Museums (And What They Tell Us About UX)
I’ve written before about Human-Centered Design (HCD) and user experience design (UX), two interrelated concepts that help govern good application development, new technology practices, and just about any product or service that will ever come in contact with a human. Even if you’re not versed in these concepts, you are intrinsically familiar with them; after all, it can be easy to recognize when design is good or bad.
So, with these new design paradigms more important than ever, it’s worth examining certain industries and the way they have implemented these practices to account for user behavior. Perhaps no industry exemplifies the importance of good UX as the museum industry. After all, experience is the entire reason to visit a museum. Immersive displays and innovative ways of displaying information benefit websites, applications, and museums alike.
Part of the reason that these concepts have gained such traction in today’s environment is because people are often more interested in the lifestyle sold by a product or service than any other aspect. It’s why, for instance, Target often gets away with higher prices compared to Walmart; the extra price is for the perceived minor luxury of shopping there.
And for museums, competing with other attractions isn’t just about offering more information or something to do; it’s about giving visitors a story to tell. People have proven time and time again that they are willing to pay for experiences. Regardless of whether a museum charges or offers free admission, many have adapted to stay interesting to guests, even those coming for repeat visits.
In fact, one of the pioneers of what’s called “visitor experience” was Freeman Tilden of the U.S. National Park Service. Tilden believed in crafting meaningful spaces that account for the ways visitors interact with them. To him, eliciting emotion was the most important part of ensuring a memorable experience, and his six guiding principles have a lot in common with later UX standards.
For example, the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago opened an exhibit called “YOU! The Experience” in 2008. Designed to add a layer of personalization to the often-trite topic of anatomy, the exhibit allows visitors to interact with its displays, synchronizing stations about bodily functions such as heartbeats to the bodies of visitors.
This is a central tenet of UX — whether an application or an exhibit, the experience you provide should account for common behaviors and even encourage them, making their end goals easier. For museums, this is often expressed through their organization of information. In many historical museums, layouts will often move visitors through a specific chronology of events, perhaps following an individual through history as a television show would follow a central protagonist. The “Star Wars and the Power of Costume” exhibit at the Denver Art Museum takes on a different kind of chronology, following not the release of the films but the gradual creative processes that made iconic characters a reality.
Whether art, history, or science, museums have the daunting task of engaging and entertaining visitors for the duration of their stay. Accomplishing this requires a firm understanding of the psychology and common behaviors of visitors, in the same way that good UX in technology hinges on discovering and taking advantage of usage patterns. The next time your visit a museum, consider the way it presents its exhibits to guests — and the ways that its information hierarchy could resemble the design for other technologies.
Originally published at damianesteban.com on January 22, 2018.