You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘User Studies’ category.


A museum informatics user test was performed with the volunteer assistance of Margaret Herndon, a 50 year old professional manager who frequents local prestigious museums with her husband, is a general user of the Internet (ex: shopping regularly online and reading news) and only uses museum websites in a cursory fashion, such as to obtain physical site visitation information. The museum website chosen for this usability test was from the Norton Simon Museum located in Pasadena, California ( This is a museum that she frequents on occasion but doesn’t use the website.


Eight user tasks were presented and the tester recorded each of these tasks by paper, by watching, and by using the recording software Jing.

1. “Can you provide me with hours to the museum, and tell me when it is closed or if there are any free days to get in?”

2. “Can you find any information about any works of Vincent van Gogh?”

3. “Can you tell me what the current traveling shows going on are today, the temporary collections?”

4. “If you wanted to purchase an item from the current featured exhibition of Ingres, how would you do this online?”

5. “From the website, can you tell me who is Norton Simon, why is the collection so important and what the mission and vision of the museum is? What makes the Norton Simon Museum so special? With only using the website, can you elaborate on that?”

6. “Can you locate a floor map for the Norton Simon Museum and tell me where I can find the Asian collection?”

7. “Are there any materials, any guides online to the current exhibits, particularly ‘Portraits After Ingres’?”

8. “Can you locate a piece of art by its material, specifically sculpture? Can you find the European sculpture in the Norton and then locate any sculptures by the modernist Barbara Hepworth?”

User Task One:
“Can you provide me with hours to the museum, and tell me when it is closed or if there are any free days to get in?”

Margaret took a cursory look over the home page and couldn’t locate anything about hours. Looking at the navigation bar, she thinks it has to be under “Visit” or “Information.”

Margaret: “I don’t see hours. There’s something called visitor information.”

She selects “Visitor Information” under “Visit” since it looked like a likely option through her process of elimination. The subject finds what’s required of the task regarding hours but struggles with the next part.

Margaret: “Here are the hours. It is closed on Tuesday. That’s peculiar – normally museums are closed on Monday. This is very hard to read. It is very small and hard for my eyes. I can’t find free time information.”

She continues to scroll up and down and finding it hard to read as she squints. It begins to fatigue her. Finally, she finds text under “Admission Prices,” detailing that first Fridays of the month are free.


Fig 1.  Visitor Information

Observation: The subject wanted to first find that information on the home page. When she could not, she started first by looking at the main navigation bar. The main navigation bar was relied on heavily throughout the test. I agreed with Margaret that is was a bit hidden to not have the words “Hours and Admission” listed since in that same “Visit’ dropdown, “Directions and Parking ” is clearly listed.

She comments: “Anything can go in Visitor Information. Then they should just have one page for all that information.”

Even though Margaret found the hours and admission information from the “Visit” navigation bar, she did not see a section called “Visit” on the home page – even though this was where she wanted to first look. This information is tucked in the lower-right hand corner of the page and is very hidden from view. Interestingly, it lists “Hours” here but not in the dropdown as Margaret had suggested that should have been better worded. Also, this selection takes you to the same “Visitor Information” page from the navigation bar. So, even the “Hours” designation on the home page should be “Hours and Admission.” This is an example of a user showing how even the most basic museum request need of “hours and admission” can be unnecessarily veiled.


Fig 2.  Hidden Visit Option on Home Page

User Task Two:
“Can you find any information about any works of Vincent van Gogh?”

Margaret: “Assume under collections, different choices, European, I guess I could pick European Art 19th century. Well, now it takes me to ‘Highlights’ and no images look like van Gogh. Here’s ‘More Highlights’ and I see a screen of small image icons. It’s 21 pages. This will take a long time. I’m tired.” [Shoulders droop.]


Fig 3.  Looking for van Gogh in European Art 19th Century

Margaret: “So, ways to find van Gogh. There’s ‘Advanced Search.’

Oh, here can type by artist. No results found? That is strange. Well, you can look under artist on this page – browse by and nothing listed.

[User tried to search under Monet and see the function worked. Finds Monet, so looks troubled. Margaret still can’t believe there is way to find van Gogh on here.] It’s not showing van Gogh and went under artist and 19th century and don’t want to go back there.”

“I know his work ‘Mulberry Tree’ is there. I can go by title ‘Mulberry Tree.’ Here it is. That’s strange. They have van Gogh and one of the special things about Norton Simon is they have a number of van Goghs, which is very unusual. I don’t know where else to look. Under gallery, there’s a picture of his paintings. ‘Browse by Gallery’ just gives ‘Exhibitions.’ I don’t know [dejected.] I just have to go to the museum to see the van Goghs.” User gives up.


Fig 4.  Looking for van Gogh under a title work or in the gallery

Observation: This user task was complex and fraught with difficulty, frustration, and eventually ended without complete success. However, this was not a user error but issues with the interface and cataloging options. Since Margaret was a casual visitor to the Norton Simon, she knew that he had collected a significant amount of impressionist art, and in particular, a stunning selection of van Goghs. To not find van Gogh in the collections was not only extremely frustrating for her but an example of a serious flaw in the website. The first flaw was in the “Browse by Artist” option. This should have been an easy to find exercise since it was an alphabetical listing/choices for artists. However, when Margaret searched under “V” for van Gogh, it was not there. Those who put the alphabetical listing should note that often van Gogh is sometimes listed under “V” rather than “G.” Patrons don’t normally think of “Gogh” as last name of Vincent even though “van” is “correctly” alphabetized as a subordinate. When Margaret had to dig deeper and use the advanced search screen, she did not see the little pop-up line selection when she typed in “van Gogh” that offered a choice “Gogh, Vincent van.” It was incredibly small, in bright yellow, and was easy to miss.


Fig 5.  The problem overseen – smart selection “Vincent van Gogh” missed and search by artist is under “Gogh” not “van”

User Task Three:
“Can you tell me what the current traveling shows going on are today, the temporary collections?”

Margaret: “Usually don’t they have them on the home page? [Exasperation, deep sigh.] There’s no home button. There’s no home button on the bottom either.”

Margaret spends a great deal of time looking in navigation bar, using the search option. Tester states to locate another option besides the browser back button. After clicking on practically everything on the page, she finds that the Norton Simon Museum logo is clickable and can go back to the home page with. New lesson is learned.

Margaret: “I didn’t realize that clicking on the museum logo would take you back to the home page. I still want my “home” selection. When I’ve used the Getty and Huntington websites, they both have a home button – because I always like to go back home so that I know where I am.”

User then completes primary task.

“I like the showing of images of the exhibitions. They have two exhibits: Rembrandt and Portraiture after Ingres. How annoying, it’s hard for me to read about them when they keep flashing images on the screen above. I liked it at first that they had the images flashing of the current shows but now they are just flashing images from the Norton Simon collection. How annoying. It’s making it difficult to read.” [Blinks, forehead creases, eyes, squint.]


Fig 6.  “Current Exhibitions” under home page

The tester suggests there is another place to get information about the exhibits. Margaret looks in disbelief, as to say “What more? I’ve already found it.” But she obliges that “nasty” tester and continues to look.

Margaret looks under the “Exhibitions” choice on the main navigation bar. She chooses “Current Exhibitions” and it brings her to the immediate information. This subsequent task is completed with ease and swiftness.

Observation: As a tester, I tried to use words that didn’t simply say “Exhibitions,” since that would have possibly ended the task in one minute or so. Instead, I suggested other words such as “traveling show” or “temporary collections.” This caused Margaret to think a bit and think back that often museum websites post their “hot” temporary exhibits on the home page. This should have been straightforward except for three things – one, there was no home button she was used to in order to navigate to; two, it was difficult to read those exhibits when there were flashing images on the home page; and three, the tester required her to locate the information elsewhere besides the home page.

Many user studies have brought up the fact that no matter what level of Internet expertise, it is most common to go back to the home page to reorient oneself. Margaret was not able to this because she could not locate any home button or home hyperlink. This is not her problem. More experienced users realize that often the logo is what is used as a home page. However, this is not evident to several users, and really should be a choice selection no matter what. The ability to go to the home page is also the ability to reorient oneself in the searching and browsing capacity. Note the fascinating words she said: I want a home button “because I always like to go back home so that I know where I am.” This is psychologically and powerfully telling. I would suggest to the Norton Simon Museum to put a home button/home hyperlink as part of their navigation scheme based on this scenario. Also, when she did finally find the home page and saw that the current exhibits were shown as she thought on the home page, she was disturbed by the flashing images above and couldn’t read or focus enough. At first she liked it because the flashing images or “slide show” went over the current exhibits and included some text. But then the slide show started to show other images that had no context except for being in the museum. This showed how that element made her not want to stay on the home page very long and could signify that information is then missed on the home page. Lastly, she was able to determine that this information could be found under the “Exhibitions” option on the main navigation bar and thus reflected an easy option choice.


Figure 7.   “Current Exhibitions” choice

User Task Four:
“If you wanted to purchase on the current featured exhibition of Ingres, how would you do this online?”

Margaret: “Well, normally you would go to the store to do any shopping. And I love to go to museum stores to shop. So, here’s “Store” [located on main navigation bar] and ooohh… I want to go directly to the store. They just give me choices [dropdown selection of books, DVDs, gifts, etc. then accidently clicks directly again on “Store” and it brings her in. What is not so obvious is that the toolbar looks the same as before but now they are store choices and unbeknownst to Margaret, she in a different website altogether:] It looks like…. They don’t have any. [Moans.] Just want to search the store.”

She looks under “Books” and “Museum Publications” and gets overwhelmed by icon choices. Margaret doesn’t want to go through all the pages. [Sighs of exasperation.] She finds by accident that the site has a “Search Store” box and types in “Ingres.” She easily finds cards and a special exhibition book.

Margaret: “They should really bring out their exhibit. I don’t really like this website – shopping it. Look, it says it’s an online store. Look, I can’t go back to the museum. I want to get out of there. [Uuuuuh.] I don’t know how to go back. [Face gets read, brows arched, fuming.] I’ll just hit the back arrows. That’s annoying. Navigation bar looks the same. [Clicks by page by page and finally back to museum page.] That was nearly eight pages back. I don’t like that.”


Figure 8.   Museum Store

Observation: Some significant items were noted in this task. First of all, Margaret is an avid shopper and spends most of her money at museum shops when at the museum. She likes to collect books and items from all the special exhibitions she attends – even if she never uses them later. It makes her feel that she has a “part” of the collection or of the “experience.” With its museum website, the Norton Simon should be targeting these eager buyers. However, Margaret’s exercise brings out some inherent defects in the store purchasing experience that could stop someone from shopping online. The three shortcomings included: 1) No home page to navigate back to the museum; 2) No visual differentiation of the navigation bar, the logo, positioning of times to tell the user that he is in a completely different website and that it is only the store site now; 3) Does not feature special exhibition and collection items on the store home page; and 4) Hides the “search store” option in same place as “search site” option and instead should be search within the body of the store site.

User Task Five:
“From the website, can you tell me who is Norton Simon, why is the collection so important and what the mission and vision of the museum is? What makes the Norton Simon Museum so special? With only using the website, can you elaborate on that?”

Margaret: “Let’s see here. I’m going back to the home page. Maybe there is something on the home page. [Finds nothing.] Where is “About?” Should be under “About.” [Looks under “Information” on main navigation bar.] Here it is. [Locates “Norton Simon Bio” on dropdown.] Why is it so special? They should really bring it out. [Looks at additional dropdown menu choice of “Museum History.”] Museum History. Doesn’t tell you anything about mission statement, Poor, very poor information. Just lots of text. They could have mentioned a quote of his here. Oh here. I’ve seen this documentary on in the museum theater. [Bottom of Norton Simon bio discusses documentary on Norton Simon with hyperlink to information on it for viewing in the physical theater space. Clicks on it but cannot be viewed online.]

It’s done by the Guggenheim. It’s very professional. They should really have this here. I should let them know.”


Figure 9.   Hidden Jewel: Norton Simon Documentary

Observation: This was an exciting exercise with much enlightenment and new information given by the user. Here, Margaret has become a valuable resource to the Norton Simon and is actually providing solid re-design information without knowing it – simply being a good Norton Simon aficionado. First, this exercise brought up that the Norton Simon museum does not currently present or offer a mission or vision statement on the website. In addition, it is hard to gleam from all the text what the museum is all about. It would behoove them to change “Information” to “About” and in that “About” section really discuss and show the “aboutness” of this museum and its collection. Margaret noticed interesting quotes within the body of the text that she said she would have liked to see brought out. Most importantly, she recognized a crown jewel that the museum website is not using – a high-toned Guggenheim-produced 30-minute documentary that should be on the website prominently in the “About” section, giving potential visitors a great overview of Norton Simon and the collection.

User Task Six:
“Can you locate a floor map for the Norton Simon Museum and tell me where I can find the Asian collection?”

Margaret: “So, that means… [Raises voice.] I WANT THE HOME BUTTON. [Uses back button again to go to home page.] It’s not here. I think I remember… [Looks under “Visit” in main navigation bar.] There’s no floor map. [Pauses and keeps looking.] Here is something called ‘Gallery Map.’ Oh, that’s beautiful. That really should be on the front of the website. It shows what the museum looks like and what the collections are. Here it is. It is ‘South and Southeast Asian’ and it is in the lower level of the building. [User completes task in efficient manner.]


Figure 10.   Floor Map is called “Gallery Map”

Observation: Again, we notice that terminology is an important navigation and information-seeking item. I used the term “floor map” which is common in museums. However, it took her just a bit of time as she was seeking specifically “floor map.” The name given by the Norton Simon Museum was “gallery map.” This was a bit of a mind-bender, but she selected it anyways. She was astounded not only the beauty of the map, but that it really showed visually the museum architecture, gardens, collections, layout, and mapping captured in one image. She noted that it should be used more prominently by the museum – seemed too hidden. Another fascinating piece that came out of this was again two-fold: 1) Terminology and 2) Home Page Hiding. There was actually another choice to find this map and it was located in the “Visit” section on the lower right-hand corner of the home page as “Interactive Map.” Here we see that even though Margaret suggested that the museum highlight this and put it on the home page, it had, except it didn’t highlight the map and hid it under different terminology altogether – “Interactive Map.” Through this activity, Margaret was able to identify significant flaws that took away from the excellent, interactive floor map that the website actually contained.

User Task Seven:
“Are there any materials, any guides online to the current exhibits, particularly ‘Portraits After Ingres’?”

Margaret: [Breathes heavily.] “Well, let’s see. That should be under ‘Exhibitions,’ then here ‘Current Exhibitions.’ And they have, I will go into that. Well, I don’t see anything. They give me choices – press release, podcasts, and lots of text. I don’t see anything. [Scrolls up and down, heavy breathing.] Now, what was the question again?

I don’t see guides. Maybe under ‘Information,’ under ‘Visit,’ under ‘Education?’ No. There should be something under ‘Guides.’ [Goes through each choice in navigation bar and finds a section called “Multimedia” and finds “Brochures.”]

Brochures? Is that it? Why would they stick it here – under multimedia? Here it is – a brochure on ‘Portraiture after Ingres.’ [Comes up in a viewer in small size with control buttons.] Oh, how nice – you can actually view it like in a book format. [Struggles with control buttons.] Oh, you can page through it like a real book. That’s neat – it makes ‘turning pages’ sounds. Oh, I want to make it bigger – I can’t read it. [Struggles to enlarge and finally does.] Oh, this is really nice. I love it. I can read it – very lovely. Very nice – I love their literature and I can still see it here. Oh, I’d like to print it. There is no print button. At least I can see this here – very nice. Oh, darn, now how do I get out of this and go back HOME?”


Figure 11.   This is a brochure?

Observations: This exercise brought up some frustration by the user. It was interesting to note that the strain of looking for this item caused her to forget the question and task at hand. Locating literature or materials on the current exhibits was not clear. Margaret spent a great deal of time looking at all the options she could figure out. Finally, she discovered “Brochures” under “Multimedia.” She found it confusing to find this under multimedia. This brings up an inherent discrepancy again about how to define – brochures are often thought of in a print or print online fashion and not as multimedia. However, when you use this, it is somewhat multimedia-like because it paginates, makes sounds, is graphic, etc. Perhaps, it more logically should be termed “Interactive.” Also, there are some users who will not understand what the category “Multimedia” is. However, it could be beneficial as a “catch all” for interactive, audio, and video components, but wonder if this term is outdated. This would be interesting to further test. Again, this “brochure” function should be something to bring out more in the website and is too hidden from view. It as well can work as both a promotional device to get people into see the exhibits or for reviewing the material afterwards for better absorption.

User Task Eight:
“Can you locate a piece of art by its material, specifically sculpture? Can you find the European sculpture in the Norton and then locate any sculptures by the modernist Barbara Hepworth?”

Margaret: “Ok, there is a search button but it doesn’t have advanced search. [Goes back to home.] I don’t see anything here. How about ‘Collections’? [Dropdown with choices of time periods and browse options.] AAAH. I don’t like this dropdown. Browse by Artist, Title, Object Type, Provenance… I don’t see it. Here’s Advanced Search. Well, here it gives me artist, title, type, origin? What’s that – oh, origin – that’s different places? [Selects Object Type]. Now that’s strange – I wouldn’t have thought to look this under “object type.” [This dropdown lists the material types and user locates sculpture choice.] What a strange name.  [This brings up 62 pages of small icons of all varieties of sculpture, but finding difficulty narrowing down.] This is too much to look at. What if I wanted to see certain sculptures, modern sculptures? Aaargh. I’ll go back to advanced search again under collections. Oh, I see, I can type in European under Origin and it gives me lots of choices. Oh, I see now I can search for Artist in this search. I’ll type ‘Hepworth’ and see. Oh, here she is. Here are her pieces. Oh, how nice. I really like her work. Yes, that’s very nice.” [User smiles finally, exhibits first signs of user satisfaction – perhaps because she has reached the end of this usability test.]


Figure 12.   Collection “Advanced Search” Option

Observations: Oddly, this task produced the greatest user satisfaction and perhaps the only time I truly saw Margaret smile with contentment. I personally was surprised and thought this would be the most difficult task and one where she would throw up her hands in dismay or at least throw something at the tester. In fact, though it was difficult, she worked her way through and then located the Collection “Advanced Search” option. Here she had some good choices to narrow her selections from once she learned what those were. Once again, we look at issues of terminology. The use of “Object Type” to describe the material or form of art seems very intellectual or too “insider-like.” This threw her off immediately from the choice of “Browse by Object Type” under “Collections.” She only discovered what that meant after looking at this dropdown choice in “Advanced Search.” This exercise pleased her immensely because it allowed her to locate specific items in the collection and give her a sense of “power” and “ease” in accessing the collection.

Conclusion and Readings
In “Come on Down! A Game Show Approach to Illustrating Usability Evaluation Methods” by Michael Twidale and Paul Marty, the authors demonstrate the quality of material and insight that can be produced from quick or rapid usability testing. Though the game show testing methodology was not applied here, it still demonstrates the efficacy and profoundness of what emerges out of even simple, face-to-face user testing. Twidale and Marty comment on “the remarkable robustness of user testing and that any test is better than no test. This is demonstrated effectively in the user test with Margaret Herndon. This brief and informal user testing provided significant findings that would be highly beneficial to the Norton Simon Museum enterprise. In actuality, it would be cost-effective.

Margaret herself brought out changes that the museum should do in its website to promote itself – the hidden Guggenheim documentary on Norton Simon, the redesign of the Museum Store highlighting special exhibit items, and the observation that the “Floor Map” with too many names should be a big piece of the website. In an additional article by Twidale and Marty, “Lost in Gallery Space: A Conceptual Framework for Analyzing the Usability Flaws of Museum Web Sites,” the authors stressed the use of scenario presentations or questions, in high-speed format, to facilitate locating top-level usability flaws and patterns. A fascinating result of this user test supported their findings. In each task, particular flaws were brought to the surface quickly. Many of these were semantic-based, others were orientation-based and some were quite insightful in their blatant “errors.” One of the several usability issues mentioned by Twidale and Marty is the characteristic of “museum professional” mindset in designing websites. This is observed in controlled vocabulary lingo, such as Norton’s use of “Object Type” when Margaret was trying to find an art piece by material. Again, the authors emphasize what seems to be common sense but so terribly overlooked in seeing the value of usability and its cost-effectiveness over the expenditure on website design without it. They state succinctly that “not analyzing for usability can mean users will fail to discover and appreciate this rich content…” Through the user test, Margaret found these rich resources, such as the Interactive Floor Map, the unused Guggenheim documentary on Norton Simon, the Paginating Online Brochure, and the powerful Collection Advanced Search Screen. By performing such a fairly simple and inexpensive usability test, the corresponding results were provoking, essential, and, of course, usable.


Parry, Ross, et al., “How Shall We Label Our Exhibit Today? Applying the Principles of On-Line Publishing to an On-Site Exhibition,” in J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds.). Museums and the Web 2007: Proceedings, Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics, published March 1, 2007. Consulted March 11, 2010.

The LIVE!Labels Project:

A seven-month partnership between the University of Leicester and Simulacra with three UK museums (New Walk Museum and Art Gallery, Dinosaur Gallery, and National Space Centre) resulted in the production and evaluation of a digital, wireless, editable and dynamic labeling system (with web-based authoring tool) for on-site museum exhibits called “LIVE!Labels.”  Ross Parry and Mayra Ortiz-Williams of University of Leicester and Andrew Sawyer of Simulcra presented their findings on their dynamic labeling system in this paper.

The “Enduring” Museum Label:

Imperative to the process was first to understand the historical context and heritage of labeling. The curatorial practice of creating and displaying text-based labels originated from two Renaissance European cultural traditions – the use of emblems (combining image with motto/legend) and classification (combining image and explanatory text).  With the growth of collections, came the impulse to classify.  In the Age of Enlightenment and scientific systematic order, exhibition labels were placed in museums at the end of the 17th century for “a museum had a collection, but giving order and meaning to this collection.”

The Traditional Museum Label honored in LIVE!Labels:

The over 400-year practice of exhibit labeling has been considered the primary curatorial means of communicating its exhibits to its audiences were its labels.  Textual labeling is thus a heavily studied, structured, formalized and entrenched tradition.

Ross Parry and staff respected this tradition, and instead of completely wiping out exhibit labels or turning them into touchscreens or multimedia devices, designed LIVE!Labels as simply labels placed next to or nearby exhibits.

Key Design Requirements Included:

  • Not to disrupt curatorial practice but for the label to blend in, be “powerful but polite,” be ambient with gallery environment.
  • Ability to easily modify and change labels including remote updating capability.
  • Ability to incorporate user-generated content and tags by phones, mobiles, and websites.
  • Provide remote and automatic/timed label updating.
  • Reduce cost and impact on existing IT and on printed labels.
  • Ability to modify and change labels based on time-driven.
  • The 6.4 x 10.4 slim LCD “labels,” with built-in wireless that connected to a web-based content administration system, would be placed next/near to object.

Triggers and Generators of LIVE!Labels Content:

Ross Parry and team named events as “triggers” and authors as “generators.”  Generators could be not only curators, but visitors and approved third parties.  Triggers to the system could be time-, news-, event, and visit-driven.

Four Concepts of Generated Content Could be:

  1. Contextual – new, different, changing information about the object
  2. Promotional – highlight events, services related to object
  3. Directional – direction to related objects and themes
  4. Responsive – highlight visitor responses to object

The Museum Sites Tested:

In testing the system, the team identified three museum types that would provide a range of response.  At the New Walk Museum and Art Gallery, the labels were placed next to objects in their German Expressionist exhibit with updated and blog-like entries from the curator.  At the same gallery, the labels were placed next to dinosaur objects with the activity being children submitting postings of their interpretations – i.e. “curator for the day.”  Finally, at the National Space Center in Leicester, labels were used to give daily updated information on Near Earth Objects next to exhibits.

The Results:

The results from the trial were interesting and varied.  Statistics showed that 50% did not look at the labels, with only 20% reading the labels.  Only 20% could identify the labels as “live.”  Most visitors said it did not “change” their experience and almost all said it did not make the museum experience negative.  Interestingly, those in the science museums expected the labels to be touch-responsive compared to traditional art museums.

References cited in article:

Callery, B. G. and R. Thibadeau (2000). “Beyond Label Copy: Museum-Library Collaboration In The Development Of A Smart Web Exhibit”. In D. Bearman and J. Trant (eds.). Museums and the Web 2000: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics, 2000. Last Consulted January 25, 2007.

In this study, Carnegie Mellon University Libraries, the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University and the Carnegie Museum of Natural History participated in a joint collaboration to create a “Smart Web Exhibit” (SWE) prototype in order to provide targeted and timed information online to a varied user base. This was in response to the modern-day dilemma of the limit of collection objects that may be exhibited at one time which then limits label copy, thus reducing the museum visitor’s learning and understanding of these objects.  SWE would provide the accessibility of digitized archived material, with ability to select based on level of interest.

DeRoux, K. (1998a). Exhibit Labels, Some Basic Guidelines for Small Museums. Alaska State Museum, Bulletin no. 5 (summer). Available, last consulted January 25, 2007.

DeRoux, K. (1998b). Basic Techniques for Making and Mounting Exhibit Labels. Alaska State Museum, Bulletin no. 6 (fall). Available, last consulted January 25, 2007.

McKay, T. (1982). “A Hierarchy of Labels”. Exchange, a newsletter published by the Wisconsin Historical Society 24, no. 4 (July/August), available, consulted January 25, 2007.

These articles referenced within “How Shall We Label Our Exhibit Today? Applying the Principles of On-Line Publishing to an On-Site Exhibition,” address the orthodoxy and practice of proper museum exhibit labeling. Parry and team reference DeRoux several times throughout the study.

Other references:

Nina Simon.  ISO Understanding:  Rethinking Art Museum Labels. Museum 2.0 Blog (March, 3, 2007).  Available at

Though not referenced within the study, Nina Simon from the Participatory Museum, once again brings clarifying thought to the issues of rethinking and re-invigorating the art museum label.

She identified four key ways in which museum labels of today can be modified:

  1. Labels that instruct you where and how to look.
  2. Labels that answer the stupid questions in our heads.
  3. Labels that expose the curator’s thought process.
  4. Labels that tell contextualized stories and involve visitors.

In the Hunt Museum Design Case Study, I appreciated their design focus which was instead of showing “gee-whiz” technology, embedding that technology so that the it blended within the museum space – in particular, and I believe critical – in protecting and presenting what they called the “ethos” of the museum. I believe it is important to know what your museum is as one crafts exhibit spaces, exhibitions, technology, and events because they become extensions of the museum and carry its spirit. In the article, the authors called this also the “intimate link between the exhibition design and the actual location of the exhibition in situ in the Hunt Museum.” Here in the “Re-Tracing the Past” exhibit at the Hunt Museum in Limerick, Ireland, the team wanted to stay close and emulate not only the museum but John Hunt’s set up and study room. That was quite fascinating in their attempt to recreate John Hunt’s study room and the secret room in the created Study Room and the Room of Opinion. What was vitally stressed was understanding a museum as a “place.” Their concept of place was stressed as extending “the concept of physical space so that it encompasses not only its structural, geometrical essence, but also the dimension of its experience by human actors.”

What was also quite innovative and bright was hiding/embedding the technology within everyday objects, including 19th century ones, that created a nice interplay. The picture showing the extensive and messy technical guts behind the curtain of the hidden technology reminded me of the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain. One can see by the pictures within the article that the visitors seem to be quite engaged and “comfortable” in these areas – free to explore. The ability to open and explore the “Cabinets of Curiosities” hearkened me back to our study of Wunderkammern (“Cabinets of Curiosity”). I remember visiting the Rijksmuseum in the Netherlands and it had on display cabinets of items that were collected in those years of Wunderkammern – and the irresistible urge to open them and explore. At the Hunt Museum, visitors can open “Cabinets of Curiosities” without being reprimanded and hauled off by a security guard! It seems apparent from the article the exhibit was a success and I always find comments from visitors/users the most telling, such as: “getting away from the mundane textbooks,” “context merge with interactivity,” and most wonderfully, “it really brought the past into the present.”

My museum observation took place at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, California. This Orange-County based museum’s collection is primarily multi-culturally based. The museum’s vision is to “celebrate world cultures through their arts.” It also has a reputation of offering diversified special exhibits from around the world including the Terra Cotta Warriors and 3500 year old mummies from China, the Dead Sea Scrolls from Israel, Egyptian artifacts from the British Museum, treasures of Troy from the Penn Museum, and many others.

These special exhibits complement the Bowers’ permanent collection of Native American, Pacific, African, Pre-Columbian, South American, Asian, American and local art. The collections are housed in a Spanish Colonial building with courtyard. The intimate space has recently been expanded to 30,000 square feet with a modern-designed wing. A visit to the Bowers is like spending a day in different parts of the world, without having to travel afar.


Upon walking into the Bowers Museum, one notices how clearly resources and directions are labeled. The information desk is centrally and prominently located in the museum upon entrance. The information desk is huge and well staffed. Large lettering titled “Information Desk” covers the entire front of the area. Brochures regarding the exhibit, maps, and membership line the front of the desk. In addition, prices are clearly delineated on signs. Special events are displayed on a LCD screen. The flow of traffic at the information desk moves freely. There are extra people on hand to answer questions besides providing tickets. The rooms are closely placed to the information desk. Once paid, there is a docent who additionally provides you with brochures and directs you to the rooms that can be visited. Once the patron has paid and walks towards the exhibit area, there is an individual who hands out audio guides and headphones if so desired.

Signage for the galleries and the artifacts is used in an exemplary fashion. The galleries and exhibit areas are prominently titled and the labels are large enough to read, positioned with good height, separating titled information (such as name, location and date) from descriptive body of text. Walls of maps and timelines complement the entry to and the spaces between the exhibit areas. Some of these include push-button elements to light up areas of maps or touch-screens to present additional pictures and information. These were quite popular with all visitors – both young and old.

The Bowers makes great use of transitional spaces between different spaces of the collection by presenting entry wall text, map and or images that highlight what one is entering into. This provides the viewer a means to become acculturated with the next selection being shown. These transitional areas were often populated with people reading or viewing this prior to looking at the artifacts. These transitional information sources were used in a complementary fashion and were sometimes viewed longer than the artifacts. Many spent a long time reading, some gave a cursory look, and a few passed by. Most of those who passed by had their audio headsets on.

Each room have laminated guides that some visitors seemed to pick up often, which meant that the laminated guides were not available for others to look at. Mini-theaters were spaced out between the exhibits to offer timed videos on different aspects and histories of the collections. This information resource was widely used. It acted as a passive means of receiving information and at the same time gave respite and break to the patrons. Docent-led tours were provided on a frequent basis so that groups stayed comfortably small and intimate. These tours were quite popular.


It is not uncommon to see such a varied typology of people at a museum. This can be clearly seen in visiting the Bowers and I found the most diverse collection of people in nationalities, ethnicities, income ranges, and age groups. Once patrons pay at the information booth, they are guided to the open corridor immediately to its left. The information booth is so close to the entry corridor for the special exhibit area and so clearly labeled with standing signs and helpful docents, that no one seemed lost as to where to go. Entries to permanent exhibit rooms function as offshoots from the main corridor and, again, are clearly labeled with standing signage to direct visitors.

However, the “gold” of the Bowers is their long-running special exhibits, and the corridor is clearly designed to work as a formal introduction to it. The corridor is covered with timelines, maps, and descriptive information and images. Interestingly, these are widely used. Those over 30 years of age seem to use these the most. However, youngsters liked to push the buttons and touch the touch screens. In the center of the corridor, artifacts are placed in clear rectangular museum displays that can be viewed 360 degrees. This allowed quite a number of viewers to look at the artifacts. Commonly, couples and groups would hover over these central exhibits, spending time, while you could view other visitors in the glass from the other side. This facilitated a flow of discourse, viewing, and some semblance of social contact and eavesdropping.

The Bowers also does an excellent job of creating a very formal entry space into the main collection area. The entry is arched with large lettering above, signage of the collection, and distinctive artifacts from the collection that act as “entry guardians.” In this collection, two figures from the collection stood by the doorway, promising a level of enticement upon entry. It was interesting to note the reaction of faces upon entering in this fashion. Often, it was with faces of wonder, expectation, curiosity, and sometimes anxiousness.

There were quite a number of school groups being shown around, mixed with docents leading tours, elderly, middle-aged, and young couples, individuals and families. The couples tended to stay together. However, some of them – particularly the younger ones, tended to separate while viewing different parts of the collections. Those following the docent led tours seemed to enjoy the exhibit as the conversations were lively, questions asked, and discussion was presented in short descriptions with examples and many stories. Some children did run around but somehow it flowed fine and they oriented themselves to the artifacts that seemed the “coolest” or followed the discussion of the leader, or most commonly, talked or shared amongst themselves.

It was interesting to note that a number of teenagers and young people seemed to be sitting the most often in the exhibit spaces. Frequently, these were the ones using the audio tours, and interesting that they preferred to sit in the room from a vantage point of seeing the whole collection rather than standing in front of each artifact. Sometimes they seemed quite bored or not connected to the artifacts. Also, it was common to see those with the audio tour headsets group together and hang out around an artifact for a long time, seeming to concentrate more on the audio than the artifact. This often acted as a blocking mechanism to others wanted to view these artifacts – specifically those that could not be viewed in the round. Therefore, some visitors would flow around those blocking the exhibits and return when they opened up.

Generally, the exhibit layout for the Bowers is well done. It mixes the exhibit space with introductory and transitional spaces, artifacts viewed in the round and open air, artifacts placed in center as well as glass walled cabinets and a movement into three primary rooms, separated by different angles of display cases and display spots. In each major room, a video-viewing room is situated with long benches and low lighting, and it was filled to the brim with people. Again, the room acted as a quiet, passive, restive “TV”-viewing spot that provided straightforward, assimilable information, and a spot to rest weary bones or quiet a small family.

The Bowers also mixes the artifacts in different ways – by format, by timeline, by type, by storyline, by area, so that it does not all flow in one way. This seemed to provide dynamism for the viewing by the visitors so they wouldn’t get too bored or worn out.

The items at the end of the exhibit seemed to be punctuated by the most outstanding, interesting, or different artifacts from the collection. These seemed to act as “exclamation point” for the visitors. Many “oohs” and “aahs” could be heard and this room was the one that visitors seemed to linger around, group around, or find lost members of their group in. Eavesdropping seemed to be a common practice and was most visibly shared in the last rooms.

Strategically, the museum makes you exit in only one way – the museum store. Oddly enough, this is one of the most popular areas and children in particular found this the most exciting. The museum creates the store as an extension of the exhibit so only those items that reflect that collection are in that store. Many of the children wanted an “artifact” from the store. The store was packed and hard to move through. Some even viewed the museum store like an exhibit!


The main problem was observed in the primary exhibit space after entering the central area of the exhibit space. Interestingly, this space is what I would term “dead space.” This room is where people seemed tired the most, sat the most, seemed bored, took a long time, and where children didn’t seem to hang out. I think the main reason for this was that the exhibit space was very boxed in, with three walls covered in typical glass cabinets. Items stored in this exhibit space looked similar to one another without much descriptive text or differentiation. There was little flow to the room and seemed cramped. The exit space from this area was small and not very visible. Oddly, people seemed already tired upon entry to this room space – even the teenagers!

Another key problem that seems to be typical of patrons using audio tours is the “herd” mentality. Those with audio tours seemed to be cut off from other patrons and other areas of the exhibit, as if they were in a bubble. They seemed to group together, even if they didn’t know one another. A bottleneck would occur because often the audio was long and the participant would stand there, not moving, until the audio was finished. This acted as a blocking mechanism for other patrons, and most significantly, for younger and shorter viewers. Additional seating would be beneficial to act as restive spots, as well as viewing spots. Whenever benches were provided, which were too few, these were used by young and old alike. I find it interesting how often seating is overlooked as a necessity in museum space.

One other problem observed was that after visitors exited the museum store, it was often difficult to direct them to other exhibit spaces. Often the patrons seemed to head more towards the courtyard spaces, the restrooms, the restaurant, and then exit the museum altogether. What seemed obvious was that the permanent exhibits had few visitors present in those rooms.

At our onsite all-day Museum Informatics class on the campus of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, we were introduced to the concept of personas in the design process.  It was quite mind-altering and made a tremendous amount of sense – how critical it was to design an application towards imagined (identifying kinds of people who might use it) personas rather than what seems to happen most in the technological field (and boy, have I seen this!) – designing it for yourself.

Meg Hourihan in “Taking the ‘You’ Out of User: My Experience Using Personas,”identifies this issue.  It is literally taking the ‘you’ out of the user – a sort of unconscious (sometimes not!) narcissism that if I design this for myself, I’ve designed it for all users.  Hourihan discusses how her startup company Pyra (anecdote: same company that developed “Blogger” software that bought by Google) were developing a project management tool and “assumed we were developing our product for PEOPLE JUST LIKE US, so we could make assumptions based on our wants and extrapolate those desires.

It wasn’t until Hourihan discovered the work of the originator of personas for software development – Alan Cooper’s “The Inmates Are Running the Asylum: Why High-Tech Products Drive Us Crazy and How to Restore the Sanity” that the fallacies of these assumptions were tested and came tumbling down.  When her team actually developed the personas during pre-beta development, they found out – WHAT?  – ”Not only were the personas not all like us – our personas wouldn’t even be able to use the system were were building for them!”

Hourihan wonderfully elaborated on mistakes and boy, are these good:

  • Mistake 1: We chose flashy technology over accessibility.
  • Mistake 2: We assumed users would be more impressed by a robust interfact that couldn’t use than by a less elegant application that they could use.
  • Mistake 3: We thought we were the primary persona.

Developers and designers, listen up.  These 3 “mistakes” or should I say “critical observations” should be part of your daily mantra when designing and designing for personas.

Alan Cooper in his online journal on “The Origin of Personas” discusses how he actually play-acted his personas:  ”…I would engage myself in a dialogue, play-acting a project manager, loosely based on Kathy, requesting functions and behavior from my program.  I often found myself deep in those dialogues, speaking aloud, and gesturing with my arms.  Some of the golfers were taken aback by my unexpected presence and unusual behavior, but that didn’t bother me because I found that this play-acting technique was remarkable effective for cutting through complex design questions of functionality and interaction, allowing me to clearly see what was necessary and unnecessary and, more importantly, to differentiate between what was used frequently and what was needed only infrequently.”

When I was put in charge of re-designing Microsoft Money in 1995, I had no idea that the play-acting I was doing for my personas was actually a formalized protocol.  When we selected users for the usability testing, we attempted to gather persons that covered the gamut of who we were targeting this product for – from young to old, from inexperienced to savvy, from someone storing their banking stuff in shoeboxes (me too!) to those who were diligent about their budgets.  We also had them run through several scenarios to see how they liked the software.

I was struck by these users and how distinctive they were.  I particularly was effected by a grandmother who told me so much about how well the interface was working – no computer experience, wrote checks by hand, and she got it and loved it right away.  I also took away from that usability test getting into these types of personas and while I was designing, think, “What would Grandma (not mine!) think, want, do or what would College Student do, etc.”  I had no idea that I was designing for personas, but have to say it was highly successful.

Part of this is that you respect the personas.  I think there is evidence of creating a bad persona or putting down a persona and I can’t think of any better example than Microsoft Bob.  Some or actually many of you have maybe never heard of Microsoft Bob (and those of you who do, I can hear your screaming).

Kim Goodwin from Cooper (Alan Cooper’s company) calls this “Taking Personas Too Far:”  I recently heard about a Web design agency building “persona living rooms” that are furnished and decorated according to the personas’ tastes and filled with magazines the personas read.”  Microsoft Bob was a major bomb (perhaps the biggest bomb in Microsoft software history) that took a persona too far, too literally, and was based on a denigrated image of a persona.  Voted 7th in PC World Magazine’s top 25 worst products of all time, Microsoft Bob was designed as a “user-friendly” Windows interface and applications for the average Joe (or average Bob) who was computer-naive or intimidated.

And this is where Microsoft looked down upon the user – the average Bob – the idea of this hapless, perhaps dumb and confused person – who needs 16+ horrible animal and animated object guides to help them in an interface that is within a room.  That was Microsoft’s greatest sin on Microsoft Bob – disrespecting the targeted user, dumbing him down from a sense of technological and academic superiority.

Research was not based on fact and real-world but on high-paid Stanford academic professors and researchers telling them this is how new users behave and what they want.  NOT!  Alan Cooper speaks of this when he describes true persona development, calling it counter-logical:  ”I suspect that this is why they originated in practice rather than in the laboratory or in academia.”  With all its high-paid tomfoolery, Microsoft Bob was an insult to all users everywhere.  Even the name “Bob” was insulting to “Bobs” everywhere, as if they were dullards. (Microsoft paid Nike-famous ad agency Weiden & Kennedy to come up with that name.)

Here’s nicely written bit about Microsoft Bob called “The Bob Chronicles,” irreverently and accurately calling it “The amazing true story of the software that DIDN’T change the world.”

Lesson learned (we hope!).

Nina Simon’s The Participatory Museum is an incredible resource, another jewel provided in our Museum Informatics course.  She writes on her Museum 2.0 blog how she wrote this book on a public wiki (reminds me of our use of the wiki in class), how she vetted public editors, though she found most participants were only involved during the formative parts of the book.  She practiced what she preached about participation: “So when people contributed, I always felt that they were helping me, supporting the project, sharing an insight or critique for me to use.”

I focused on reading Chapter 1:  Principles of Participation.  In this write-up, I’ve sprinkled numerous quotes from Nina Simon because they are so good and they speak for themselves.  I couldn’t believe what excellent advice and information was jam-packed in just one chapter.  Of course, some of these chapters are length (45+ pages), so she also offers the option to purchase the book.

She brings up the fact that sometimes museums want to just create any participatory activity or application, yet can run afoul by making a poorly-designed participatory experience.  She highlights a poor one immediately in the first paragraph:

A Poor Participatory Design:  An Anonymous Chicago Museum

“I’m in Chicago with my family, visiting a museum.  We’re checking out the final exhibit – a comment station where visitors can make their own videos in response to the exhibition.  I’m flipping through videos that visitors have made about freedom, and there are REALLY, REALLY BAD.

The videos fall into 2 categories:

  1. Person stares at camera and mumbles something incomprehensible.
  2. Group of teens, overflowing with enthusiasm, “express themselves” via shout-outs and walk-ons.”

Results: Unsuccessful.

Why unsuccessful:  Museum only issued mandate to create without providing “scaffolding.”

Simon offers the wonderful quote from Orson Welles which puts it aptly: “The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.”

Now, let me compare this to an example she gives of a good participatory design…

A Good Participatory Design:  Denver Art Museum – 2009 “Side Trip” Gallery for The Psychedelic Experience Exhibit

In the exhibition space highlighting psychedelic rock music posters, visitors were encouraged to make their own rock music posters in the Side Trip gallery:

“Rather than giving people blank sheets of paper and markers (and reaching a narrow audience of self-motivated creators)… visitors were offered clipboards with transparencies attached.  There were stacks of graphics – cut-out reproductions from real rock posters on display… could place under transparencies to rearrange and remix into poster designs of their own choosing.”  Posters took approximately 25 minutes to create.When completed, the visitor gave to a staffer who made a composite by copying it on color printer.  Then, the visitor was given the final poster and provided with option to post a copy in the gallery.

Results:  Out of 90,000 attendees, 37,000 posters were created.  That verges to nearly 45% participation from total number of attendees!

Why successful:  Visitors didn’t have to start with a blank slate.  They were provided “scaffolding.”


Nina Simon stresses the critical importance of scaffolding to participatory design.  We have seen in class the example of a good one in the Victoria and Albert Museums “Make an Arts and Crafts Title.”  We don’t have to create from a blank slate.

What exactly is scaffolding?  Simon elaborates on this and its formation from “instructional scaffolding” with its roots in education and contemorary learning theory.

Some good quotes about scaffolding:

  1. Instructional Scaffolding is where “educators or educational material provides supportive resources, tasks and guidance upon which learners can build their confidence and abilities.”
  2. “The best participatory experience are not wide open.  They are scaffolded to help people feel comfortable engagin the the activity.”
  3. Example of an open-ended, non-scaffolded experience: “What if I walked up to you on the street and asked you to make a video about your ideas of justice in the next three minutes?  Does that sound like a fun and rewarding casual activity to you?”
  4. An open-ended, non-scaffolded experience can “feel daunting to would-be participants.”

Another juicy gem is her presentation of the 5 stages of social participation…

The 5 Stages of Social Participation (from Me to We):

Stage 1:  Individual Consumes Content

Stage 2: Individual Interacts with Content

Stage 3: Individual Interactions are Networked in Aggregate

Stage 4: Individual Interactions are Networked for Social Use

Stage 5: Individuals Engage with Each Other Socially

Simon applies these 5 stages wonderfully in the case study of the successful incorporation of all 5 stages in Nike’s product Nike+, a combined iPod/Shoe product to track one’s running.  It is too good to highlight and I’d suggest if you have the time to read it.  It illustrates the five stages and is directly applicable to designing the participatory museum experience.

Other good gems from this article is how she describes how YouTube is a successful participatory experience and the real reason it is successful, that encourages “diverse forms of participation.”

These diverse forms of participation are elaborated in her discussion of what participation looks like:

1. Creators

2. Critics

3. Collectors

4. Joiners

5. Spectators

6. Inactives

What is quite fascinating is that only .16% of YouTube visitors upload a video and only .2% of Flickr visitors post a photo.  Wow!  She stresses that although the quantity of creators are small, participation (and why social media, YouTube, Flickr, etc. are popular) and mini-creation takes place in the form of collectors, joiners, critics, and even spectators.

Attribution: Simon, Nina. The Participatory Museum. Santa Cruz: Museum 2.0, 2010.

LAM Archives

July 2018
« May