Museums and the Web 2005
Screen Shot: Partial view of the museum exposition area

Reports and analyses from around the world are presented at MW2005.

Using Mobile Devices to Help Teachers and Students during a Visit to a Museum

Milene Silveira, Marcia Pinho, Adriano Gonella, Melina Herrmann, Patrick Calvetti, Projeto Mobile Museum, Faculdade de Informática, PUCRS, Ana Clair Bertoletti, and Mauricio Girardi, Museu de Ciências e Tecnologia, Brazil


This work presents an interactive system built to help teachers and students during a museum visit. We also present the interaction design process used to define the user interface. The system’s main purpose is to help  elementary and high school teachers to plan their students visit to a Museum. Using a portable device (Tablet-PC), the teachers can define a visiting guide with a set of questions that their students need to answer during the visit. The interaction was designed with participation of the PUCRS Science and Technology Museum staff and through many usability tests developed with the elementary and high school teachers.

Keywords:  interaction design, Tablet-PC, user interface


Many museums around the world offer, besides the traditional exposition areas, alternative exploration spaces where the visitor can interact with experiments. In both cases the visitors can ask specialized people for help or can use resources like folders, paper and audio guides in which they can find detailed descriptions of museum pieces or rooms, while visiting the museum. Presently, there are also some projects trying to create digital guides with mobile devices in order to allow the visitors to more easily get details from the museum pieces. These guides usually use texts, images and videos to present these details [Aoki & Woodruff, 2000; Kray & Baus, 2003; Melchior, 2003].

In order to explore this alternative to improve the visiting using mobile devices, we developed an electronic guide to help teachers prepare the visit of their students to a museum. This work presents the case study developed in the Science and Technology Museum at PUCRS University (MCT, 2004), describing the interaction design process used to build the system and the first users' impressions while interacting with the system.

Case Study

We chose to develop this work at the Science and Technology Museum (MCT) at the Catholic University of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil (PUCRS). This museum is located inside the PUCRS Central Campus in a three-floor building with an area of 12,500 square meters. The exposition area holds more than 5000 pieces and 700 interactive experiments in areas like Physics, Mathematics, Ecology, Astronomy, Medicine, Archeology and Informatics, among others. Every day the MCT receives approximately 1,300 visitors from Brazil and abroad, 80 % of them from elementary and middle school classes.

Screen Shot: Partial view of the museum exposition area

Fig 1:  Partial view of the museum exposition area

Currently, to access information about an experiment the visitor can use various totems available inside the building. These totems are equipped with a PC computer running a system with multimedia information. Similar information from outside the museum, via the Internet, is available on the SAGRES system (Bertoletti et al., 2001; Moraes et al., 2001; SAGRES, 2004). This system allows users to browse the experiments catalogue and to view museum research in order to plan their visits in advance, from home or school.

The project presented here aims to help the teachers plan their students' visit inside the museum. To allow the teacher to access information while walking around in the museum, we use HP Tablet PC computers. The intrinsic mobility of this type of equipment allows teachers to get detailed information about an experiment without having to go to one of the totems inside the museum building.

Photo: Tablet-PC device

Fig 2: Tablet-PC device

The Interaction Design Process

In order to guide the interaction design process we adopted the method presented by Barbosa (Barbosa et al., 2002), structuring the process into the following five phases: Analysis, Construction of Interaction Scenarios, Task Modeling, Interaction Modeling and Storyboard Definition and Prototyping. Each of these phases is described in the following sections.


During the first phase we collected and analyzed information about the final users, the context (environment) where the system would be used, and the tasks the users intended or needed to perform with the system.  We completed this phase by attending meetings with the museum staff and analyzing the museum environment during typical visiting days. The first idea was to develop an electronic guide for museum visitors based on the SAGRES system, but running on a Tablet-PC, adapting the user interface to the new device and adding new functionalities to help them during the visit. However, after some meetings and discussions with the museum staff, we changed our focus to help the students, presenting to them a list of questions that could be answered through interacting with museum experiments.

Construction of Interaction Scenarios

Following the design methodology, during this phase it is necessary to create the interaction scenarios; i.e. textual or pictorial descriptions of real situations using the system, involving real or potential users, process and data (Carroll et al, 1994). One of the main goals of this phase is to clarify complex questions and to explore alternative project decisions.

Keeping the idea of creating a system to be used by students during their visit to the museum, we elaborated 13 scenarios representing possible user interaction situations. Among these situations we can enumerate first contact with the device, device use by students, questions selection, and questions definition. To better understand the scenario concept, the following paragraphs illustrate the use of a set of questions by a couple of users (students):

John and Barbara were chosen to use the portable computer during the visit. Both love to use computers and usually spent their afternoons surfing on the Web and chatting via instant messengers. They had already heard about these portable computers and were very excited about the opportunity to use them.

When they arrive at the museum, they follow the teacher Carla to the reception desk, hear the instructions on how to use the computer and what activity they have to perform, and receive the computer previously reserved for them. They are very surprised at the small size of the computer and at the use of a pen to interact with it.

After that, they select the appropriate questionnaire previously chosen by their teacher, and see on the screen the image of the architectural design of the museum, indicating the area to be visited in order to answer the first questions.

When they reach the third floor, they go straight to the area named 'Power and Movement'. There they read again the question presented by the system and see that it is related to the ‘free falling movement' subject. They search for the experiments related to this subject and find a big pink wheel. John quickly decides to use the experiment, while Barbara holds the Tablet. …

Discussing theses scenarios and the alternatives for the interaction process with museum staff, and furthermore, taking into account issues like freedom of movement and security of the equipment, we changed our system focus, deciding that it will be used by the teachers instead of the students.

The central idea now is that the teachers can use the Tablets inside the museum and, getting detailed information about the experiments, can build new questionnaires to be further used, in printed form, by their students.  

To build these questionnaires, the teacher gets a more detailed description of an experiment and chooses any of the available questions for that experiment. This process can be repeated for any one of the experiments, allowing the teacher to build a customized questionnaire. Hence, the teacher can make the students do a more focused visit to the museum because they need to go to specific experiments.

During this phase, the system goals are defined from the user's perspective. To accomplish this, we defined the system state to be reached by the user, the tasks needed  to reach this state, and the sequence of actions that should be followed by the user to accomplish each of those tasks (Preece, 1994).

After deciding that the system focus was to create the questionnaires, we refined each one of the scenarios and extracted from the system goals. These goals were structured in a goal diagram that presents a global view of the system, showing what can be done using the system. For each goal, we also defined a task model that represents the necessary tasks that must be performed to reach this specific goal, and the correct sequence of actions that should be executed in order to complete each one of the tasks. All these goals and tasks are defined through the user's point of view.

Interaction Modeling

In this step we map from the tasks structure (represented by the task models) to the possible interaction sequences the user should execute in order to complete the tasks. In this case the interaction is viewed as a conversation (a interactive discourse) representing the possible communicative exchanges that may take place between users and the system (Barbosa e Paula, 2003).

After these discussions we defined the interaction model of the system, describing all the possible paths that can be followed by the user while interacting with the system.

Storyboard Definition and Prototyping

A storyboard is a sequence of drawings that represents the possible states of the system interface during the interaction process. This technique allows the exploration of alternatives to effectively implement the interface project, considering the environment where the application will be used. It also serves as an efficient communication tool between the project team and the potential application user. The prototypes are used for the same purpose, but, besides being built on a sheet of paper, they can exist as real software that implements a reduced but consistent number of system features (Preece et al., 1994). 

In our project, after specifying the interaction model, the development team decided to start building the prototype without creating the storyboards.

Concurrently with all these phases (the system interaction design), we planned and implemented a database to store the data that will be used by the system.

The Prototype: Visitors Support System

The Visitors Support System was designed to help teachers create customized museum questionnaires for their students using a Tablet-PC. The system allows the teachers to obtain detailed information about an experiment and to choose one or more of the related questions available for each, for inclusion in the customized visitor questionnaire.

In a similar way, it is possible to choose these questions using other search criteria, like the level of students (elementary, middle or high school) or the subject (chemistry, math, physics, etc) it is related to. It is also possible to view saved questionnaires  previously built by the museum staff or by other teachers.

In Figure 3, on the left side is the login system screen, and on the right, the main system screen with the three possible ways to start the interaction with the system: Experiments (Experimentos), Questions (Perguntas) and Questionnaires (Roteiros).  (The system interface is written in Portuguese.)

Screen Shot: Login and Main Screens

Fig 3:  Login and Main Screens

In order to browse the experiments database, the user selects the museum floor and the area where it is located on this floor. As a result, the user will receive a list of all the experiments in the selected area (Figure 4 - left side). Choosing one experiment from the list, the user can get detailed information about it (Figure 4 - right side). This information includes name, internal code, textual description and images.

Screen Shot: List of Experiments

Fig 4:  List of Experiments in an Area, and Experiment Detailed Information

For each experiment, the system offers the options Question s(Perguntas) and Annotations (Anotações). Using them, the user can, respectively, visualize the available questions for the selected experiment (Figure 5 – left side) and take notes about the experiment. This second feature is not implemented in the current system version. Once the user selects a question, specific information about it, like the related experiment and its localization, the text of the question and its respective answers (Figure 5 - right side), appears. 

Screen Shot: Questions Available

Fig 5: Questions Available for the Experiment and Information about a Question

If the user concludes that the selected question is suitable for the students, it can be added to the questionnaire being created (Figure 6 - left side). A complete questionnaire can be seen at (Figure 6 - right side).

Screen Shot: Insertion of a Question

Fig 6: Insertion of a Question in the Guide (a) and Sample Guide (b)

An alternative method can be used to create a questionnaire. The user can access the saved questions directly from the big button (Roteiros) available on the interior part of the screen. This is the method for choosing questions through the school level or the subject instead of the experiment (Figure 7 - left side). The same can be done for previously created guides (Figure 7 - right side).

Screen Shot: Searching Questions and Guides

Fig 7: Searching Questions and Guides

After performing usability tests (that will be described in the following section), we designed and implemented an alternative interface for the system. In this interface, instead of using textual menus, the user can choose the experiments from maps (Figure 8 - left side) that represent the museum floors and from images of the real experiments (Figure 8 - right side).

Screen Shot: Accessing the Museum Areas

Fig 8:  Accessing  Museum Areas from Maps and Experiments from Images

Evaluating The System's Quality Of Use

While we were developing the prototype system, we also executed many inspection evaluations of the quality of the use of the system; and from the results, many successive refinements were implemented.

After we finished the prototype and the first set of inspection evaluation, the prototype was tested by the team of CPTS (Center for Software Testing). This center was also created inside a partnership of HP Brazil R&D and the School of Informatics at PUCRS. At the end of the tests, just five minor errors were found and quickly corrected.

Meanwhile, we concluded the prototype, and started planning the tests to be executed with the final users (Figure 9).

Photo: Real User

Fig 9: Real User Accessing the Questionnaire inside the Museum

The first tests were done using the text-only version of the system, without the maps to guide user interaction. The selected area in the museum was the third floor where the physics experiments are located, because this was the area with the major number of experiments recorded in the system.

To make the tests easier, we choose as first users teachers and students who already perform some kind of activities inside the museum. We separated them into three different groups:

  • Group 1: last-year Biology students (four users);
  • Group 2: elementary, middle and high school teachers and master students (five users);
  • Group 3: Faculty members (professors) of PUCRS (four users).

All these users had basic computer skills and had at least one previous visit to the museum.

Inside the area chosen for the tests and according to the availability of recorded questions we developed a set of seven activities (tasks) to be performed. For each task a scenario was created in order to allow the user to easily understand it.  For example, for the fourth task, the scenario was the following:

One of your colleagues requested you to check how many experiments are available in the system related to the subject Fluids, in the third floor.

As the tests were the first contact of these users with the system and, moreover, the Tablet-PC was a new kind of device for all of them, the tasks were very simple and required just the selection of system options and the reading of information on screen.

The tests were all made under supervision of a design team member and all the interaction (navigation, menu selection, mouse movements, user actions and system responses) was recorded with one-capture software.

Besides the tests with the original version of the system, we also tested (with new activities) the modified version that allows navigation using maps. These new tests were developed with three new groups:

  • Groups 1 and 2: undergraduate students from different areas who worked as assistants in the museum (four users in each group); 
  • Group 3: undergraduate students from Education who were visiting the museum in order to create activities for students (3 users).

All the tests were analyzed according to the communicability evaluation (Prates et al., 2000). In this evaluation, specialists take videos and the observers' annotations of the users’ interaction and then describe each interaction, pointing out when the users seem to have any kind of problem (phase of interaction tagging). The tagging is done through communicability expressions equivalent to what the user would be 'saying' at the exact moment of the interaction breakdown. For example, when the user is browsing through the system menus searching for a specific option (without finding it), the specialist uses the expression, 'Where is it?'.

The results obtained from these tests were used to implement new refinements on the system interface. The main problems found during the tests were related to the amount of information on the screen and the size of the text used to display it in a small-screen device.

In terms of usefulness, all the users said that they very much like to use the system and that it will certainly facilitate the planning of visits for their students, as can be seen from the comments made to the observers. (In parentheses are the gender and the age of the user.)

  • The thing I like most is the agility the system can provide, it’s is very simple to use (male, 23)
  • The system is very helpful for organizing a task inside the museum. Before that it was necessary to see everything to create my own new questions (male, 27)
  • The thing I like most is that I can have many guided suggestions (female, 33)
  • The new dynamic created with the software can speed up the visit preparation (female, 37)
  • The thing I like most is the interactivity. I can keep the questionnaire with me (female, 37)
  • I think that using the guide is very interesting because it avoids dispersion and can make the visit more focused (male, no age given)
  • The system can stimulate the user to answer challenging questions. This is what a museum visit is for (male, 55)
  • The use of the Tablets can replace the manual notes, with many advantages. The visitor doesn’t need to return to the experiment to clarify a detail (male, 35)
  • The system utilization helps the learning process very much (male, 22)
  • The system can provide a much more organized visit (male, 23).

Final Remarks

After the conclusion of successive refinements of the Visitors Support System, we are starting the use of the system with regular museum visitors, focusing on teachers who  are coming to the museum for the first time and need to prepare the visit for their students.

We still have many difficulties to overcome, especially related to the use of the technology by teachers. Some teachers from poor areas of the countryside are afraid because they don't have very much contact with new technologies, and some others, even having regular access to computers, are still afraid because the equipment (the Tablet) seems to be very expensive and they are afraid of damaging it.

Concerning the questionnaire customization, a very important point to be considered is that the questionnaire created by one teacher for his/her students can be available to many others visitors and teachers. Another import issue is that teachers can suggest new questions to the database. This constant update of the questionnaires and questions also allows teachers to collaborate with the community, and permits them to bring their students to the museum many times in order to explore the environment with different objectives.

As future work we intend to explore the context (localization of the user inside the museum) in the user interaction experience. We are also already working on a version of the system to run in devices like PDAs (Personal Digital Assistants), in order to facilitate the user’s movements inside the museum.


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Cite as:

Silveira, M., et al., Using Mobile Devices to Help Teachers and Students during a Visit to a Museum, in J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds.). Museums and the Web 2005: Proceedings, Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics, published March 31, 2005 at