Monthly Archives: December 2010

Putting the emphasis on the right syllable in computer-based interactive design

OK, so it’s almost the end of 2010, I’m up to my ears trying to hit deadlines that are toppling over like monolithic dominoes, attempting to keep working on my Master’s thesis, and watching the traffic to this blog spike thanks to Nina Simon, who gave it a very lovely shout out on this Museum 2.0 blogpost. So what am I thinking about? Something that isn’t on my to-do list, of course! Design for the gallery first, or the web first? The mind is a funny thing…

It’s not a complete non-sequitur  I am working on a grant proposal to IMLS that will involve developing a suite of computer interactives for in-gallery use, and web versions of the same that hopefully allow deeper long engagement than would be possible in a busy museum gallery setting, or at least that’s the way it seemed at 10AM this morning.  As I was feverishly writing the rationale for the project, I recalled an article by Luke Wroblewski about subverting the dominant paradigm of designing web sites for the traditional desktop monitor and then making a mobile version of that.  His contention was that mobile should be the default format for web design for reasons I won’t get into here. Go read the article, it’s short and good, like all his stuff. And I thought, “Huh! Designing the gallery interactives first and then the web versions is kinda bass-ackwards, since the web versions will have much greater potential reach. And the web versions can have more functionality, since there won’t be the time pressure of sitting in an exhibition with people looking over your shoulder waiting their turn to try. And it’ll be easier to design the full web functionality and strip out elements for a locked-down exhibit version, than it will be to add functionality into something we’ve built to be bullet-proof.” So I scratched my head and tried to recall if I’d heard of anyone attempting this in a museum setting, couldn’t, and claimed it as an innovation.  Sounds great on paper!

So, I’m writing and thinking and revising, and finally decided that deadlines needed to be obeyed and have dumped this blogpost on you, hoping that in your collective wisdom, you’ll have some insights to share.  Is there any merit/novelty/broad applicability to this idea of designing exhibit apps for the web first and the gallery second? Has anyybody tried?  Have you seen any different models that have developed apps for both that worked or stunk? What would such a development process look like? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Happy Holidays!


The tweets have started…

From Mia Ridge, in snowy London

Patty Toland, in snowy Boston

and Charles Outhier,in PA

Keep ’em coming!

Listen! What’s The Work Telling You?

Thinking like an exhibit developer requires you to be what Donald Schön termed a reflective practitioner – someone who reflects on his or her actions so as to engage in a process of continuous learning, or one who listens to the situation talking back to him or her. Which is another way to say that to be a good developer requires authentic attention.

What the hell does that mean? The hallmark of authentic attention are carefulness.  You need to be careful, to listen hard enough to recognize alternatives when they arise and to be prepared for the inevitable surprises. A new project is like an interesting stranger. As you get to know it, you learn new things about it, and the way you think of it should change to accommodate what you’ve learned. And the project should be changed in return. When you get wedded to an idea or design regardless of what the work is telling you, trouble inevitably results.

Working this way is like juggling on a unicycle while piloting an aircraft. As you proceed with the project, you are required to operate simultaneously on several levels, and be able to alter your vision, your objectives, and your design at the same time. The same dynamic is at work in the social sphere. You must do justice to the demands of your educational goals, your project deliverables, and team responsibilities, while each is impacting the other all the time.

Sounds like fun, right?

Zero G toilet from 2001

Instructions for the Zero G toilet from 2001

In the end, a good product, whether it’s a label, an interactive, or an entire exhibition, should be a thoughtful composition of elements that balance the demands of the situation and the needs of the audience. Are the elements easily distinguishable , and not overly complicated?
(Am I supposed to touch this?) Are users easily able to find their way through the experience? We all know the best interface is no interface, and the best map is to already know where everything is.

Much though authors of how-to books may disagree, there is no easy way of defining away the intricacy of the design process. While there may be prescribed ways to organize and manage the design process, there is no such manual for designing the process itself. Each new project is a design problem itself, and every solution will be different. Nothing is given or true when it comes down to what and how to design an exhibition or anything else. It is a complex process that demands conceptual clarity from you, if you don’t want to drown in the sea of decisions, dependencies, and deliverables that will follow. A thoughtful designer will start a project by designing a design process that:

  • suits the people at the table,
  • suits the situation at that time and place, and
  • will allow the design of the project to proceed.

I tend to get snarky about anybody who claims to have the description of the design process. If every design process is unique, then there will never be a complete model you can use. So why read them? It’s useful to read them so you can appropriate bits and pieces. To find the right process for your project, you’ll have to write that book yourself – by doing it!

Opening up to new ideas

We’re in an interesting place in mobile media design for museums.  Technological issues and market penetration are finally getting to the point where we can design experiences that will reach broad segments of our audiences and deliver experiences and foster interactions that would be unthinkable in any other medium. Over the past year, tremendous efforts have been made to establish a level playing field in terms of open standards, led by Rob Stein (another person you should follow @rjstein) at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, and others.  The TourML standard currently being developed offers us the promise of not only being able to get out from under the old model of designing content for specific platforms or proprietary systems, but of being able to share open content across applications and even across institutions. Heady stuff!

To generate some thinking around this, a group of us will be running a workshop at Museums and the Web 2011 in Philadelphia, called More Than Tours: radical opportunities in mobile content design and social media.  You should totally sign up! It’ll be great.  Our current lineup includes Nancy Proctor, Sandy Goldberg, Koven Smith, Halsey Burgund, Dave Schaller, and Kate Haley Goldman. If I weren’t going to be helping run it, I’d certainly attend! Here’s the blurb:


New mobile and social media platforms have hugely expanded the ways in which museums can interact with their audiences – and even with each other! Nonetheless, museum mobile experiences still tend not to stray far from the traditional audio tour in experience and content design. This workshop is designed to get us thinking “outside the audio tour box” to devise radical new approaches to mobile experiences for museum audiences.

Led by innovative mobile practitioners and museum experience designers, the workshop will challenge us to transform the relationship with museum audiences by engaging them in doing meaningful, mission-focused work, and being true co-creators of our cultural institutions. We’ll ask how content creation might be shared with audiences and among museums; how new tools like augmented reality and location-based gaming and social media apps can expand the mobile experience beyond the museum’s walls; and what research exists and is still needed to help inform our next generation mobile decisions. Outcomes will include both new paradigms for museum mobile experiences, and concrete solutions for building them.

So here’s my question. When you hear “radical opportunities in mobile content design and social media” what springs to mind?