Interactions at the museum

A participatory design project to improve the visitors experience at the Malmö Konstmuseum (student project)

INTRO


“User experience in museums” is one of the most explored fields in interaction design. A quick search through the Internet will reveal hundreds of papers with new technologies that potentially can improve a museum visit. However, a random inspect to an art museum will show that usually, none of those technologies are actually there. My goal at the beginning was to develop another technology, but: is "adding more technology" the best way to improve the visitor experience?

This project strongly relies on ethnographic methods and participatory design tools. The project's outputs are several prototypes and also findings about visitors behavior and their expectations when they go to museums.

The next text is just a summary of the whole process. For detailed information you can download the full paper.

BRIEF

The project proposal was sent to the Malmö Konstmuseum director. It had the title of “Improving the user experience in general public art exhibition spaces” and was a short brief showing the requirements for my research and the benefits for them. They considered the topic interesting and agreed to collaborate even with the opportunity of having workshops with the museum staff.

Process


The process was divided in:

  • Project proposal and previous meetings with the Malmö konstmuseum

  • Ethnographic research: Including interviews, observations and cultural
    probes.

  • Idea generation and collaborative workshop.

  • Prototyping and evaluation.



Ethnographic Research


The ethnographic research was divided in three different parts: Observation, Interviews with random visitors, and -because some visitors felt a bit uncomfortable answering questions for a long time- Interviews and cultural probes with "invited visitors" (People who got free entrance to the museum as an exchange for helping with the tasks )

Results from the research


With this research I got deep information about the special features from this particular museum and their visitors. Those results were presented to the museum staff in a workshop. Using those results as groundings, we came up together with different ideas to prototype. Some of those ideas were based on technology while others could work in a Low-tech shape.

I chose this way of working because even after a couple of weeks of interviews, how can I impose my knowledge about the museum with to people who has been working there for years? Working together we could came up with different things to try and they felt part of the project and they started to understand the need of improvement. I cannot hide that I kind of like the Scandinavian design tradition :-)

The lo-fi approach


Improving the user experience in a museum is not the same as develop new technologies for the museum, that is not what visitors mostly demand. Of course, some technologies can make the experience funnier and more interesting, but that will come as a consequence not as a previous statement.
So, instead of thinking about the prototypes as a previous step for the technological products, I wanted to make them as a product by themselves, something enjoyable as they were. But, on the other hand I also had to imagine them as just sketches, exploratory tools.

Prototype : Collaborative information


We live in an age where we are getting used to give opinions about everything: We leave comments in the newspaper website, we have polls, blogs, social networks. The goal of this prototype was to test how visitors react to the opportunity of leaving public comments to art pieces.
The prototype consist on a photograph box full with postcards with a text in English and Swedish encouraging visitors to leave their opinion.

Tasks and personalized guides


The second prototype was related with an insight drew from the research: Having a task to do- the cultural probes in that case- made the visit more enjoyable for the volunteers. One told me that without the cultural probes, they probably just had walked by all the paintings. With the cultural probes they had to think, at least a bit, about what they were seeing.

Consequently, we did a card with a small game. The museum staff thought that it might be interesting to try with the “find the detail game”, in which the visitor must find the painting that contain one special detail.

The next prototype is a guide: The “Do not miss guide” with the most important paintings in the museum. This concept came up during the workshop related to the discussion of one of the findings from the user research: The amount of things to see in the museum can overwhelm the visitors, if they feel that they must visit everything, they end up without experiencing anything.

Augmented Reality


Before finishing this project I also wanted to explore one idea that didn’t come from the workshops but I had it almost from the beginning. An augmented reality software to combine real images from the a smartphone camera and different layers of information. In a museum that could be interesting to show painting information “over the painting” moving the device and focusing on different parts. So the visitor could be able to find details and in someway have an assistance to learn how to look at art.
This is not an easy concept to explain or prototype with paper so I decided to make a “software sketch” that was programed for the Android platform. There I showed a few moving pop-up bubbles on the screen that showed some text over the image, to catch how it might be to have the device. The "software sketch" didn't work very well: It was too much effort for not to much in-place knowledge.

Conclusions


The prototypes explored different improvements to the visitors experience. While the "Collaborative Information" was a success and we got several comments and everyone stopped to read them., the others weren't very used by people. The study of the results pointed toward a holistic design of the experience. The visit is a process that should be analyzed and designed since the visitor enter, so it requires a “service perspective” together with a “product perspective”. In a context with so many visual information a few flyers with more information doesn't make a big difference.

  • The museum must break the passive behavior that the visitors are used to. Interaction -whether writing messages to others or having a task to do- make the visitor aware of what he is watching and make the experience funnier and more amusing.

  • The border between engaging the visitor or having him walking across the exhibition is very thin. Details like visual symbols, lonely rooms, sounds, interaction with the museum staff or the way to show the information will strongly influence them.

  • The traditional ways of communicating about art in museums (books, audioguides, pamphlets and notes close to the artworks) are just ok for the visitors but nobody feels enthusiastic about them.

  • The content must be carefully chosen and tested with the visitors. It is not strange to find too abstract descriptions that might be meaningless for most of the visitors.

Team: Sergio Galán tutored by Jörn Messeter.
Context: Project for the Malmö Art Museum
My Tasks: Project Brief, Schedule, User research, Workshop, Prototyping and testing.
Tools: Ethnographic tools ( Cultural probes, interviews, observation), Paper prototyping, Participatory Workshop. Adobe Suite, Android Programming, Google Sketch-up.