HPE blog: What developers can learn from the best museum designers about UX

Putting together a museum exhibit is a lot like writing code: you have to understand your audience, engage the user or visitor in a number of interesting ways, and have a clear message to impart. As an avid museumgoer over the years I have had the opportunity to see some fascinating exhibits all over the world. Let’s look at some of these more memorable exhibits and what museums and app developers can share and learn from each other in terms of improving the user experience (UX).

Most museum exhibits, like most software, is usually focused on what you can see. And often this means a lot of reading, which is why many of us get “museum fatigue” and get distracted after an hour or so when we visit a typical museum. The same is often true of many software programs: we don’t want to read lengthy tracts on our screens and need something else to draw our attention or get us engaged with our other senses.

One of the earliest commonalities is when museums employ “digital artists” to create interesting data visualizations as exhibits. Sheldon Brown’s video installation Scalable City was shown in 2008 at San Francisco’s Exploratorium. The Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian design museum has had a series of data visualization exhibits for years. And then there is the work of Jer Thorp and the Office of Creative Research in New York City, which I described in an article that I wrote several years ago for ITworld here.

But to get a better understanding of UX isn’t just looking at pretty pictures. You need to combine two or more of our senses to make the exhibit more interesting and memorable. Let me give you a few examples.

The City Museum in St. Louis is a very unique place and opened in 1997. It actually isn’t a museum in the strict sense of the word but more of an indoor playground for kids and adults alike. It was the creation of Bob Cassilly who came up with the idea for the place and designed many of its exhibits. The museum is built inside an old shoe factory and reuses many materials found in the factory and other industrial buildings. These include a set of three-story ramps that were turned into slides and other rooms that showcase artwork constructed from abandoned and reclaimed building materials.

The City Museum is a prime example of the architectural term adaptive reuse, which means taking something that was designed for one purpose and using it for something else. What can a coder learn from this? Even the best app developer can reuse bits of code for other purposes.

The Lincoln museum in Springfield, Ill. opened in 2005 and has several exhibits that take their cues from the world of theater. The museum’s designer was BRC Imagination Arts of Burbank, Calif.

One of my favorite rooms is the scene depicting the death of Lincoln’s son, which happened during the Lincoln presidency. The room’s temperature is deliberately cooled five degrees from the rest of the museum so you get a slight chill as you walk into the space. This makes the experience more eerie and realistic. In another room is an interpretation of the four candidates running during the 1860 election, which was filmed in Tim Russert’s “Meet the Press” studios in Washington. As in a control room, it displays TV monitors showing video clips, historical still photos and commercials created from the perspectives of each candidate and conveying their particular political positions.

Obviously, there wasn’t any broadcast TV during Lincoln’s time but the exhibit works because of this conflict of context between that era and today. Software developers also have to be careful of context switching in their apps, to make sure that users don’t get lost in the process or that a particular execution thread can be resumed properly. Many malware writers take advantage of context switching to introduce viruses or to take remote control over an app when a context switch is broken.

At the Chopin Museum in Warsaw the exhibits were designed by Migliore+Servetto Architetti Associates, along with the British firm Centre Screen. The problem they were trying to solve was how to present information in different languages, given that most of their guests were coming from outside the country. They came up with a rather clever solution. Each guest receives an RFID badge that encodes the guest’s language preference and whether they are adults who want longer narratives or children with shorter attention spans. There is also an option for the visually impaired visitor. This allows for a personalized visit: as you walk around the various galleries, your badge will change what is shown on the walls to suit your preferences – and it is done automatically, without you having to hunt down the right language for exhibit descriptions and explanations on the walls.

“The idea is a simple one: there is too much information to put on a wall label, so let’s direct the visitor to a virtual resource where they can learn more,” says this article on how RFID tech is changing museums. This “personalization gives greater insight into visitors’ interests and enables the museum to build a more engaged community.”

For a software developer that is looking to have a multi-lingual audience, this shows how you can make the experience less of a chore. Many websites have buttons on the top of their home pages with small flag icons to indicate languages that are available. Another way to do this is to read cookies that are saved on the computer for a language preference.

The personalization aspect is also something that has been used often in the software community. Many websites ask visitors to sign so they can personalize the browsing experience: Amazon’s recommendation engine is one notable example. But a programmer could also geo-sense the possible language to be shown based on the location of a visitor’s IP address or other computer data. Google does this when you bring up its home page around the world, and redirects you to the page and language preferences of that country, for example.

Given its focus, another challenge for the Chopin Museum was how to present his music in a way that could make it more accessible to non-musicians. The designers created a set of audio booths that patrons could enter and select various tracks from a touchscreen interface (using the patron’s language and interest preferences). While playing the music, the touchscreen shows a variety of video and still images to complement the piece.

Another exhibit has a series of drawers in a table: each drawer contains a different composition, with a link to a photographic projection on the table of the actual score that Chopin wrote and links to play the music and highlight the portion of the manuscript being played.

With both of these exhibits you have the visitor use multiple senses (seeing, touching and hearing) – this is a great way to increase the overall experience and get the visitor more engaged in your content.

As you can see, you can draw inspiration from many places when you are writing code and developing your app. And the best UX comes from ordinary life experience, including walking through a museum.

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