5 months with the Pen: data, data, data

Its been five hectic months since the Pen started being distributed to visitors at the ticket counter, and we’ve been learning a lot. We last made some basic stats available at the 100 day mark, but how has usage changed – especially now that almost every area of the museum has been changed over in terms of exhibitions and objects? And what are the tweaks that have made the difference?

Take up rates are improving

March 10 to August 10 total number of times the Pen has been distributed – 62,015
March 10 to August 10 total number of eligible visitors – 65,935
March 10 to August 10 mean take up rate – 94.05%

The Pen launched on March 10, four months after the museum opened its doors, and by the end of March the Pen had a take up rate of 80.44%. By the end of April this had improved to 96.88% and by the end of July to 97.44%. A huge amount of effort by the front-of-house team to improve their scripting and ‘pitch to visitors’ made the difference upfront, and that was backed up by optimisations to the Pen distribution processes later. Late July also saw the introduction of the Pen into Pay-What-You-Wish Saturday evenings which relied a lot on having more streamlined Pen handout processes being implemented. Still to come is the integration of the Pen into education visits and school groups.

Pen usage is improving

March 10 to August 10 total objects collected – 1,394,030
March 10 to August 10 total visitor-made designs saved – 54,029
March 10 to August 10 mean zero collection rate – 26.7%

Not everyone who takes the Pen ends up using it. Some visitors wander around with it but choose not to save anything.

In April we saw a high of 31.28% not using their Pen, and we believe that a sizeable portion of this was actually the result of some backend issues that saw some visitors not being able to ‘write’ the contents of their Pen to their account. We noticed an uptick in “I visited, used the Pen, but there’s nothing when I go to my ticket’ emails coming in to our Zendesk customer service helpdesk. Throughout May and June we tracked down the source of some of these problems and began to resolve them. By the end of July the non-use rate was down to 22.4% and is tracking under 20% for August so far.

Those who do use the Pen, though, use it a lot. The average number of objects saved by a visitor has varied between 33.2 (March) and 26.99 (June) – significantly more than expected. The average number of ‘visitor-made designs’ (wallpapers, 3d models, Sketchbot portraits) has stayed relatively steady at 1.2 per visitor.

Time on campus is stable

March 10 to August 10 mean time on campus – 99.56 minutes

Cooper Hewitt is not a large museum. There’s a lot to do, but it is physically quite small at 16,000 square feet of gallery space. One of the aims of the new museum experience and redesign was to extend the time that visitors spent on site. As the Pen is handed out at the moment of admission and returned upon exit, the time between these two events is a pretty accurate indication of the time each visitor spends in our building (inclusive of shop and cafe).

Month to month the average has oscillated between 91.84 minutes and 104.31 minutes. Because of changes in the way that Pens are collected at the end of the visit, times from July onwards have to be adjusted downwards by 30 minutes. In order to speed the museum exit experience, front-of-house staff clear the Pen deposit box every 30 minutes instead of individually meaning that some Pens may have been sitting ‘unreturned’ for a while.

Post-visit logins need improvement

March 10 to August 10 post visit website retrieval rate – 33.8%

Each ticket that is paired with a Pen contains a unique URL which allows a visitor to login after their visit to see what they collected and designed. For well over 20 years this has been seen, perhaps misguidedly, as the holy grail of museum experiences – “they came to the museum and they enjoyed themselves so much, they went back to the website for more afterwards”. Falk & Dierking, amongst others, have emphasised that visitors recall their museum visits as an amalgam of experiences and often not in the categories or strict differentiations of specific exhibitions, programs, or objects that museum professionals expect.

For the first 4 months, March through June, the percentage of visitors retrieving their visit data from the unique URL on their ticket was flat at 35%. In July we started to see this drop to 30.65%. We’re looking into some of the potential causes for this drop – this may be related to the Pen box at the exit operating in a less-staffed mode (previously every Pen was collected by a front-of-house staff member who would verbally remind the visitor to check out their visit using the URL on their ticket as they left the museum). We will soon be trialling a slightly redesigned ticket with a simpler, clearer call-to-action and URL, as well as better exit signage as a reminder.

That said, these figures for post-visit access are vastly better than most other known initiatives in the museum sector where post-visit web use is usually well under 10%.

Soon, too, the post-visit experience online will see some small tweaks and improvements deployed that will make it easier to navigate, explore, and export your visit.


Visitors continue to surprise us. Many of the creations that are being drawn in the Immersion Room are astounding in their complexity and they remain a firm favourite on social media. A simple look at Instagram photos posted from our location make it very clear that visitors love the interactivity and the ability to ‘put themselves into the museum’. Popular objects, too, continue to be a balance of ‘unexpected gems’ and ‘known favourites’.

We’re in the process of drawing up some maps that will help us visualise the distribution of ‘popularity’ throughout the physical gallery spaces. This sort of spatial visualisation, coupled with new data as the objects on all three floors of the museum are switched out for new exhibitions, will help the museum differentiate between the effect of ‘location as an attractor’ [are things closer to doors/thresholds more popular than things in the middle of the room etc], ‘aesthetic qualities as an attractor’ [are bold objects more popular than more subtly displayed/lit objects], and the influence of ‘known classics’ or the concept of ‘landmark objects’ in design of exhibitions (see the work of Stephen Bitgood).

We’re also interested in sequencing. What order do visitors move through spaces? Does this change by visitor-type or by the type of exhibitions on view? How long does it take before visitors of different types take to make their ‘first collection’?

So many questions!

You can always keep an eye on the top line numbers and very basic Pen statistics on our site, and Labs will continue to blog results at periodic milestones.

The digital experience at Cooper Hewitt is supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies.

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