Visitor Experience and Interpretation – an Introduction

Visitor Experience

What is Visitor Experience? The clue is in the name! This is a term used to describe the experience of visitors when they visit places of all kinds – countryside sites, nature reserves, parks, historic attractions, zoos etc. Organisations that manage sites and attractions break the visitors’ experience down into different elements, to analyse, improve and enhance what they are offering, making sure the visit is safe and ironing out any problems.

Some organisations focus mainly on what happens once the visitor ‘walks through the doors’, looking at:

  • Welcome – identification and presentation at the main entry point(s).
  • Access – the network of paths, gates, bridges, boardwalks etc. used to get around the site.
  • Orientation – how they find their way (using maps, signs and waymarking).
  • Site use – how they move through the site, what they do where, what features they are drawn to, any safety issues or vulnerability of features.
  • Behaviour regulation – what visitors can and can’t do on site, and how this is communicated with signage and other means.
  • Interpretation (see below)
Waymarker post

Other organisations expand on this to include:

  • Pre-visit planning, promotion and information (perhaps via website or leaflets).
  • Getting to the site and any signage or other information necessary for the journey.
  • Post-visit behaviour – social media sharing, word of mouth recommendation, further engagement with the site/organisation through support or volunteering.

The aim is to look with a visitor’s eyes at the experience they are having, and have clear objectives for each of the stages they move through. These stages are sometimes referred to collectively as the ‘visitor journey’.

It is key that visitors with disabilities are considered at every stage of the journey and barriers removed wherever practical.

In looking at the visitor experience at a site, organisations seek to meet the needs of visitors, but also to make sure the site represents them, their principles and policies.


Interpretation is a part of the visitor experience, but it is much more than that.

Interpretation is a special form of communication that helps people to understand the world around them. It enhances the experience of visitors by helping them to comprehend the place they are moving through – the habitats, wildlife, landscapes, heritage features and anything else they encounter.

It also has the power to bring positive change. Ultimately, its purpose is to support conservation objectives by engaging people – fostering understanding, that leads to ownership and caring, which in turn leads to the desire to protect and conserve. The process is much more than just conveying information and should be seen as one of the most important activities any conservation organisation undertakes.

Interpretation is not the same as information. Interpretation is based on information but has particular qualities that make it quite different. Good interpretation is:

  • Relatable – it is relevant and meaningful to the visitor, using something within their experience to help them understanding something new.
  • Provocative – it grabs the attention, creates intrigue, poses interesting questions.
  • Entertaining – it holds audience attention with story-based techniques and structures.
  • Themed – it has a clear message ; not just giving facts but saying something about them.

Interpretation takes many forms which we refer to as media. The most familiar are interpretation panels like the one above, but there is much more to interpretation than panels!

Panels and other non-personal media are referred to as ‘self-guided’ media, and include leaflets and publications, audio units and content accessed using smartphones. ‘Guided’ media are delivered by people and include guided walks, events, activities and talks.

The choice of media is usually dicated by the types of visitors coming to the site, and it is particularly important that the needs of any disabled visitors are considered. Most media can be made accessible with relatively straightforward enhancements, and new technology is particularly useful in achieving this.

Some useful definitions

Assets – interpretive assets are the (usually) tangible features of a site. For example, at a nature reserve, assets might include habitats like a woodland or meadow, species of flora and fauna, landscape features, views, geological features, heritage and historical features etc. Assets are anything that can potentially be interpreted – anything a visitor might encounter, or something you want a visitor to understand more about.

Topics – the subjects associated with a particular asset. Each asset will have a number of conencted topics – a really interesting asset may have dozens! Example – let’s say your asset is a wild flower meadow. Associated topics might include ecology, current management, management history, conservation, losses and decline.

Theme – what you want to say about a topic. In interpretation, a theme is the message you want visitors to get about the topic you are interpreting. Example – if you take the topic of current management for the wild flower meadow, your theme could be “How can cutting the grass help nature?”

We plan, design and supply interpretation for the countryside and heritage sectors

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