Notes on what’s on listings for cultural organisations

NB: right now this post is a bunch of hastily thrown together notes. I’ll come back and add, edit, rearrange, and rephrase things later.

What’s On listings tends to live in four places:

  • Dedicated What’s On / listings pages
  • Specific groupings (often season or series)
  • Homepage
  • Relevant other pages – production pages, blog posts, about pages – where productions / what’s on listings are presented contextually.

These fit on a spectrum from…
You pick     —————— pick from a limited range —————— our selection
(what’s on) —————— (season grouping) —————— (homepage)

These notes focussed on the dedicated What’s On listings.

User behaviour on What’s On listings could be lumped into two types:

  1. Browsing (person isn’t sure what they’re looking for but is likely to have some criteria in mind)
  2. Searching (person knows exactly what they want and everything else is a distraction)

Users with different needs are going to have different requirements. They’ll want to find their way through event listings in different ways. Their mode might change from one to another.

There are various tools that can be used on a What’s On listing page to help a user find what they want:

  • A list of every production/event
  • Filters (including faceted search)
  • Date picker
  • Highlight block
  • Search bar
  • Personalised results (based on preferences, browsing history, etc)

Hackney Empire’s what’s on page features a list, calendar, filters, and a highlight block.

Hackney Empire what's on page

A person searching for a specific event may well just use the search bar, or pick something in the highlights block. Someone who’s just browsing may want the full list, or a broad filter.

Once they’ve narrowed a selection down to a list, how do they parse that? That’ll depend on how big the list is and what their next criteria is. This can be hard to judge but there are well-known trends. For instance, for classical music, repertoire is key.

Following from this, there’s an argument for adding ‘comparing’ as a third mode of behaviour. This often comes into play slightly later in the process, when a user has chosen a production / event and is looking for a particular performance. Have you ever clicked through multiple dates of a show looking for seats in the right area, or for the right price? That’s the sort of thing I mean.


Filters tend to relate to production-specific metadata:

  • Artform / genre / category
  • Theme / season / series
  • Presenting company or cast/creative
  • Repertoire
  • Event type (family, relaxed, etc)

Or more practical logistics:

  • Location (country, city, venue)
  • Time of day (e.g. evening or matinee)
  • Price
  • Availability of tickets

Date could be considered a filter, but this is often handled via some sort of calendar.

Different organisations will need to handle these in different ways depending on the type of programme they offer, the ticketing system/CMS they have in place, and various other considerations (price and availability can often be tricky to handle for nobody’s particular fault).


The back-end storing of events is in a pretty good place these days. There are good systems that can handle this. Where those back-end systems can fall down is in:

  • Not having custom fields that allow you to tweak the last 10% to get a setup that totally matches your needs
  • Integrating with a CMS or other parts of the digital marketing stack
  • Providing some types of data (I’m looking at you, availability) via an API

These problems tend to be worst for organisations that are using older websites or ticketing systems.


Questions to ask:

  • How much information about a production should be put on the What’s On page? Want to avoid people having to click into every production to get the info they need.
  • Should individual dates for a performance be listed separately?
  • How should productions be ordered?
  • What’s the best way to list everything – grid, list, calendar… other?
  • What do you do with really long listings – paginate, infinite scroll, etc
  • With filters, what order should they be in and what should be the default state of each. Is faceted search a good way for you to go?
  • Put everything together or not (what if individual talks swamp the main production)
  • Should every event be treated the same?
  • Should events be differentiated in a listing through, for instance, colour coding or iconography?
  • Should there be room for presenting wider repertoire to people to allow for discovery, or does this get in the way?

The optimal layout for listings might depend on whether the user is in a browsing or searching mode. An image-heavy grid might work for flicking through lots of one-off events; a list might better suit someone who’s picking from a filtered selection.


When you’re doing user testing of What’s On listings you might consider testing:

  • User generally browsing for anything at all that might be of interest
  • User looking for a specific show (ideally not something at the top of the listings or in a highlight block)
  • User looking for something featuring a specific cast member (where relevant eg ‘the play with Billie Piper in it’)
  • User looking for something on a particular date (eg when friends will be visiting)
  • User looking for something they can take the grandchildren to see/do

You can also put constraints in the way of people – ie not allowed to use the search feature.

And don’t forget to test on several types of device. Filters tend to be designed really well on desktop, but less so on mobile because they take up quite a bit of space when open and are ignored when closed (this is a massive generalisation – good examples are out there).

Also, heatmaps are a shortcut to seeing:

  • Which filters people tend to click
  • How popular your search function is
  • Which part of the search listing people click on (non-clickable images are a classic)
  • How far down the page people are willing to scroll

A few cases studies

Tate puts all events behind filters, which assumes that nobody is going to be interested in everything and that it’d be best to get some of those preferences down early on.

Royal Albert Hall homepage and what’s on are interesting to contrast.

Royal Opera House again, compare homepage and what’s on.

Southbank Centre Lots of events and an example of the ‘tag everything and let people filter it’ approach.

London Symphony Orchestra a different set of considerations for a classical audience.

The V&A. An example of a complicated one, with a mixture of:

  • paid and free exhibitions
  • permanent displays
  • courses
  • talks/lectures
  • and more…

The digital visitor experience

I’ve written a post for Create Hub about the role of the digital analyst in cultural organisations.

The general argument that I wanted to make is that, although the front of house experience is a Very Important Thing in theatres, concert halls, museums, and other such venues, the digital equivalent is somewhat neglected.

By which I mean, it’s rare that anyone one person is responsible for looking after the needs of the very many people who encounter the organisation online. Sure, lots of people do bits and bobs, but in most cases it’s not taken as seriously as I think it should be. Not really.

Spotting problems, helping people, anticipating issues, keeping an eye out for opportunities to enhance the visitor experience – it’s all part of the job.

Shortly after writing it, I read Shelley Bernstein’s piece on Why a Chief Experience Officer matters which makes the case for looking at the physical and digital together as part of a wider whole. Which I’m totally down with.

I just get the impression that the sector is pretty well versed in providing excellent experiences in person (there are tools, techniques, even an industry body and all sorts of awards), while the digital side of things is lagging far behind.

Warwick Commission – the digital stuff

In Feb 2015 the Warwick Commission released their final report titled Enriching Britain: Culture, Creativity and Growth [PDF]. Here’s the blurb about it:

The Warwick Commission on the Future of Cultural Value has conducted a 12 month inquiry into how Britain can secure greater value from its cultural and creative assets. Launched in November 2013, the Commission has been culturally led and academically informed.

They identified five goals to ensure that the Cultural and Creative Industries can fully enrich Britain, the fourth of which is:

A thriving digital cultural sphere that is open and available to all.

Which seems perfectly laudable. There’s a chapter of the report dedicated to explaining this in more detail, with some overall context, some challenges and some recommendations. If you’re reading along then you’ll want to head to p54. Otherwise, here’s a really brief summary with some notes of my own…


There’s some general stage-setting in the report. You know the kind of stuff – the digital revolution has provided new ways of doing everything, etc and so on. Three aspects of the current landscape are highlighted:

  • Rise of digital technologies and participation: This is pretty self-explanatory, although worth pulling out the observation that “The nature and extent of creative and cultural participation has changed”. That really is a biggie.
  • Digital R&D: Nods here to various programmes funded by ACE, Nesta, AHRC and the ODI. The report makes a big thing about how lots of arts orgs are (by necessity) distributing publicly-funded work via commercially minded platforms.
  • New revenue streams: Apparently 51% of arts and cultural organisations currently using the Internet to generate new revenue streams. I think it’s worth noting that the examples given – crowdfunding, online donations, and selling products/merch online – may be new but they aren’t necessarily additional revenue streams. It’s not like some/all of that money wouldn’t have come in through other means previously. I’d rephrase this as ‘Revenue streams are migrating’.


To summarise:

  • Audiences, access and accessibility: There are plenty of people who either don’t have access to the internet, don’t feel confident accessing what’s there, or who find that when they do they encounter some form of harassment.
  • Cultural organisations: Many organisations have said that a lack of skills, funding and time are proving to be significant obstacles.
  • Search/taxonomy: There’s a lot of competition for attention out there and there’s a worry that, when it comes to search engine listings, cultural content might sink, rather than swim.

The search/taxonomy one comes across a little… odd. At least to my mind.The line saying “An online resource of any kind can only be used if it can be discovered” needs to be extended to add ‘and if someone wants to discover it’. Sure, develop some methods and guidance for getting your stuff indexed in search engines and the like – there are certainly plenty of online collections that aren’t getting this right. Sprinkle a bit of marketing on top if you like. Beyond that, there’s only so much you can force things down people’s throats – if people don’t want it, they don’t want it.

Personally, I reckon the second one presents by far the biggest challenge.


There are two of these. To summarise:

  • Creating a digital public space (DiPS): This is described as ‘a kind of digital ‘cultural library’ of the UK’s artistic and cultural assets, guaranteeing secure and equitable access to all forms of digitised content and resources’.
  • Accelerating digital R&D: More of it (especially for production of innovative content, audience engagement and business models), with training attached to grants and an obligation to share what’s learned in the process.

After wading through all the abstractions, I’m still not sure what this DiPS thing actually is beyond a reasonably interesting (your mileage may vary) thought experiment. At it’s most basic level, it sounds a bit like an Open Culture or Project Gutenberg-style clearing house for publicly funded cultural content that’s no longer commercially viable. I… dunno. I’m not saying it’s a bad idea, just that I can’t see how it’d work. The BBC’s Tony Ageh OBE was one of the Warwick Commission’s main people and this concept is his hobby horse, so presumably that’s one reason why it’s here.

On the R&D side of things, I think that’s reasonable enough. I’d like to see more focus on the ‘production of innovative content’ part, on the basis that innovation around audience engagement and business models is being pushed forward by other sectors.

I’d also like to see some possibility of using funds to scale some of the things that work so there’s a better pathway to helping these things succeed. And there are problems with the cultural org+academic+tech partner style of R&D programme that the report references strongly, so lets not just go running down that channel.

Interesting to see that the recently announced Arts Council of Wales Digital Innovation Fund includes an ’embed & scale’ phase. Looks like there’s quite a bit of effort going into the earlier phases too, to ensure projects address actual challenges or opportunities. Good stuff.

Final thoughts

Stepping back a bit, the Commission’s saying that one goal should be to have:

A thriving digital cultural sphere that is open and available to all.

And that the way to achieve this is to:

  • accelerate digital R&D (presumably to help with the ‘thriving digital cultural sphere’ bit); and
  • create a digital public space (that’ll be for the ‘open and accessible to all’ bit)

Which is fine, and those two things could well play a role (the R&D thing, at least) but I don’t think they’d be enough to get the whole job done.

For instance, neither of those are likely to help much with the fact that many/most cultural organisations are lacking the knowhow (both at leadership level and on the ground), time and resources to get successful digital initiatives off the ground.

Also, as much as R&D within the cultural sector is a good thing, there does come a point where the way forward is pretty well established and people just need to get on and do things properly. It might not be R&D, but there needs to be support/investment for that kind of activity too.

Finally, I think the use of digital technology in cultural learning and education warrants a mention. Or maybe as this is being solved on a general level by new players stepping in, it’s no big deal if legacy cultural organisations are being left behind. Either way, I think some discussion of that would have been helpful.

Other parts of the report highlight the need to invest in developing skills (albeit commercial), develop boards (to include more enterprise experience) and offer children ‘ digital opportunities’ in learning. I guess I’d like to copy some of that over to the digital section of the report.

Anywho. Interesting report, lots to think about.