Minneapolis Institute of Art
Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia) is the sixth largest art museum in the nation by square footage, with a collection of over 89,000 artworks from around the world. This large, donation-supported institution is committed to further its mission of educating and engaging the public. With a website that is currently underutilized, Mia seeks to improve the quality and accessibility of its digital content, especially for users who are present at the museum.
Met with client to determine scope of work and timeline
Conducted directed storytelling, contextual research, and usability tests
Created wireframes and prototype in response to research
Gave presentation to stakeholders, outlining UX recommendations and prototype features
Goals of Accessibility and Focus
With over 89,000 works of art on a campus that spans 8 acres, Mia’s visitors need technology that makes this rich resource more accessible — without distracting from it. In designing for an institution that values public accessibility, I didn’t want to disqualify too many potential users because of the age of their devices. For both of these reasons, I chose not to pursue emerging technologies or graphics-intensive features, choosing to focus on an experience that would work in most mobile browsers.
Secondary & Competitive Research
Mia had already done a thorough exit survey of museum visitors on the subject of technology use in the galleries. This study provided an overview of pain points in the current system, as well general of spaces of opportunity. Competitive research into the digital offerings of similar museums helped to flesh out alternative models of content delivery.
Listening to Users
Mia’s survey provided a solid foundation of statistics about visitor attitudes, but I wanted to hear from prospective users first-hand. I started with directed storytelling, asking museum visitors to tell me generally about how they planned for a trip to the museum and what they did when they got there.
In addition to talking to users, I made sure to spend time in the galleries, observing behavior patterns and documenting heuristic issues in the museum’s signage and literature.
Getting Feedback on Early Prototypes
Next, I created a few basic screens that represented different modes of information finding — a traditional search-and-browse interface, a map-based system, and a more thematic “Journey” idea.
I asked museum visitors to simply look at the three screens and give me their impressions of what they were looking at and how they might use it.
Even people who were interested in maps expressed anxiety about maps that were too complex (my mockup certainly was!) Nobody I talked to felt they were likely to seek out a specific artwork via search; several said that they “didn’t know enough about art.” I found this sentiment interesting, since I was talking to museum members who were art enthusiasts. Clearly, the typical museum-goer doesn’t want their visit to feel like research.
Sketching an Overview
User feedback helped me focus my attention on the concept of guided Journeys, rather than ways to search for individual artworks.
Pencil and paper is my go-to method for sketching initial layouts of each screen. It’s fast and flexible, and it keeps focus on the big picture.
Audio and Wayfinding, a la carte
In the final design, I included stand-alone audio and mapping features, although they were not my focus. For the visitor who wants to spontaneously check information, these individual features provide quick results.
A simplified Audio Finder can pull up information on an individual artwork, using the museum’s existing numerical codes.
A simplified map system highlights the information users found most critical: departments, restrooms, and cafes — while omitting room numbers unless magnified by zoom.
Users Seek Narrative
There were two things that I heard from nearly every user I talked to:
“Special visiting exhibitions are usually the the thing that motivates me to go to the museum.”
“I look for my favorite department when I go to the museum, but I don’t look for individual artworks.”
I was hearing that users felt more comfortable when they had a grouping or narrative to guide their viewing experience. They didn’t want to do research on what to see — they wanted some help from the museum.
My response to the users’ needs is also a response to the museum’s goal of engaging viewers with their permanent collection. Mia Journeys are audio tours that follow a theme across artworks from different centuries, continents, and cultures. They’re an opportunity for the museum to raise interest and awareness around their permanent collection. Mia Journeys are an opportunity for users to discover new works through guided exploration.
A few screens at the beginning of the journey orient users to the basic controls.
Navigation without Location Services
Accessibility is important to the museum; broad compatibility across devices is part of that goal. I didn’t want technical problems to discourage users. Knowing that location data could be inconsistent within the museum’s marble walls, I designed the journeys with a wayfinding screen between each destination, showing the next destination on a museum map. The user can advance to the next screen when they arrive at the destination.
Keeping Focus on the Art
When audio is playing, the screen is dimmed until playback is complete or the user taps the screen. This conserves battery and reminds the user that the main attraction is the art itself.