The Smithsonian’s IPOP Exhibition Framework: Lessons for a Human-Centered Content Approach

One of the great challenges in designing a product — digital or otherwise — is stepping outside yourself and climbing into the minds of your users. You love the wonderful new app you’ve designed, but will it appeal to others? Fortunately, the field of user experience design (UX) gives us tools to understand our users through surveys, interviews, card sorting, and user testing.

The Smithsonian Institution’s Office of Policy and Analysis has another tool to consider for your UX toolbox: IPOP. IPOP is model of experience preference created by Smithsonian behavioral scientists led by Andrew Pekarik, in collaboration with Professor James B. Schreiber of Duquesne University. It was formed to guide exhibition design, and born from years of research studies and interviews with Smithsonian visitors. Though created specifically for museums and physical exhibitions, IPOP is useful for anyone wanting to widen appeal and engagement.

IPOP is a useful framework for building a content strategy and thinking about audience diversity and preference differences. The model names four dimensions of experience. Individuals are drawn to each dimension in varying degrees and usually have a dominant preference among the four:

  • I: Ideas — an attraction to concepts, abstractions, linear thought, facts and reasons;
  • P: People — an attraction to emotion, human connection, affective experience, stories, and social interactions;
  • O: Objects — an attraction to things, aesthetics, craftsmanship, use, ownership, and visual language; and
  • P: Physical — an attraction to somatic sensations, including movement, touch, sound, taste, light, and smell.

To create a superior experience with broad appeal, IPOP recommends designing with these four dimensions in rough equilibrium. For example, a display about early commercial flight could contain facts and figures about the first airliners (ideas), compelling accounts from the early adopters daring enough to fly (people), a flight attendant’s uniform (objects), and a simulation of the propeller noise and vibrations passengers endured (physical). In this manner, IPOP creates multiple points of entry and grabs wide-ranging visitors with diverse experience preferences.

The IPOP model was created to foster greater self-awareness among exhibit creators, and steer teams in directions their natural inclinations may blind them to. Like most forms of presentation, exhibitions are prone to the preferences of their makers. This leads to a common problem: exhibitions that are strong in only one or two dimensions. A text-heavy display detailing troop movements during The Battle of Bull Run might satisfy a curator with a penchant for linear narrative (ideas), but will leave visitors inclined towards human stories (people), material evidence (objects), or sensory experiences (physical) in the lurch.

IPOP has proven effective at the Smithsonian, with exhibitions employing the model earning consistently higher visitor satisfaction scores. How then can IPOP be translated to the world of digital?

The Skin & Bones app at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) is the first digital product to use IPOP. It provides a case study on how the IPOP model can guide a content strategy. The app was created to enliven the museum’s Bone Hall, an aged exhibition of nearly 300 vertebrate skeletons. Installed in the 1960s, Bone Hall is a glimpse into the highly didactic museum practices of old, and a showcase of retired fonts and faded colors.

Skin & Bones invigorates the staid displays of Bone Hall by bringing the specimens to life through the magic of augmented reality (AR). After downloading the free app, visitors can point their iOS device at selected skeletons, triggering the AR and superimposing 3-D skin or muscles onto the specimens. The AR might show the animal as it looked in life, or it may highlight specific anatomy: the muscles and neck of an anhinga bird for example. Short animations demonstrate how the specimens move or how their skeletons work.

Augmented reality is the app’s “wow” ingredient, but Skin & Bones offers a variety of experiences. Each skeleton gives several content selections, ranging from “animal life,” “meet the scientist,” “skeleton works,” “the big idea,” and an activity. This is IPOP at work, with each category designed to cover an IPOP preference. The Skin & Bones team added an additional element, “animal,” to appeal to those with a strong affinity towards animals.

To better illustrate how IPOP was implemented, we can look at the content for the common vampire bat. The content spans IPOP in the following manner:

  • Ideas — ”The Big Idea” 
    A video about the principles of echo-location, and how it is used by bats and other animals.
  • People — ”Meet the Scientist” 
    A video interview with scientist Rolf Muller recounting how a tip from a small girl along the Silk Road led him to find a rare bat species in central Asia.
  • Objects — ”Skeleton Works” 
    An AR animation showing how a vampire bat can use its wings to gallop forward on the ground.
  • Physical — ”Activity” 
    A listening activity requiring users to listen closely and identify different bat sounds.
  • Animal
    A video on how vampire bats feed on blood and share their take with fellow vampire bats.
Skin and Bones: Vampire bat, Office of Education & Outreach, Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History

For the Skin & Bones team, led by Robert Costello, National Outreach Program Manager at NMNH, and Diana Marques, scientific Illustrator, animator, and Smithsonian fellow, IPOP was a welcome tool to organize and focus their content. With almost 300 skeletons in Bone Hall to choose from, IPOP provided valuable criteria for selection: the team picked 13 specimens offering the best stories across dimensions. The physical dimension proved the greatest challenge, and led to creative approaches. For the common vampire bat, it is fulfilled by a listening activity. For the eastern diamondback rattlesnake, users shake their device to imitate the rattle.

Importantly, IPOP is only one element of a human-centered design approach. The Skin & Bones team employed UX methods of prototyping, storyboarding and user testing to refine the interface, navigation, and content elements. A central challenge was creating an effective system of guiding visitors to the physical locations of the 13 specimens featured in the app. Testing paper prototypes with visitors in Bone Hall led to important improvements to the app’s map and display case icons. The team also assessed the impact of AR on the user experience, by testing the app with and without AR.

An early paper prototype of the map interface.

Robert Costello and Diana Marques credit IPOP for articulating a balanced content strategy. “IPOP almost gives you a formula as an exhibition designer. For us, that was definitely it’s main value. It forced us to consider different stories, and allowed for a much more diverse product.” said Marques. As part of her upcoming PhD dissertation, Marques is combing through analytics, user interviews, and in-depth observational studies to measure the efficacy of AR on visitor engagement. While it is difficult to assess the impact of IPOP in the data, she says IPOP undoubtedly provided for a more engaging experience.

Of course, creating broad and diverse content is nothing new. Designers of rich experiences do it by design, or sometimes by sheer intuition. Andrew Pekarik, the driving force behind IPOP, likes to use the Patagonia catalog he receives monthly as an example. The catalog provides multiple points of attraction, including compelling visuals, personal stories, and longer-form articles about sustainability and the environment. For the physical dimension, differing textures of paper provide a subtle sensory experience. Says Pekarik, “Once you have IPOP glasses on — the IPOP perspective — you start to see it everywhere. It’s not that revolutionary; it’s calling attention to a balanced approach.”

Skin and Bones: Splash Screen, Office of Education & Outreach, Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History

Benjamin Bloom is a Web Developer at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.


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