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Your UX Belongs in a Museum

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A museum is the perfect place to reignite childlike imagination and curiosity. Here in Toronto, there have been many snowy days when I pack up my kids, get out of the cold for a few hours, and enjoy seeing exhibits as if for the first time through their eyes. With every visit, we all seem to learn something new and at the end of the day, I’m left feeling like we had a positive experience.

My son and his bud, diggin’ for bones at the ROM

Consider that if I didn’t have this prior experience, how would I even know which museum to visit and how would I make a decision where to spend my time? I could look at the traditional media landscape and see ads and flyers for museums on bus shelters, elevator screens, and billboards but most people don’t start there — they start online.

If I believed that a museum’s website experience was a reflection of their in-person experience, we might not go at all. My kids aren’t the ones making the decision to go to a specific museum; I am. I’m the one visiting these websites and looking for crucial details to make my life, and our visit, easier. Luckily, museums, like academic institutions, appear to benefit from a fairly low bar when it comes to website expectations, so as long as a museum can do a reasonably good job of its preparing-to-visit content (hours, parking, costs etc.), we all, ostensibly, tend to overlook the UX.

Missing the ‘Why’

A lot of museums are big on the how but the why is a little more obscure.

While preparing-to-visit information (how to get here) is high on the list of what a museum website should contain, what seems to be consistently missing is its why-you-should-visit content. If time is the new currency, cultural institutions aren’t immune to the finite measure of an individual’s time. The same rules apply to them as much as they apply to for-profit, or private sector brands and organizations.

Organizations succeed in winning their audience’s time if they can generate a moment of enlightenment, delight, revelation, or transformation. A cultural institution, like a museum, should have those moments in spades, and many do, but these moments don’t yet start at their websites, which means that they’re not winning their audience’s time and are merely collecting the time their audience has already allocated to them.

Our cultural institutions do excellent jobs of creating total and immersive experiences with their exhibits. They focus on creating the best experiences once people get there, but this is backwards when many of our crucial interactions with any brand happen long before we make a purchasing decision. In this case, a purchasing decision is showing up and paying entrance fees.

Could better UX at the digital level result in more revenue and a better, overall museum experience?

What we looked at

We evaluated 23 different museum websites in Canada for navigation, content structure, memberships and support, donations, and overall aesthetic. And while we found a lot of patterns among the different sites and were able to draw some helpful conclusions, a lot of questions also emerged from the evaluation.

  • Why do most museums treat the web as an academic medium instead of taking advantage of the multimedia capabilities the internet affords?
  • Why do most complex actions, like buying a ticket or product from an online store, send a user off to a completely separate experience? And why don’t museums own their own platforms for this?
  • Who is the audience they are trying to reach for browsing collections because it’s surely not for casual visitors?
  • Why are the membership sections the least enticing, sexy, or considered sections of the entire site?

Small moves, big impact

Visitor Centered Navigation

A lot of the navigation we saw appeared to be serving the organization rather than the user, which wouldn’t be a problem if the site’s only job was providing information about the museum, but this is another lost opportunity for directing a user’s experience.

Instead of bogging down the global nav with things like leadership, the board, and annual reports, we’d suggest stashing those items outside the primary audience journey (inspiring a user and moving them towards purchase) and slimming the site down. What relevance, beyond compliance, could some of this information have to achieving objectives for the organization or it’s intended audience?

The Montreal Space Museum. Four levels of navigation. Zero levels of consideration.

I’m not sure that mega-menus, like the one found on the Montreal Space Museum website makes it easier to help users find what they are looking for. With four levels of navigation, and then what seems like a novella of options under each global navigation label, users must be left with a sense of frustration. A cursory look through the analytics for top pages would, in all likelihood, help make decisions on whether or not content needs to be be in a global nav or as a page-level item — or not included at all. A Content-Audit is a relatively easy and low-cost exercise that can help stakeholders see the value of their existing content and identify future effort and required resources for the future content lifecycle.

On a similar note, doubling up on navigation options in different sections is unnecessary and confusing. If it’s not clear if an option belongs in a single category, chances are it isn’t well-defined or something went terribly wrong in the planning. Finally, mobile-friendly menus are needed rather than nice-to-have — in one case the navigation disappeared entirely on mobile. Tourists, dads, moms, people of all kinds are most definitely looking museums websites on their phones and should be able to find what they’re looking for easily.

The Ontario Science Centre; it’s you, not us.

Accessibility doesn’t get enough of a shout out in a lot of cases. For cultural organizations accessibility shouldn’t be an afterthought. I’m not just referring to Aria tags for individuals that use assistive technology. Accessibility should be part of the design and UX from the start. That means, proper contrast ratios, smart (readable) typographical choices — taking into account legibility and size. There’s a good portion of the population that may not require a special browser but have a vision-related issues where the size and style of typefaces make their experience much more enjoyable. In the case of the ROM, their expansive navigation packs so much in to such a tiny space it’s hard to identify where the valuable information is. This is the stuff people are after, why are we making this hard?

Every interface is a conversation and we should seek to answer questions before a user thinks to ask them. Good navigation works like that and it’s what we mean when we say that we present the right content, to the right audience, at the right time that makes them feel like a genius. Bad things happen when we don’t effectively telegraph what’s behind navigation labels. Take a look at the Bata Shoe Museum.

Not enough differentiation in navigation labels to give me a clear idea of what I’ll be Discovering, Learning, Planning, or Seeing .

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Between Discover, Plan, See, Learn, and Engage I’m really not entirely clear on the distinct information behind each of those doors. Sure, I could guess, but who wants to play navigation roulette when time is so precious?

By contrast, here’s a comprehensive, consistent, streamlined navigation by the Textile Museum of Canada.

Nice work TMC!

Exhibits & Content Strategy

When people are hungry, feed them. The way that museums seem to treat their digital strategy when it comes to their exhibits, is total lunch bag let down. The offering feels more like a frozen piece of shepherd’s pie still in the plastic tray rather a set table and good meal.

Most museums we looked at did about as good — or worse — of a job using their websites to communicate the best they’ve got going. This is a little sad when you consider that most could boast one-of-a-kind art and artifacts costing a fortune, but this is how exhibits are treated on their websites.

Interestingly, this lack of effort isn’t how museums present their offerings in their traditional advertising making this disconnect a real head scratcher.

Large and inviting banners outside the ROM. Photo credit: https://kasiawrites.com/

Any organization that relies solely on traditional media or display ads —and measures its effectiveness against tickets sold—isn’t seeing the full picture and isn’t learning how to compete for people’s time. Museums continue to operate in a world where they think that dollars spent on mass media will draw the crowds. While this might work for larger, national museums, what about the smaller ones? Museums are competing with each other for the attention of patrons and, again, for people’s time, so presenting exhibits in an exciting way, leveraging the multimedia capabilities the connected experience can offer will only help.

The Canadian Museums Association released a report in 2016 where they discussed how Canadian museums need to diversify their revenue streams and attract more donations to survive, stressing that one of their barriers has been profile, image, and expertise in competing with other organizations for these dollars.

According to the Association of Art Museum Directors and their “Art Museums by the Numbers 2016” report, approximately 31% of a North American museum’s source of revenue and support comes from earned revenue. Admissions, restaurants, the museum store, and memberships fall under this category, with the rest of a museum’s funds coming mainly from government funding and donations.

The care and management of exhibits themselves, along with other directly arts-focused activities, make up 32% of a museum’s operating budget, so what would happen if a museum was able to cut down on some of the costs of the exhibits while increasing opportunities for revenue?

Some museums have started “online only” exhibits, but unfortunately, in the cases we looked at, these exhibits have been executed poorly. Most often, they have a disconnected experience, are not mobile-friendly, are text only, and offer little in the way of multimedia. We realize that adding an online element to a museum’s exhibits wouldn’t be easy, but any steps towards driving sales and revenue through digital channels by augmenting, or at the very least bridging, the experience would be a great start.

Canadian War Museum’s Online-Only Exhibit transports you back to 2001.

Montreal Museum of Fine Arts was one of the few examples we found where they used the web as a digital multi-sensory platform, using music, video, text, images, and interaction. Nice work, guys!

Screencast of the Montreal Museum of Fine Art Exhibit section of their website

Memberships and other sources of revenue

In my particular case, I invested in a membership when I had kids. I knew I’d be visiting the museums more than once so cost-savings is a driver. Some museums don’t even charge an admission and use memberships as their only stream of revenue, offering special access and benefits to members only. This only works if those benefits are clear and exciting. Museums struggle with this. You won’t get the crowds or support you’re looking for unless you can prove (show) the value. No one wants to be at a lame party.

Think of other membership-based organizations, like gyms. They have the same goal: get members. Sure, some of their advertising may be over the top, but lots of gyms, like Equinox, do a fantastic job of showing what the future might feel like after becoming a member. Museums should take a page out of this book and communicate value by clearly laying out the benefits in a way that excites people and makes them want to join a party that’s already in full-swing. Currently, there’s no cachet to joining one museum over another, but there could be.

I can’t do any of this, but I want to believe I can.

Let’s just contrast that with a museum membership section.

I can’t see myself throwing my money over to the Textile Museum any time soon.

Museum stores and ticket sales really aren’t any better. Typically, users are kicked out to an external experience creating an inconsistent experience for a main revenue driver. The website is the single most important touch point before a visitor becomes a patron and What should be a clean and engaging narrative is more like a brochure.

Surely we can do better to create a consistent ticket purchase experience

Aesthetics and accessibility

Was there a memo that stated that all museums need to be, at minimum, eight years behind modern design aesthetic? I won’t even get started on the lack of availability of mobile, but most museum sites have massive fly out menus, constrained widths, font-soup lacking in hierarchy, six types of navigation, and a poor contrast or reading experience. Any one of these things can result in a loss of revenue, let alone all of them together (which isn’t far from reality).

Additionally, designing for accessibility or even with accessibility in mind, doesn’t need to equate to a limitation on aesthetics. More appropriately, it provides another parameter for how to approach a design solution in the first place. Given the sample of sites we evaluated, it appears that creating a beautiful and accessible experience for users who might one doesn’t even register. Who knows how much lost revenue that is?

Here, in Ontario, we have AODA. Other provinces have their own Accessibility Acts and in the States there is the federal Section 508. This isn’t new. However, with non-compliant contrast ratios making it difficult for individuals with impaired vision, or sites being wholly unnavigable via keyboard, making it difficult for people who can’t use a mouse, there’s a big chunk of the audience that are having awful experiences online who may just be throwing in the towel. If you care enough about the in-person experience of your patrons, you should care about the whole experience. That includes the website.

Big Moves, Big Impact

If everything is UX (and it really is) then the museum experience needs to start well before a visitor arrives and needs to take into account everything a visitor brings with them — largely that means their mobile device. Thinking about programming and exhibits with this view can open up a whole new way of thinking about possibilities for Museums.

Imagine what a visitor’s experience could be because of all the wonderful and amazing things we can do with our phones. From 360 video, AR, and VR to beacons and bluetooth, there’s a layer that exists for content consumption, exploration, and experience that just isn’t being addressed, explored, or discussed beyond QR codes — at least at scale. All of this creates a space for asking the best question of all What if…

The conversation needs to shift from trying to stay relevant by plugging in available digital tools that do not enhance the experience — like QR codes — to one that is a little harder to grapple with: how to bring delight and change the way visitors think, feel, and act—with a thoughtfully designed experience—integrating the digital layer into the physical environment. This conversation is happening right now.

Watch the Skin and Bones AR promotional video. Don’t bring your own iPad to a museum.

Worth the effort

Museums are awesome, incredible cultural institutions that have meaning and import for all of us. We wouldn’t have spent the time analyzing their websites if we didn’t want to see them thrive, but as we began to understand how their revenues function, we saw that there’s a huge opportunity here. A better approach to UX with their digital footprint will reduce their overall spend on mass marketing and operating costs. This can happen by developing a consistent approach to owning their platforms and tools, like their ticketing or online stores, by defining a UI kit and sticking with it, and then also by understanding that users are ticket sales, store sales, future patrons, and loyal customers — museums must engage with them through great content (not just in bus shelters or through billboards) and great experiences that extend beyond the walls of the physical structure.

All aspects of a brand define the experience and create a perception around value. In this case, taking a fresh approach to UX and widening the lens to include the digital experience prior to entry and during a visit, provides the opportunity to build on that value as one competes for one of the scarcest of resources, time.

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