Museums are perfect places to experience content strategy physically. Signs, placards, hand-outs, maps, and interactive kiosks line up to share content with you as you walk through. And, I expect to see a lot of prominent signs shouting:

DO NOT TOUCH!

This isn't a surprising prohibition. I get that curators don't want my grubby mitts all over their precious displays. Speaking of greasy fingers, look at the screen on your phone. All those smeary fingerprints tell a story about where you most often swipe.

Put yourself in the place of the people designing signs for a museum of nothing but glass. shudders

floating glass ships displayed at the Corning Museum of Glass

We become curators, too

Well, I recently spent a whole day at the Corning Museum of Glass. It's a stunning place, with extremely well-designed spaces. You can tell straight away that they've put a lot of skill and effort into teaching, learning, and inspiring. (Also, speaking as a content strategist, they've got a pretty good website – lots of ways to find out more.)

One of the best things about this museum is the proximity of the displays. You could easily reach out and grab hold of them – despite their fragility and value. They have signs up asking you not to touch things, of course. But, these stand out because they’re not just shouted do not touches.

Instead, on each exhibit, the placard explains why handling this particular piece will hurt it. Each note is relevant to that display. For example, there’s a large sculpture called ‘Continuous Mile' that’s made up of millions of tiny glass beads formed into a thick, winding rope a mile long. It’s right there, on the ground, coiled within easy reach. The information card talks about the construction, the idea behind the sculpture and the symbolism. But, it also has a call-out box that starts with something like:

How touching this will damage it

It explains that moving the strands will destroy the artist’s intended shape, and that oils in your hand will cause the string holding it all together to degrade.

They also provide a short section of the rope to feel, to let your greedy fingers run along the tactile surface, and appreciate the effort that goes into such a huge project. (The beads are like couscous, absolutely tiny!)

This impressed me. Not because they shared the process or the thinking behind the sculpture. Museums should do that, right? No, it’s that any display that you could possibly touch brought you into their thinking about handling important glass objects. It changed the message from a draconian – if not unexpected – prohibition into engagement. I understood better why I’d be an ass for touching this beautiful object, and exactly how my greedy actions would ruin the experience for millions of other people.

In a similar vein, the standard warning signs at the museum actually let you take photos. They said that you can’t use flash photography, but explained that flashes can irritate other people in a museum made of glass and lenses (heh). Again: they changed the message from forbidden to join with us and help others enjoy their trip just like you are.

someone taking a photo of a large glass ball at the Corning Museum of Glass

A little because makes it our issue

We, as website curators, look after a lot of different messages. Sometimes, we need to share a warning, a prohibition, an issue. Sharing a bit of reasoning can help us engage with our users, even when telling them not to do something.

Some examples come to mind:

  • Events – we can tell people they can't bring food and drink because we are promoting recycling and don't want to have skips ruin the space
  • Applications – we can explain that people won't hear back from us immediately because we assemble a team to review them in person
  • Closures – a space isn't accessible because we're building this new, beautiful structure
  • Cookies – we store cookies for this site to let you save your logins and analyse how people use the content

We can learn from Corning's warnings for our own content strategy. Whenever we must share abrupt, important, or inconvenient messages, we can spend a bit of effort to bring people along with us. Share a little reasoning.

Here are a few content-strategy questions you can ask of your alerts:

  • Why are we telling people this?
  • Can we share part of our reasoning behind it?
    • Follow up: what's the shortest way we can share the because?
    • Follow up: can the main text itself explain a bit (e.g. Bad weather means this event's cancelled)?
  • How will this change affect the person reading it?
  • How will this issue affect people other than the reader – and if we share that, will it help them understand it?

This isn't an opportunity to grovel or become defensive, mind. We don't want to wax on about six weeks' worth of meetings that lead to an issue. And, we don't want to guilt-trip or gaslight our users.

Just a little because helps people better understand why they can't do something. And, it lets them share in the responsibility behind a message.

Images in this post are made available via Corning's website to use.

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Zach Beauvais

About the Author

Zach is head of content and communities here at Zengenti. He works on the content we produce, and looks after our community of users. His background is in tech journalism, community management, and technology evangelism for startups.

 

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