Applying a human centred design process to create an Augmented Reality app for the Gemäldegalerie (National Gallery), Berlin.
by Laurence Ivil and Javier Soto
Is Augmented Reality compatible with a traditional museum space? Can it bring a real benefit to visitor experiences? Or is it just a passing tech trend in an overly hopeful world in which we expect emerging technology to improve our day to day experiences?
These were some of the questions we faced when tasked with exploring the potential application of Augmented Reality in one of the one of the most respected galleries in Europe…no pressure!
Understanding people as a starting point for design
Bringing new technologies into any institution that isn’t used to them throws up a number of challenges. There is often resistance to perceived “change” on many levels, and these all need to be addressed and understood to ensure success, or even to decide whether or not this is a good idea in the first place.
Understanding people’s hopes, wants and needs is central to the NEEEU process. We usually follow a very Human Centred Design process, which typically consists of three phases:
- Inspiration Phase: Where you learn directly from the people you’re designing for through immersion, interaction and incredible listening skills!
- Ideation Phase: Where you bring together what you’ve learned, identify opportunities for design, and learn by doing! This involves early prototyping of solutions.
- Implementation Phase: Create high-fidelity prototypes and deliver what you’ve been working on! This process continues to involve the people you’ve been working with throughout (and so they should be happy!) At NEEEU, this is where we get to celebrate the heart and soul we’ve put into developing successful solutions!
So, with this process in mind, when we were asked by Museum4punkt0 and the Gemäldegalerie to help them research the potential uses of Augmented Reality within their gallery, this was an ideal time to test how our process would work under such conditions. Here’s how we went about it…;)
The challenge of entering a cultural Goliath: finding allies.
Museums are fascinating spaces, and in the same way that retailers have been embracing design to curate their stores, a new generation of museum curators are turning their spaces, that some time ago weren’t easy for the public to enter, into welcoming and accessible locales.
One collective making waves in this space is - Museum4punkt0, funded by the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media. Museum4punkt0 links seven cultural institutions nationwide in a joint project. In close exchange, they test and evaluate innovative applications of digital technologies in museums.
We were fortunate to be able to collaborate with them in this process, to create and prototype and experience. Their expertise, connections and thoughtfulness was invaluable.
An excited NEEEU and a skeptical Gemäldegalerie staff…
The Gemäldegalerie boasts one of the world’s leading collections of European paintings from the 13th to the 18th centuries. But such institutions are not often used to applying emerging technologies within their spaces on a daily basis.
So, how on earth were we supposed to enter this space with AR?
In the view of many of the highly educated people who work there, this museum is a place for the senses and well-rounded artistic appreciation. Technology is, basically, an unnecessary guest (to put it nicely!)
Despite our enthusiasm, we knew we would get some “eye rolling” when we arrived to explore the possibilities of Augmented Reality in this space. And, this can sometimes be justified! As with many new technologies that are hyped, there are lots of gimmicks that entertain a certain kind of people (yes, geeks like us!), but not so many well founded developments that solve real issues.
PHASE ONE: Research and Inspiration
A museum — like any large organisation — is host to a wide variety of different opinions, opinions that include very legitimate hopes and fears about what the introduction of technology will bring.
But even in the worst expectations, we were not prepared to be received with a “we don’t believe this technology should be here” before even beginning the conversation (awkward…). Yet, this is what we encountered from one museum curator!
At first, the view of “this kind of technology” in his eyes, a view shared by many in the public and private sector, is that it is undefined and full of warnings. For some people, it can even be scary. Questions arise:
- “But, why is it needed?”
- “Is it going to change my job?”
- “Is this just a gimmick?”
- “Will it divert attention from the art?”
These are all valid questions. And for us this was the right moment to hear them and to asses these fears. By addressing this early on, we knew exactly what we should avoid doing throughout the process. As our conversations evolved, the very same person who had initially been most skeptical, gradually began to change his mind and even ended up being one of the project’s biggest supporters!
The first thing we did to address the fears was to write them on a big piece of paper for everyone to see. This way, we could address fears individually and discuss them as a group.
Once we probed and explained how we were there to work with and listen to the museum team, and to openly collaborate in exploring the solutions, rather than force external ideas, the relaxation we witnessed was unbelievable. From this point on, the ideas began flowing!
Designers, and technologists, should always remember that they are mostly tools for others to realise their wishes. We are there to cater to the needs of others. With a pinch of curation, of course…😉
The results of the first days of collaboration with the museum staff, and Museum4punkt0, were exhilarating. And after just two days, we had gone from skepticism to real internal support. We shared some really cool ideas and our team got to know the motivations of each stakeholder very well thanks to the time we spent together.
At the end of the project, everyone agreed this was one of the most important moments of the entire process.
PHASE TWO: Ideation and iteration!
As with most human relationships, the best thing to align and understand each other is to have a constructive and structured conversation.
Though some initial research had already been done by M4.0, we believe that separating research from design is not ideal, so we repeated a lot of this research ourselves to revise and clarify. To do this, we went to the museum and talked to the audience to understand their needs and hopes better.
Our shared research suggested that there were areas that could be improved and adjusted via AR. For example, it is the nature of Renaissance art that it is not always accessible to people with a low degree of artistic knowledge. Within the museum there is not always enough space to clearly tell the stories of the paintings without being intrusive. And, in some instances, physical paintings that are composed of separate pieces are not always located in the same museum spaces; in other words, the Gemäldegalerie is only able to display part of the full puzzle.
Ideation, getting inspired and creating the right atmosphere.
In order to create original ideas, we asked our collaborators, who are regulars at the museum, to try and get into a state of mind where they could envisage what it’s like to visit the museum for the first time. To maybe even walk a new mile in the shoes of the people we were designing for.
To do this, we transported our partners into a new ‘museum’ environment - the ever-changing museum of nature, a.k.a. a local forest!
In this new setting we brainstormed ideas and grew to know each other well.
This fresh environment helped bring new and interesting ideas out of the team, and created a memorable experience and a powerful spirit of playful collaboration that stayed with the project until the end.
Thinking…with our hands! Prototyping!
The next stage was to test our ideas among the team and with visitors. To do this, we started making!
This is vital, as assuming that your concepts are good, without testing them, is the best recipe for failure. But how do you create prototypes to test your ideas without spending too many resources? This requires both creative and technical flexibility.
We ended up doing three rounds of testing before creating the final high fidelity prototype to present to visitors in the museum. Each time we would leave some concepts behind and refine the good ones.
Test number 1:
First, the most basic: a round with Paper prototypes that we began when we were still in the forest. For this, we just used acrylic with the shape of phones, or drew the ideas directly onto phones themselves.
Using this approach, we were able to generate and communicate concepts with a very low level of resolution and to create various versions. This allowed us to quickly identify our best ideas at an early stage.
And following those, we created storyboards that we could show to some of the audience to gather initial insights about the interest of the concepts.
Test number 2:
Second, a round with video prototypes. In just a day, we created a functioning app that allowed us to import drawings. With this in hand, we went to the museum and just showed it to the audience and the staff of the gallery. It immediately helped us to communicate in very precise terms what we were trying to do.
At this stage, we also worked with the curators and listened to their stories about each painting. What was interesting about each painting to them? And what did they think would make the audience interested in learning more.
Test number 3:
For the third prototyping round, we had already spent time refining the code necessary to create the application, developed the content of one of the paintings and the prototype was already displaying some neat interactions. This final stage helped us to refine the preparations for the test and to figure out the last details required to present the content.
One key aspect of the process is to let everyone in the team have direct feedback with the audience, the designers, developers and content creators. This is effective, as it solves tensions coming from idea ownership and makes the communication of these tests much easier. We would always recommend this wherever possible!
PHASE THREE: Implementation. Deliver and dream!
And, so, finally the time came to go back to the gallery and test our ideas “in the wild”, so to speak. Yes, with real visitors! All by themselves. Which basically is like jumping without a net. Kind of scary, actually!
We had previously identified the need: to make the museum more accessible by adding a digital layer that would adapt to each person, so they could individually decide what they wanted to learn. And we had gone through the process to choose the most relevant interactions and information accordingly.
So, we left the iPads in the hands of the people, held on tight and waited at the exit door with the questionnaire forms.
And to make it a bit more challenging (we love a good challenge!), we did this during one of the busiest museum nights of the year - the Late Night of the Museums.
You can watch the highlights below!
And what did we find out during the experiment?
Firstly, observing people using our applications is the best way to get meaningful insights. And, after this, we were super excited to see the documented results from the questionnaire…which were mostly positive!
- Most of the people who participated in the test had already experienced Augmented Reality in some form. 56.5% of our test subjects, to be exact. That is quite impressive for such a (not so much apparently) new technology.
- The audience tended to use both audio and visuals to get information, and they were indeed doing it in a group, which presents a clear advantage over individual audio guides.
- 87% of the people asked for it to be expanded to the entire Gallery! (That is not a bad outcome!)
- Personal phones are preferred over tablets, even if tablets help to share the experience among groups. Mobile or tablet? This is a very interesting question that would require A/B testing to fully comprehend.
- The real winner, over the additional information provided, was the “hero moments”. These were a) the interaction of closing a Tryptic — and being able to see the back of the doors, and b) being able to see the X-Ray scan of one of the paintings, which had been modified through time (see above).
What did we learn about the process?
We already knew it, but it’s not bad to remind everyone, listening to everybody involved, from the audience to security, including curators and other workers, is needed to guarantee support and communal ownership of the project.
The hardest part is not the technology, but the content. Museums have extremely precise ways of delivering content, and that means you need time to ensure accuracy and satisfaction. We realised that it was important to find the right content, and to curate it in a smooth and exact way. The museum is a delicate, smart space and we also wanted our application to mirror this atmosphere and mood. By trusting the process we had set out at the beginning, we were more confident that we would guarantee a good result.
We loved working with the Gemäldegalerie and the team at Museum4Punkt0. For the collective team spirit, doing special and memorable actions like the initial workshop in the forest help to motivate everyone to give their best.
And finally, a reminder when designing for new technology:
- Communicate. Again and again. And again.
- Design for the space you’re in and the people who call this space home.
- Effective documentation like A/B testing is important. If you’re going to all this effort, make sure you’re documenting accurately and efficiently.
Laurence Ivil co-authored and edited this article. Laurence is a collaborative journalist and works as Editorial & Communications Lead at NEEEU. You can find him on Twitter at @laurenceivil or contact him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org
This article was co-authored by Javier Soto Morras — Interaction Designer and NEEEU Co-founder. His work focuses on humanising technology and finding affordances for abstract concepts. Turning ideas into real services and products. Contact Javier at email@example.com
🤹🏻 Identifying which spatial technology has the potential to become a great product or service is a full-time job. It’s also not your job. Luckily for you, that’s exactly what we love doing at NEEEU. If you want us to create delightful services and products for you or with you, please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org