Accessibility, the felt pixel, Usability, UX

How Museums Studies made me a better UX designer


Museums are more than the beautiful things they collect and care for; they are bigger than the grand spaces they inhabit.

They have the power to educate the public, connect people with cultures, inspire creativity and change attitudes. People of all backgrounds visit aquariums, zoos, science, art, history and children’s museums to satisfy social and cultural agendas. Personally, it was a lovely day at the London National Gallery that inspired me to learn how museum experiences are built from crates of carefully packed objects and historical archives.

I began my degree with the intent to transfer my design skills to the museum industry. Rather unexpectedly, my masters research at Harvard transformed me into the designer I am today. Curation is a process of careful selection; it involves seeing the threads that connect ideas, and guiding people on a pathway towards understanding. A visit to the Louvre last month reminded me how similar finding your way through the complex maze of galleries is to purchasing anything on Amazon. The vast collections of artifacts or goods must be purposefully organized to be discovered and understood by visitors.

Lonely girl in museum
Photo by dee dee creamer via Flickr

Anthropology and Design: It’s all about People

Sitting in my professor’s office, I remember the excitement I felt when I realized that my research interests were really about ethnography. I look at art as the product of a culture, as things people create to make sense of their world. As time passes, more explanation is needed for the culture to be understood. That is what museums do. User experience designers must also develop a strong sense of ethnography and empathy, as they study the behavior of people who use their product. Not coincidentally, there is a fascinating trend towards hiring a Chief Anthropology Officer (CAO) as an executive design role within corporations to facilitate deeper understanding of their customers.

Inclusive by Design

My thesis research focused on the digital accessibility of museum collections to persons of all abilities, which led me to discover the fields of human factors research and user-centered design. Considering the needs of actual people throughout the process of designing an application, from gathering requirements to testing viable solutions, made perfectly obvious sense to me. I delved deeply into the writings of Ben Shneiderman, Alan Cooper, Whitney Quesenbery, Joe Clark, Jacob Nielsen, and the authors of the emerging web standards documentation. I remember asking my research advisor, what is this type of design because it’s rocking my world. Finally, Don Norman explained in The Design of Everyday Things that today this practice is called user experience design.

Measuring Usability

Lastly, the connection between visitor studies in museums and usability research in software development is undeniable. While conducting a study of Mathematica at the Boston Museum of Science, I tracked how people spent their time at the exhibit, in what order they visited the displays, with whom and for how long. Then I interviewed people to learn what they thought of the experience, how they felt, and what they learned. These findings were compared to the goals of the exhibition, and the major themes provided guidance towards improving the experience. Today, I conduct usability research in a remarkably similar way. It turns out, the design industry as a whole was evolving towards a more humanized approach to solving design problems. It took falling in love with museums for me to recognize the shift in my own broadening perspective.

Photo by Benjamin Stäudinger via Flickr