An art gallery tells us everything about UX

I don’t usually visit art galleries.

I was brought up around fine art, all my childhood being compared to pre-2014 Rolf Harris for my erratic and obsessional tendency to fill a page, a napkin, a bank statement (sorry, Mum) with dogs and more dogs. I was always destined to be an Artist. That was until I realised how dauntingly broad art could be, yet so niche to the point of feeling alienated in art school for ‘misinterpreting’ an open brief about obsession (ironic, right?). I’ve never really ‘got’ art since then and endlessly question its accessibility an inordinate amount.

Flash forward 8 years. Here I am, in an art gallery, a logical-thinking, people-watching, technically-astute UX designer. I take my first steps through an intimidating yet familiar archway into the foyer, and contemplate my next movement. I can’t help but begin to draw parallels between this grand, physical environment and the digital world.

Know your audience

We are all individuals. From a Marketeer’s perspective, we may all belong in segments, which, as a starting point to understanding users is apt. But we are more complex. We have our own personal goals, expectations, habitual behaviours and personalities that lead us down our unique paths. As soon as I enter the gallery, I am presented with choices. I may choose which route I walk through the gallery, which pieces I admire, what opinions I form and when I want to leave.

There is never one single route when it comes to web design. We must recognise and accommodate different users based on their varied characteristics, context and motives, encouraging them to explore and guide themselves towards relevant content. As humans, we are inquisitive yet we still want to remain in control. Achieving a balance between availability of choice and focus ensures users feel unrestricted, yet they are not immobilised by too many options.

Make it accessible

Art isn’t straightforward. Nor are people. Artists craft with intention, but lend their work to subjectivity to allow spectators to make their own judgements. Though we cannot possibly compare fine art to the strategy required when a business sells a product or service where conversions are increased by clarity, transparency and logic, we can however talk about accessibility.

How can we make overtly complex concepts accessible to a large breadth of people? I walk over to the first exhibition piece in the gallery and I am overwhelmed by the complexity of language used in its description strewn across the wall. I look at the clear, far-from-intimidating handout I’ve been given upon my arrival. I look back at the description. There is an unmistakable inconsistency in readability between both of these touch-points. As a content creator it is your responsibility to consider the extent of your target audience. If I were a solicitor, I must be aware of legal jargon and the risk of its unfamiliarity with my clients, just as an artist should be aware of language barriers when explaining a complex concept about the subconscious to a Dutch family visiting a British city landmark. Always remember and respect your end user and never alienate them; write to inform, not to impress.

Create empathy

Let’s take a moment to remember David Bowie. A man able to tune in and out of his many experimental personas, immortalised by his androgynous style, asymmetrical eyes and flamboyant stage presence. Everything about Bowie was unapologetic, unforgettable and irreplicable; when Bowie fans hear his music, they are enchanted and moved by his memory. His fans are able to form an unwavered personal connection with his music because they appreciate him as a performer, as a person.

I spy a dark, dark room. I enter, surrounded by the echoes of haunting sounds, tall glass walls beset with images of climbing, twisted trees, harmoniously reflecting and dispersing fragments of light around the immeasurable room. I learn that the artist has attempted to replicate her experiences as a child venturing into the forest behind her house at night, and I am immediately engaged and feel an implicit sense of nostalgia.

Humanise your experience to identify with your users. Of all the art I encountered that day, I will always remember the forest. It struck a familiarity with me that earnt my trust to delve deeper. We attach meaning to experiences if we are presented with a face, a personality, a story, just as we fondly picture Bowie’s glowing pink, lightning-struck face when we hear the familiar sounds of Ziggy Stardust. As a business, you too can forge relationships with your customers in the same manner. No, I’m not advising you to wear a catsuit, but be real; show personality and converse with your audience — people sell products.

Always question value

I emerge from the forest feeling alert. I’m ready for my next interaction. I approach a circle of people, guided by a Performance Artist, swaying, clapping, joining, twirling. It’s not clear what is occurring in my path, and I make an immediate decision to continue into the next room.

Humans are impatient. Waiting more than 3 seconds for a page to load feels like a lifetime. The danger in slow loads times? We disengage. We give up. This danger means we need to be savvy when it comes to rich content, considering how dynamic elements such as Javascript, animation, video and complex graphics can negatively impact performance. We should always question value. Will a video of a model swaying her arms and twirling back and forth in the winter collection’s quilted bomber jacket on the homepage add much value? Probably not. On the product’s description page? Yes actually, most probably. I want to see how good that bomber fits (I would never wear a bomber, actually).

Never, ever, make assumptions

As I walk past the swaying and incessant twirling, I spot a painting on the wall in close proximity. Hopefully I won’t get clipped on my way over by an overzealous performer, I think. Suddenly, I am stopped in my path by a Gallery Assistant; “You can’t cut through here whilst the performance is on, I’m afraid.” Error one — never assume. The Assistant had made the assumption that I was going cut through the performance to the other opening to the next room, I wasn’t. Assumptions are illogical until proven.

Sometimes we assume and fall victim to self-referential design. We may not have the resources nor the budget to truly investigate our users so we make assumptions based on what we think as a Designer or business, using our best judgement.

One of the biggest misjudgements I have ever come across was when working with a public sector client, and a big one at that. They decided that they didn’t have the budget to invest in making an integral web app work on mobile. After considerable debate, we finally agreed upon doing some user research to investigate further into the mobile usage of our users and whether they’d find it advantageous to having a working mobile app. Our client agreed. But also stated that if the results came back in favour of a mobile app, they would still proceed to eliminate it from the MVP. A classic example of the elastic user; bending the design to suit the needs or ideas of the business. Worrying, nonetheless.

Little research is better than none. Creating a digital solution based on the beliefs of a small team, non-representative of the target audience is at risk of failure. Secondary research or a quick glance at analytics is a good start to understanding your users on a budget. Don’t worry about getting your design through the door; take that extra few hours to source some real data. It will save you days, maybe even weeks in the long run.

Guess what? I converted

I will draw comparisons to the very end. I’m difficult to please, and the experience wasn’t perfect. But overall, I found my day at the gallery memorable and so I bought myself a candle holder. Though my somewhat tarnished impression of fine art still remains the same, the minority of the experiences that stayed with me were impactful enough for me to invest in that candle holder.

More importantly, my trip to the art gallery inadvertently taught me a lot about how to approach future UX projects. And that is to always imagine that you are guiding your users around a physical space. We are so immersed in our digital worlds that the closer our interactions are to the tangible world, the more positive and indispensable our experiences will be.

So for your next project, ask yourself these questions.

How do you introduce your users to their environment? How does the architecture look? How do you talk to them? Do you want to take them on an adventure or do you want to lead them straight to the gold?

Consider these questions, and I guarantee you will create a website with the calibre of a Turner Prize winner.

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