Here is a short reminder of the many ways interpreters and educators can gather knowledge about their audiences through informal methods. This text is excerpted/adapted from Interpreting Climate Change: Knowledge of the Audience – Module 3 Learning Companion. National Park Service, Inter­pretive Development Program and Climate Change Response Program; 2014.

Audience Research

Gaining audience knowledge relies on identifying what information is needed, choosing appropriate research techniques, conducting the research, and applying it to an interpretive product. Interpreters should be able to apply their findings to identify the interpretive strategies and techniques most appropriate for the intended audience, and to strengthen connections between that audience, the park, and the resources.

Within the NPS, formal research requires a peer-review process to ensure that DOI and NPS policies are followed and neither park resources nor humans are negatively impacted. Interpreters generally do not conduct formal research themselves but may benefit from data and assessments from academic, private, or other circles.  On the other hand, interpreters may conduct audience research in a more informal way that still provides useful information and utilizes techniques from the social sciences or humanistic fields. Informal research includes techniques used by interpreters as part of their everyday activities to learn about audiences and can be both quantitative and qualitative in nature.

Informal Research

Before beginning an informal research project, interpreters should determine what they want to learn from visitors, their intended goals and outcomes, and who they will engage. They should define specific audiences: what are their common interests, needs and behaviors?

Opportunities to conduct informal research exist with each visitor contact and everywhere the public interacts with a park’s resources. Interpreters can gather information by using the informal research methods listed below:

A conversation provides interpreters with an opportunity to ask questions of the audience, be it in-person or over the phone. Interpreters may start an interpretive talk with casual conversation about where the audience is from, what they know (or think they know) about the site or topic, and their degree of involvement in park stewardship.

Observation is a technique to understand visitor-use patterns of behavior and movement. An interpreter watches audiences move through a park or an exhibit, or interact amongst themselves. It may help, for exam­ple, in answering questions about audience interest in exhibits or about the kind of discus­sions generated among families after a ranger talk.

Participant-observation involves joining an event as both audience and observer. (Because the NPS uniform calls attention to an individual, the interpreter might be able to wear street clothes with permission.)

Responses from interpretive or educational programs might also provide interpreters with information about their audience. Interpreters might gather generalized information from materials submitted for a stu­dent art project, or from feedback in visitor comment books, etc.

Local newspapers may include journalistic articles or opinion pieces about the park or interpretive topics of interest within the community.

Engage with local communities to gather a greater understanding of local perspectives on climate change and park issues. Engaging with the local community shows that the park is invested in the health of the region and does not stand apart.

Social media provide another opportunity for qualitative research: Blogs: Search blogs or write a blog to gain a variety of perceptions in a public jour­nal format. Check out the comments, as well, to see how people respond.

Collecting information about audiences using these methods may involve:

  • Taking field notes
  • Recording audiences’ answers to questions
  • Photographing visitor usage of spaces
  • Drawing maps
  • Reviewing visitor logs and response cards

Interpreters can apply informal research to a range of audiences, from one-time visitors to park website visitors to community residents who have had long-term engagement with the park.

Download this item as a desk reference or training tool:
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  1. This is a useful article introducing and reminding interpreters of the ways of gathering information from audiences. In some cases just the mention of asking an audience questions raises a red flag, or is a “no,” but as this article describes, there are many informal ways to gather info. from the public. It might be helpful to include an example or two of ways to “Engage with Local Communities” such as creating a facilitated dialogue program. For the social media section, it might be helpful to also include asking dialogic questions via social media to learn more.


  2. These are great reminders of how to get better acquainted with your audience. Conversation with visitors can often be overlooked because it is so simple. Talking to people while roving or before a program can help an interpreter understand the audience and also let them get to know the interpreter. These interpersonal connections can be extremely powerful and long lasting.

    Another way to learn more about an audience (especially before a specific group or student field trip visits) is to do a little internet research. Often demographic information from past censuses can help an interpreter or educator understand their audience better. Simply looking at a map can help as well. Is the visiting group from a city or rural area? Are they located near national parks or other public lands?

    Adding to the social media perspective, you can also ask your park’s visual information specialist or webmaster to share Facebook statistics with you. You can gain an idea of where followers are from, what languages they speak, what age they are, etc. It is important to take this information with a grain of salt as some social media followers follow because they cannot or have not visited the park.


  3. I loved this! I think we tend to use the restrictions associated with formal research as an excuse when really (as this KP resource shows) there are lots of informal methods we can use to obtain data. I can see where many of the audience-centered experiences techniques can assist in informal research as well.


  4. Informal research to me sounds a little like on the job training, but in a good way. They have pointed out many methods to interact with visitors. Some times a quick conversation may turn into a lenghty discussion and there is no need to engage in observation or other methods with say frequent visitors to the park. On the other hand you may need to use all techniques to satisfy another groups interests, including participant observation, social media,and reviewing visitor logs.

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