Journal of Interpretation Research
Volume 22, Number 2

A Brief Evaluation of an Interpretive, Self-Guided Mobile Tour

Rebecca K. Britt, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
College of Communication and Information Sciences
The University of Alabama

In this brief report, an evaluation of a self-guided mobile tour was conducted at a new set of research facilities located at a university designed to attract two audiences: researchers and public visitors. A qualitative analysis using the think-aloud method was completed using the three types of devices through which visitors can complete the tour: a paper booklet, smartphone, or tablet. Findings from a college student sample demonstrated that the paper booklet was easier to use as opposed to the use of a tablet or smartphone. Participants discussed that paper booklets in guided tours offered the ability to take time to explore the landmarks and interpret the underlying meaning behind them. Suggestions are offered for future research on self-guided mobile tours based on research facilities.

Self-guided mobile tours, think-aloud method, research tours, qualitative evaluation

The Discovery Park Tour is a new, self-guided tour that allows users to explore a set of research facilities guided by their choice of a booklet, smartphone, or tablet. As part of a university setting, Discovery Park is tailored towards researchers in healthcare delivery and biosciences. The site is publicly accessible through exhibits throughout its six buildings, including sculptures, videos, static graphics, glass barriers where visitors can observe lab experiments, and a café.

Through the Discovery Park Tour, visitors can walk through its research facilities guided by one of the aforementioned mobile devices. There are 11 “stops” in total throughout the six buildings. The tour is designed to attract the two main audiences at Discovery Park: 1) scientific researchers at the university and 2) the general public. Visitors can take the tour of Discovery Park by following printed signs posted throughout each building, numbered and marked with QR codes. Physical booklets provide additional information about the tour. By scanning a tablet or phone via the QR code, visitors can listen to a pre-recorded narrator provide audio/video as a guide as they visit each building through a website optimized for each device.

In this report, a study for Discovery Park was conducted to assess a user evaluation of the tour to help inform future iterations of the tour.

Upon Institutional Board Review approval, data collection included 30 students at the university (54% female; 46% male). Participants ranged from 19 to 25 years old (M=22). Participants elected to take the study through a university-wide research recruitment system as part of fulfilling a requirement to complete a research study. Participants were either given the booklet (n=10), tablet (n=10), or smartphone (n=10). In recent studies of interpretive-oriented guided tours, participants could opt to use their own phone (Van Winkle, 2012), a common practice in tours (e.g., museum and historic sites). As such, participants assigned to use a tablet or smartphone were given the option to use their own mobile device. Of these, three participants opted to use their own phone, and one opted to use their own tablet.

To briefly assess the evaluation of the tour via its materials, the think-aloud method was used (Lewis & Rieman, 1993). Using this method, participants talked aloud as they took the tour, and were encouraged to say what was on their mind. Think-aloud methods typically include participants saying what comes to mind as they complete a task, which has been useful in previous evaluation (Marley, Bekker, & Bewick, 2016). The method allowed the researcher to better understand the thought process and evaluation of the tour materials as participants used them to navigate the tour (e.g., Marcus, Cooper, & Sweller, 1996).

The role of the researcher was to use a pre-task session (Gibson, 1997) to explain to the participant how the think-aloud process works. The researcher asked brief, probing questions during each session only on minor occasions as it could otherwise distort the thought process. In each think-aloud session, the researcher accompanied the participant as they took the tour. Each session lasted approximately an hour, and an audio recording was taken with participants’ permission prior to the session.

Audio from each think-aloud session was transcribed by hand. Two graduate students assisted with transcribing a portion of the audio files to compare them for accuracy. To analyze the data, a thematic analysis was conducted to identify, analyze, and organize themes in the data (Boyatzis, 1998). Themes in the data helped to categorize similar meanings from the data (Braun & Clarke, 2006).

Most participants (n=24) agreed that regardless of the mobile device provided, the tour was easy to take. Participants reported that having materials to supplement the tour experience was helpful.

Participants who were given the booklet tended to say that it was useful during the tour (n=6). Those who were given the booklet tended to report a favorable experience, often reporting that it helped with interpreting their surroundings. One participant noted that they were “able to make a connection between places.” Another participant said that the booklet was tailored to the site, and, “It seems like it was made for this place. I like flipping through the pages and visiting here.” No participants who used the brochure reported difficulty using the materials.

Table 1. Emergence of major themes among participants during the Discovery Park Tour

Smartphone and Tablet
Participants who used tablets or smartphones occasionally said that the devices were hindrances (smartphone, n=5, tablet, n=6) to the tour experience. The devices detracted from their interpretation of the landmarks surrounding the tour itself. One participant said, “There’s so much you can uncover. The lab and the lego statue is my favorite…. I think the phone should just be quick, no audio or video, just a story.” Some participants reported that they spent more time looking at their device (smartphone, n=5, tablet= n=4) as opposed to viewing the exhibits. One participant noted, “The videos on the phone are good—like, I liked the first one, but then I felt like I was missing the rest of the things, like the first sculpture, I wanted to see what it was about, but, I tried to keep up with the next stop along the way instead.” A participant who was given a tablet noted, “For a place like this, you just need one device—I saw the booklets and would have liked that. I like the video, but I’m not watching around me as much, even though I can click, can stop [video].”

The research facilities that were the setting for this case study contained exhibits for public visitors, though several participants felt overwhelmed by audio/video materials that were given in the materials to assist them. As noted in the findings, participants reported spending more time listening and watching to those contents—thus, missing out on the tour itself. Participants who used a brochure did not have to interact with audio/video, so this was not a concern. The design of materials themselves may need to be analogous across devices. Future research may examine the differences in materials presented across multiple devices.

Participants in the current study who received the booklet reported that they could easily navigate the tour and had no difficulties with the materials, as opposed to those who had a tablet or smartphone. By making associations between printed materials and the purpose of the site itself, visitors might make clearer connections with the tour, thereby building a more meaningful experience (e.g., Hunter, 2016). For example, visitors might be more likely to return to the site in the future.

Several limitations of the current study exist. The next steps in examining tours of research sites that are open to the public are to examine a broad demographic, as opposed to a college student sample. It is necessary to recruit researchers to take the tour is to continue to evaluate the tour and identify their reactions. Next, tours like these can vary from large, public institutions to smaller institutions that are beginning to develop tours to assist, educate, and welcome visitors, so these results are not necessarily generalizable. Additional research sites should evaluate tours based on the type of institution in which they are housed.

This study served as an initial evaluation of the self-guided mobile tour of Discovery Park. Future research should expand on this work by employing mixed methods approaches to optimizing self-guided tours. Understanding how to improve the tour can help develop best practices to creating tours of research sites that are useful for scientific researchers and the general public.

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