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Film: How to build an open Museum website

Rob Gethen Smith, Lucie Paterson and Paul Vulpiani joined us at MuseumNext Geneva in April 2015 to share the story of their new website, which was built in an unusual setting to enable them to get feedback from their audiences.

Rob: I’ve come here with Paul and Lucie, my colleagues. We’re part of the team at Southbank Centre that are transforming what I described a couple of years ago as a digital zero organisation into a pioneer of digital in the performing arts sector. And the story we want to tell you is what happened when we put our website development team in a glass box, why we did this, and, you know, in particular, how it pretty much changed everything from that point forward.

For those of you who don’t know Southbank Centre, our vision is to be the world’s most inspiring centre for the arts. We’re actually the largest single-run arts centre in Europe, and we’re spread over 21 acres, five venues in the heart of London, in between here … in-between the London Eye and the National Theatre. We put on 4,500 events a year; 13 themed festivals across the five venues, and we draw six million people to our physical site. It makes us the third most popular venue in the UK, behind the British Museum and National Gallery. Half of our events are actually free, which actually draws a really diverse audience. You know, and also make sure that arts is available to everyone, which really lies at the heart of everything we do.

The story started last summer where we got the business case for building our new website. Our current website all looks pretty tired, pretty old, pretty obsolete. And, you know, and we formed the in-house team, as well, in the in-house, agile team, to help design and develop this. At the time, two key objectives; one is, as you might imagine, we sell tickets. We want to be a best in breed event ticketing website. But the other is to be a unique digital space for arts and learning, and to bring to the fore these festivals that I talked about, to provide them a home in the digital space, and our unique programme of arts and education.

Building this in-house was really key, and we’d relied far too long on outside agencies to … who didn’t really particularly know us to sort of help us move forward. And we needed a team in-house to make sure that they fully understood the organisation and how we take it forward. But then something really interesting happened in September. We had this great opportunity to be part of … one of the festivals that we do, it’s called the Web We Want Festival, and this is a campaign in collaboration with the World Wide Web Foundation and Tim Berners-Lee’s great charter for open web. We thought about this. We kind of realised what an absolutely fantastic opportunity and poses … you know, a new idea came up and posed this question. Well, actually, what does open web mean when you’re designing and building a new website? And we actually added this as a third objective to our project. And then the team had another great idea and they thought, hang on a second, what better way to start investigating open than building a glass box right in the foyer of the Royal Festival Hall and using the team in there?      And I’m going to hand over now to Lucie, our project manager, who’s going to tell you what life was like in the box.

Lucie: Hi, everyone, I’m Lucie. I’m the project manager of the new website at Southbank Centre. Yes, like Rob said, I’m going to tell you all about what happened inside the box and outside the box. First of all, a question, who had already heard that we’d done this, the web team was in a glass box? Cool; a few people. It came out of an idea brainstorming session with the team where someone … we were kind of brainstorming things about what we’d do around open web. We hadn’t ever been involved in a festival like this before, so it was a really great opportunity for us to show with the organisation what we could do. And someone said, hey, why don’t we work in a glass box? How much more open could you get? And we all kind of laughed and thought, yes, right, and well, look at us now.

So the web team were in the glass box for ten weeks, from the end of September last year and we hadn’t ever done any engagement with the public apart from user testing through an agency, so this was a massive step for us. We worked in there during the week developing the new website, and then during the weekends, when the festival was in full swing, we had it as a discussion area, where members of the public would come in and talk to us about arts and digital, technology, and also around the open website and how do you build an open website.

We also had user testing and drop-in sessions around different topics and we ran some workshops. The team had conversations with more than 200 members of the community and lots of industry professionals came in to talk to us from different organisations. More than 40 staff visited us in the box, which was brilliant for internal PR, and thousands more saw us working in the box, just walking through Southbank Centre, and also engaged with us on Twitter.

Loads of great things came out of working in the box, but because of the intensity of working in such a small space like this, it definitely wasn’t without its challenges. Some people would mistake us for a ticketing desk and ask us to print their tickets off because we had laptops. It got really hot and smelly in there at times, with ten developers and no air conditioning; sometimes not very pleasant. And we also had a small electrical fire. But we think that these benefits definitely outweighed all the trying times.

So, we used the box to get new ideas for the website, one being this really simple Post-it note wall. We just left Sharpies out and Post-it notes and people would just kind of rock up, add their ideas onto the wall, and it was also a really good way for us to start conversations with people around what they wanted from our website. So we got 95 ideas and they’re all on our product backlog, on Pivotal Tracker. Some of the ideas were quite simple that we’d already thought of before, so things like PayPal, but it was really good that was backed up by users. And some things we would never have got from internal stakeholder requirement gathering like an online community for people that use the Royal Festival Hall as an office space. They want somewhere to network and share ideas and sort of have startup conversations and things.

So we also did user testing in a variety of ways. We had one-to-one sessions in the box at a laptop going through the website and the designs that we were proposing. And we also did surveys with people outside of the box. We got insight from 144 members of our community; some new ideas and also around issues that people had. So it was really a valuable exercise for us. And one elderly woman, she was just gorgeous; she got two buses to come in to see us and talked to Paul and I for ages. She had a little notebook and she went through all of the things that really frustrated her about the website, and it really helped us because she was a classical music audience member and it backed up a lot of our ideas around how that audience is so different to the other art forms that we have at Southbank Centre. And, most importantly, we could tell that it was really good for her to get all of that off her chest.

So, we also ran drop-in sessions on a variety of topics, so some around web privacy, the data that we store, what we do with it and why. And also around third party tools that we use, like Google Analytics and what it means for people using our website and what Google perhaps do with their data. And we also had community guidelines and our terms and conditions on the blog and asked people to comment. We’re trying to make them more user-friendly and get rid of all the legal jargon, so we tried to engage the community and get their advice on that.

And we thought, as part of the festival, it would be good for us to share our knowledge, as well, so we ran a series of workshops. The web team did all of that, so they did them on HTML and CSS, and also how to design a webpage. And 72 people attended these workshops which we were really, really happy with and it was a real mix of age and ability.

So, overall, our contribution to the Web We Want Festival has been fantastic. The glass box was an amazing experience. We completely embedded ourselves within our community, and proactively took onboard a lot of what our users were saying. But the highlight of the team … well, the highlight for the team was definitely having a guest developer that joined us in the box. So Tim Berners-Lee wrote the first line of code for our new website on and it was a real career highlight for the whole team, it’s something that we’ll all remember, especially the part where we had to edit his code because it was slightly incorrect.

Now this is just a video to kind of give you more of a taste of what it was actually like working in the box, and then Paul’s going to talk about what we learned from the experience.

Male Voice: I am a programmer. I spend all my days thinking, wow, this could transform, you know? Every time you start writing a bit of code, you think, oh, this could really transform the world.

Female Voice: I think the idea that the team went in the glass box is really good.

Male Voice: There was a lot of people coming into the box; members of the public, people coming into the site to see shows, whatever was going on, people even just walking through.

Female Voice: I find it really interesting to be within the Festival Hall, within the environment that our users and customers are in on a daily basis, as opposed to being, you know, in the office somewhere else. It was a really good exercise for us to get involved more.

Lucie: The glass box actually made us think about the process and [unintelligible] been, you know, developing a website in an open way so that people, stakeholders, users, everyone’s involved; they can see what we’re doing at any time.

Paul: Brilliant. It all seems so long ago now. I’m Paul Vulpiani, I’m Head of Digital at Southbank Centre, and I’m going to talk to you a little bit about what we learned from being in the box. Obviously, we know from our job that there is no point doing anything unless you actually learn from it, and the team took loads of lessons from being in the box. The first thing we learnt was actually developers and real people mix. There’s often a kind of idea we’ve got around developers that they sit in a small part of an organisation somewhere and no-one ever talks to them and they just get on and code, and they’re not sociable and things like that. And actually, when we put the developers in the box, we found that they absolutely loved it. Initially, we were only going to stay there for a weekend, and we ended up staying for seven weeks. And actually, having developers talking to human beings was fantastic for the team and they were able to try out their ideas and talk about what they wanted to do. And it was absolutely great for them.

We also gained some real insight from our users. There were things that we kind of thought we needed to put on the new Southbank Centre website but, actually, it was only when people genuinely came in and talked about their frustrations that we got some real insight. One of the things that people constantly told us was they found our building really difficult to navigate and that they needed something where they were coming to a festival to kind of tell them what was on and when it was on. And so what we’ve been able to do is really quickly put up a prototype festival planner so you’ve got a weekend at a single glance, and we can test that and evolve it.

And the other thing that’s really important, you can kind of get a sense from here, but actually, a lot of our internal staff sit and eat their lunch right next to the glass box. And, again, we’d done loads of these interdepartmental meetings talking about our new website and how we could get different people from the organisation involved. Actually, when they come and sit and eat their lunch next to where you’re building it, suddenly, they want to be part of it. And we found that, actually, people are no longer scared of us as a digital team; they actually wanted to come in, talk to us, and that transformed the way that we’re looked at within the organisation. We now feel part of the community at Southbank Centre, and genuinely, our staff came in and talked to us, they wanted to engage with us. We had our timelines of the new site and we could really get involved and talk to the team about it.

We gained a huge amount of confidence from being in the glass box. And, again, part of the challenges when you’ve got an idea is, actually, it’s only when you start to express it and talk about it that it genuinely becomes something that you want to follow through. And what we found by being in the box is that we kind of had this idea of being open, but when we talked to people about it, they were like, oh, wow, that is absolutely amazing, that’s fantastic, you’ve got to do more of that. So that really, really pushed us to challenge ourselves and open absolutely everything up we possibly could.

So what have we done in terms of that? Well, we’ve put our pivotal tracker, which is our Agile planning tool, in the public domain. So you can go there in real-time, you can look at the stories our developers are working on, you can look at how we’re getting on, how fast, how slow we’re doing. And that is a real fantastic way of just showing everyone; anyone can go and look at it. We’ve put our website vision, that’s now in the public domain. We’ve put all our source code in GitHub and, again, it’s all completely open, so if anyone wants to go and steal our code and nick it, that’s brilliant, help yourself. We’ve put all our designs on there, we’ve put our Agile operating statement in the public domain, and this is just … we’re constantly looking for ways to make ourselves more and more open. And initially, the team kind of were a bit scared about that, you know, putting your code out there for everyone to look at is quite a scary thing. But part of being in the box just gave the team confidence to say, yes, let’s get on with it, let’s do it and let’s put it out there.

We’ve learnt how important our users are. And again, this is the point I was making about actually genuinely talking to the people that are going to use this website. And actually having that conversation has meant that we’ve realised that, actually, we can almost build nothing without having that conversation with our users. And we’ve done several things there. We’ve set up an external website advisory group with members of the public, people that came into the box. They loved what we were doing, they wanted to help us build the new Southbank Centre website, and so we meet with them on a monthly basis. And again, this is a fantastic way to test out our ideas, talk about our hypothesis, we’ve done [wide] frames and click-throughs, and again, just having that constant feedback from the people that this website is for, I think, is really important.

We’ve also put a lot more resource into doing user testing and putting things in front of as many users as we can as often as we can. We’ve also tried to start doing user testing ourselves. One of the things we did when we were in the box is just showing things to people and just saying, what do you think? Is it any good? And again, we’ve tried to do much more of that, so every festival we have now at Southbank Centre, someone in the team will go down there, they’ll show people what we’re working on, and week get that constant user feedback.

And finally, we’ve gone digital. So we, eventually, after seven weeks, got kicked out of the box. They wanted that space back, so we’ve put it all online. And again, this is the mandatory plug. You can go and have a look at it. It’s on, and we’ve tried to put everything and the real spirit of the glass box onto that blog. And you can go on there, and again, while we’ve put things into the public domain, they’re all on that blog and you can go and look at them. Rob.

Rob: Cheers, Paul. So you may have spotted Paul was only in the box for seven weeks, and the rest of us were in there for ten, so I don’t know … where did you go? So, yes, thanks, Paul. You know, it’s clear that, under the setting of open, we’ve completely embraced, I guess, open process, and that’s what the glass box fundamentally gave us, and that’s really running through as a thread and a core principle in everything we’re doing going forward. But we started this by saying, well, hang on, we’re building a website; what does an open website actually look like? There isn’t a blueprint for that, and even when we met Tim Berners-Lee and he came into the box, I said to him, this is what we’re thinking of doing, Tim, and expecting him to go, wow, that’s great, what a brilliant idea. The point was, there wasn’t … there’s no instruction manual for actually doing this.

But we’re still, as well as open process, we’re thinking about, well, what are the all the other aspects? And we’re making good progress, and here’s some of the sort of the areas that we’re making progress in. First of all, open platform. You know, I think fundamentally, we want everyone to be able to reuse the CMS that we’re building. So rather than just create … design and create a bespoke CMS for Southbank Centre, which would be a pretty easy thing to do, we’ve actually thought about, well, how do we make this fully reusable and portable to other organisations? And one of the things we’ve done is actually built it against what we’re calling the event open data model. So, essentially, an ontological model that shows the relationship in its broadest and most generic sense between events, between artists, between artworks, performers, locations. And we’ve actually worked on that event model with other organisations. Of course, you would have to, wouldn’t you, if you want to make this applicable across the board. So, small and large performing arts organisations and event-based organisations, in particular, have helped us actually come up with this.

And so essentially, what we’re building is a CMS that reflects how would events, arts organisations would … organisation would work and we’ve actually also, in the architecture, made sure the CMS is abstracted from the front-end design and presentation and also the back-end data sources through APIs. And as Paul has already mentioned, we’ve packaged all this code so it is re-deployable onto GitHub both for CMS and the front-end apps.

Open data kind of speaks for itself. I mean, right the way through the system, we’re building it to make sure that we can surface 4,500 events worth of data in an open format, so other people and organisations can reuse that data within their own applications, websites. And we’re also mapping that data against to make sure it could be better served through search, as well. Open design, well, this is in progress. And in the next few weeks, actually, we’ll be putting up on … through our blog, you can find the link to this. But essentially, putting our design patent library, again, out there, so anyone could pick up that and reuse it.

The final phrase there, open use, needs a … this is potentially the much bigger and harder area, and Lucie and Paul have both touched on this. This is all about the transparency and privacy sort of angle here. And we’ve thought … when we were in the box, we printed out our website policies and we stuck them up. We created some commenting functionality against the terms of use and privacy policies, expecting people to rush at that and start giving us all sorts of thoughts over how they want to [unintelligible 00:19:51]. Of course, they don’t. It’s really hard to engage people around that. But we’re not going to give up, and we’re going to really think about well, how do we create a platform here whereby users can actually genuinely feel that their needs are represented when they use the site? And whether it’s the community guidelines or the privacy aspect, but also thinking about tools that would expose sort of a whole angle of data transparency on our future site so you could actually see the data that’s being created, collected, harvested by the organisation and why. Potentially allowing people to go incognito within an actual session, switch off the data tracking. You’ll see how that affected their use of the site and how it works.

We were thinking also about under-18s personalisation. We’re working with an organisation called iRights, and we’re thinking about, well, how do you personalise a site to better protect under-18s online? And also we’re thinking about a right to remove button. You know, a big, fat button, it would just say, I don’t want you to have my data, delete it now. And thinking about, well, how would you do that in a really sensible way where people actually understand what the implications would be?

We’ve also tried to join all this up to some sort of objective statement. It’s probably worth me just reading it out. We want our website to be a place where, “Users can reuse content, data and software, explore how the website works and easily manage their privacy so that the Southbank Centre website becomes a trusted and valuable resource.” You know, that’s not perfect, but it’s better than having nothing, and I’d really welcome feedback after everything you’ve heard. I was talking about, well, how do you actually come up with something that really gels this idea of open website together? But I guess that really points to the key challenge; there isn’t a blueprint for this, and it’s actually taken our own team a really long time to think about, well, what is an open website and how do you design and build one? And, of course, developers like clarity and, of course, this means this has taken longer. And if it’s taken longer, of course, it means it’s costing more money. And we’ve got to constantly remind ourselves, why are we doing this? Keep on making sure we’re really convinced and convicted by this notion of open website.

And also, I guess, for an organisation, it’s … you know, people start to realise, what you’re giving everything away? You’re sharing everything? Well, is there a line beyond which we can’t pass where the organisation says, we’re a very open organisation, we open our doors to the public and let people come in and do what they want. But this just feels slightly uncomfortable and we’ll see how far, I guess, we can push that.

There’s also been a number of surprises, you know, just by doing this. I guess if we hadn’t done this, we wouldn’t have met Tim Berners-Lee and have him write the first line of code on our site, but also, it’s opened up some really interesting conversations with other organisations, notably the Barbican, and we’re working on the open … we’ve actually jointly signed up to this idea of this open event ontology and how that could actually become a standard for events-based organisations to publish their data but also inform how they develop their systems and architecture going forward. And then that’s opened up conversations with other events organisations. We’ve said, really, can we really use your website? In fact, [unintelligible 00:23:03] did a little study for us with Wales Millennium Centre just the other day to say, well, how would you do that? How would the world’s Wales Millennium Centre pick up our CMS and use it? And the idea is, you know, we could work in partnership with them and they could develop some code and give it back to us, so really beginning to open up all sorts of possibilities.

And more recently, we were conversations with the BBC around taxonomies and how we join this up around how we’d call it art forms and genres, and all that good stuff, but also a digital public space for … we’ve started talking to them. And even Google are interested in what we’re doing around the event schema and how we could extend to be more useful and reusable in that area.

To conclude, then, you know, the journey is far from over, I guess. We’re really on the … just the foothills of this challenge and we’re going to … you know, we’re convinced we’re going to keep on going with this. We’re really happy with the progress we’ve made but ultimately, this is an experiment and, to sum up, no better way … and forgive me, I’m just going to quote from Steve Jobs, and this is about, you know, you’ve got to try things out and it will become clear in the fullness of time how this develops. And your goal will clarify as you move forward.

I was just going to say thank you for listening, and this is us, I’ll tweet that out in a minute, and there’s also what we’ve been talking about, there’s a blog post that I’ve just stuck up there today to give you more information about what we think an open website is. Thank you.

Presenter: As Michael sets up his computer, we have maybe time … if you want to set it up, we have maybe time for one quick, quick question. Yes?

Female Voice: [Unintelligible 00:24:53]. Just one question; we’ve been doing the same stuff. I mean, not the glass box, but reframing our website, and we asked questions throughout the web. Our main question was, how do I create a community with the people who are not inside our community? That means people not going to actually [unintelligible 00:25:16] or people not watching the website, etc. How do you intend to enlarge your community and how can you integrate their use for those people not coming, not watching the website, etc.?

Rob: I’m not entirely sure I fully understood the question, I’m really sorry.

Female Voice: Okay, I’ll try again.

Rob: It’s around about do we get more people to come to –

Woman: Yes, what you’ve done is like creating and reinforcing a community with people coming inside the glass box, and that’s just great. But my question is how can you expand that community to people not coming to Southbank Centre, not coming to your website? I mean, the next users of your website, the users that are not coming today.

Presenter: I said quick question, so quick answer.

Paul: Sure, no problem. So we know that’s going to be a massive challenge for us at Southbank Centre. In some ways, the new website is the first part of that, and we’re now, what we’re doing is setting up an innovation unit to actually try and push out all of our festivals to a much bigger audience. And again, that’s something we challenge … has challenged us as an organisation for quite a while, and we know it’s something that we need to get better at. But I think the way that organisations are structured tends to often stop this happening. So we’ve carved out a pot of money to actually just try some things out. You know, Agile, we’d do really simple things, get them into the marketplace and just see if they work. And we don’t know what the answer is, but we know … we think we’ve got a formula for trying out some of that.

Rob Gethen Smith, Lucie Paterson and Paul Vulpiani joined us at MuseumNext Geneva in April 2015 to share the story of their new website, which was built in an unusual setting to enable them to get feedback from their audiences.

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