UX In Museums: Designing For Unique Experiences

By Darren Decoursey

Student-pitched projects are a unique opportunity in the Master of Digital Media program. They allow students with entrepreneurial interests to pitch a startup idea to faculty and, if approved, the students spend a semester working on their pitched project.

Last summer, a group of 6 MDM students pitched the idea of Sensate—a project team to create engaging interactive installations. To prove their model, they needed to work with a real museum so the team pitched UBC’s Museum of Anthropology and offered to design, prototype and build an interactive weaving installation for the museum. The pitch was accepted and the team worked on the project throughout the term.

Here, the Exhibit Designer, Darren Decoursey, discusses what he learned about user experience design for museum installations while working in tandem with the UX lead Tim Fernandes.

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What draws a visitor to a particular exhibit? What can designers learn about their audience, and how can we communicate cultural history in a fun and engaging way? These were some of the questions my student group decided to tackle during our pitched project last year. The six of us helped create a unique, virtual weaving loom, and in the process learned about what works and what doesn’t when it comes to user experience. Here are three takeaways that may help future designers in the field.

1. Keep It Simple (Silly)

Museum visitors have a short attention span, and often don’t want to spend too much time standing or sitting in one place. Therefore, we designed our exhibit to be short, familiar, and friendly; the whole weaving and pattern-making process could be accomplished within three to five minutes. To address the problem of teaching people how to weave, we recorded a friendly dialogue track that guides visitors step-by-step. In order to reduce their cognitive load, we stripped away the complexities of real-life weaving looms in order to focus on the core experience. Lastly, to avoid confusing visitors, we incorporated features that would be recognizable to a diverse audience. Handles, sliders and strings signal affordances that most people will be familiar with already.

2. Test Test Test!

As with any new technology, no matter how well you build it, things will break down. Our installation relies on complicated electronics, a custom built form factor, and a unique software interface that all need to work together seamlessly. We built several low fidelity prototypes first, then gradually increased complexity. By tackling software and hardware issues and iterating upon them separately, we could identify problems early and reduce their impact further down the road. Our hardware engineer spent many sleepless nights searching for rare electronic switches that might be useful to us. However all of our hard work paid off when we finally found a low cost solution that could be implemented easily and still provided the intended user experience.

3. Plan For The Unexpected

Even after we created our journey maps and user flow diagrams, we still had to modify our designs quite a bit. Our software developer had to continually plan for unintended user interactions, such as touching the wrong part of the loom at the wrong part of the tutorial. In addition, our writer had to trim more and more elements from the instructional dialogue. Physical strings could break, so we tested multiple versions that were durable enough to withstand frequent pulling. However, a highlight for us was when a top museum exhibit designer tested our loom for the first time. We had hoped to minimize the banging and clicking sounds generated by the weaving machine, in the belief it would break the flow. However, the exhibit designer told us that was actually a good thing! Real weaving can be loud, and the noises actually help ground the user interaction in a physical sense.

All of this goes to show that you can never know how your intended users will react. But if you focus on keeping the experience simple, fun and familiar, you can save yourself a few headaches and develop a solid installation that encourages a great user experience for all walks of life.

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Get A Behind-The-Scenes Look At What Was Involved In The Virtual Loom Installation Project: