Comparing User-Experience Design and Service Design Tools

User-Design and Service Design continue to grow closer together as disciplines. There are many process and tools associated with both fields. It can be challenging to keep each of these processes straight, as well as understand how they play out in each discipline. This cheat sheet helps make sense of some of the most common tools.

The Sweet-Spot in Interpretive Approach & the Politics of Mounting Installations


Helping visitors engage in collections is a primary concern for museums. Museum professionals often partner with various vendors, consultants, and partners to do this work, for example commissioning firms to develop interactives for exhibitions. Mounting these installations can be exhausting and rife with interpersonal challenges. Visitors walking into spaces, ideally, have no idea how contentious and challenging mounting installations can be, thankfully.  Even if the customer experience appears alright, the staff experience should not suffer to mount such installations.

What causes interpersonal challenges in mounting spaces and installations?

I have always loved the phrase lock-step and turn-key. Both phrases scream efficiency, ease, simplicity, and replicability. None of these adjectives would be useful in describing the mounting of a collection space. Collections managers and database administrators work had to make systematize collection data. But short of digital systems, most things about collections are complexity and nuance. Objects come to museums for their rarity and complications. Installations are meant to help people with little background knowledge fall into love (like) with an object. Collectively, the work of the people mounting an installation/ exhibition is to bewitch/ bemuse the public.

Getting visitors from 0-60 about collections is a tall order and its one about which every person (either on staff or on contract) feels passionate. Emotions can run high, and the stakes can feel enormous. People on the teams come with different expertise; each person seems the DMZ and faultlines in the process differently and through the lens of their own professional role.  For example, while a curator might understand the nuance between using certain phrases (say artwork vs artifact), others on the team see these as unimportant arguments. Everyone on the team is often placed in the position of arguing their corner, and everyone can come out of the process feeling bruised.


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How can these challenges be mitigated?

Everyone on the team is hoping to get an interpretation for installations that is interesting and easy to use without compromising the museum’s reputation. This sweet-spot is a bit of a holy grail. But, diminishing inter-personal challenges and developing better systems is essential to improving interpretation. Sound systems result in superior products, and broken systems result in subpar products. Think of how a broken conveyor belt will not be able to create wonderful chocolates.

The first step in developing a good working process is to agree that ideal interpretation and installations need to be easy to access, understandable, and grounded in research. Like a three-headed dog, these three elements have to work in concert to go forward. Often museums allow their legacy to serve an anchor preventing action towards innovation and excellence. Museums can also be fooled by the newest fads to skew too far away from their core competencies.

After agreeing to collective and balanced actions, teams need to determine more practical issues, such as work plans, sign-offs, and tone. Underlying these practical issues the teams need to decide and articulate the no-go zones for their institution. Every institution has issues that cannot be discussed easily. Donor issues and collection histories often top these lists. In working with teams, I like to put these issues on paper. This process can feel uncomfortable. But, these lists are also freeing, in that one person on the team is not required to be the guardian of these verboten topics.

Finally, any good plan needs some follow through. Often, the best-laid intentions are destroyed because there is no big stick. Museum staff managers are rarely given training on deescalating emotional conflict; a fear of conflict is epidemic in many museum senior staff members. With so much work and so little time & money, who can fault these managers. The result is a culture of conflict-avoiding people finding ways to step around and then crashing into challenging personalities. When I have worked on successful installation and interpretative teams, there is a person who is judge, jury, room mother, and traffic controller. (Ideally, the team has been set up so that everyone is on their best behavior and everyone understands they are in this together FOR the visitor, so challenges don’t bubble up.)


Interpretative work is basically like all human to human communication, prone to emotions and challenges. In installation work, the bigger challenge might be that the people starting the conversations about the collections (the staff) are not actually present with the receivers (the visitors). The installations, from signs to interactives, need to speak to visitors on their own. When the systems create these installations are smooth, the conversations can go singingly.


On Thursday, we will talk about questions teams can ask themselves to hit the ideal sweet spot for interpretation. 

This topic also ties in with a previous post about the relationship between interpretation and research.

Museums and the Web 18 Review OR Reality can be hard even when its not Virtual

Museums and the Web 18

Museums and the Web 2018 was hosted in lovely Vancouver. As always, friends from around the world descended upon the town for ideas and enjoyment. While the MuseWeb organization does a great job of publishing articles that expand on the presentations, here are the highlights and themes from this year’s conference:


VR/AR/R: All types of reality were discussed and debated. Virtual reality was featured in the keynote, from LucasFilms VR lab no less. The back channel, a bit of unicorn at conferences these days, got fired up, with good reason. Virtual reality, in practice, currently feels more virtual than real. And, we as a field have real problems. We need to slay our dragons before marching out onto a virtual quest.  In addition, VR is about being in a new reality. For museums, this is a big challenge. We want people to explore our reality, not escape our reality. In that way, AR seems supremely promising. Augmented reality is like seeing your own world through a surprising lens. Interpretation at museums is basically augmented reality, without the tech. So, this tech feels like a natural option. That said, a few pioneers have marched into VR, eyes open. From what they say about the frontier; it is challenging but compelling if you work really hard to do the VR right and have money from the private sector. Oh, that is, if you aren’t under 13, because insurance, et al, are not into VR for the teeny, tiny visitors.


More Money/ More Problems: “Big museums get to do big projects” used to be the story of the field. Now, with a proliferation of technology options, technology is being used across the sector. Investment dollars don’t have a direct relationship with success. Leaders who lay off their ego and instead focus on their visitors will succeed.


The Thing Doesn’t Matter; The Thing Really Matters: A few years ago, the theme of tech conferences could be: its all about tech/ its not about tech. There was a real tension between the need to focus on content and the need to focus on tech.  Truthfully, they both matter. One is about how the road is built; the other is about where the road goes. For the road to be useful, both its physical manifestation and its functional raison d’etre have to be considered together. This tension from conferences past seems to have been transmuted slightly. Rather than should we tech or should we not, now the field has moved into a bit more nuanced questions: how should we do this? Should it be tech?


The Workplace can be an Albatross or our Lifejacket: We are at the end of the college years in the field of museum technology. In our infancy, we could do one-off projects because everything young ones do is great. In our teen years, we showed responsibility by attempting to implement enterprise solutions. In the last few years, like college students, we did group projects better than ever by playing nice(r) with other departments and other institutions. Now, as if with new found maturity, we are aching to make our lessons mean more for the field and more our visitors. But, how? We are struggling with making the workplace equitable and reasonable. We are trying to get others to understand that tech is for everyone; and that everyone needs to know tech. We are communicating better ways for work to happen. We are hoping that our leaders grab those life-jackets; many in our field feel like they are drowning.


Be Analytical but not an A**hole: We are all trying to understand everything better. Data feels like the place to get answers. Numbers seem like they don’t lie. (Be warned. The people crunching the numbers might inadvertently make them do so.)  We want the best museum: well-run and well-attended. But, this ideal has a Shangri-la-like quality; a foggy possible existence that is remote and unreachable. We use data to help us track a path to this ideal. We are getting closer and closer, but it is still not quite in reach.


Collaboration & Coalitions: Working together is the hardest and easiest part of work.  That is, in theory, it makes perfect sense to work together towards a common goal–easy peasy lemon squeezy.  However,  nothing that involves people is easy. We, as a species, are erratic and confusing.  Therefore, collaboration can be the hardest part of the workplace. Politics and bad behavior can cost an organization hundreds of thousands of dollars.  Killing it at collaboration means everyone on the team succeeding.  Collaboration gets easier with practice, though.  Thoughtful action can result in being better collaborators, which will eventually lead to an easier/ better workplace situation. Inter-organization collaboration expands reach exponentially (with the commensurate expansion of challenges.)


Conclusion: These year’s MW had a sort of sedate quality, as if many in the field are in their crystallises getting ready to burst out in full flutter. So many conversations were about doing better at our work. Refinement and improvement seems like key issues in the field.


Its Not the Destination OR Journey Mapping for Museums



Visitor experience is everyone’s job, not just those people who have “visitor” or “experience” in their title. Picture your visitor. What is the first thing that comes to mind? What are they doing? Buying a ticket? Standing in your gallery? Reading your labels. These are the types of touchpoints that are the focus of many museum professionals. However, you are missing important elements of your visitor’s experience. Much of the make and break comes at the moments in between.

Step back for a moment, think about going to the grocery store. You bought vegetables, milk, and bread. You also bought six things that were not on your list. Is that what you remembered? Or did you also remember the old lady who cut you off on the way to the corn? And, the sample guy trying to convince you that “pea-based false meat” is pretty good. Then there was your third-grade teacher standing in the lunch meat aisle. Many of your memories are about the moments in between destinations. As the adage extolls, it’s the journey not the destination.

Pathway Planning

Focusing on the journey requires changing focus from end-point planning, where you focus your energy on the galleries, turning instead to pathways. This shift requires focusing on the visitor’s needs and actions. In doing this, the energy shifts focus from the institution, often placing its decision-making heft in gallery-based decisions, to the visitor, whose experience is often born of the spaces in between the parking lot to the gallery. Mapping out people’s paths is called Journey Mapping, in User Experience Design talk. But, basically, you visualize what people do and why they do it.

Why use Journey Mapping?

As another old adage goes, don’t judge until you walk a mile in his shoes.  The saying, trite as it is, points to the role of understanding in creating a Journey Map. In other words, an ideal pathway planning process requires purpose and empathy to be foregrounded. Instead of just the nodes, or the point of getting somewhere, you spend your energy on every moment in between.  When you do that you learn new insights into your visitors’ decision-making processes. You also learn when serendipity and/ poor planning cause reactions. In other words, you get insight into why people react to your spaces.  In this way, journey mapping helps break through status quo planning, i.e. doing something as its always been done.

How do you Journey Map?

  1. Just as with fiction, journey maps should draw on what you know. So, start by observing patrons. But, then use that as the base to creating your map.
  2. A journey map is not a generic map. The journey map starts with a person. Specificity is essential. This is not like google maps. Instead, it’s more than the map your best friend gives you with asides about great signs and tips about places you will get lost. When doing journey maps, take a point of view. Keep that person in mind as you work.
  3. Next go for story. Imagine this person coming to your organization. Why are they there? What do they want out of it? That will be the motivation. Write out a two-sentence story of their motivations and goals, like the plot of their visit.
  4. The map is sort of the arc of your story, with all the tangents and eddies that your character might need to be authentic. Make sure to think out the path and the stops. Be specific about the character’s motivation and well as their process.
  5. You might imagine that you start by drawing. But, the best journey maps are visualizations of an experience that you have thoroughly planned. They are not random. So, waiting to draw allows you to be purposeful.

Even if you choose to hire someone to do your journey maps, understanding the process is incredibly useful. It helps you understand why maps are useful. They help you understand your visitor’s holistically. Often museum staff prioritize decisions without having a thorough understanding of their visitor. Tools like journey maps help you center your visitor in your process in ways that draw on process and empathy.

Exhibition Cocktails or Why Museums Need User Experience Designers

I admit that I am biased.  I am a trained User Experience Designer.  But, you don’t have to has an M.S. to know that visitors come to museums for experiences. Now, we could get into a debate about the type of experience. Sitting quietly in a gallery is a type of experience.  We often think of our spaces as nouns (Chinese paintings, fossils, penguins), but visitors think of them as experiences (go to the art museum, look at the dinosaurs, wander in the zoo).

User Experience is about shifting all the activities from the institution doing the serving (the museum) to the person being served (the visitor). Even the word visitor has challenging connotations. The word visitor does not indicate the interactional nature of the experience. Patron might be better. Despite the challenges with that word, patron does indicate that a choice has been made. That person has chosen to patronize this establishment to do something.

Many activities in the museum-sphere also change, such as interpretation/ education/ or content in this framework. (I find interpretation a challenging term. It implies a sort of power differential, where  some special person serves an an intercessor for knowledge. Interestingly, this term is most often associated with art museums further implying that art is about getting it. But, that is for another blog post...)

If you think about a person walking into a space, all the ideas should enhance the experience. You might think of the experience as a volume, like a cup. Everything that is written (signs, labels, etc) are about getting the right recipe for the best cocktail.  Now, while I don’t mean to imply that being in an exhibition is like drinking, the right mix of exhibition elements can be intoxicating.  So, the act of putting it all together, developing all the elements is about facilitating an experience. Writing then becomes about distilling an experience into words rather than just transmitting ideas.

The ideas as still there, in case someone has started screaming, she wants to dumb it down. Instead, you look at the experience that would make people be the most receptive to the ideas, and then use that  as your guide for writing. What does change in this scenario is writing for writing sake. This is hard! I love the written word (I do after all blog every week). But, when we preference the word to the feeling, we are not centering our patrons. We are centering ourselves and our needs.

In user-centered interpretation, labels, panels, audio, etc, all are like animals in an ecosystem, and the Interpretation/ Education staff are the unseen mechanism that keeps everything in balance. They might also be more than an invisible force. They create ways to test content, such as understanding emotional impact of tone. They help make sure that the experience improves iteratively.  Most of all, they are the advocate for the patrons.

Finally, in a design shop, the knowledge and value of the user experience designer is important to brand success.  Rather than being at the bottom of the hierarchy, their knowledge set is integral, being part of inception to completion of projects.  In user-centered museums, education/ interpretation is there throughout on all sorts of projects so as to ensure the ideal experience. They understand that good vibes make for happy, repeat users.  After all, if you want your patrons to toast the great times at your museums, they have to feel your brand.



Usability for Users; Consumerability for Consumers?

Usability is one of those words that has a faint jargon-style feeling to it. In pitching the power of eyetracking, card sorts, and participant design, you are wisest to avoid all those terms.  These are terms that alienate your clients.  As John Rhodes discusses in Selling Usability, focusing on the customers, rather than the testing, will help people understand the end goal of testing.

To get to that goal, you will need to design a test, perform the test, get results, analyze the rests.  After all of that, you will then need to make sense of the data.  With eye tracking, for example, you will need to help make sense of heat maps.

Visualizations, when interpreted well and correlated with think aloud information, can translate data into meaning. A final report puts everything together creating meaning out of data.  In the end, usability could be said to be the study of users and interfaces. But, you could think of it as understanding customers or consumers, and then finding a way to help your clients see what you have come to understand.


I am a starer.  It doesn’t help that my eyes are on the large side.  Yesterday, sitting in the airport, I was struck by how many people assumed I was looking at them, when instead I was just staring out into space.  So, I have a natural bias to question eye-tracking studies.  But, there is a real difference between the ways that your face (and your eyes) react when in open-ended learning situations and in information seeking moments.

In websites and mobile devices, you are using these tools for a certain end.  You are seeking something specific.  Much of your interactions with the interface could be summarized by the phrase, “how do I get to the next place, page, part, link, etc.”  In other words, your gaze is often the moment before you take a navigational step.

Eye-tracking studies have real promise in understanding usage in an unmediated way.  Even the smoothest researcher is putting their participant on the spot.  In this case, the participant is acting in a somewhat normal way.  Tools, like the Tobii, do require participants to sit very still–which is not terrible real-world.  But, at least, they are not being artificially prompted by a person.

Eye-tracking studies are not just about where people look, but also understanding this in correlation to time.  What did they look at first? What are the patterns of things they looked at? What didn’t they look at?  In other words, one is assessing behavior.  This can then be correlated with attitudinal data, from their talk alouds, for example.  But, at the core, eye-tracking is about behavior.

More Mobile Testing

I have continued to ruminate on mobile testing.  In thinking about the pervasiveness of mobile, getting mobile right is imperative.  But, at the same time, the testing options have major limitations.  After all, no one actually hugs a laptop while searching for the ideal episode of Gilmore Girls on Netflix on their surface.  And, they probably don’t use a sled when flipping through Pandora on their iPhone.  Most testing scenarios just don’t mimic the real world.  In fact, they are very different from the real world.

It makes me more sure that there has to be someone out there who can create the ideal mobile testing software.  The big challenge with this is that fact that there are many different types of mobile.  There is iOS; both phone and table.  There are Androids and then there are the Windows tablets.  Given the diversity, one might need to create a number of different mobile testing systems.  (Apple has a vested interest in locking down their system.  They have a controlled access mechanism, i.e. with their developer program.)

Mobile Testing

Mobile is ubiquitous. We use phones to check the weather, to read the paper, and take pictures.  There are now more phones that adults on Earth.  Despite the complete diffusion of Mobile, there are still challenges to creating ideal mobile experiences.

Testing remotely has some powerful pluses. Being a fly on the wall helps you understand the unmediated, natural course of actions of your users. Services like Loop11 make remote testing on a computer easy. But, there isn’t a perfect solution on mobile.  Many resourceful testers have figured out work arounds to capture similar feedback.

It does make me feel like a resourceful entrepreneur needs to figure out a way to do remote testing of mobile apps in the way that one uses Loop11. After all, remote testing is a way to understand how people might really use something.





Unmoderated Remote Testing

Remote testing is incredibly useful for websites.  After all the worldwide web is just that–Global.  Remote testing means that one can get feedback unencumbered by location of participants.  Rather than intercepting people physically, one can grab people as they go about their business on the site you are testing, for example.  Recruitment is no longer bound to location. And, with sites like Loop11, it is super easy to recruit users.  Just one link, and you are ready.  Without the need for a synchronous appointment, you can rack up numerous user rests.

There are drawbacks to remote testing.  The most important is that one loses much in the way of emotion, expressions, and verbal feedback from users.  This can make it challenging to understand the reasons that users click the buttons they click.

However, remote user testing can offer high volume feedback and identify trends.  In other words, while you might not be able to say why someone did something, you can pretty clearly say categorically that certain trends are obvious.