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How User Centred Design Can Help Museums Put People at the Centre of the Exhibition Design Process

User Centred Design (UCD) offers radical opportunities for user-driven exhibitions that fill a genuine need in people’s lives. It is a process that offers opportunity for continuous improvement based on insights from your visitors.

Chances are you’ve heard of UCD before. Designers use it to create intuitive and pleasurable experiences for people using their products. This is called the user experience (UX). It is the result of a series of considered and deliberate choices that are tested, reviewed and amended to meet a user’s needs.

When working with UCD, it’s vital that you test as much as you can. This can be done by specialists or it could be something that you do yourself. Whatever you’re able to do, do it early and do it often. An early test with three people is likely to be more use to you than a late test with thirty. Not only will three people likely pick up most of the big problems, you also have time to fix them before you have progressed too far. Be realistic about what you can change. It’s likely that you won’t have the resources to fix everything so instead concentrate on those that will make the biggest impact on your visitors.

The UCD process can be thought of as five overlapping planes. These are strategy, scope, structure, skeleton and surface. By completing each plane in order and testing the results, you are working towards turning an abstract idea into a UX that works for your visitors.

The strategy plane isn’t interested in the finer details. This is the time for blue sky thinking about your exhibition’s purpose. This is your opportunity to look beyond your institution and do something radical by letting your visitors set the exhibition objectives. By asking them what they want your exhibition to achieve, rather than guessing or telling them, you avoid the generic and meaningless objectives we’re all familiar with. Instead, you can create a direction that is relevant and fills a genuine visitor need.

The scope plane is all about translating those objectives into a set of features that will satisfy them. They’re important to get written down as they define not only what you are designing but also what you’re not. This helps avoid scope creep but also keeps you focused on what is important – your visitors. Try and make your scope as specific as possible and avoid anything too subjective. This will make it much easier to test and evaluate. It’s also worth bearing in mind when you talk to your users about what features they want, that they’re not the experts. While they might come up with some great ideas, be prepared to refer back to your strategy plane and make sure it’s actually meeting an objective.

The structure plane is the time to think about how to fit your content together in a way that makes sense. It is at this stage in the process that you can try out your key message and text hierarchies. Think of this plane as being like a website. Can the visitors navigate through it to find the information they want? At what points do they begin to loose interest or find ideas difficult to understand? What stories and objects do they remember? These are all invaluable insights that you can use to inform anything from the placement of an object to the need for an interactive to explain things in more detail. One of the great things about UCD is that it encourages you to look beyond yourself for insights and this is especially important in terms of content. A structure that makes sense to you as an expert might not to someone who is coming across it for the first time.

It’s now time to create the exhibition skeleton. This plane is all about designing the structures that will deliver your content and making sure that they work as you intended. An understanding of affordances and signifiers will really help you get to grips with this plane.

Affordances are things that users can do with a product. For example, a door has the affordance that it can be pushed to allow a user to enter a room. The thing to remember about affordances is that they are not always obvious. That’s why it’s important that they’re signified. This doesn’t have to be a label. Indeed the most successful signifiers are those that you just intuitively know what they do. Taking the example of the door again, fitting it with a plate suggests to the user that they should push it, as there is no handle for it to be pulled.

Testing affordances needn’t be expensive and time consuming. For major exhibitions, it is always advisable to build time and budget in to the project for prototyping (especially in the case of interactives). For smaller projects, it’s amazing what insights can be gained from cardboard mock-ups. Interventions around your existing galleries can also be really helpful, especially if you’re trying out new layouts or way finding systems.

The final phase is the surface plane and deals with the look and feel of your exhibition. This is hugely important as it’s going to be the first thing your visitors notice when they’re making their mind up whether or not to visit your exhibition. Each visitor will come with their own conceptual model of what they’re expecting. It’s your job to find out as much as you can about this and try to match or myth-bust it. For example, you’ve found through your research, that your target audience doesn’t think your museum is their kind of place. Find out what their kind of place is and use your surface plane to echo this. Audience segmentations such as those offered by the Audience Agency can really help in this respect, as these will often include this kind of information as part of their pen profiles.

Following these planes won’t result in the perfect exhibition but chances are you’ll get closer to it. And that’s the point of UCD. Because you are relentlessly testing your ideas and talking to your visitors, you know what’s wrong with your exhibition. It’s a journey that doesn’t end with the exhibition opening, there’s always more to learn and improve.

About the author – Jamie Taylor

Jamie Taylor curates, project manages and produces copy for museums and cultural organisations. He helps museums to tell stories about history, science, art and engineering. From diesel locomotives to dolls house furniture, he turns stories into a meaningful experience that connects museums with their audience. Find out more about Jamie on his website.

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