From Prototypes to Performance

17 Mar 2013

Part 3: The Royal Exchange Theatre ‘Family Experience Programme’

This is the final part of a series of three blogs looking at the value of Audience Experience Design using a case study at the Royal Exchange Theatre (RXT) in Manchester. If you want to get up to speed, please click for Part 1: Focusing on the Blind Spot and Part 2: The Art of Possibility

For the rest of you, welcome back.

We’ve reached the exciting stage where, armed with a set of prototypes, pared down from a wonderful cornucopia of ideas, the cloth cut to fit the budget, we then tested 3D prototypes with an invited group of families, including dressing up in real theatrical costumes, 'trail testing' around the buidling, sample food and craft activities.

Given the prompt “You’re testing us, we’re not testing you”, and thus empowered, the families threw themselves into the task and delivered funny, insightful and incredibly useful feedback to help us hone the offer. A positive brand touch point in its own right!

Fast forward a few weeks, and with all the family feedback taken on board, it was all up and running: digital marketing to encourage families to come earlier; front line staff more attuned to the needs and wants of a family audience; a broader catering offer at different price points, and a new temporary Food Emporium to mitigate queuing pre-show and during the interval.

The one selected flagship idea taken forward wasThe Rat’s Lair. Here, the ground floor Education Lounge was refashioned into an unexpected dedicated family area. Designed by the team and built by a freelance technician, it was an atmospheric space that truly combined ‘artistry with magic’, as per the Experience Plan. Lavishly decorated - in a tatty, gothic kind of way -  to looked like a rat’s den. Inside, there were dressing up activities, stand alone craft activities, comfy sofas, a wall of rat’s cages housing fake rats for the ‘Yeugh factor’ , and a stash of Family Welcome Trails to take people on an adventure around the building. It was less than we had imagined in our flights of informed-fancy, but it delivered.

You can have a peek at the prototyping session and The Rat's Lair here.

Observational research during the run of the show revealed a broad range of positive and creative family interactions in The Rat’s Lair:

Ÿ- autonomous and collaborative play,

Ÿ- individual and shared discovery,

- Ÿvisible surprise, delight, happiness, enjoyment and pleasure,

- Ÿdressing up, twirling, posing, smiling, showing off, taking photos,

- Ÿimaginative play and role play,

Ÿ- creative and focused craft activity,

Ÿ- active kids and relaxed parents,

Ÿ- comfort and ease,

- Ÿplenty of ‘Yeugh’!

In order to fully appreciate the importance of these observable behaviours they need to be contextualised. At a time in the customer journey when most theatres are focus on satisfactory customer care, generating income (food, programmes, merchandise) and getting people in and out of the auditorium safely, this modest project delivered a rich experience akin to those crafted by enlightened museum/gallery curators and educators. It took the theatre customer experience to new heights in a way that was specific, intended and crafted.

A basic on-line audience experience survey revealed predominantly higher ‘satisfaction’ ratings with facilities and services than previous shows. The Rat’s Lair scored higher than in its previous guise as the Education Room and was the highest ranked facility in the building. Audience members gave their experience the highest overall visitor star rating compared to previous shows. Had we the resource to conduct face-to-face research, we may have discovered additional experiential benefits that we had not planned for and thus built on, or ‘pain points’ we hadn’t anticipated that we could have learnt from.

The feedback we did obtain however compellingly demonstrates the largely untapped potential of our theatre buildings to enrich, engage and entertain audiences beyond the stage. At the internal staff de-brief, an exciting range of ideas was mooted that would further lever the RXT Brand Experience as a unique producing house that could connect with audiences and building visitors in previously unimagined ways.

Looking at the Family Experience programme through a different lens, this was a small project that punched above its weight when measured by a number of inclusive innovation criteria:

1. The theatre building is re-imagined as a site for richer audience engagement. The stage and Front of House are both exciting spaces.

2. The creative intervention must have an astute focus on the audience/brand experience.

3. Permission to play must be granted and made explicit.

4. The ‘design playground’ is non-hierarchical. Creative and core staff at all levels have equally valid creative contributions to make.

5. Team-led user prototyping is core, mitigating expensive ‘flops’ and engaging customers.

6. Selections are democratic, informed by specific experiential objectives with specific personas in mind.

7. Success is evaluated against experiential KPIs agreed by the team.

It became clear from staff feedback that this one-off project has dropped a depth-charge into the thinking of the RXT. I am excited to see how they take the learning forward, not just in relation to the audience experience offer, but also in how they work together in the future towards of a shared vision of that offer.

The focus of this project was quite narrow and time specific. Imagine now if it were adopted as a holistic programme of work where you widened your bandwidth to look at all your customer interfaces and stakeholder groups? Imagine if one of your core strategic objectives were to align audience delight with Brand Experience? Imagine if you had a central Audience Experience Plan designed to build brand strength, sharpen competitive advantage, generate revenue and drive audience acquisition, retention and loyalty.

Now wouldn’t that be a hugely rewarding (and strategically important) design playground to play in … anyone want to come play?