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.



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