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What developers can learn from the best museum designers about UX

Inspiration on how to improve user experience can come from many places. Here's how some top museum high-tech exhibits explain data, using interesting visualizations or a combination of senses.

Putting together a museum exhibit is a lot like writing code: You have to understand your audience, engage the user or visitor in a number of interesting ways, and have a clear message to impart. As an avid museum goer, I have seen fascinating exhibits all over the world. Some of these memorable exhibits offer user experience (UX) lessons that museums and application developers can share and learn from.

Most museum exhibits focus on what you can see. And often this means a lot of reading, which is why many of us get "museum fatigue" after an hour or so. The same is often true of many software programs: Users don’t want to read lengthy tracts on our screens. We need something else to draw our attention or engage us with our other senses.

One of the earliest commonalities between design in these endeavors is when museums employ "digital artists" to create interesting data visualizations as exhibits. Sheldon Brown's video installation Scalable City was shown in 2008 at San Francisco's Exploratorium. The Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian design museum has had a series of data visualization exhibits for years. And then there is the work of Jer Thorp and the Office of Creative Research in New York, which I described in "Data artist in residence: Why your data needs an artist's touch."

City Museum: Adaptive reuse

But UX isn’t just a matter of giving users pretty pictures. You must combine two or more of the senses to make the exhibit more interesting and memorable. Let me give you a few examples.

The City Museum in St. Louis, which opened in 1997, is a unique place. It actually isn’t a museum in the strict sense of the word but more of an indoor playground for kids and adults alike. It was the creation of Bob Cassilly, who came up with the idea and designed many of its exhibits. The museum is built inside an old shoe factory and reuses many materials found in the factory and other industrial buildings. These include a set of three-story ramps that were turned into slides and other rooms that showcase artwork constructed from abandoned and reclaimed building materials. 

The City Museum is a prime example of the architectural term "adaptive reuse," which means taking something that was designed for one purpose and using it for something else. What can a coder learn from this? Even the best application developer can reuse bits of code for other purposes.

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Lincoln Museum: Context is key

The Lincoln museum in Springfield, Illinois, opened in 2005 and has several exhibits that take their cues from the world of theater. The museum’s designer was BRC Imagination Arts of Burbank, California.

One of the most compelling rooms is the scene depicting the death of Lincoln’s son, which happened during the Lincoln presidency. The room’s temperature is deliberately cooled five degrees from the rest of the museum so you get a slight chill as you walk into the space. This makes the experience more eerie and realistic.

In another room, visitors encounter an interpretation of the four presidential candidates running during the 1860 election, which was filmed in Tim Russert’s “Meet the Press” studios in Washington. As in a control room, it displays TV monitors showing video clips, historical still photos, and commercials created from the perspectives of each candidate, conveying their particular political positions. Obviously, there wasn’t any broadcast TV during Lincoln’s time, but the exhibit works because of the conflict of context between that era and today. We're drawn to the unexpected.

That design theme applies in other projects—for good and ill. Software developers also have to be careful of context switching in their applications, to ensure users don’t get lost in the process and a particular execution thread can be resumed properly. Many malware writers take advantage of context switching to introduce viruses or take remote control over an application when a context switch is broken. 

Chopin Museum: Consider non-visual senses

The exhibits at the Chopin Museum in Warsaw were designed by Migliore + Servetto Architects, along with British firm Centre Screen. The problem they were trying to solve was how to present information in different languages, given that most guests come from outside the country. The designers came up with a rather clever solution. Guests receive an RFID badge that encodes their language preferences and stores whether the visitors are adults who want longer narratives or children with shorter attention spans. There is also an option for visually impaired visitors. This functionality allows for a personalized visit: As you walk around the various galleries, your badge changes what is shown on the walls to suit your preferences—and it is done automatically, without you having to hunt down the right language for exhibit descriptions and explanations on the walls.

“The idea is a simple one: There is too much information to put on a wall label, so let’s direct the visitor to a virtual resource where they can learn more,” according to this article on how RFID tech is changing museums. This “personalization gives greater insight into visitors’ interests and enables the museum to build a more engaged community,” it notes.

For a software developer who wants to serve a multilingual audience, the approach is one way to make the experience less of a chore. Many websites have buttons on the top of their homepages with small flag icons to indicate languages available. Another way to do this is to read cookies that are saved on the computer for a language preference.

The personalization aspect is also something that has been used often in the software community. Many websites ask visitors to sign in so they can personalize the browsing experience; Amazon’s recommendation engine is one notable example. But a programmer could also geo-sense the possible language to be shown based on the location of a visitor’s IP address or other computer data. Google does this when you bring up its homepage in different parts of the world, redirecting you to the page and language preferences of that country, for example.

Given its focus, another challenge for the Chopin Museum was how to present his music in a way that would make it more accessible to non-musicians. The designers created a set of audio booths patrons can enter and select various tracks from a touchscreen interface (using the patron’s language and interest preferences). While playing the music, the touchscreen shows a variety of video and still images to complement the piece.

Another exhibit has a series of drawers in a table; each drawer contains a different composition, with a link to a photographic projection on the table of the actual score that Chopin wrote and links to play the music and highlight the portion of the manuscript being played.

With both of these exhibits, the visitor uses multiple senses: seeing, touching, and hearing. This is a great way to increase the overall experience and get the visitor more engaged in your content.

As you can see, you can draw inspiration from many places when you are writing code and developing your applications. And the best UX comes from ordinary life experiences, including walking through a museum.

UX inspiration from top museums: Lessons for leaders

  • Go beyond the two dimensional with visual and audio elements.
  • Beware of application context switching, to make sure your users understand the context of what they are doing. Check for when context can be broken or exploited by malware.
  • Personalize the user experience whenever possible. Save user preferences in cookies or other persistent means.
  • Allow non-English native speakers to obtain quick translations of commands, menus, and other controls. Use geo-location to sense when non-American browsers are accessing your website.
  • Don't forget about non-visual senses, such as audio and touch feedback, to get users more fully engaged.

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.