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UX and The Museum: Converging perspectives on experience design

by Mary Oakland, Shana West
5 min read
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A discussion about the considerations that go into designing digital experiences and visitor experiences in a museum finds plenty of overlap and inspiration.

Over the last few decades, excellent experiences have become increasingly valued in developed nations.

Take Starbucks for example: the cup of coffee you get may only be 50 cents at cost, but you’re paying that extra three bucks for the “third place” cushy chairs and social status.

Why not? It seems only natural to want comfortable, pleasant daily lives.

In The Experience Economy: Work is Theatre and Every Business a Stage, authors B. Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore present their idea that we are transitioning from a service economy (your way, right away) to an experience economy, in which an event or story—an experience—becomes the valued offering. In this transition, the service becomes a commodity, while the experience built up around the service is what you value and purchase. The experience economy is better than your way, right away because it seems to know what you want before you say so, or maybe even before you know what you want.

A Convergent Evolution Of Industries

As experiences have grown in value, it’s no surprise that professional fields dedicated to developing rewarding experiences have been cropping up over the last few decades. A few weeks ago, the two of us met up to discuss our respective careers over coffee. One of us is an Exhibit Developer at the Science Museum of Minnesota and the other is a User Experience Designer at The Nerdery.

What started with a conversation over coffee led to a realization that our lines of work had parallel purposes, processes, and goals. We found that we were both passionate about designing for people, regardless of what we were developing. This common vision led us to wonder if our industries are converging on a similar point: designing excellent experiences.

People are no longer satisfied to simply have software that does, say, banking. They want to do their banking easily and simply, and they want to focus on banking rather than on the website with which they do it. The same has been true in the museum field: visitors are no longer as satisfied with rows of objects on display. They want the objects to tell a story. They want to understand the main message of the exhibit without reading a single block of text.

Excellent experiences share similar characteristics. Comparing the guiding principles of UX with those of exhibit development is a study in convergent evolution. It’s clear that people in these very disconnected fields encountered similar challenges (meeting the needs of people) and have found similar ways to address them.

Defining Excellent User And Visitor Experiences

Freeman Tilden of the US National Park Service is considered one of the founders of modern visitor experience interpretation, which he defined as “Any communication process designed to reveal meanings and relationships of cultural and natural heritage to the public, through first-hand involvement with an object, artifact, landscape, or site.” In a way, this is reminiscent of the current explanation of user experience, which focuses on one’s emotions about using a particular product, system, or service. It’s all about the subjective experience that occurs when we interact, whether in a digital or physical space.

Tilden’s guiding principles, which he described in his 1957 book, Interpreting our Heritage, and Judy Rand’s later work Visitors’ Bill of Rights have surprising similarities to the usability heuristics of one of the fathers of UX, Jakob Nielsen. His early guiding principles still inform how designers look at the usability of digital spaces, but before Nielson wrote his heuristics regarding digital experiences, Tilden and Rand were busy articulating concepts that continue to be the foundation of every great museum experience.

Provide A Safe Space In Which To Thrive

Rand and Nielsen focus on very tangible guidelines, ranging from wayfinding to consistency in terminology. Rand’s first item in her bill of rights is to provide comfort and the ability to “meet my basic needs.” This is very pragmatic: offer seating, restrooms, and full access to exhibits.

Secondly, the visitor should be able to orient herself and find her way around. This sort of pragmatism flows into the digital space, where Nielson asks for user control and freedom. An experience should provide users with clear paths, escape routes, and room for making mistakes. From either perspective, the experience should provide a safe space in which to thrive.

Meet People Where They Are, Then Build Upon What They Know

Both fields strive to respect their visitors’ or users’ perspectives. As UX professionals, we aim to create an experience that employs the user’s vocabulary and mental model. Similarly, Rand stresses that visitors, “don’t want exhibits, labels, or staff to exclude them, patronize them, or make them feel dumb.” The experience should cater to varying audience types to meet the user or visitor where they are and build upon what they know.

UX professionals could employ this constructivist model if they are not already consciously doing so. The approach starts with understanding the user’s existing knowledge, then offering information in a way that relates to and extends what they already know, to support their decisions about the task at hand. For example, in the case of a university admissions website, the site could guide a prospective student to discovering a degree program based on her favorite high school academic subjects, interests, or activities.

Enable People To Accomplish What They Came To Do

In addition to guiding and respecting users and visitors, we also must get out of their way. Both UX and museum best practices demand that professionals limit distractions and overload, offering reasonable challenges through clear communication. Design should support visitors and users as they take on active roles, providing assistance when needed and otherwise fading into the background. This allows users and visitors to do what they came there to do: learn, be social, and accomplish a goal.

Foster The Flow State Through Holism And Provocation

Both exhibit and UX design should be approached from a holistic perspective that considers the whole experience. A single interaction or piece of content cannot survive on its own. It should fit successfully within an overall message or ecosystem.

For example, a holistic approach to an exhibit about fluid mechanics would include interactive experiences that explore the different physical properties of fluids, which together contribute to the larger picture of how fluids behave. The end result is hopefully engaging, fun, and even beautiful.

At the conclusion of the experience, the user should feel refreshed and revitalized, confident with new knowledge or a goal met. Tilden’s experience with visitors taught him that the “chief aim of interpretation is not instruction, but provocation.” The experience, regardless of the context, should provoke thought, promote engagement and exploration, and induce a state of enjoyment or productivity.

Growth From Sharing Common Ground

Indeed, the point of this article has been to communicate our own sense of provocation. After discussing our respective fields and the processes we follow to create great experiences, we found that we could learn from each other in regards to how we approach our work. In fact, the same principles that make for great experiences also make for great professional development.

We came to wonder: “What would happen if professionals from all experience-related fields could share enlightenment over coffee?” If we all worked together to solve similar problems, imagine the creative solutions that would result from such conversation and collaboration.

Image of museum cafe courtesy Radiokafka/Shutterstock

post authorMary Oakland

Mary Oakland,

Mary discovered her passion for user experience while supporting and designing Electronic Health Records (EHR) at LSS Data Systems for 10 years. She found it to be a perfect way for her to put her analytical, creative and user empathy skills to use. Mary went on to join The Nerdery in 2012 as a User Experience Designer, where she can pursue her passion for UX across many platforms and industries. She specializes in UX research, information architecture and interaction design.

post authorShana West

Shana West,

As an exhibit developer with degrees in anthropology and museology, Shana West has a passion for understanding people. During the two years she spent teaching high school English in Japan, Shana realized that she really wanted to reach people of all ages. She wants to tell stories that deepen and expand people’s sense of themselves, as well as the world and universe around them. Experienced in conceptual development, iterative prototype testing, content development and more, Shana recently finished work on the “Future Earth” exhibit at the Science Museum of Minnesota, which invites visitors to consider how we can survive and thrive on a human-dominated planet.


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