Curating the National Museum of Singapore

My impression of the National Museum of Singapore (NMS) has been vague. I recognised the iconic architecture landmark that has stood for 130 years since its first incarnation as a branch of the Raffles Institution. I have partied through its key highlight events such as the dazzling Night Festival that took imagination beyond borders. I remembered the museum hosting an ancient Egypt exhibition that had a mummy and a couple of sphinx artefacts in it. I have walked in it a couple of times, mainly to attend talks and occasional pop-up markets. Never have I visited its website. Or have a need to to find out the latest exciting events happening at the museum.

Understanding the client and their predicament

It is the oldest museum with a progressive mind, and leading foremost as a host for innovative activities and events all year round. I always think of the National Museum of Singapore when an avant-garde arts and cultural event springs up in Singapore.

While concerned about increasing its number of visitors, it never compromises on its key mission to spread education, nation building and cultural understanding, and to ensure a holistic experience for all visitors at its platforms.

From the most recent statistics the UX design team can get, singapore museum visitorship in 2015 has almost reached a staggering figure of 4 mil, and showing a general trend of rise. But the number to the NMS has seemed to drop gradually. As the oldest museum in singapore with a mission to spread education, nation-building and cultural understanding, the trend has to switch direction.

From the brief, the museum wants to

  1. Explore ways of organising website content to make it more accessible
  2. Improve website navigation
  3. And integrate the online and real world museum experience

We perceive that the museum wants to create a consistent and intuitive experience at its digital touchpoints. We understand this to be an investigation into their website and mobile app experience.

For a specific quantified gauge for measurement of success, at the end of the day, the team hopes to achieve greater museum visitorship by increasing the conversion rate of internet traffic from the website.

The competitive landscape

To find out about our context, we started the research workflow first by probing the website and carried out a content audit. The contents in the website were not extensively large and the depth of their information architecture was reasonably manageable. Our key laments were the excessive numbers of global navigation titles, misconception for certain taxonomies, and a few unintuitive path flow. In fact, the website would be rated rather decent for its usability and contains no big flaws.

We carry on to initiate our effort with interviews with 10 users of diverse profiles. Then went down to site and make observations about the situation, visitor behaviours and to learn more about the exhibits.

We investigate the current website, evaluate it against the competitors and seek to understand what the others are doing with their website and museum experiences. Below are some highlights of the competitiors’ edge. It was apparent NMS has some ways to catch up to par up with competitors.

User research

We roped in 10 interviewees to find out about their experiences with museums, which may not be specific to the NMS for some cases, their encounters with the various digital touchpoints, which may be the website, mobile application and social media avenues, their frustrations and wishlist. We want to find out about their journey at the museum, from initial contact upon first hearsay, to feedbacks when leaving the museum, their thoughts at each stages and their emotions. Our interviewees are friends and also strangers willing to spare 30 minutes at the NMS.

We also ask them to perform a usability test on the current website, that evalutes the homepage based on 10 seconds impression, adapted from the methodology from Lindgaard and Dudeck, and the completion rate of certain tasks. The same two-pronged usability test were also adopted to evaluate, at later stage, a low fidelity paper prototype and a high fidelity digital prototype.

From their responses, we went on to map out the affinity groups and hope to craft out personas based on collated pieces of behaviours. The exercise gets faster and more intuitive, with focus on organizing information empathetically with statement detailing the behaviour that begins with “i”. But this is still a major exercise which requires thoughtful process as it provides the fundaments of the design. From this, the team went on to craft the personas, which are instrumental for the team to develop the problem statements.

At the end of this exercise, we came up with four personas but focus on three as the team feels the museum’s key mission best align with three of the personas’ goal for visiting the museum.

For more look of the other two personas not listed here, the presentation deck is linked below for reference.

The customer journey map tracks the various touchpoints in the three personas’ experience of the NMS, their emotions and some of their thoughts which reflect their frustration.

The problems

The team synthesized the interviews and concluded with three main problems:

  1. The structure of the website is not optimised. 
    Users have troubles looking for contents that were not well sort out or missing entirely. Users also misconstrue the contents of the website due to confusing or misleading navigation titles.
  2. The website is visually unattractive and lacks strong branding for the museum.
    It does not communicate the progressive nature and innovative edge of its contents and the status of the museum.
  3. The website does not relate well with its mobile application. 
    Aside from the usability of the mobile app, which is not within the scope of this project, the website hardly mentions the existence of the mobile app, and fails to acknowledge the integration of online and real world museum experience through the app.

While we cannot give constructive feedbacks for the usability of the mobile app at this juncture, we feel that the weak relationship between the website and its mobile app, together with the two previously mentioned problems, may have resulted in lower levels of engagement with the public and tourists.

The solutions

A part of the project deliverables requires the team to come out with a project timeline given a period of 12 months. Recognising the technical challenges of integrating an online and real world museum experience to align with the objectives set out from NMS, and fulfilling the full spectrum of the job, our solutions are delivered in phases 1 and 2.

To increase engagement and visitorship to the NMS, we would:

  1. Revamp the website to enable users to navigate information and accomplish tasks in a fuss-free manner. This is the main task in phase 1 of the project, which is also what this writing is about.
  2. Leverage on immersive visual and media contents to engage users digitally and on-site. Our content strategy here overlaps phase 1 and 2, and would entails strategic media production to power up the website and app.
  3. Relook at mobile application to augment experience and improve navigation while at the museum. This is the main task in phase 2 of the project.

After examination of the pesonas’ frustration and looking at opportunities from the customer journey map, the team ideated features to include in the new design. Some of these include the following:

  1. refreshed visual aesthetics to improve online identity and align to the progressive nature of the NMS
  2. adopt mobile responsiveness to improve usability
  3. restructure the information architecture and make concise the navigation structure
  4. include a language toggling button to cater to key demographics profile of tourists
  5. present visitors with a new segment on curated itineraries so they can view and best maximise their time at the museum
  6. allow users to buy tickets online quickly without breaking their browsing experience
  7. organise workshops information to give quick glance and quick booking
  8. make school tour and workshop bookings more accesible on the website

Prototyping

At our first brainstorming session for wire framing, the team had two different ideas for laying out the website and hence affecting the navigation experience. The first idea had all important contents laid out within a single landscape oriented page, with the global navigation bar by the side. Scolling down this homepage brings user to the next global navigation page. The second idea is typical on the web now, a long scrolling homepage as a landing page, where the global navigation bar is arranged at the top. We go out onto the field, did a A/B testing and found that most user prefer the conventional solution in the long scolling homepage for better usability, while they commented that the first idea may be refreshing and design-centric.

We did two rounds of iterations and user testing, and accommodate changes to respond to feedbacks, some quite riskily a day before submission. One such critical change would involve including a new global navigation title to bring user straight to the museum curated itineraries from the homepage, as some feel it hard to find when the section is allocated under another title. This feedback draws mixed responses from the team. With limited number of user for this testing, the feedback may not not necessarily be reflected among the greater number of untapped users outside. Should the designer, under limited resources, then maintain an assumption from general sentiments, or follow user’s voices, be it a possible minority? We made the decision to cater to the user anyway, and left the ponderings to post mortem.

The prototype is linked below.

Conclusion

For a summary, in response to the website not being able to effectively engage audience and convert them to visitorship, the team devises solutions, roll out in phases, to help user better navigate the website and museum while improving the brand image of the NMS.

A constant problem I had as a designer in UX field is how much of a prerogative I should put in from my own as compared to the users, how much design should be mine and how much design should be the users. Coming from an architecture background, even ideally as we assimilate the thoughts from our clients and users in the practise, we often postulate design from our academic teachings, formal understanding, internal discussion and ideate concepts that are forward thinking and brings fresh experience to the users and environments. As an UX designer, we bring the users’ need to the attention of the business, and we cater to their problems. But I question to what totality do we answer to them. We empathise with users, prioritise features, weight costs and benefits, balance business goals with users’ needs, we give them what they want. But Henry Ford had a saying “if I’d asked people what they wanted, they’d have said faster horses”. They did not envision a car, or a mobile computer or a digital social network, or an online marketplace.

I continue to probe my position in future design challenges.

A new iteration is available for appreciation. Link to the portfolio and new prototype below.

Link to the presentation deck here.
Link to the old prototype here.

Link to the portfolio here.
Link to the new prototype here.

Cheers!

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