Research Summary

Applied research and zoo education: The evolution and evaluation of a public talks program using unobtrusive video recording of visitor behavior

Zoo Uses Video Cameras to Measure Visitor Attentiveness

Visitor Studies

The Chester Zoo is the United Kingdom’s busiest zoo, serving over one million visitors each year. And because of the zoo’s commitment to education and the significant investment it has made in its interpretive talks, the researchers in this study—all zoo staffers—conclude that evaluations of interpretive programs are critical. To fill this need, the researchers used what their research indicates is a novel approach to program evaluation in the zoo setting: video recording of visitor behavior during interpretive talks.

Interpretive talks at animal enclosures are a central feature of the Chester Zoo’s educational offerings for the public. The zoo offers 9 to 12 talks a day, with each lasting about 10 minutes. Before this study, these programs were principally evaluated by estimating visitor numbers and with exit surveys of zoo guests. The researchers opted to use video recordings to develop more objective, observational data of guests during programs.

Over six days, the researchers analyzed visitor behavior during six of the zoo’s programs (three that included interactive elements with the animals, such as animal feeding, and three that did not). Researchers made recordings before, during, and after every one of the selected talks (except for one that was missed for logistical reasons) each time it was offered during the six-day study period. The researchers used two cameras: one recorded a front view and the second recorded a rear view. Control recordings were made at each of the enclosures where talks were held during times when no talks were being offered. In all, 35 talks were filmed and 36 control recordings were made.

Researchers used the front-view camera to measure visitor numbers and attentiveness. Attentiveness—defined as looking at the exhibit—was monitored both by taking instantaneous counts of people who were attentive at one-minute intervals, and by selecting one easily observed individual whose attentiveness was continuously monitored throughout the recording. The rear-view camera was used to estimate visitor densities and inattentiveness. From the rear view, the researchers found it difficult to determine whether a visitor was looking at the exhibit, but it was easy to see if they weren’t. Therefore, the researchers analyzed inattentiveness (looking away) from the rear view.

The results indicate that zoo visitors begin to gather at the exhibit well before the talk begins, indicating that many visitors intentionally attend the scheduled talks and do not simply join in as they see a talk in progress. The talks appear to hold visitors’ attention for about five to six minutes, and then attention drops continuously until the end of the talk. In fact, attentiveness drops even below control levels before the talk ends.

The rear-view camera data indicate that visitors in rear rows are less attentive than visitors in the front, and their inattentiveness easily exceeds the control group by the end of the program, suggesting not only that they have lost attention but also that “visitors were negatively affected by some variable when they were in the rear rows at talks.” The only exception to this trend was in talks that included animal activity (such as feeding or enrichment activities): in those cases, visitor inattentiveness did not exceed the control group.

The authors conclude that “the findings indicate that presenter talks at animal enclosures increase attentiveness in visitors above control levels. From an educational perspective, this can only be viewed in a positive way. Whatever the educational output of the animal talks program actually is, it would not succeed in any measurable way without the attention of the visitor.” The video method alone does not suggest why visitor attention wanes in the second half of the talk.

The authors also conclude that the video recording method has proven valuable in evaluating the zoo programs. The recordings have given the staff new insights into how the visitors plan for and attend to the programs. And the researchers also note that the method would not be useful if not for the control shots. “Without these, there would be no meaningful way of saying what a good attention level might be. The controls provide a benchmark for comparison.”

In practical terms, the researchers used the results of the video evaluation to fine-tune their programs. They concluded that interactive elements such as animal feeding are essential for holding visitor attention. They revised talk schedules, made improvements to sound quality, installed dedicated presenter podiums to boost visibility, and adjusted the content of the talks to build anticipation and interest around the four-minute mark. Looking to the future, they suggest that controlled trials that explore the effect of different variables (such as program length, content, and style, among others) could yield greater insights into visitor behavior.

The Bottom Line

Video recordings can provide useful insights into visitor attentiveness during interpretive programs. The use of several camera angles and, most importantly, control recordings improves effectiveness of this method. Researchers and staff members at the Chester Zoo used this method to analyze visitor behavior and make appropriate changes to improve programs.