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published: March 2004
analytic scripts updated:  October 28, 2010

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Museums and the Web 2003 Papers

Designing the User Experience: An Evolving Partnership for Collaborative Research and Development

Marie Jefsioutine, University of Central England, UK; Jane Arthur, Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery, UK; and Mukti Bawa, University of Central England, UK.


This paper describes a collaborative partnership between the University of Central England and Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery. The project evolved out of the University's mission to serve local and regional communities and the needs of Birmingham Museums Service to improve its provision in line with local and national directives on social inclusion, audience development and lifelong learning. This paper describes the evolution of the relationship from a series of collaborative MA design projects to user-centered design research and the creation of a jointly supervised full time PhD studentship looking at the role and future development of on-line collections.

Keywords: social inclusion, audience development, lifelong learning, user-centered design

Early Partnerships

There has been a symbiotic relationship between the Birmingham Institute of Art and Design (BIAD) and Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery (BM&AG) since the early part of the last century.  In the early days staff from the School of Art contributed to the Museum, particularly in the crafts. The relationship broke down for a period in the 2nd World War.  The relationship was re-formed in the 1970s when exhibitions were held in the museum and the School of Art Education delivered a course of study in ethnographic resources for art education in partnership with the department of archaeology and ethnography.  In the late nineties the partnership was renewed once again by the Director of Research at BIAD, Professor Nick Stanley, in conjunction with Jane Arthur, Director of Collections at the Museum, through a series of collaborative Masters studentships.

The University's key objective is to enhance the employability of its graduates, with a commitment to the application of knowledge through professional practice, to near-market and applied research and consultancy.  This gives UCE a closeness to its social and economic communities and makes it a major contributor to the development of the region. The University plays an active part in providing services to its neighbouring communities and encourages direct professional practice in the form of consultancy to address the needs of the regional economy. Most research at UCE is near-market and applied, much of it in partnership with public sector bodies "to develop the social infrastructure and improve quality of life in the region (University of Central England Mission Statement). The University is thus committed to develop and maintain such partnerships as part of its mission.

For BM&AG there were also a number of benefits to be derived from a renewed partnership. Birmingham Museums Service had identified a need to improve its provision and this was reinforced by a number of local and national directives. The late nineties saw the publication of a number of government reviews and white papers addressing issues such as the provision of informal and lifelong learning, the development of new audiences, overcoming barriers to museum visiting and the potential use of Information and Communication Technology (ICT). David Anderson's report to the Department of National Heritage (Anderson 1997), ' A Common Wealth, Museums and Learning in the UK' highlighted the need to promote museums as educational institutions with a commitment to lifelong learning for all.  The report emphasised the need to improve access to resources and called for the breaking down of cultural, intellectual and physical barriers to using museums. There was a strong sense at the time that the application of information and communication technologies (ICT) and the World Wide Web would provide solutions to some of the issues identified.

The Museums and Museum Design project was thus set up to provide mutual benefits for the two institutions. A number of MA studentships were created to encourage exploration of the issues and to develop design concepts to inform museum strategy. The studentships were open to Masters students from across the faculty. Students would gain experience of professional practice and the realities of researching and designing an authentic project.  The museum would benefit from the research and design concepts that the students generated. The University would derive research outcomes.

The project was multidisciplinary, with students drawn from industrial design, visual communications and interior design. The project coordinator, Roderick Davies, was a museologist and was able to provide the students with a theoretical background in the issues faced by museums. The students were also supported by a research and development team, now known as Digital Design Lab (DDL).  DDL is a small team based in the research department at BIAD, providing digital media design and development support to a number of research projects.

A set of project proposals were drawn up through a process of negotiation between the project coordinator and the directors and curators of the museum.  Each project brief would need to address issues pertinent to Birmingham Museum Service, utilise BM&AG's resources and curators' expertise and operate within the requirements of the Master's courses. Programmes for Masters courses vary but are all characterised by a period of research followed by either a dissertation or a design prototype.  Students were therefore able to dedicate a period of time to the research and generation of a design hypothesis and methodology through close collaboration with a museum curator before embarking on their dissertation or design prototype.

The project ran over 3 years and involved 12 students. Their projects fell into three categories:

  • Physical design initiatives
  • The development of policies for display design and interpretation
  • The development of ICT and Web site prototypes.

Physical design initiatives included innovative display cabinets; a multi-functional space and stackable furniture for school parties; gallery and exhibition design; a self-contained traveling exhibition; and a hand held device for interpretation of objects in the gallery.  Some of these also included ICT elements. About half of the projects focused on the use of ICT, including the development of Web sites, gallery-based interactives and multimedia installations.

Bitgood (1996) suggested that visitors tend to have a more satisfying experience and gain more knowledge if they are given information about "what to expect, how long it might take to visit, where to find rooms etc and "pre-knowledge about the themes and content of the exhibit.  One of the first students attempted to address these issues and explore the role of museums as educational institutions. Being an Interior Design student, he was particularly interested in the use of a virtual forum as an interface to an actual environment. The final design prototype was a Web site providing pre- and post visit orientation (Sawkins 1999).  In early discussions, the student established that BM&AG saw marketing as the primary value of an on-line presence, and that a site should provide information about collections and enable people to decide what to go and see.  Practical issues to do with the development of the Museum's corporate identity meant that the student was unable to focus directly on marketing aspects, and, it became apparent through the research phase that the marketing value of the site would lie in its ability to stimulate interest in the collections. The student decided therefore to focus on the educational aspects and the provision of contextual and interpretive information.

The student's final prototype demonstrated the concept through a vertical slice of a Web site.  The site provided visitor information, such as opening times, the location of the museum and its collections and provided a deeper level of information about specific exhibitions and exhibits.  The prototype focused on one painting in particular and used animated overlays to illustrate and interpret aspects of the painting such as composition and brush strokes, thus providing information not normally available to the gallery visitor. This contextual and interpretive information could be used pre-visit, with the aim of stimulating the desire to see the actual painting, and post visit to enable further exploration. It also equipped the viewer with ways of looking that could be generalised and therefore would enhance their future visits to the gallery.

The following year, a Visual Communication student attempted to create a virtual experience synonymous with visiting a gallery (Ferreria, 2000). Anderson (1997) pointed out that much of the existing ICT at this time was driven by data and thus provided the user with large quantities of textual information and static images that had very little in common with the museum experience.  The student used images of the paintings in a gallery space as the interface metaphor. He felt that it was important to recreate the visual and immersive qualities of gallery visiting. In the final prototype, the user was able to access further information about a painting by direct manipulation of the image.  Borrowing from the previous project, he also used animated overlays to illustrate interpretative aspects of the painting.

Another Visual Communication student designed a signage, orientation and navigation system that would work in the museum, on interactive kiosks in the galleries and on a Web site (Jianfeng, 2000).  The Web site provided orientation and navigation to the departments and their collections through the use of animation, symbols and interactive floor plans.  The animated sequences were designed to act as an 'appetite-whetter' to inform visitors about the content and highlights of a collection.  Further information was also provided about selected exhibits.  The emphasis was on 'selling' the collections as a whole, informing the public about what is there.  The student was using visual communication techniques to engage users and to draw them into collections.

Symbols were designed to represent each department in the museum.  Symbol design was based on Chinese calligraphy and Western typography.  Links to the floor plan provided a physical as well as virtual navigation.  The site enabled visitors to browse through the entire museum, getting a flavour of what is there without having to jump through details and information they don't want. A collection could be explored in more detail by accessing contextual information, or finding out where it was physically located in the museum.  Physical and virtual visits were tied together visually, through the signage, orientation and navigation system, without attempting to recreate the physical characteristics of the building on the Web site.  An engaging and inspiring experience was achieved without trying to mimic the experience of seeing the objects themselves (see Davies, 2001 for a fuller description of the project).

Due to the limited time available on the MA courses the student projects rarely got beyond the prototype stage and did not reach the stage of evaluation. This was frustrating for the students, who did not get to see their projects realized, and for the museum staff, who had invested time in student research and were left with exciting design prototypes without the resources to evaluate or implement them. 


In 2000, BIAD launched User-Lab, a user-centered design and usability laboratory. BIAD had become increasingly aware of the need to evaluate its growing digital media provision and to ensure it was meeting the needs of staff and students. User-Lab was set up, with a grant from the Higher Education Funding Council of England, to carry out academic and commercial research into the digital experience.  User-Lab is staffed by a multidisciplinary team with expertise in digital media design, human-computer interaction, psychology and software engineering. The lab consists of three purpose-built testing and design labs that are equipped with behavioural, physiological and psychological research tools.  In the three years since its inception the lab has been involved in a number of collaborative projects with the public and private sector, including regional development agencies, education bodies, charities, museums, archives and libraries. The lab's research agenda focuses on understanding the user experience in terms of accessibility, usability and engagability.

By 2001 BM&AG had developed an extensive Web site and had been able to digitize a significant number of artifacts through the Designation Challenge Fund (a UK Government initiative to promote excellence and raise standards in the care, management and presentation of collections identified as being of outstanding importance). BM&AG's database of digitized artifacts was made available on-line through a Web interface.  The museum was aware of the need to meet the needs of their current and potential virtual visitors and to evaluate their Web provision.  There were renewed local and regional reports calling for social inclusion and emphasizing the role of museums and galleries in addressing social exclusion (E.g., The Group for Larger Local Authority Museums Report, October 2000; Report of the Birmingham Stephen Lawrence Inquiry Commission, Birmingham City Council, March 2001). It was widely accepted that "Museum professionals need to learn about their new audiences coming through the electronic doors just as they attempt to learn and meet the needs of those who walk through the physical doors of the museum (Chadwick, 1999).

BIAD was keen to build on its relationship with the Museum and so a contract was negotiated with BM&AG to provide user-centered design consultancy over a period of 2 years. This has provided the museum with a means of ensuring its electronic provision meets user requirements and provides meaningful visitor experiences. One of the first projects undertaken by User-Lab involved a summative evaluation the Web interface to the museums digitized collection. This focused on human-factors issues of the search facility, by eliciting and analysing users' behaviour in carrying out tasks on the Website. 

The Website features three search mechanisms:

  • a simple keyword search consisting of a free text entry field;
  • an A-Z object name search comprising of dropdown menus for each letter;
  • an advanced search, utilising form filling in free text fields and dropdown menus.

User testing with a sample of users resulted in an analysis of experiences on a scale of positive to negative and certainty to uncertainty ('MINISIS Web Interface: User-test Report', Knight, 2003: unpublished report).

The project found that search features were inadequate in supporting users' tasks in a number of ways: response times were slow; results were poorly organised with many unexpected and ambiguous results; there was limited support for choosing search strategies; and users' domain knowledge was not represented in terms of terminology used, search strategies available, feedback and appropriate levels of information presented. These results were in stark contrast to other areas of the Web site that score very highly in the tests in both usability and engagability. 

The poor performance of on-line databases is not unique to BM&AG.  Donovan (1997) suggests that most of the information held on publicly accessible museum databases is "of little interest to the broader public and "difficult to locate without a firm understanding of the information in the database. He argues that for the non-specialist faced with what he describes as "the frightful blank search field method of providing access to data their first reaction is likely to be "Search for What? He points out that

Search engines are powerful in the hands of those already armed with sufficient information to make them work ... but if you do not know George Bellows from Saul Bellows, or chiaroscuro from caricature, a search engine is of little use.

(Donovan, 1997)

Cameron (2001) identifies two approaches of delivering collections on-line: a thematic approach and a searching interface.  She also points out that the search approach is of little or no use to the non-specialist user who has no knowledge of the information available, how the data is modeled, or the specialist terminology used (p309). Indeed, Kravchyna and Hastings (2002), in their survey of museum Web users, found a need for "contextual information, vivid descriptive narratives and theory drawn from narratives in on-line collections.

Donovan (1997) argues that "Museums need to wrap layers of interpretation around the bare fact of an object before the public can begin to grasp its significance and Cameron (2002: p311) calls for the "reconceptualisation of databases, the types of information held and the fields included, in the light of user research.

Zorich (1997) argues that while collections databases are invaluable to staff, they "do not convey information in a format that satisfies general audiences.  She claims that museums "need to know what questions people ask …, how they search for information, and how they wish to see the results presented. (p187)  She warns, "if museums don't learn what users' needs are, primary audiences will conclude that museum information is not useful and won't visit museum sites.

Research Collaboration

Keen to build on the lessons learnt through the Masters studentships it was felt that a longer-term research project would be beneficial to both institutions.  A full time research studentship was therefore created, to be jointly supervised by BM&AG and BIAD.  The successful applicant is now working in conjunction with User-Lab to look at usability issues in accessing museums' digitised collections with a view to improving the design of BM&AG's own site to meet the needs of virtual visitors. 

The aim of the research studentship therefore, is to carry out user research into the ways in which on-line collections are accessed and to identify ways in which they can be improved.

The project is asking a number of questions:

  1. Why do users visit museums' on-line collections?
  2. What implicit and explicit informational or learning goals do they have and how does this match the aims of the museums?
  3. What search strategies do they use and how does this vary with type of user?
  4. Are they satisfied with the results of their on-line search and does the experience meet their implicit and explicit needs?
  5. How can we understand the user's affective and cognitive experience?
  6. How can this experience be improved?

A number of studies have applied usability testing and guidelines to museum Web sites (eg Dyson & Moran, 2000; Cunliffe, Kritou & Tudhope, 2001). Jordan (1999) points out that although usability is clearly a necessary feature of a Web site, it is by no means sufficient. Bonapace (2002) uses Maslow's hierarchy of needs to create a hierarchal model for product design with safety and well-being, at ground level, moving up to functionality and then usability, leading up to the apex of pleasure. This study proposes to take a broad perspective by looking at the user experience as a whole and applying a case study approach to a number of on-line collections. The study will ask questions such as 'What is the philosophy behind the design of the interface?' 'What does it encourage the user to do?' 'Where does it take the user intellectually and emotionally?' 'Does it provide for meaningful and significant experiences? 

 Knight and Jefsioutine (2003) have developed an Experience Design Framework for designing and researching the user experience as a holistic concept.

Diagram: Experience Design Framework

Fig 1: The Experience Design Framework, Knight and Jefsioutine (2003)

The framework advocates the process of 'designing for usability' developed by Gould and Lewis (1985), including early and regular user involvement, empirical testing, integrated teams and iterative design.  It also draws on a number of more recent issues for designing the user experience. Evaluating attributes of a system includes usability, accessibility and engagability and utilises evaluation criteria developed for educational technology recommended by Jones et al (1994). The framework also emphasizes the need to focus research on activities, objects, places and people, developed from Rothstein's (2002) elements of the user experience. The framework draws on Kälviäinen's (2002) topology of methods for understanding consumer taste and based on User-Lab's own research.  Elements identify the different levels at which a product can be experienced, including the content, the form, its function and the interactions between agents: user and product, user and user, and user and designer.  The Experience Design Framework will thus be used to develop a methodology for the study.

The research studentship will apply empirical methods to a case study approach. A set of museum and library Web sites, which approach the provision of access to an on-line collection in very different ways, have been selected for investigation. A case study approach has been adopted since it is particularly suitable for exploration and representation of a complex situation, its special value being both its particularistic and holistic nature. By focusing on specific aspects of usability within the wider case context, the study hopes to gain insights into the relationship between organizational strategy, implementation and the end user experience.  It will look at the aims behind the collections, the target users and expectations of use. Hence it will be important for the researcher to work with the Web site developers to learn how they perceive their users' needs and wants and how that has influenced the structure and organization of the material.  It will also investigate the methods of design and development, whether sites have been evaluated or tested, and plans for future development.

The study will then explore each of the case studies in terms of the user experience. Each case study will therefore involve a naturalistic observation of a sample of users.  Analysis of users' interactions with on-line collections will be recorded using User-Lab's observation equipment. This will identify the route and personal preferences made by each user and how easily they were able to navigate both the interface and the collection.  Usability problems will be used to identify mismatches between user expectations and the actuality of the system. Interviews and questionnaires will be used to ascertain the extent to which users goals were met by their interaction.

In order to carry out these observations it will be necessary to select a sample of users that represent visitors to museum sites. Kravchyna and Hastings (2002) identified 5 categories of users: scholars, teachers, students, visitors and museum staff.  They found that 63% of users wished to search a collection and this was equally spread across the different types of user.  However, different user groups used the sites for different reasons.  Visitors were more likely to be looking for information on past exhibitions, whereas teachers and museum staff were more likely than others to be looking for information for their research. Bowen et al (2001) identify 3 types of user that typically access on-line collections, school children and teachers, general public, and expert researchers. There are several factors that may affect the way in which a collection is used including the purpose of use (eg educational, leisure or research) and the expertise, or pre-knowledge, of the user (eg specialist or non-specialist). A further factor that may influence use is familiarity with searching on-line generally and it will be important to ensure that the different categories have an equal spread of internet searching literacy.

The study thus proposes to focus on specialist and non-specialist users. Specialists include people from the museum, who have knowledge about the terms used within the realm of collections management and archiving, and degree students who are familiar with art and artists. Non-specialists include general museum visitors or students who have no knowledge of the collections. It will also be important to design task scenarios that represent a range of naturalistic searching activities.  Tasks will be established through a combination of focus groups with users and analysis of surveys of use. Tasks are likely to include activities based on learning, leisure, and specific information seeking since these are likely to generate very different types of searching behaviour.

Analysis of users' behaviour will be done with reference to a number of models of information seeking. As Cunliffe et al (2001) point out:

 There is … a need to understand the dynamics of the search process, only part of which is on-line, and which may include a series of search activities mixed with browsing activities. The ability to support imprecise queries with poorly defined information needs and new forms of query – such as query by similarity, querying across non-text media, and the provision of browsing interfaces…

(Cunliffe at al, 2001: p249).

It is observed that users' mental models for searching are a blend of their technical understanding and their experience with performing searches and their search goals (McDaniel & McDaniel, 2002). Choo et al (2000) propose a behavioural framework for understanding users' motivations and activities when seeking information on the Internet. They identified a number of modes of information seeking on the Web and found that each mode was distinguished by the nature of information needs, information seeking tactics, and the purpose of information use.

Marchionini (1995) proposed that information-seeking, is composed of eight parallel processes: (1) recognize and accept an information problem, (2) define and understand the problem, (3) choose a search system, (4) formulate a query, (5) execute search, (6) examine results, (7) extract information, and (8) reflect/iterate/stop (Marchionini, 1995: 49-60). 

Finally the study will attempt to identify ways in which access to on-line collections can be improved.  Simply improving the sophistication of the search engines may not make a great deal of difference.  Enabling a visitor to search by colour or composition for example, may be, in the words of Donovan, "just a better way to get to the wrong place. Without accompanying narrative the results may be useful for an interior or graphic designer, but few others.

Cameron (2002) argues that "contextualising objects according to ideas rather than physical and functional taxonomies … represents a significant paradigm shift. Donovan (1997) advocates an approach in which databases become content management systems with "deep reservoirs of rich content.  These can then be used to create richer experiences based on a storytelling metaphor rather than list making.  "Instead of leading with the object, lead with the story of the culture, historical context, important people and places, and their importance. Tell engaging stories with objects woven through them … and encourage curiosity, exploration and serendipity.

MacDonald and Alsford (1997), call for the creation of meta-museums in which artifacts can be contextualised "on a grand scale.  Cameron posits that the Web offers the possibility of "freeing objects from traditional narrative and navigational structures (p310).  She also suggests that it allows the "establishment of new relationships between users and collections while allowing greater interpretive autonomy. (p310)  Such opportunities will evolve from an understanding of on-line collections as enabling holistic and fulfilling experiences for users.


The early student projects served to illustrate to museum staff the potential for ICT in the museum.  Many of the ideas and principles were used to inform the design and development of the museum's Web site and ICT provision.  By focusing on issues of access to collections there has been a recognition by both institutions that the key to success is to understand more fully the needs of users. User-Lab now has a number of museum-based clients, which means that it is able to build up expertise in the issues of usability pertinent to museum audiences.  By creating a three year research studentship and with the ongoing partnership with User-Lab, the museum aims to identify issues that are appropriate for different types of users and the implications for the design of on-line collections.   The partnership has thus moved from a focus on creating design solutions to one of user research and understanding their changing needs.


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