Noticing Environments: CMOA

A exploration of how physical and digital environments contribute to human experience

Step 1 (Digital Wireframe):

I explore the CMOA official website and mobile app through wireframe sketches. Different digital thresholds are also identified during the sketching process. While I analyze the overall experience with the museum digital environments as first time visitors, I found some problems in the current digital system as well.

Wireframes of digital environments

Some Problems

  1. the museum app carries very little information about the museum actual exhibition. On the page of “Art section” , There is only the titles of the exhibition with no description and cover. So for people that have little knowledge about artists and exhibition, the app design will not seem attractive at all.
  2. The website on the other hand might be a little confusing since it contains much more digital thresholds than the app. Some of the thresholds become distractions that prevent people from gathering their desired information. For example, in the description of one of the museum programs, a tinted link to the social media and mobile app kinda interrupt view’s continuous gathering of information if they decide to open the links.
  3. There is a confusing “option” dropdown menu placed at the right of almost each sections page (art, program, about), which is confusing that the dropdown menu will present the digital thresholds already presented in the left section of the page as well as new thresholds that leads to other page. To me, there seems there is no clear logic to the organization of the option menu.

Step 2 (Physical Surroundings):

I analyze the physical environments around the museum by actually visit the place several times. After observing and photo documenting the environments, I identified 5 key thresholds that lead to the museum, 4 transit the public area to the museum area and 1 transits the museum exterior to the museum interior. Each of the 5 major thresholds are also consisted by multiple elements (smaller thresholds) that leads to viewers awareness of transition.

I documents all five thresholds on one page surrounding a section of the museum location map.

I chose this visualization so that it communicates the positions of all five thresholds around the museum clearly and shows some of the correlation between the thresholds. I also only considered thresholds that directly links to the museum area since I found further thresholds that lead to the museum less relevant to this project.

Cross section (Forbes Ave & Craig St)

Imagine a visitor walking down Forbes ave on the east side of COMA, the first major Threshold he/she will encounter is the cross section area between Forbes Ave and Craig St. This cross section will be the last separation to the block area where COMA at. Once the viewer approach the cross section, he/she will start to see parts of the COMA building(shown in the picture below), which is a clear visual signal so they will aware that COMA is at the next block.

The difference in color and material between the sidewalk (brownish smooth concrete) and the street(grayish grainy concrete) will also remind the views the sense of transitioning.

Parking Entrance

On the same street, another major threshold is the entrance of the museum parking spaces for car-driving visitors.

While approaching the entrance from the public street area, there is a red sign with large text “Parking”(shown below).

This is a strong visual cues to remind the drivers of the entrance. Once the drivers get closer to the parking area, the parking lot booths and the “entry” sign will stand out in their view. The parking booths and the bars directly defined the threshold, which is a clear line between the COMA owned parking spaces and the public street area

Eastside Pathway

Close to the Parking booths on the museum east side of the walkway, there is a narrow path entering to the museum exterior area.

The narrowness and the green vegetation planted on the two sides created almost a tunnel-like effect, which increase the sense of transiting during the threshold. on the other hand, when walking in the pathway, viewer will gradually experience the widening of their view ranges. So visually speaking, from only seeing mostly the profile of museum building that is half-covered in the trees, visitors will slowly see the whole front side of the museum building through this threshold.

Front Stairs

Besides the narrow pathway that connects the sidewalk to the COMA exterior area, the wide downward stairs is more of a major threshold that access the museum exterior area from either east or west on Forbes ave.

The different material and color(shown in the picture below) of the stairs definitely stands out as a transition area between the sidewalk and the museum exterior.

Front Entrance

The front entrance of the museum will be the last threshold in my list. Approaching the entrance, the visitor will first sense the threshold by feeling the change of overhead altitude, which will suddenly become shorter due to the overhead building architecture.

The cover like architecture will also reduce the amount of light during day time, for which people will also sense the change in lighting.

The entrance itself is consisted by double glass doors with a middle area in between. The material of glass allow visitors to peek through the doors and kind of sees the interior, which kind of smooth the transition compare to opaque material door. The door handles and the auto-open button suggests interaction from the visitors when enter the threshold. Temperature also comes into play in this threshold, there will be a change in temperature when entering the interior of the museum, and the level of change will depend on the different weathers and seasons.

Other factors: Vegetation and Water Fountain

I consider the vegetation and water fountain as elements around the museum that add to the threshold experience for multiple threshold I identified. The overall green color vegetation around the museum although not as a strong visual signal, it still make viewer aware the difference in change in environments. The vegetation contribute to most of the thresholds Identified earlier.

On the other hand, the water fountain at the front exterior create a watering sound that will likely noticeable when people is walking down the front stairs. The water sounds transition the visitors from the street noise to a more pleasing and natural sounds. The water fountains contribute to all thresholds that pass the front area.

Some problems

  1. Walking from the east side of the Forbes Ave(Carnegie Mellon Side), there is lack of the Museum sign to signal the visitors.
  2. The Eastside Pathway(the narrow one) is underused, I assume it is built for driving visitors that park their cars closer to the parking stands. Yet there is no clear sign of entrance, and the pathway itself is hard to notice in a distant. The reason why I consider this as a flaw is that I enjoyed walking through the pathway, which provide a tunnel like transitioning experience.
  3. The sculpture and installation at the front area together with the table seatings may create distractions to the visitor that tries to locate a entrance/doors into the interior. Traffic and people looking at those art piece may block the views to find the glass front doors.

Step 3 (The Actual Experience)

First Expression

After picking up the ticket at the counter, I went on my museum journey entering a broad hall way. I soon start to notice the large stairs on my left side with bright color blocks on the wall. With the staff standing by the first stair, I realized this will be the entrance. Although my first intention was to walk down the hall way to the other side, the architecture of gigantic stair and its colored wall of the immediately attract my attention once I notice it.

Stairs(on the left ) & hallway(on the right )

As I start walking up the stair, I obviously experience the transitioning in a the stair threshold. Other elements that enhanced this experience include:heightening of the ceiling, increase in lighting, and the green scenery which become more perceptible through the large glass wall on the right. I also felt a increase in sense of space through walking up the stairs.

Materials and Sceneries

I consider the design of stairs a effective threshold that take visitors into this artistic ambiance. The architecture of the stairs, Large color blocks on the left wall and the park scenery on the left definitely will leave the visitors a strong first impression of the museum. On the other hand, I also noticed that this place induce people to take pictures and likely to pose on social media (I personally post the picture of the stairs when I first came to the campus tour 2 years ago….),which is another kind of interaction with the museum both in a physical and digital way.

Into the Museum

Two different entrances is presented when I enter the second floor. There is a floor plan that indicates the different galleries and the path lead to the gallery. It is interesting that they utilized the icons to identify different exhibition. I immediately though that these icons with our room separation to indicate location will create some confusion to the viewers.

Floor Plan

I choose to go to the Heinz gallery, where the artwork I choose is at. And turns out the entrance is right next to me on the right. Before I enter the room, I can already sense the difference in floor material(shown below) and the different lighting.

entrance area of the galleries

Inside the Museum

The floor material change from a dark grayish granite(entrance) to a polished white concrete(gallery). The lighting in the exhibition is also more dramatic than outside. Ceiling spot light(accent light) directly project the light on the artworks and the floors, so that people can enjoy the art works clearly. The white floors, white walls and the lighting resulted in a on average higher illuminance level yet a more artificial ambiance than the more natural outside surrounding.

Lighting systems (accent light)

The interior design of the gallery space looks like the connected cuboid spaces with some partition walls in between (shown as the sketch below) The semi-closed partition walls provide more spaces for artwork exhibited in the space.

Pathway in the gallery & Connection area

Each cuboids in the Heinz Gallery are connected by a short hall way. The short connecting paths serve as thresholds that transit visitors to a possibly different kinds of exhibition of the gallery. I notice that the light in the connecting hallway are also dimmer than the exhibiting area. This is also an evidence of utilizing illuminance level to enhance the threshold experience.

Finding my Artwork

The first time I discovered the artwork I was looking for is when I just walked through the short connection path and entered a new cuboid space(shown below), where the artwork is at. The floor plan and elevations of the exhibition room are also shown below.

First Stand Point that I Can See My Artwork
Floor Plan
Elevations from 4 directions

Since the art point is a sculpture/installation that occupied some certain space, so I was easy to spotted quickly. I can imagine if the artwork is a piece of painting or photography, it will definitely takes me longer if I want to find it directly.

Viewing the art piece

After approaching the installation, I start to realize its mass and notice the shadow it casts on the wall. I first view it in a distance to see the overall shapes at different angle. I then come closer to look at the composition materials and some detail crafts. For this particular artwork, the material is made of wood and marble. And with the accent light on the artwork, it creates a interesting shadow, which I believe is also part of the artistic representation. There is also a white platform in a different material to embodies the sculpture as well.

On the other hand, I paid attention to the ambiance sound. there is a projector that is making a clicking sounding when changes the tapes.

This sound is kind of loud that I was distracted at first by wanting to find the source of the sound. After I stayed around my artwork for a while, I started to notice this TV shows kind of sound made by an television exhibition in the next cuboid room. These two particular sounds i noticed are not unbearable, but it did distract me for my curiosity.


  • Navigation: confusing signages and floor Plan, which make specific search of artwork difficult.
  • Distraction: some video-based exhibitions are making noises and sounds that might be distractive for people who are viewing other artworks.

“Secret” Bird Exhibition

I spotted the bird exhibition after I walk around the third floor of the natural history museum. Since there is no clear sign at the entrance, My identification of the exhibition was made by hear some birds sound at first.

First stand point when I suppose to see the exhibition vs. the entrance perspective

The space is a dark tunnel-like room with accent light on the exhibition. The thresholds of the entrance include lighting change, the birds sound, and the overall narrow entrance structure. The volume of the bird sounds is pretty loud once I got inside the tunnel.

Bird Exhibit Ambiance

I continuous to walk down the narrow path until I encountered a downward stairs and a ramp(I assume built for wheel chair) next to it.

Stairs and ramp

I continuous to walk down the narrow path until I encountered a downward stairs and a ramp(I assume built for wheel chair) next to it.

The secret door

I noticed a weird bird sounds and found a “Section of Mystery” door. when we opened it, we found a one bird installation with the unique bird sound playing in the back.

I am surprised by the hidden exhibition and enjoy the level of interaction of discovering it. After open this “secret” door, I was very curious to find out what is hidden under the other doors. However, the other doors although with the same look is not for any exhibition. There is no distinct signal on those doors that distinguish them from the “secret door”. As I see Helen(my classmate) was also approaching, I become excited to see how she react to the unexpected door as well. These kind of indicate the level of interaction between members when they are visiting the museum together. Also having this little room hidden in a large context also includes the “treasure hunt” connotation, so people felt something special leaving the museum and also attract more new people come to visit the museum.

Step 4 Online Experience

I approach the online experience in a two different way.

  1. Have a clear objective of looking for specific exhibition/Art works
  2. No clear objective, browsing through the Websites for interesting exhibition and programs.

Specific Search

I go to the website for specific search since I considered the website contains more information about the exhibitions. So imagine that I saw a picture my friend post on his visit to the museum on social media, and I would like to find out this exhibition called 20/20 on studio museum of Harlem. I first open the main CMOA web page, which contains lots of graphics. I was a little distracted, so I kind of scrolled down the page to see if anything interesting. Then, I notice the “Navigation bar”(boxed in red) has the “art” section, which is pretty obvious indicating to art exhibitions

After going into the art page, the column on the left indicates several ongoing exhibitions. Each exhibition has a section with title, banner picture and short description, which i found helpful for unfamiliar visitors to make sense of the exhibition. Once I scroll down, I soon notice the 20/20 exhibition (boxed in red)and enter the exhibition page for more information.

The overall experience of searching for a specific exhibition is pretty straight forward. I was able to find the exhibition in a short amount of time. Combining with my physical experience in the museum, it will be really helpful to have a better navigation system on the web that indicates the path from entrance to the appointed gallery/exhibition. This navigation system on the webpage will save a lot of times for those visitors by providing a route before their visit. So they can go straight to the specific exhibition they are looking for.


The websites are also served for browsing general information or interesting events. With that objectives in mind, I explored the website once again with a different stand point.

All the colorful graphics on the website main page makes me think that it contains all kinds of information from different sections. Yet when I take a deeper look on to the sections, I found that they are mostly about the Events/programs the museum offers. It will be useful for people that are looking for those events, but at the same time become inconvenient for people just want to browse through the exhibitions. Not only the events are overly occupying the page, the organization of the graphics is also confusing: some of the sections are in a vertical order and some of the sections are in horizontal order. The intercrossing way of organization will make the material harder to read.

On the other hand, I also experience the program section as someone is browsing through different events the museum offer. My first impression i had is that the layers of categorization of the events is overwhelming. There are 7 sections initially differentiating between kids, adults and schools etc. Then there is another 10 columns to choose from after entering the adults section. To me, with normally browsing purpose, visitors do not need that kind of specific categorizations. The numerous specific categorizations definitely give pressure to the visitors to choose since they can only choose one group to actually viewing the events. With the layer of thresholds, people are likely clicking back and forth between pages to multiple sections of program they interested in.

CMOA Program webpages

The only way to see all recent events listed is on the “calendar” section at the navigation bar. There is no threshold on the program main page that direct to the recent events list except the “calendar” on the navigation. with no guidance, it took me a while to find out how to check all recent events by time. It is inconvenient since I assume that there is a high chance people want to browse through the events by dates.


As I already illustrated in the problem section of Step 1, the CMOA APP generally carries very little information about the exhibition. The exhibition section(shown below) is very outdated with no new exhibition presented on the web.

Art Search Experience of CMOA App

When I try to access the Museum news section, All news column was presented in a textual way, which is visually not attractive and hard to read. Moreover I can not even open most of the individual news with a note saying that “ Can not load Museum News at this time”. And it directs me to the websites instead.

CMOA APP News Search

Generally Speaking, I considered the users of the museum app mostly will be those people:

  1. live not far from the museum 2. returning visitors of the museum 3. art students or art enthusiasts.

Since there is less reason for one time visitors to download the app, the app should design more towards those people I indicated. Thus, there is a lack of updated information about the exhibition and all programs the museum offers for those returning visitors to browse. An addition section that includes the program will be a immediate help to the app as well.

Step 5a: Identifying Key Findings

Through the exploration of the physical and digital environments, I turned more my attention to hybrid environments. I consider those mix of physical and digital can produce higher level user interactions and create rich experiences. At the same time, we are also moving towards the era of merging the digital and physical.

So the first key findings of the hybrid environment I found is the navigation system. The navigation system on our digital devices help us find the geo-locations and provided multiple routes to the desired destination. This is also how many visitors navigate their way to the museum. So the navigation system created this kind of hybrid environments, where people are switching their focus between the digital and physical. However, although the digital navigation system have been pretty developed, I rarely see any digital navigation system used in the interior spaces. Maybe there is technology limitations, or there are just so many small directions resulting overwhelming switching between the digital and physical. I found it particular interesting as this aspect also related to one of the major problem inside the Carnegie Museum of Art. I can already see many may proposal the idea of having the indoor smart navigation system installed inside the museum. Yet, how this digital navigation system will work with museum environments become something need to be explored. Should the navigation system indoor react the same way as the usual one for the outdoors? Will it be intrusive and affect the level of physical interaction needed in the museum? I am very intrigued by the different aspects of a indoor digital navigation system fit into a environments of a museum including much more thresholds and actions than outdoor environments.

As I saw those digital tablets installed in some of the exhibitions, I was also thinking about how navigation aid can be achieved by using those tablets. We may not need a full digital navigation system on our phone while visiting the museum. By accessing the tablets at different places with the aid of improved signages, visitors probably find the experience more enjoyable instead of taking their phone out all the time.

The second key findings I found is about the learning experience in CMOA. I consider the learning experience particular essential for art museum as comparing to other public places like natural park. It is also what the visitors mostly can actually get out of after their visit in the museum. Currently in CMOA, the learning experience is mainly relying on the reading of the art works’ blurbs(the description). However, the sources of learning experience is not sufficient enough with some persisted problems in the environments.

  1. From my observations, there are many visitors who are “casually looking” at the art pieces without approaching to look at the descriptions. It is reasonable for people that are not art enthusiasts browsing around the art works and leave. The interaction in the museum is not intriguing enough for them to get some understanding about the artworks. There is also a issue of time, which approach each art works and read takes up a substantial amount of time.
  2. Even for people that intended to know about the art works and artists, there are problems that inhibited them to do so. Those problem including the position of the blurbs and the size of the font, which may prevented people with disabilities not able to read them. Imagine for people have visual disabilities(elderly people as well), it will be really uncomfortable for them to read the blurbs. The problem of waiting and social awkwardness also comes in especially during a crowded day. Reading with strangers on one artwork’s information could be unbearable for some people. Being aware of other people waiting may also distract people from their full attention, thus affecting the learning experience.
  3. Another disadvantage about reading the description is that when you are that close to the wall, for many large paintings or installations, you will not be able to view the art pieces at the same time. I personally find it frustrated is that I want to have the full view of the artwork while reading(or some angle of the artwork) to better understand the information about it. However, the space constraints definitely inhibited the visitors from gaining a more wholistic experience.

The third key finding in my research is the separation between museum exhibition and the programs. During step 4, I was surprised to find that the museum offers a variety of programs and activities that are very interesting ranging from workshops, yoga class, artist lecture etc. Yet from my last two visits, I had no idea of where, when and what are the programs they offer. It seems to me that the programs and exhibitions are operated independently both digitally and physically . Since I consider many of the programs can be related to the exhibition in many ways, this lack of integration is a pity to the overall museum experience. Visitors could have join some of the activities while they are paying a visit to see the museum exhibitions if they are aware of the activities ahead of the time. Students that attends the workshops may learn better on the specific art form if they can join the relevant museum exhibitions at the same time. There are many improvements of the museum system could be made to better integrate the two aspects of the museum both digitally and physically.

Step 5b : Design Solution

As showed in my presentation, my design proposal tried to tackle the learning experience aspect from my three key findings. I started by framing the problem and research further into the specific problem situations

After I further understand the problem space and the specific experiences go with it, I began brainstorming and prototyping a design solution. The QR code payment trend in China have really inspired me of how people incorporate the digital aspects into their daily life. Now in China, it is surprising that majority of the stores, shops and restaurant accept the WeChat as a payment method QR code. Shopping become simply showing your account QR code for the cashier/waiter to scan and the transaction will be done. The emergence of QR code permanently changed the way people pay in their everyday lives. Another inspiration I had is from Banksy, who created this hyped “scavenger hunt” event in New York city. I found it very intriguing that breaks the physical boundaries of art exhibitions with digitals and created a very unique type of interaction/experience between viewers and his art.

Introducing Scan-It CMOA

Integrating the computer vision and image processing technology, I designed an additional function on the CMOA App called: Scan-It. Scan-It is intended to lift the overall museum experience by making the the museum facilities more accessible while enrich the interaction between users and artworks. With the simple camera scanning function, Scan-It has three main features:

  1. Navigation
  2. learning Aid
  3. Scavenger Hunt

Navigation features initiated when user scan the titles of the galleries or the physical museum map. Once detect the images, Scan-It will take the user to a geo-smart navigation system and start navigating.

The learning aid is the major feature of Scan-It as it makes the learning experience in art museum much easier and more efficient. By scanning the artwork, visitors will not be bothered by those problems that I indicated earlier such as waiting, social awkwardness, hard to see etc. Instead, they will have a personalized learning experience with the richer and more diverse information shown after scanning the artwork. Audio supplements will also provide the additional dimension on the learning experience. The work-flow of learning aid is shown below.

The last feature of Scan-It is to promote a Museum Scavenger hunt. When the app location serves sense that visitors are in the museum, it will push a notification of the daily Scavenger Hunt. Visitors will receive a ambiguous hint about a artwork, detail of a art work or artist, then they will be on their mission of finding it. Once the “treasure” is scanned, there will be a surprise reward on the screen, such as funny animation, a special snapchat filers or some sort of auditorial surprise that go with the art work. The scavenger hunt feature greatly increased the interaction level between the visitors and the artworks, they will looks at each art work more closely and had a special personalized take away from the visit. It will also help to turn first-time visitors into returning visitors. when people received a notification of the new weekly scavenger hunt released(could be pair with new exhibition), they will probably want to check it out.


I always acknowledge the importance of environments in shaping human experiences. As I was excited to learn how designers can utilize this study to facilitate our design, I was not expected how the course has changed and furthered my understandings on environments. The first major concept of thresholds and liminal Spaces opens up my mind to the idea of transitioning. Each day we go through numerous transitions, and often time we are so used to them that we become ignorant to their existence. By analyzing the thresholds of the Carnegie Museum of Art, I started to see how those obvious or subtle elements of thresholds can make such differences in our perception, resulting the quality of our experience.

Through the thresholds analysis, we also identified similarities and contrasts between the physical and digital environments. Not only I grasped some insights on limitations and advantages of both environments, I also find many interesting questions that I never thought of before, such as whether our digital environments/interaction should become more alike to the physical environments (the developing of VR, AR technologies) ? Will digital environments that dominate our daily life become a problem? etc. Indeed, we are situated in a era of booming technology, and most of the time we as designers can no longer ignore the digital aspects while designing human experience. However, there are some interaction in the physical world that I also consider irreplaceable by the digitals. So the future challenges may depend on how we can better integrate the physical with digital environments to create delightful interactions. And this is also part of the reason why I became interested in the field of hybrid environments.

I shift my focus on the hybrid environments in the museum during the later phrase of the project (step 4, 5a, 5b). For hybrid environments, I found the switch(when, how ,where) between physical and digital environments essential to the overall experience. The switch can also be interpreted as a “threshold” between the physical and digital environments, such as a message received from your phone may suggest you to leave temporarily from the physical museum visit experience. This also raises other questions such as to what extent we can incorporate digital system to facilitate the physical interactions in a museum? How to assign the proper balance between physical and digital elements in a hybrid environments? Those are all questions that I will be very interested to explore. For the first encounter with environments design, I felt that I learned more than I expected. Environments design definitely opened new fields for me to think about and I am now very looking forward to find out more of it in our next project.

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