A new feature you may never see – ticketing follow up emails

A few weeks ago we rolled out a small update to the ticketing website that sends a reminder email to anyone who has purchased tickets in advance.

This is sort of an experiment. but first, some background.

Recently I attended an event at another cultural institution ( which I won’t name ). A few days prior to the event I received a very up-selling reminder email, reminding me of membership discounts and other events I might like. The links within the email took me to the landing page for the event, and offered little actual information that I found useful unless I wanted to buy even more tickets, or combine my purchase with a book in the shop.

To make things worse, on the night of the event, and just as it was finishing up, I received a “follow up email” , which I found really annoying. It was literally timed to send exactly as the event was ending and while I was on my way out the door, as if to say, “wait, come back in and buy the book too!”

In fact, the subject line read “How did I enjoy [insert event title here]?” But, the email itself didn’t offer me a way to answer that question ( even if I wanted to ) and instead simply pointed me to the same landing page of the event I had just attended, along with links to their social media channels and other upcoming shows I might be interested in. The whole thing made me cringe a little as I pressed the delete button on my phone.

I thought to myself, “let’s not do that.”

I really just wanted to send a gentle reminder email, full of actually useful info to people who were planning to come visit the museum. I thought it would be nice if I had booked tickets in advance to get something like this the day before I was planning to visit. Something with a map and some info on how to get here, and potentially a little synopsis of what I might do once I arrived.

So, here was my thought process.

Like I said, it’s an experiment, and so I’m still just sort of beta-testing this feature, and trying to analyze how useful/annoying people find it. We already get so many emails, so I really wanted to make sure I wasn’t bombarding our visitors with additional garbage, or even worse, confusing them with unneeded information like what I’d recently experienced.

First of all, it would be all about timing. While talking out loud in the Labs about this one, Aaron’s comment was simply “time zones.” Computer’s have time zones ( all of ours are set to UTC ), people are in time zones. It was clearly something to consider.

Right now, we can only assume that you will be here sometime during our open hours on the day you purchased the ticket. We don’t presently do timed tickets, and unlike an event space, each day’s “performance” spans the entirety of our hours.

So we decided to try out sending the reminders the day before at 4pm, our time. I guess it’s generally safe to say that visitors are nearing our time zone the day before their visit, but its really still a best guess. Also, we are not going to “remind you” if you are booking for the same day as that’s probably overkill. So for now, at 4pm, the day before your visit, is when the email goes out.

Next I had some fun coming up with a way to extract all the relevant info from our Ticketing CRM ( Tessitura ).

I needed the following info:

  • All the things going on tomorrow ( this is sort of future proofing for when we let you book other things beyond general admission )
  • All the current orders for all the things going on tomorrow.
  • All the email addresses for all the orders for all the things going on tomorrow.

Getting “tomorrow” was pretty easy in PHP.

$datetime = new DateTime(‘tomorrow’);
$tomorrow = $datetime->format(‘Y-m-d’);

4pm EST is 9pm UTC on the same day, so all good there in calculating “tomorrow.”

Our Tessitura API wrapper I mentioned in my last post has a method that lets us get all the “performances” in Tessitura for a given date range. Simply passing it “tomorrow” yields us all the things we are looking for. We also have a method that can get all the orders placed for a given performance. Finally, we have a method that gets the email for the user that placed the order.

Now we can send the actual email.

Obviously, people place multiple orders and buy multiple tickets per order. I really only want to send one email regardless of what you’ve booked. So when I am looping through all the orders, I only add the email address to the list once.

The last step was to make a cron job that runs this script once a day at 4pm. Done!

( Incidentally, all of our servers are set to UTC, but for some reason our RedHat server’s crontab doesn’t seem to care, and somehow ( possibly magically ) thinks it’s on EST. I have yet to figure out why this is, but for now I am just going with it. )

Right now, the email is a fixed template. We are sending out emails via Mandrill, so we get some decent analytics and can track open rates, and click rates. We also added Google Analytics tracking codes to all the links in the email so we can see what people are clicking right in GA.

So far we’ve experienced an open rate of about 75% and a click rate of about 20%, which seems pretty good to me.

Our open and click rate for the last 30 days.

Our open and click rate for the last 30 days.

And here is the GA results for the “Ticket Reminder” campaign from the same time period. From here you can dive deeper into the analytics to see what pages people are heading to once they are on the site, and all sorts of other metrics.

GA TicketReminder

Since you can only really “see” this feature if you book an advance ticket I’ve posted an image of what the email looks like below. We went through a few design iterations to get it to look the way it looks, and I’d really love to hear your thoughts about it. If you were visiting us, and received this email the day before your visit at 4pm, would you find it useful, annoying, or confusing?

Reminder Email Template

Our reminder email template

Of course this will change again when the Pen goes live shortly.

Labs turns three!

Candles atop a blackberry and giner donut

Happy birthday Cooper Hewitt Labs.

Today Cooper Hewitt Labs turned three.

Back in January 2012 this blog was just an experiment, a flag planted in rough terrain, but now what is actually the ‘Digital & Emerging Media’ team, is better known out there in the world as Cooper Hewitt Labs. In fact there’s a recent #longread in The Atlantic that focuses specifically on the Labs’ work.

It is funny how naming something brings it into the world, but its true. It is also true that what the Labs is is fragile. It is a group of people who happen to work well with each other, and the people around them, to make something much greater than what could be achieved individually.

For the first year the mascot of the Labs was the mischievous Japanese spirit (or yokai) called the Tanuki, and the second was the equally naughty “Cat (and Kitten) in the act of spanking“, the new mascot that watches over the Labs is the memetic and regal, Design Eagle.

Happy birthday to us.

If you’d like the last three years of blog posts wrapped up in easy to carry PDF format (or because ‘blogs don’t last forever’), here they are – 2012 (37mb) | 2013 (34mb) | 2014 (25mb).

How re-opening the museum enhanced our online collection: new views, new API methods

At the backend of our museum’s new interactive experiences lies our API, which is responsible for providing the frontend with all the data necessary to flesh out the experience. From everyday information like an object’s title to more novel features such as tags, videos and people relationships, the API gathers and organizes everything that you see on our digital tables before it gets displayed.

In order to meet the needs of the experiences designed for us by Local Projects on our interactive tables, we added a lot of new data to the API. Some of it was sitting there and we just had to go find it, other aspects we had to generate anew.

Either way, this marks a huge step towards a more complete and meaningful representation of our collection on the internet.

Today, we’re happy to announce that all of this newly-gathered data is live on our website and is also publicly available over the API (head to the API methods documentation to see more about that if you’re interested in playing with it programmatically).

People

For the Hewitt Sisters Collect exhibition, Local Projects designed a front-end experience for the multitouch tables that highlights the early donors to the museum’s collection and how they were connected to each other. Our in-house “TMS liaison”, Sara Rubinow, worked to gather and structure this information before adding it to TMS, our collection management system, as “constituent associations”. From there I extracted the structured data to add to our website.

We created a the following new views on the web frontend to house this data:

We also added a few new biography-related fields: portraits or photographs of Hewitt Sisters people and two new biographies, one 75 words and the other 50 characters. These changes are viewable on applicable people pages (e.g. Eleanor Garnier Hewitt) and the search results page.

The overall effect of this is to make more use of this ‘people-related’ data, and to encourage the further expansion of it over time. We can already imagine a future where other interfaces examining and revealing the network of relationships behind the people in our collection are easily explored.

Object Locations and Things On Display

Some of the more difficult tasks in updating our backend to meet the new requirements related to dealing with objects no longer being static – but moving on and off display. As far as the website was concerned, it was a luxury in our three years of renovation that objects weren’t moving around a whole lot because it meant we didn’t have to prioritize the writing of code to handle their movement.

But now that we are open we need to better distinguish those objects in storage from those that are on display. More importantly, if it is on display, we also need to say which exhibition, and which room it is on display.

Object locations have a lot of moving parts in TMS, and I won’t get into the specifics here. In brief, object movements from location to location are stored chronologically in a database. The “movement” is its own row that references where it moved and why it moved there. By appropriately querying this history we can say what objects have ever been in the galleries (like all museums there are a large portion of objects that have never been part of an exhibition) and what objects are there right now.

We created the following views to house this information:

Exhibitions

The additions we’ve made to exhibitions are:

There is still some work to be done with exhibitions. This includes figuring out a way to handle object rotations (the process of swapping out some objects mid-exhibition) and outgoing loans (the process of lending objects to other institutions for their exhibitions). We’re expecting that objects on loan should say where they are, and in which external exhibition they are part of — creating a valuable public ‘trail’ of where an object has traveled over its life.

Tags

Over the summer, we began an ongoing effort to ‘tag’ all the objects that would appear on the multitouch tables. This includes everything on display, plus about 3,000 objects related to those. The express purpose for tags was to provide a simple, curated browsing experience on the interactive tables – loosely based around themes ‘user’ and ‘motif’. Importantly these are not unstructured, and Sara Rubinow did a great job normalizing them where possible, but there haven’t been enough exhibitions, yet, to release a public thesaurus of tags.

We also added tags to the physical object labels to help visitors draw their own connections between our objects as they scan the exhibitions.

On the website, we’ve added tags in a few places:

That’s it for now – happy exploring! I’ll follow up with more new features once we’re able to make the associated data public.

Until then, our complete list of API methods is available here.

emacs Cheat Sheet

Due to a frequent need to work off of different servers, I found it necessary to graduate from nano and up my command line text editor skills. Enter emacs! Aaron gave me a quick crash course, from which I generated a cheat sheet of everyday commands to tape to my monitor. Rule #1 of emacs (for me at least) was “forget every keyboard shortcut you’ve ever known,” so having a cheat sheet to remind me that “copy” is “escape key, w key” was necessary until my muscle memory kicked in.

If you’re in this situation maybe this cheat sheet will help you too.

Gist is here.

EMACS CHEAT SHEET
 
C-g . . . . . . . Stop bothering me
C-x C-c . . . . . Exit Emacs
 
C-x C-f . . . . . Find File
C-x k . . . . . . Kill Buffer
C-x b . . . . . . Load Buffer
C-x o . . . . . . Next Buffer
C-x left/right  . Next/Previous buffer
C-x [0-3] . . . . Fiddle with buffer views
 
M-g g . . . . . . Goto Line
C-a . . . . . . . Beginning of line
C-e . . . . . . . End of line
C-v . . . . . . . Page down
M-v . . . . . . . Page up
C-s . . . . . . . Search in buffer
C-x C-s . . . . . Save buffer
 
C-space . . . . . Set mark
C-w . . . . . . . Cut
M-w . . . . . . . Copy
C-y . . . . . . . Paste
 
M-x things:
M-x shell . . . . . . Open Shell
M-p . . . . . . . . . Previous shell command
M-x replace-string  . Find/Replace in file
M-x rgrep . . . . . . Find in folders
M-x list-packages . . Package Manager
 
Magit:
s . . . . Stage
u . . . . Unstage
c . . . . Commit
k . . . . Discard modification
P . . . . Push
F . . . . Pull
C-c C-c . Save commit message
 
Dired Mode:
m . . . Mark file
u . . . Unmark file
! . . . Perform shell command on file(s) 

Our new ticketing website

Screenshot 2014-12-16 16.25.03

This past week we launched https://tickets.cooperhewitt.org — a new online ticketing system which leverages our Consitutent Relationship Management application, Tessitura, as its “source of truth.”

It’s a simple application, really. It lets you pick the day you want to come visit us, select the kind of tickets you want to buy, and then you fill out your basic info, plug in your credit card digits and off you go. Moments later you receive an email with PDF versions of your tickets attached.

On the user-facing side of things, it is designed to be as simple as possible. You don’t need to log in, there is no “shopping cart”, and above all, you can do all of this from your phone if you want to skip ahead of the lines this Winter on your first visit back since we closed nearly three years ago.

A little background

The idea to pre-book tickets online came at us from a number of directions. Some time last year we decided to invest in Tessitura to handle all of our CRM needs. Tessitura, if you have never heard of it before, is an enterprise class, battleship that grew out of the Met Opera House and has made its way around the performing arts sector. It’s a great tool if you are looking to centralize everything there is to know about a Constituent. As a museum, it is also appealing in that it does many of the things that non-profit type cultural institutions need to do out of the box.

So, Tessitura. It is now a thing at our museum. Everyone on our staff started ramping up on the software and getting settled into the idea of using Tessitura for one thing or another. Our department began to get requests.

Obviously our membership department would like to use Tessitura to sell and manage memberships. Development would like to use it to manage and collect donations and gifts. Education would like to centralize all public programs, book tours, manage special events, and all of the other crazy things they do. And did I mention we have a museum that sells tickets?

This is how it always starts. The avalanche of ideas, whiteboard sessions, product demos and gentle emails that say things like “When will Tessitura be ready?” begin to pour in. You have to soak it all in and then wring it all out.

The Simplest, Dumbest Thing

Aaron says that quite often. “Just do the simplest, dumbest thing…” and he’s right. Often times you have to boil things down a bit to get to the real core issues at hand. It was clear from the start that this would be an essential part of the “design process” on this project.

So, I started out by asking myself this question:  “What is the most basic thing we want to do with Tessitura?”

I wound up with two clear answers.

  1. We wanted to be able to sell tickets online. Just basic, general admission tickets. Nothing fancy yet.
  2. We eventually want to use Tessitura as our identity provider, and as a way to pair your ticket with the Pen. More on that towards the end…

Tackling Tickets

So to get started, I thought about the challenge of selling a ticket online. I looked at other sites I liked such as StubHub, EventBrite, and other venue websites that I knew used Tessitura like BAM, Jazz at Lincoln Center, and the 92Y. I did some research, I bought some tickets, and I asked all my friends who used these sites what they liked and disliked. Eventually I started to find my way gravitating towards the Eventbrite way of doing things. We have been using Eventbrite for a couple of years here at Cooper Hewitt, for the most part as a way to sell tickets to education programs and events.

To tell you the truth, Eventbrite has been a dream come true for us and our sales for these events, both paid and free, have been very good. So, what is Eventbrite doing right? Simply put they’ve made the process of purchasing a ticket to an event online stupidly simple.

I wanted to know more. So, I spent some time and slowly walked myself through the process of booking all kinds of things on Eventbrite. I tried to step through each page in the process, I tried to notice what kind of user feedback I got, and what sort of emails and notifications I got. I tried the same on mobile devices and through their iPhone app. Here are a few takeaways.

  1. You don’t need to register in order to purchase a ticket on Eventbrite.
  2. If you don’t register when making an initial purchase, you can register later and see your purchase history.
  3. As soon as you book your tickets, you get them in an email.
  4. The Thank You page is just as useful when you are logged out as when you are logged in.
  5. Most importantly, you can only buy one thing at a time. In other words, there is no idea of a Shopping Cart.

That last one was pretty huge. Most eCommerce sites are built around the idea that users put items in a cart and then “Checkout.” Eventbrite doesn’t do it this way. Instead, you simply pick the thing you are wanting to attend, select the kinds of tickets you want ( student, senior, etc ) and then put in your credit card info. Once you hit submit, you’ve paid for your tickets and your transaction is complete.

I felt this flow was incredibly powerful and probably one of the reasons Eventbrite was working so well for our education programs. There are simply less chances to change your mind, less confusion over what you are buying, and the end-to-end process of picking something out and paying for it is just so much smaller than the more traditional shopping cart experience.

I began to think of it kind of like the difference between getting your weekly groceries and just picking up a six pack. The behaviors are totally different because you are trying to accomplish two totally different tasks. One is very routine, requires a little creativity and some patience, and a willingness to wander around and “pick.” The other is a strategic strike, designed to get in and get out so you can get home and relax with a nice cold one.

The Eventbrite concept seemed like what we wanted. I had my simplest dumbest thing, and something to model it on.

Technical Challenges

With every new project comes some kind of technical challenge(s). Tessitura is a “new to us” application and our staff at Cooper Hewitt were clearly at the bottom left of a steep learning curve when we started the project. We also had many challenges we knew we were going to have to face because we are a “Governmental Institution.” So things like PCI compliance, complex network configurations, and security scans were all things I was going to need to learn about.

Tessitura comes with two APIs. One is a somewhat older ( as in the first thing they built ) SOAP API, and the other is a newer ( as in still under development ) REST API. Both allow data to get in and out of Tessitura in a variety of forms.

In addition to the standard SOAP and REST APIs, Tessitura has the facility to expose just about anything you can build into an MS SQL Stored Procedure through its API. This is an incredibly powerful feature, which can also be quite dangerous if you think about it.

When I attended the Tessitura Learning Conference & Convention this past summer, it became clear to me that many institutions that use Tessitura are building some kind of API wrapper, or some type of middleware that helps them make sense of it all. We chose to do the same. To accomplish this, I chose to model the API wrapper off our own Collections API, which is a REST-ish API based on Flamework, and uses oAuth2 for authentication. Having this API wrapper allows us to all speak the same language and use the same interface. It is also very, very similar to the Collections API, so among our own staff, it is pretty easy to navigate. The API wrapper, wraps methods from both the Tessitura SOAP and the REST APIs and presents a unified interface to both of them. It doesn’t implement every single API method, and it exposes “new” methods that we have custom built via those Stored Procedures I mentioned.

The Tickets website is a separate project that talks directly to the API. It is also a Flamework project, written primarily in PHP. It uses a MySQL database to store a small amount of local data, but for the most part it is making calls to the API wrapper, which in turn is making calls to either the SOAP or REST Tessitura APIs. Tessitura is the source of truth for most of the things the Ticketing website does.

The Front End

Screenshot 2014-12-16 16.25.44

The Tickets site from the user’s perspective is designed to be extremely simple. I worked with Sam ( our in house front end guru ) to build a responsive, and simple web application that does basically one thing, but the devil is always in the details.

At first glance, all the site does is allow you to select the day you want to come visit us, pick out what kinds of tickets you want, and then fill out your billing info and receive your tickets. It’s basically a calendar and a form and not much more. But like I said, the devil is in the details.

First, Sam built a beautiful calendar like one I’d never seen before. We talked at length about how dumb most website calendars were, and we tried to push things in a new direction. Our calendar starts out by showing you what you most likely are looking for–Today. It displays the next bunch of days up to two weeks worth by default, and if you are looking for a special date, it lets you drop down and navigate around until you find it. On mobile its slightly different in that it doesn’t show you any past dates ( why would you want to book the past? ) and it limits things a little so you’re not as overwhelmed by the interface. We call this “designing for context” and we thought that users might be using their mobile phones to buy a ticket online and jump up to the front of the queue.

Once you’ve selected the date you want, the app loads up the available tickets right below the calendar. You can easily change your mind and pick a different date. From here you just select the type and quantity of each ticket you want. Sam’s code does a bunch of front-end validations to make sure everything you are trying to do makes sense ( you can only purchase a youth ticket with another paid ticket for example ). Between the two of us, we try to do as much validation to what you are selecting as possible, both in Javascript on the front-end and in PHP on the back.

Once you hit Order Now, an order form is generated and displayed. I think its important to note here that nothing has really happened yet in Tessitura-land. We asked Tessitura for some details about the tickets you are interested in, but we haven’t “added them to your cart” or anything like that as of yet.

Screenshot 2014-12-16 16.28.34

You can then fill out your vitals. We ask you to give us your name, email, credit card details and billing address. We store all of this, with the exception of your credit card, in Tessitura. We make you an account, and at this point we send you an activation email which allows you to set up your password at your leisure. If all goes well with your credit card, we build your tickets ( I chose to do all this with FPDF rather than try and use Tessitura’s built in Print at Home server thing ) send them in an email, and then take you to a Thank You Page. You never had to register, or log in, and you technically never do. Your PDF tickets arrive in your inbox and that is technically all you need.

Screenshot 2014-12-16 16.27.35

As a little bonus, we just stick the barcode and some basic metadata about each ticket you bought on the Thank You Page so you can just present your phone at the door. This part is still a little rough and I chose to leave it that way for the time being so we can do some user research in the galleries. It’s a nice feature, but only time will tell if people actually use it or if it needs some finesse.

Screenshot 2014-12-16 16.26.50

Now that you are in the system, you can buy more tickets using the same email address and they will be connected to your same account, even if you still have never logged in. If you do choose to activate your account and login, you can look at your order history, and reprint your tickets if you’ve lost your email copy.

Screenshot 2014-12-16 16.27.10

Tessitura & The Pen

A while back in this blog post, I mentioned that we also wanted to use Tessitura as our identity provider and as a way to pair the ticket you’ve purchased with the pen we’ve handed you. This work is nearly done, but not yet in production. It will go live when our pen is available sometime in early 2015. But, the short story is, when you buy a ticket, either online or in person, we generate a special coded version of your ticket. This code gets paired up with the internal ID of the pen we gave you and that pairing gets stored in a database. What this all amounts to is that when you get home, and you want to see all the cool things you’ve done with your pen, you simply enter the code ( or go to a custom short URL ) on our website. We look up your pairing and are able to connect your Identity ( Tessitura ) with your Visit ( on the Collections site ). But that is all the topic of a future series of blog posts.

Next

Now that the Tickets site is up and running, and we are watching the sales roll in, it’s easy to start thinking of more features and new ways to expand what the site can do. I’ve already started building simple admin tools and have been thinking about building a basic check-in app for off-site events. It’s too early to talk about all of the things we aim to do and how we plan to expand our online sales, but I’m hopeful that we will stay focused and narrow in our approach, offering our users the most elegant visitor experience possible. Or at the very least, the simplest, dumbest thing.