Improve Site Usability by Studying Museums
Using a website should be easy. It should be intuitive. We should know what button or link to click to get to where we need to be.
But sometimes websites can be insanely confusing. Just look at the Apple app store, for example. When seeking out apps to install on my iPhone — which as an open source advocate and proponent, I feel incredibly guilty with, by the way — I find myself endlessly frustrated at the general lack of good navigation in iTunes, making the process of discovering the apps I want more difficult than necessary.
This article aims to underscore lessons we can learn from museums and art galleries in relation to website usability.
Many websites are a labyrinth (or maze) of endless tunnels and pathways that have no clear direction — and getting lost or confused is the resulting outcome. Simply put, things really need to change if your website visitor feels like your content organization is like traversing a maze.
Perhaps it seems a little unfair or extreme to compare most site navigation designs to a maze — but the problem exists in many sites and is something we need to tackle. It’s quite normal to see site navigation that is confusing, leading to dead ends or paths that lead you away from the exit.
What We Can Learn from Museums and Art Galleries
I remember going to the Natural History Museum (in London) on a school trip. While the endless exhibits were fascinating — what teenager wouldn’t get a kick out of weapons, naked statues and dead people on display — the one thing that impressed me was how the museum, for such a huge building, was incredibly easy to navigate.
Whilst the brick and mortar foundations of a museum or art gallery may not seem, on the surface, like ideal candidates for usability, navigation, and layout design inspiration, indulge me as I try to make the connection.
What is it about museums and galleries that encourage people to spend time exploring the many rooms and walkways in these humongous buildings? It’s nothing more or less simple than the exhibits.
In terms of the web: our content, site features and service offerings are the core exhibits that we offer.
Content appears in many forms such as text, images, diagrams, videos and audio. While most art galleries focus on showcasing images and museums on historic objects, the idea that we can feature, display, organize and lay out experiences to be browsed at the user’s leisure is a central point of design theory and the content management process.
Components of Museums and Art Galleries
So what is the secret behind the success of a museum’s navigability?
Museums highlight special exhibitions and actively promote them by ensuring that display items are in an accessible and easy-to-find region of the building.
They might have special posters outside the building, they may even advertise these exhibits off-site (such as in the local newspapers or in their website). As these are of special interest, they are publicized quite heavily.
Signs and Directions
By having signs around the establishment, visitors can accomplish the most fundamental tasks — from locating that exhibit you wanted to see, to finding the closest public restroom.
Brochures and Reference Booklets
Having signs in a gallery or museum is great if you just want to provide simple directions, but many institutions have booklets or leaflets that are more content-heavy for individuals requiring more information.
A map is useful for providing directions visually towards certain locations. Some museums and galleries offer paper maps and other aids (sometimes even apps for mobile devices) to guide new visitors around.
Every now and again, visitors will need more than what’s offered by default; when they have inquiries that require a tailored response. It is at this stage where human assistance comes in. Most places you visit have members of staff roaming around to help patrons or stationary informational booths in case someone needs help through human interaction.
An increasing amount of museums offer interactive displays to make the things being presented to the visitor engaging and fun.
Space and Clarity
There is nothing more annoying than an overcrowded location. Whether it’s too many items put too closely together or too many visitors — ensuring that every item gets the space it warrants so that it is distinct from other pieces is an effective way of laying out museums and art galleries.
Most museums have some kind of store that sells memorabilia and trinkets related to the museum. These items create a tangibility to the visit, and may even prompt future visits.
Producing Digital Equivalents of Museum Components
Digital equivalents for these museum/art gallery components may feel like an imaginative stretch, but let’s give it a shot.
Website Equivalent of Featured Exhibits
Featured exhibits are the first item on the list, and it won’t surprise you that feature sections can be effective in design because you see it quite often. From content sliders and module tabs, to special limited-time offers and displaying fresh site content prominently, these various site components can draw attention to your featured items.
Remember how I said museums sometimes even promote featured exhibits outside of their physical location? The digital equivalent of this is advertising your "exhibits" in other sites and services, such as Twitter, Facebook, and AllTop, all of which can help enhance findability.
Website Equivalent of Signs and Directions
Signposts and directions have their own digital equivalents too. Many websites have help documentation and navigation aids like breadcrumbs to help you locate the things you need. Great designs will also use the art of distinction and call-to-action buttons to draw attention and guide the user’s eyes towards what they might be looking for.
Website Equivalent of Brochures and Reference Booklets
The equivalent of reference booklets and brochures on the web are help doc pages, FAQ pages, video tours, and so forth.
Website Equivalent of Maps
The most obvious manifestations of physical maps on a website are sitemaps and, to a large extent, your primary navigation menu. Creating a visually illustrative diagram of your site’s layout could also be components that help your users navigate around your site.
Website Equivalent of Human Assistance
A lot of businesses may say that it isn’t cost-effective to use a member of their team for live support, but they could have fixed hours for when live chat support is available to site visitors.
Otherwise, asynchronous communication methods such as a contact web form or a help desk support system can also be the website equivalent of informational booths that are driven by people.
Website Equivalent of Interactive Exhibits
Site interactivity can, just like their offline-counterparts, engage and provide more value to the experience of the user. You can have game mechanisms to enrich the user experience, live chat widgets so that visitors can interact with one another, and other simple strategies for creating a richer and more engaging experience.
Website Equivalent of Space and Clarity
Space and clarity on websites require a solid understanding of design principles. Thinking about Gestalt principles (and more specifically, the concept of proximity), visual hierarchy, the use of negative space, reductionism, all the way down to the basics of clear and legible web typography can lead to effective use of space and clarity that, in turn, can lead to a better and more user-friendly experience.
Website Equivalent of Souvenirs
People like and recommend free stuff to others, and if these "freebies" are branded or help promote your site, then in principle, the site’s visibility and illustriousness increases.
Souvenirs on websites could be custom browser extensions (for example, Mashable, a social media blog, has a Google Chrome extension), digital downloads (Six Revisions has freebies that are useful to its audience), or anything that allows your site visitors to retain something from their visit and reminds them to come back.
Structure from the Chaos
What all of this really boils down to is that it’s important to pay attention to the site visitor’s experience. All these concepts and components really lead to a single idea: A usable website is effective at providing what the visitor needs in a pleasant and near-effortless manner.
Why not visit a museum or art gallery yourself and see what other things you can apply to your profession? Maybe look at how they lay out their exhibits or observe how visitors interact with the various components provided to them.
The journey of an experience should be less about getting from points A to B (even with people in a hurry), and more about the things in between that make the experience pleasantly memorable.
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About the Author
This was published on Sep 20, 2010