Four ways to study visitor behavior: on-site, in a living lab, ...

Posted by Annelies Querner-Verkerk on Mon 24 Oct. 2011

Museums, zoos, theme parks, and aquariums all observe the behavior of their visitors in order to find the best ways to entertain and educate. In Timing and Tracking: Unlocking Visitor Behavior, Steven Yalowitz and Kerry Bronnenkant review the history of timing and tracking in museums and provide a detailed description of methods used to record, analyze, and report timing and tracking data. They claim that in the past, researchers mostly recorded where the visitor went (and in some of the earliest studies, they even tracked wear patterns on the carpet!)

Visitor behavior studies

Today, researchers record which displays visitors look at, for how long, and which paths they take to walk through the exhibition. At the same time, they describe if the visitors’ expectations are met. Exhibition designers and planners are very interested in knowing if the exhibition has a good flow and whether visitors are engaging the exhibition as intended.

Stephen Ross and Katie Gillespie (2009) recorded the behavior of 338 visitors at the Regenstein African Journey in Lincoln Park Zoo using handheld computers in order to evaluate the use of the building and educational components. They found that the use of signs and symbols differed: those in groups without children spent more of their visit engaged with signage than those with children.

Software versus Paper-and-Pencil methods

In terms of methodology, a lot of researchers still rely on paper-and-pencil method to record how visitors move through exhibitions. Yalowitz and Bronnenkant found some limitations to this commonly used research method. They explain that electronic behavioral coding and analysis systems such as The Observer XT have some distinct advantages over paper-and-pencil measures – they are more accurate, able to record separate times for concurrent behaviors, easy to learn, do not require data entry, and are less intrusive to visitors.

FREE TRIAL: Try The Observer XT yourself!

Request a free trial and see for yourself how easy behavioral research can be!

  • Work faster
  • Reduce costs
  • Get better data

Researchers have a choice: There are four ways to study visitor behavior:

Simple & easy:

  • Pencil-and-paper method – simple and affordable but with some limitations.
  • Code behaviors on the go using handheld computers - provides precise timing data and is relatively unobtrusive.


  • Cameras with laptop, coding and analysis software (portable lab) – video is very useful and facilitates accurate data collection, but is not always suitable.
  • Living lab set up – an advanced set up including dome cameras, eye trackers, and more. 


  • Ross, S.R.; Gillespie, K.L. (2009). Influences on Visitor Behavior at a Modern Immersive Zoo Exhibit. Zoo Biology, 28, 462-472.
  • Yalowitz, S.S.; Bronnenkant, K. (2009). Timing and Tracking: Unlocking Visitor Behavior. Visitor Studies, 12 (1), 47-64.
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