental Psychology in Museums, Zoos, and Other Exhibition Centers. In R. B. Bechtel, & A. Churchman (Eds.), Handbook of Environmental Psychology (pp. 461–480). New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons.

Falk, J. H., & Dierking, L. D. (2012). Museum Experience Revisited. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.

Gross, M., & Zimmerman, R. (2002). Interpretive Centers. Stevens Point, Wisconsin, USA: UW-SP Foundation Press, Inc.

Ham, S. (1992). Interpretación Ambiental. Una guía práctica. Colorado, USA: Fulcrum Publishing.

Ham, S. (2003, May/June). Rethinking Goals, Objectives and Themes. Interpscan, 9–12.

Ham, S. (2013). Interpretation: Making a Difference on Purpose. Golden, Colorado, USA: Fulcrum Publishing.

IDC Research, Inc. (2016). IDC Smartphone OS Market Share. Retrieved June 10, 2016, from IDC:

Knudson, D. M., Cable, T. T., & Beck, L. (2003). Interpretation of Cultural and Natural Resources (2nd ed.). State College, PA, USA: Venture.

Lewis, W. J. (1981). Interpreting for Park Visitors. USA: Eastern Acorn Press.

Lorenzi, D., Vaidya, J., Chun, S., Shafiq, B., & Atluri, V. (2014). Enhancing the government service experience through QR codes on mobile platforms. Government Information Quarterly, 31, 6–16.

MarketingCharts. (2013, July 8). Data Dive QR Codes. Retrieved April 1, 2016, from MarketingCharts:

Moscardo, G. (1996). Mindful Visitors. Heritage and Tourism. Annals of Tourism Research, 23(2), 376–397.

Sandberg, E., & Ham, S. (2015). Visitor´s Thoughts: Conclusions from a Formative Evaluation of the “Thoughtlisting/Zone of tolerance Methodology” in Sweden 2013-2015. NAI National Conference Proceedings (pp. 5–6). Virginia Beach, VA: NAI.

Schultz, M. K. (2013). A case study on the appropriateness of using quick response (QR) codes in libraries and museums. Library & Information Science Research, 35, 207–215.

Serrell, B. (2015). Exhibit labels: An interpretive approach. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Shin, D.-H., Jung, J., & Chang, B.-H. (2012). The psychology behind QR codes: User experience perspective. Computers in Human Behavior, 28, 1417–1426.

Tarlton, J., & Ward, C. J. (2006). The Effect of Thematic Interpretation on a Child’s Knowledge of an Interpretive Program. Journal of Interpretation Research, 11(1), 7–33.

Ward, C. W., & Wilkinson, A. E. (2006). Conducting Meaningful Interpretation: A Field Guide for Success. Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing.

Yalowitz, S. S., & Bronnenkant, K. (2009). Timing and Tracking: Unlocking Visitor Behavior. Visitor Studies, 12(1), 47–64.