Improve Site Usability by Studying Museums

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.

Trying to browse all of the apps on iTunes is next to impossible!

This article aims to underscore lessons we can learn from museums and art galleries in relation to website usability.

A-Maze-ingly Unfriendly

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.

Navigation menus for visitors can turn from helpful aids to monstrous mazes; try to keep dropdown menus short.Navigation menus for visitors can turn from helpful aids to monstrous mazes; try to keep dropdown menus short.

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.

Don't make your navigation complex like this. Navigation isn't a puzzle game!Don’t make your navigation complex like this. Navigation isn’t a puzzle game!

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.

There’s nothing like having enough space to appreciate art and websites alike.

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.

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.

Giving each of your products its own "room" can aid you in giving them enough distinction.

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.

Showcasing images effectively will result in a more streamlined experience.

Components of Museums and Art Galleries

So what is the secret behind the success of a museum’s navigability?

Featured Exhibits

Source: Wikipedia

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

Jimmie Rodgers Museum Sign. Source: Wikipedia

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.


MapsEstonian Open Air Museum map. Source: Wikipedia.

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.

Human Assistance

Human Assistance

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.

Interactive Exhibits

Interactive ExhibitsScience Centre Port Blair Biotechnology Gallery. Source: Wikipedia

An increasing amount of museums offer interactive displays to make the things being presented to the visitor engaging and fun.

Space and Clarity

Space and ClaritySource: Wikipedia

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.


SouvenirsSouvenirs from USCG Museum Northwest, Seattle, Washington. Source: Wikipedia

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.

The above image shows precisely how you can feature prominent content.

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 Signs and DirectionsChapters indicate how far you’ve travelled through a large document.

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.

Offering guided tours or quick start tutorials can help engage visitor understanding.

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.

Providing a site map showcases the amazing array of content your site holds.

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.

Live chat software can be useful as a form of human assistance to site visitors.

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.

Giving your users something to interact with provides a 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.

Breaking information down into manageable segments help progressive navigation.

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.

Giving some branded freebies away will help trigger the user’s memory of your website.

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.

Related Content

About the Author

Alexander Dawson is a freelance web designer, author and recreational software developer specializing in web standards, accessibility and UX design. As well as running a business called HiTechy and writing, he spends time on Twitter, SitePoint’s forums and other places, helping those in need.

This was published on Sep 20, 2010


Good fine. Good comparison of website and museums :) Thx for sharing

Tom Ross Sep 20 2010

Really unique article Alexander! Whilst it seems a little unrealistic to translate all of a museum’s usability features to a digital format, you’ve raised some great pointers here. Topics like usability are certainly easier to understand when considered via the perspective of a real-life experience such as this one.

Great post Alexander!

Michael Lajlev Sep 20 2010

Nice comparison. I like the idea of making comparisions to the world we live in. Maybe we should try brainstorm on other areas we could make a comparison. What about fastfood places, ikea ect.

Boyd Dames Sep 20 2010

Really interesting thougt. Great post!

Edwin Sandoval Sep 20 2010

Good post, maybe the next site could be a good example:

Jon Brink Sep 20 2010

Are there too many audio shows out there? Or are there not enough?

Very powerfull and inspiring article. Thank you!

allbattery Sep 21 2010

Really different commodity Alexander! Whilst it seems a little unrealistic to construe all of a museum’s account appearance to a agenda format, you’ve aloft some abundant pointers here. Topics like account are absolutely easier to accept back advised via the angle of a real-life acquaintance such as this one.

Alexander Dawson Sep 21 2010

Thanks for the comments guys, I’m glad you enjoyed the article. :)

@Michael Lajlev: An Ikea comparison would be interesting. Some user assembly required!

Eddy Kindermans Sep 21 2010

I’ve been working in different fields – museums, attractions, websites and other formats like video, shops, etc and I have been using these comparisons between “formats” all the time. I am no longer alone! Thank you! Let’s make a club! :)

Mark @ Alchemy United Sep 21 2010

Interesting idea Alexander. Kudos to you (and SR) for giving it a shot. If nothing else it serves as a starting point for discussion.

And while not to be a critic (because I did enjoy the article), the metaphor breaks down for me for two reasons:

1) Most of the maze-esque sites do in fact have many of the things you mentioned, no? My belief is that typically a poor UX is so because it wasn’t design/developed as a UX. It exists for any reason but being a UX. For example, the designer’s creative masturbation. Or the client’s insistence of coolness over usefulness.

2) Maybe I am exception to the rule but my interpretation is that most people (i.e., myself included) stroll a museum. Their expectation of a website is probably not as casual.

Again, I’m not trying to shoot down your idea. But I am willing to take the time to punch a couple holes in it so maybe you can tighten it up and move it from alpha to beta :)

p.s. Maybe it’s more like a supermarket? Long rows of similar/related products. “Cross selling” is typically within the row. There are attention getting end caps for specials. There are the proverbial signs above the end caps. Weekly fliers with specials, etc. I guess the biggest difference is that this metaphor makes you hungry :)

Alexander Dawson Sep 21 2010

@Mark: Many sites do have those mentioned, but while museums can eliminate the issue of confusion by offering those aids, sites can be of an infinite size and complexity which means that IA becomes as important as UX. So I guess it becomes a case of leveraging the lessons in addition to a good choice of “building”.

As for strolling a site, there are plenty of times when I’ve just browsed a URL to see what’s going on. Take Six Revisions, when I first discovered this place I looked around the “rooms” of content (at my own pace) to see what I could learn (or what would interest me) and upon knowing where everything was and familiarising myself with the environment did I then (upon returning) visit with a direct intent (for new articles). With museums there may be times when you want to see one specific exhibit (if you’re a regular and have seen the displays before). This is much alike a site where familiarity reduces the curiosity to go beyond your initial planned experience.

Great article!

Craig Sep 22 2010

Great post, and there is organisation and usability all around us, and a musuem has some great comparisons, Thanks!

Casey Sep 22 2010

I liked this out-of-the-box idea to get across good ideas when designing a website. Thanks.

Kristie Sep 22 2010

Nice idea. It’s interesting to think about taking a full-body experience and putting it into the flat-screen online world. I like your comparisons.

Interesting comparison to a museum. The navigation and ease of use should always be a primary concern during the lifetime of any project. These items feed into the concept of user experience, which works its way though out every piece of the design.

Everything should have a clear defined purpose. If that purpose is not apparent, the developer should reconsider the inclusion of that object or page, because, more than likely, it works against his or her primary design goal. I don’t know many designers who intentionally make their work more confusing.

Robin Apr 19 2011

As someone that used to work in a museum and an art gallery I really appreciate the large white space employed by the curators.

I can understand if you have an actual shop paying rent by the square metre but on a website where space is available readily I can’t understand why everything is always so cluttered.

marta lorca Apr 22 2011

I definitely agree in which concerns the search for iphone apps! a shame that they are not able to create a simple and intuitive way of organizing all this stuff.

Jonathan Cooper Jun 01 2011

Very interesting. I was pleasantly surprised to see the art museum I work at ( used as an example of “Space and Clarity”. Also, you might be interested in this article on how principles and techniques used in art museum education can be applied in web construction:

I have used this post to explain/demonstrate to clients how their sites should work. They very quickly grasp points that I have tried to explain to them without success.

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