Recently, Family Programs staff were interested in testing out some of the activities under consideration for MoMA Art Lab: Movement before it opened (on October 10, 2013). Formative evaluation is a “try it out” method that is less formal than other evaluation types. While it still requires an evaluator to be systematic in their approach, it doesn’t necessitate a final report. Conducted during the design phase using inexpensive prototypes, focused observation, and casual inquiry, formative testing enabled me to quickly figure out what was working (or not working) and convey that information to the educators and designers of the lab.
Was the activity appropriate for target age range? What materials worked best for a specific activity? What instructions and prompts were needed to help guide an activity? Did the activity connect enough to the theme of movement? What types of interaction did children experience while engaged in an activity? Did they interact with other children? Did the activity encourage adults to participate? Or did the activity encourage a child to focus their attention to complete a specific task? Most importantly, did children think the activity was fun?
While MoMA Art Lab: People was still open, I spent a few days testing activities planned for the new lab. Each day I invited children already in the space to try out one new activity, including an optical illusion activity inspired by the work of Marcel Duchamp, a Pocket Drawing activity inspired by the work of William Anastasi, a thaumatrope activity, and a vehicle design activity.Aside from observing how children responded, I also talked with them to find out what they liked or didn’t like about a particular activity. They were keen to point out which top spun better or what design made the coolest spinning top pattern. Paying attention to any difficulties they experienced with either the materials or the instructions was particularly useful. Materials were often swapped out to see if that made a difference in how children experienced a particular activity. The amount of time children spent engaged in an activity or their interest in doing something over again were good indications that they were enjoying an activity. Occasionally they would ask to take home something they had created or photograph the outcome of an activity—a further indication that an activity was a success. For one of the activities I used stickers as a tool for encouraging children to rate their enjoyment, but I found that observation and casual conversation were the best approaches for gathering feedback. Overall, children were happy to try out something new, and liked the idea that their feedback would impact the design of the new lab.
As the opening date for MoMA Art Lab: Movement approached, and the previous lab was de-installed, we tested more complicated components to make some final refinements to the activities and space. Families attending Saturday programming at MoMA were recruited to try out three key activities: creating a mobile related to the work of Alexander Calder, stop-motion animation, and a gestural-drawing media installation inspired by Abstract Expressionist artists. This final step in the formative evaluation process helped us figure out some technical and logistical issues that were essential to ensuring that everything was in working order.
Formative evaluation is among my favorites; I love the process-oriented approach and its agile nature. And for museums, it just makes good sense. Why put so much energy, time, and money into something only to find out about design flaws that a bit of advanced testing could have prevented? I’m glad to work in a place that embraces all types of evaluation, including formative. It’s not always about “how did we do,” but also “what should we do.”