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How less ambition can lead to greater museum websites

“We are a world class museum and we want a website / app / interactive to match”. Almost every briefing I receive starts with the same need. What follows is a list of features. Museums want an interactive timeline like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, user-curated collections like the Rijksmuseum, and rich storytelling like the New York Times. The further I read, the more excited I get, until I reach the end; the budget. It doesn’t fit….

Maybe we can build half of the desired functionality, but we would not have any time to design it. And does your organisation have the editorial capacity to launch and manage it? In other words, the money does not match the ambition.

But it’s ok not to do everything. 

Let me tell you a secret: 

People don’t remember what you don’t offer,
but they will judge you by what you do.

Visitors don’t expect you to offer everything and they won’t remember what they didn’t experience. But they will remember a good experience – or a mediocre one. 

Remember Google+? It tried to copy everything Facebook and Linkedin did and failed. Whereas Twitter offered 256 character messaging – and is still around.

My advice: do less, but do it well. And do something only you can do.

Make use of your unfair advantage

Instead of copying something grand, choose your battles. Where can you really add something to the world that attracts and engages people? What do you have that few others have? In lean startup they call this your unfair advantage. It is something that your competitors cannot easily copy or buy, and you can build your online offer on.

The network effect is a classic example of an unfair advantage: you join WhatsApp because only there you can reach all your friends. Economies of scale is another: you order at Amazon because they’re so big they have the lowest prices and the fastest delivery. There is also brand: you might read this on an Apple device because you believe they produce the best digital tools..

What do some organisations have that can make them unique online?

  • Content: Imperial War Museums uses its wealth of original pictures from WWI and WWII in the stories on their website, often in a way that makes it relevant for today. It’s the same archives that Director Peter Jackson got the unique footage from for his stunning documentary They Shall Not Grow Old – just imagine what interactive version it would make!

IWM uses WWII pictures from its archives to tell stories.

  • Products: The London Transport Museum online shop actually sold more than usual when it went into lockdown. Clearly its unique products touched a nerve when people were stuck at home instead of travelling with the Underground?
  • Network: The #RADailyDoodle could benefit from some of the Royal Academy’s Academicians (or its 100.000+ members) sending in a drawing from lockdown.
  • Name. The Design Museum, though by London standards one of the smaller museums, has a great name – and twitter handle. Their #fontsunday continues to invite people to contribute their favorite graphic designs on weekly changing themes such as homebaking.

So how can you make your unique website?

To start with, look at analytics, talk to your users, and visit websites of your peers to find out what your visitors’ top tasks are, and make sure you got those covered. To answer your customers key questions, all you need is clearly structured and well written content pages. Often a flexible CMS with a modular design system will let you publish these without a big investment in custom code.

Then think of ONE thing you could add – and go for it. For example:

  • Do you have staff members who can present well? Let them record short videos not just for social media, but also for your About us, services, FAQs, etc. Your site will really reflect the personal touch clients would experience when they’d hire you. 
  • Have your collection objects travelled the world? Show them on a map, and offer this as a way for people to discover other objects. Definitely a different way to browse!
  • Do you have outside spaces with wonderful scenery? Get in a photographer and shoot big panorama background images for your website and make a design that makes the most of them. This will let your visitors get a taste even before they visit.
  • Do you have creative activities in your learning programme? Select the best things children produce and juxtapose it with the inspiration in your collection. A variation of this theme: have children describe what they can do and see at your museum.

The result will be a website that’s maybe less grand, but more unique and more memorable for your visitors than those of your world-class peers! 

About the author – Martijn van der Heijden

Martijn van der Heijden is lead strategist at full service digital agency Deeson, working for clients like Royal Museums Greenwich, Imperial War Museums, Southbank Centre and  ZSL/London Zoo. His expertise includes digital strategy, user experience design, information architecture, branding, online collections and storytelling, and he has colleagues at Deeson who know loads about open source platforms like Drupal, and integrations with CRM, ticketing and shop systems. 

Martijn spoke at conferences like MuseumNext, SXSW, and Museums and the Web. In his former role at Fabrique he led teams that won a Webby of the Design Museum’s website, bagged a European Design Award for the Tate app, and had loads of fun with the Royal Academy’s online collection. His latest discovery is how a digital user centric approach can be applied to physical exhibitions and experience design of museum visits.

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