Long live RSS

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I just made a new Tumblr. It’s called “Recently Digitized Design.” It took me all of five minutes. I hope this blog post will take me all of ten.

But it’s actually kinda cool, and here’s why. Cooper Hewitt is in the midst of mass digitization project where we will have digitized our entire collection of over 215K objects by mid to late next year. Wow! 215K objects. That’s impressive, especially when you consider that probably 5000 of those are buttons!

What’s more is that we now have a pretty decent “pipeline” up and running. This means that as objects are being digitized and added to our collections management system, they are automatically winding up on our collections website after winding their way through a pretty hefty series of processing tasks.

Over on the West Coast, Aaron, felt the need to make a little RSS feed for these “recently digitized” so we could all easily watch the new things come in. RSS, which stands for “Rich Site Summary”, has been around forever, and many have said that it is now a dead technology.

Lately I’ve been really interested in the idea of Microservices. I guess I never really thought of it this way, but an RSS or ATOM feed is kind of a microservice. Here’s a highlight from “Building Microservices by Sam Newman” that explains this idea in more detail.

Another approach is to try to use HTTP as a way of propagating events. ATOM is a REST-compliant specification that defines semantics ( among other things ) for publishing feeds of resources. Many client libraries exist that allow us to create and consume these feeds. So our customer service could just publish an event to such a feed when our customer service changes. Our consumers just poll the feed, looking for changes.

Taking this a bit further, I’ve been reading this blog post, which explains how one might turn around and publish RSS feeds through an existing API. It’s an interesting concept, and I can see us making use of it for something just like Recently Digitized Design. It sort of brings us back to the question of how we publish our content on the web in general.

In the case of Recently Digitized Design the RSS feed is our little microservice that any client can poll. We then use IFTTT as the client, and Tumblr as the output where we are publishing the new data every day. 

RSS certainly lives up to its nickname ( Really Simple Syndication ), offering a really simple way to serve up new data, and that to me makes it a useful thing for making quick and dirty prototypes like this one. It’s not a streaming API or a fancy push notification service, but it gets the job done, and if you log in to your Tumblr Dashboard, please feel free to follow it. You’ll be presented with 10-20 newly photographed objects from our collection each day.

UPDATE:

So this happened: http://twitter.com/recentlydigital

Print The Exhibition – The Label Book Generator

As a Peter A. Krueger intern this summer, I am working in both the Digital and Emerging Media and Cross-Platform Publishing Departments at the Cooper Hewitt. Since I am traversing the two departments, a project that allows me to learn from each and create something that benefits both is of course ideal. The Label Book Generator does this in a twofold manner: It allows me the opportunity to learn and write code to develop a digital product, which in turn, serves to produce a physical publication of interpretive content for an exhibition.

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Label Book Generator–’How Posters Work’ exhibition page

Currently a prototype, The Label Book Generator is a tool that creates a printed publication of object labels for each exhibition at the Cooper Hewitt. In its most basic use, Visitor Services at the museum can navigate to an exhibition from a list on the website’s homepage and once on an exhibition page, press Command-P (or File > Print) to generate a PDF with an initial cover page followed by a single label on each page–all entirely set in a larger font-size.

What initially prompted the development of this prototype was to solve readability issues visitors may have with existing wall labels. This does not imply that the current label design needs to change or be set in a larger font-size, but instead that the labeling system as a whole should be augmented with something to make them more accessible, to provide a magnifying glass of sorts when needed.

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Publication in use in the gallery

The entire process proved to be invaluable as a learning experience. From the start it was obvious that I needed to leverage the museum’s API to access object data by exhibition to ultimately populate fields in each label. As the Label Book Generator website is currently, the selection and order of the fields are in accordance with a predefined template that begins to apply the typographic guidelines of the existing wall labels. As a graphic designer it was particularly interesting for me to consider the meticulous planning that is usually involved in typesetting parallel to the time spent writing the code. Whereas typically, these two processes are dealt with in succession.

Since the end result needed to be a book, I was set on formatting the data in a markdown document that would have typographic styles manually applied in InDesign. A Python script was written to create a markdown document with syntax assigned to each field, e.g., titles would be prepended with ‘#’ to be a top level header, dates with ‘##’ to be a second level, etc.

Stumbling along with my rudimentary skills in Python–and at one point rewriting the whole thing in Javascript, only to go back to Python–led me to conclude that outputting the final document with InDesign can be circumvented. With the much-appreciated help of Micah Walter, it was settled that rather than generating a markdown file, I should instead produce a small web application using Python and Flask as a framework. The most salient aspect of the entire project now being a simple print style sheet for the website that automatically generates the same final document that having to manually use InDesign would have produced (Here is the code available on Github).

With a central concern for typography, the print style sheet seamlessly flows all the content into any fixed page format, which in this case would be a printable PDF. The printed document once bound can be considered an exhibition catalog reduced to its essential elements: A list of every work, with their respective information and descriptions (when available).

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Interior spread of printed publication

The Label Book Generator solves the initial prompt of assisting those hard of seeing. However, considering that the website from the get-go is built with a responsive layout and scalable typography (again due to the simultaneity of graphic design and web development) there are a number of opportunities to expand it’s role and purpose.

The typography, padding and margins set in REMs (Root EM), rather than fixed sizes, allows for the ability to control the base size and relatively adjust the measurements. A future version of the website can include in the interface a means to control how large or small the base size of the document should be, given the dimensions of the fixed format–whether it be a standard letter-sized PDF, or otherwise.

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Browser print dialog box

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Cover page of printed publication generated from the website

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Interior spread of printed publication

When presenting the prototype to others here at the museum Katie Shelly brought up an interesting future use case involving blind visitors and screen reader software. In addition to the possibilities with printable versions of the Label Book Generator, the website itself provides a responsive mobile view of all the labels which could theoretically be read to the visitors via their personal device.

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Mobile view of website

Finally, the printed label book serves as a means to visualize the collection database. If a label in the book and website is missing a field, it reflects an oversight at the ‘source of truth’. In other words, there is a one-to-one relationship between the fields in both the labels and the database. Ultimately, this brings to mind the commonplace workflow of producing wall labels that are manually written, designed, and edited (on this topic see also: Label Whisperer). In perhaps a later version, a similar process of using the museum’s API to automate the process of generating the label book, could theoretically be applied to the entire production of wall labels for the museum.

Missing tags for the object on recto

Missing tags for ‘Amerika’

Give the Generator a go!

When the optimal interface is paper: improving visitor information

Earlier in this series I wrote about improving customer-facing ticketing touchpoints and UX improvements to a internal-facing app. This 3rd post is about the design and thinking behind a valuable— albeit non-tech— touchpoint: a postcard explaining how to use the pen.

When we first launched the Pen, it was obvious that we needed to quicken up the front desk transaction. One thing that was really slowing down the transactions (and causing a big line) was the “Pen schpiel.” A verbal explanation of what the Pen is, why it’s cool, and how to use it could hog up several minutes per transaction.

a comic-book style grid of photos showing a transaction between two gentlemen step-by-step

I made this storyboard in April 2014 with some willing coworkers and simple props (3D printed pen, fake ticket, fake postcard, fake “sample label,” and fake staff badge). In the last frame, the desk rep references an FAQ postcard.

We predicted the need for a postcard almost a year before the pen launch, but didn’t print one until we were sure it was necessary. I mocked up a fake postcard with a photo of a 3D-printed pen to provide some needed conversation-starting visuals in our early meetings. This was long before the pen had a final form factor, and you can see that our initial conversations about pen size and shape were a little uncomfortable.

person's hand holding up a postcard in an office setting. postcard says "LEARN MORE" with a blue plastic tube-like object.

This was the ‘sample’ postcard in the above storyboard, all created months before the Pen had a final form factor.

The postcard idea was on the back burner for many months as we all focused on the bare essentials of getting the Pen and its suite of services running at a baseline level. Once the Pen was released to the public in March 2015, the length of time of each transaction became an obvious “pain point” that needed our attention. So, the postcard was brought back to the table.

two postcards, shown front and back, with 1-2-3-4 illustrated steps

My first pass (left) used real images. The second pass (right) used illustrations, which were widely preferred by everyone I asked for input.

Sam had a cool idea to let visitors peel up the non-badge part of their ticket and stick it to the card, with some text boldly pointing to your “personal URL.” (The whole ticket is printed on sticker paper). This was clever because it could minimize the possibility of visitors losing or unthinkingly discarding their tickets, which contains the precious personal URL they’ll need to access their personal visit diary. When stuck to a postcard, the ticket might have a better chance of making it safely to a visitor’s home.

I worked closely with the front desk staff to get the language just right. It had to be concise but also explanatory. When the cards arrived from the printer, the desk staff was super excited and hopeful that these cards could help them save time and energy at each transaction.

Informational graphic and text with steps 1-4 under the heading " YOUR PEN = YOUR MUSEUM DIARY"

The first printing of the pen postcard.

When put to the test, these postcards turned out to be less useful than we all imagined.

Only about 2 in 5 visitors wanted to take a postcard. And even the guests who did take a postcard still wanted verbal explanation in addition to the card. (We ended up handling this by diverting the most explanation-hungry visitors to a representative stationed at the nearest interactive table for informal “group tutorials”.)

So the postcard was not a panacea, but it did ease the pain somewhat.

There was an overall feeling from visitors and desk reps that the postcard was too verbose and this is why most guests didn’t want to pick it up and read it. Another point brought up by the desk staff was that while the card functions well as a didactic, it doesn’t sell the pen. It doesn’t tell you why you ought to try it. A third observation: most people were not springing for the cool peel-and-stick feature. Humbug.

a person's hand pulling a postcard out of an acrylic stand which holds a stack of cards. the setting is a darkened lobby.

People are more willing to read a document while they’re waiting in line than when they’ve reached the front desk and are already talking to someone.

So we hit the drawing board again. I created a voting ballot so the front desk staff could weigh in on two choices for the front and back of the card. We had clear winners, as you can see in the image below. The voting sparked a conversation that led to further refinement of the text and images.

two pieces of paper with images and written-in-pen names beside each image.

Desk Reps are always working on their feet or dealing with the public, so the most convenient way to get their imput is an old-fashioned paper ballot (not a web form).

The desk reps were unanimously against “PLAY DESIGNER” as sell copy for the Pen, because they were sure that many guests would think the word “play” meant the message was targeted at kids. So, I came up with 7 copy variations and we did another round of voting. The desk staff almost unanimously voted for a “write-in option” from one of their peers for its directness and clarity. The suggestion was: “EXPLORE AND DESIGN.”

a piece of paper, shown front and back, the first with a grid of images and initials scribbled in pen, and the back with many handwritten notes on a blank page, all in pen

The winning idea was actually a “write-in” contender on the back of the page, which sparked impassioned debate among desk staff.

The voting was not just a method for collecting votes, but also a way to spark conversation among many staff, across departments.

What I learned from this experience is that the folks on the “front lines” tend to dislike any language or collateral that is in any way subtle, abstract, or “overly clever,” citing the likelihood that too much coyness will just confuse visitors. It makes sense; when a visitor is trying to get going in the museum, corral his kids, juggle his bag and coat, get himself to the restroom, keep an eye on the time, and so on, he won’t have a lot of “brain space” for interpreting any subtleties. They just need crystal clear information to get them on their way.

a telephone on museum display with a label beneath, a hand holding a large black wand, and steps 1-4 for use written in blue bold text

These instructions are less detailed, but also less tl;dr

three young people in a museum setting holding large black wands and pressing them to a touchscreen glass tabletop

The new postcard shows real people using the pen, making it visually obvious what a person should do with it.

The second version has:

  • Giant copy to “sell” the pen by describing its basic functions (Create, Collect, Save).
  • Bigger images to catch attention and make the card more “pick-up-able.”
  • Less text to ease tl;dr anxiety.
  • Image and word choice is intended to make the function of the pen’s “tip” and “base” obvious just by looking.

100 days

Museum Stats | Collection of Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

Today marks the 100th day since the Pen started being distributed to visitors. Its been a wild ride and the latest figures are far beyond our estimations.

As of today, Pens have been handed out to 40,846 visitors which represents about 93% of all eligible visitors so far. We’re not currently distributing Pens on Saturday nights, nor to education groups, so they’re excluded from the count.

When we were thinking about the Pen and its integration into the museum, ubiquity was a critical concern. We knew that making it an ‘addon’ or ‘optional’ wasn’t going to achieve the behavior change that we desired, so continuing to make the on-boarding process easier for visitors and staff has been very important.

All of that would be for nought, if those Pens weren’t being used. Those Pens have collected 889,156 objects – averaging nearly 22 per Pen. That’s really surprised us! With a median of 11 we are still working on new methods in the galleries to help visitors collect more with their Pens, and in some cases, get started.

We’ve been equally excited that visitors have chosen to save 35,138 of their own creations from the wallpaper room, 3D designs, and Sketchbot portraits.

We’ve seen dwell times on the campus – from the times visitors take the Pen to when they return on exit – balloon out to a current average of 102 minutes, slightly less on weekends.

Another surprise has been the ‘most collected object’. It is the Noah’s Ark cut paper from 1982, an object that is on display towards the back of Making Design on the 2nd floor – certainly not the first object a visitor encounters. We probably shouldn’t be very surprised though, as it does also show up frequently as a visitor favorite on Instagram.

If you’d like to see what else is popular then hop over to our newly public ‘basic statistics‘ page where the top six objects and other numbers update daily.

And as for the post-visit experience? Just over 25% of ticketed visitors check out their collections after their visit, and a third of them decide to create accounts to permanently store their collection.

Over the coming months we’ll be working on continuously improving the Pen experience in the galleries – and as next week’s new exhibitions open to the public, the museum will have changed over almost every gallery since December. A lot of those improvements are going to be, as we’ve already seen, not technical in nature, but about more human-to-human interaction and assistance.

The digital experience at Cooper Hewitt is supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies.

Label Writer: Connecting NFC tags to collection objects

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Labels, for better or worse, are central to the museum experience. They provide visitors with access to basic object information (metadata) and a tiny glimpse into the curatorial research for everything in the galleries, helping to place objects in context. At Cooper Hewitt, they are also the gateway through which the Pen‘s “collect” interaction is realized.

In order for the Pen to know which object label you’re trying to collect, every label in the museum contains an NFC tag that is written with the object’s ID. When an object gets added to our database we give it an ID, an integer that is unique across our entire online collections database. Our beloved Spanking Cat, for example, has the ID number 18382391. Writing that number to an NFC tag is a simple task, but doing it hundreds of times for every new exhibition we roll out will get tedious very quickly. Thus, Label Writer was born.

Label Writer is an Android app that writes, reads and locks NFC tags based on the object to which the label refers. The staff member can look up the objects that are in a given room of our museum, select one or more of them, and assign them to the label in question. They can search for specific objects in case an object’s location hasn’t been updated yet. They can also write tags for videos and shop items.

The front and back of the NFC tag we use in our labels, with pennies for scale

From left to right: the back and front of the NFC tags we use in our labels, and pennies for scale.

Planning

After thinking about the app we came up with the following requirements:

  1. When processing a user’s visit, we need to know what type of thing they’ve collected. When the Pen launched, this was either objects or videos, and has since grown to include shop items. To facilitate that process, Label Writer would have to distinguish between types of things and write tags that indicated that.
  2. It would need to write multiple things to a tag, including things of different types. One label might contain three objects. Another label might contain one video and two objects.
  3. It would need to lock tags. Leaving the tags unlocked would enable anyone with an NFC-enabled smartphone to walk around the galleries and overwrite our tags. Locking the tags prevents this.
  4. It would need to read tags and display images of what’s on a tag. This is so we can double-check what is on a tag before we lock it. We only print one copy of every label – sometimes through an offsite service – and the wall labels (as opposed to the rail labels) have their NFC tags glued in and unable to be replaced.
  5. Label Writer would have to present objects in a constrained format — having to find the object on a label from our total collection of 210,000 objects every time, through accession number lookup or other traditional searches, would get annoying very quickly.
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The NFC tags on our wall labels are built in to the label.

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The NFC tags on our rail labels are interchangeable.

Production

I decided to build the app in Android because it has great support for NFC and we have plenty of Nexus 9 tablets at the museum for use in the galleries. I started with this boilerplate for an Android read/write NFC app and performed initial tests to make sure we could write a tag that could be read by some of the early Pen prototypes. Once that was established, I began fleshing out the UI of the app and worked on hooking it up to our API.

The API gives us so much to work with on the app’s frontend. Being able to display an object’s image is a much better way to confirm that a label is written correctly than by comparing IDs or accession numbers. The API also lets us see all of the objects in a given room of the museum, which means that the user can write labels in an ordered fashion. When the labels arrive from the printer they are grouped by room, and often we will not write the tags until they have been installed in the galleries, so “by room” is a convenient way to organize objects on the frontend. It also gives us easy access to videos and shop items, and allows the app to easily be expanded to write labels for more things from our collections database. Since our collections site alpha, we have stressed the importance of an easily-accessed permanent ID for everything: people, objects, videos, exhibitions, locations etc., and now with the Pen we can prepare labels that allow users to collect any one of those things during their visit to the museum.

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When I took all these screenshots, the app was called “Tag Writer”, as in “NFC Tag Writer.” But “Label Writer” sounds better.

When the app is opened, the user is prompted with a few ways to group objects. Since we added videos and shop items to the app, this intro screen has grown a bit so it will probably get a redesign when we next expand its capabilities. But for now, users have a few options here:

  1. They can select a room from a dropdown menu (here’s a list of all of our rooms)
  2. They can enter an individual accession number
  3. They can enter a video’s ID
  4. They can search the shop (see Aaron’s recent post about adding shop items to our online collection)

When one of these options is used, the relevant objects appear on the screen. For example, selecting Room 106 brings up some of the posters from our current How Posters Work exhibition. Being able to display the images of the posters makes it much easier for the user to confirm that they are connecting the dots accurately — accession numbers and object IDs are easily confused (not to mention boring to look at).

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The user can then tap one or more objects to add them to a label. In the screenshot below, you can see that two objects have been selected and the orange bar at the bottom has formatted them to be written to a tag — in this case, chsdm:o:68730187;18708395. The way that things get written to tags follows a format we agreed upon early in the Pen design process, as various developers would be building applications that relied on reading and parsing a Pen’s content. In brief, chsdm is a namespace for our museum that is not particularly necessary but serves as a header for what follows. o stands for object and then the ID (or semicolon-delimited IDs) that follow are the IDs of objects. The letter can change: v for video, s for shop, and on and on for whatever other things we might eventually write to tags. We add a pipe character (|) to delimit multiple types of things on a tag, so a tag with an object and a video might look like chsdm:o:18714653|chsdm:v:68764195. But all of this is handled by the app based on what the user selects in the interface.

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Next, a user can hold the tablet up to the object label to write the NFC tag. When the tag is written, the orange bar at the bottom turns green to let the user know it went okay. Later, using the “Read Tags” functionality of the app, the user can confirm the tag’s contents by reading the NFC tag. The app parses the tag and loads the things it thinks the tag refers to. When this is confirmed, the user can lock the tag to make sure nobody overwrites it.

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Here’s everything, from start to finish, using the object-lookup-by-accession-number functionality.

Next Steps

I mentioned that the home screen of this app will get a redesign as we allow more types of things to be written to tags. The user experience of the tag writing process needs a little finessing — a bug in how success messages get displayed has resulted in a few tags that get written with bunk data. Fortunately that is caught in the “read” phase of the workflow, but should be corrected earlier.

Overall, as we keep swapping out exhibitions, Label Writer will get more and more use. We will use these opportunities to collect feedback from the app’s users and make changes to the app accordingly.

Object concordances – what is the simplest thing to match like with like?

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Do you notice anything special about this screenshot of Charles Eames’ famous No. 670 Chair?

It might be hard to see because it’s a tall screenshot and this is a small thumbnail. Have a look at the large version. Hint: It’s not the part where the chair is missing in the picture. It’s actually this, on the right-hand side of the object details:

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Object concordances! With other museums! To the same objects in their collections!! On their own websites !!!

Before you get too excited (and think its actual working ‘Linked Data’), we should point out that as of this writing we have only “concordified” four distinct objects – this one, this one, this one and that one – eight times with four separate organizations, one of which is our own shop, so there is a lot of work left to do.

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If you look carefully you can see that most of the concordances, to date, were added within about 90 minutes of one another. That’s because Seb and I were talking about object concordances over lunch that day and agreed that we could probably push the simplest and dumbest thing out the door before I went home. It has been something that has been on the agenda since mid-2012.

Specifically, we maintain a fixed list of institutions with whom we will “concordify” objects. If your institution isn’t on that list yet it’s not personal. We can add as many institutions as we want but we think the narrow focus helps to explain the purpose of the tool. Then we simply record that institutions unique ID, the object ID for something in our collection and the object ID for something in their collection. That’s it.

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Currently the tools for adding concordances, or editing institutions, are … terrible.

(Or rather, they are the unadorned plumbing that makes the whole thing work. So they are beautiful and elegant in their own way but most people would be forgiven for not seeing those qualities right away.)

Short-term the goal is to build some friendlier “admin” web page for a few more people to add concordances without having to worry about the technical details. Medium-term the goal is to create restricted API methods for doing fancy-pants buttons and pop-up dialogs on the object pages themselves to allow staff to add concordances as they think of them or are otherwise just poking around the collections website. Maybe in the long term, ‘the crowd’ might be invited to do it too.

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Somewhere between those two things we will also build proper “index” pages on the collections website of all the objects that have been concordified, all the institutions that have concordified objects and so on. Just like we’ve already done for people.

The other thing we’ll do shortly is make sure that these concordances are included in the CC0 Cooper Hewitt collections metadata dump which is available on GitHub.

When we said “the simplest thing” we meant it.

There isn’t much yet but it’s a start – a tangible proof of what it could be – and if we’ve done our job right then it is one of those things that will grow exponentially, as always, as time and circumstance permit.

(If you’ve been a long time reader you might remember we did Rijkscolors back in 2013 as an experiment in automatically matching objects – but we were undone by language and structural differences in metadata, and the reality that humans might still be better at this at least until the sector irons a few things out)

Collect all the things – shoeboxes, shop items and the Pen

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You can now collect any object in the collection, or on display, from the collections website itself. Just like in the galleries there is a small “collect” icon on the top right-hand side of every object page on the collections website. It’s not just individual object pages but also all the object list pages, too. So many “collect” icons!

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  Objects that haven’t been collected yet have a grey icon.

  Objects that have been collected in the galleries, as part of a visit to the museum, have a pink icon.

  Objects that that have been collected on the collections website have an orange icon.

Simply click the grey icon to collect an object or click one of the orange or pink icons to remove or un-collect that object.

That’s it!

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Just like visit items, things you collect on the website have a permanent URL that can be made public to share with other people and can be given a bespoke title or description. Objects that you collect on the collections website live in something we’re calling the “shoebox”.

You can get your to shoebox by visiting https://collection.cooperhewitt.org/users/YOUR-USERNAME/shoebox or if you’re already logged in to your Cooper Hewitt account by visiting https://collection.cooperhewitt.org/you/shoebox/.

There is also a handy link in the Your stuff menu, located at the top-left of every page on the collections website.

The shoebox is the set of all the objects you’ve collected (or created) on the website or during your visits to the museum. Although visits and visit items overlap with things in your shoebox we still treat them differently because although you need to be logged in to you Cooper Hewitt account to add things to your shoebox a visit to the museum can be entirely anonymous if a visitor so chooses.

The default view for the shoebox is to display everything together in reverse-chronological order but you can filter the view to show only things collected online or things collected during a visit. You can also see the set of all the objects you’ve made public or private.

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logged out view (large version)

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logged in view (large version)

But it’s not just objects, either. You can already collect videos during your museum visit so those are included too. Ultimately the only limit to what you might collect with the Pen is time-and-typing. Things we’re thinking about making collect-able include: entire exhibitions or the introductory texts on the wall for an exhibition or people or individual rooms in the Mansion.

Museum retail

We’ve started this process by allowing you to collect things in the museum Shop.

By “things in the Shop” we mean all the things that have ever been sold in the Shop over the years. And by “all the things” we mean almost all the things. There is some technical hoop-jumping related to inventory management systems and that is why we don’t have everything yet but we’ll get there in time.

We are a captial-D design museum with a capital-D design shop and many of the things that have been available in the Shop have gone on to become part of our permanent collection so it only makes sense to give them a home on the collections website. In fact MoMA already does similarly with their “find related products in the MoMA Store” feature though ours is a bit different.

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You can see for yourself at https://collection.cooperhewitt.org/shop

The /shop section is divided in two parts: Brands and Items (and all the items for a given brand of course). There isn’t a whole lot of extra information beyond titles and links to the SHOP Cooper Hewitt website for those items that are currently in-stock but it’s a start. Like the rest of the collections website we’ve started with the idea that providing permanent stable URLs that people can have confidence we create something that can be improved on over time.

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Shop items and brands don’t get updated as regularly as we’d like yet. We are still working through the fiddly details of bridging our systems with the Shop’s ecommerce and POS system and some things still need to be done by hand. We’ve been able to get this far though so we expect things will only get better.

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You might be wondering…

You might be reading this and starting to wonder Hmmm… does that mean I can also collect things in the Shop as I walk around the museum with the Pen? the answer is… Yes!

As of this writing there are only one or two items that can be collected with the Pen because the Shop staff are still getting familiar with the tools and thinking about how making collect-able labels changes in their day-to-day workflow. The obvious future of this might be the infamous ‘wedding register’, however we believe that many museum visitors actually would like to bookmark objects to possibly buy later, or just remember as part of their overall visit to the ‘museum campus’.

Practically what that has meant are some changes to Sam‘s “tag writer” application (the subject of a future blog post) to fetch shop items via our API and then letting the Shop folks decide what they want to tag and when they want to do it.

There has been a whole lot of change here over the course of the last three years and allowing the various parts of the museum warm up to the possibilities that the Pen starts to afford at their own pace and with not only a minimum of fuss but plenty of wiggle-room for experimentation is really important.

In the meantime we hope that you enjoy collecting at least more, if not all, of the things that make up the museum.

Happy Staff = Happy Visitors: Improving Back-of-House Interfaces

“You have to make the back of the fence that people won’t see look just as beautiful as the front, just like a great carpenter would make the back of a chest of drawers … Even though others won’t see it, you will know it’s there, and that will make you more proud of your design.”

—Steve Jobs

In my last post I talked about improvements to online ticketing based on observations made in the first weeks after launching the Pen.

Today’s post is about an important internal tool: the registration station whose job is to pair a new ticket with a new pen. Though visitors will never see this interface, it’s really important that it be simple, easy, clear, and fast. It is also critical that staff are able to understand the feedback from this app because if a pen is incorrectly paired with a ticket then the visitor’s data (collections and creations) will be lost.

Like a Steve-Jobs-approved iPod or a Van Cleef & Arpels ruby brooch, the “inside” of our system should be as carefully and thoughtfully designed as the outside.

the view from behind a desk with screens and wires everywhere. a tablet positioned upright with some tiny text and bars of color.

Version 1 of the app was functional but cluttered, with too much text, and no clear point of focus for the eye.

Because the first version of the app was built to be procedurally functional, its visual design was given little consideration. However, the application as a whole was designed so that the user interface – running in a web browser – was completely separate from the underlying pen pairing functionality, which makes updating the front-end a relatively straightforward task.

Also, we were getting a few complaints from visitors who returned home eager to see their visit diary, and were disappointed to see that their custom URL contained no data. We suspected this could have been a result of the poor UI at ticketing.

With this in mind, I sat behind the desk to observe our staff in action with real customers. I did about three sessions, for about ten minutes each, sometimes during heavy visitor traffic and sometimes during light traffic. Here’s what I kept an eye on while observing:

  • How many actions are required per transaction? Is there any way to minimize the number of “clicks” (in this case, “taps”) required from staff?
  • Is the visual feedback clear enough to be understood with only partial attention? Or do  typography, colors, and composition require an operator’s full attention to understand what’s going on?
  • What extraneous information can we minimize or omit?
  • What’s the critical information we should enlarge or emphasize?

After observing, I tried my hand at the app myself. This was actually more edifying than doing observations. Kathleen, our head of Visitor Services, had a batch of about 30 Pens to pair for a group, and I offered to help. I was very slow with the app, so I wasn’t really of much help, moving through my batch of pens at about half the speed of Kathleen’s staff.

Some readers may be thinking that since the desk staff had adjusted to a less-than-excellent visual design and were already moving pretty fast with it, this could be a reason not to improve it. As designers, we should always be helping and improving. Nobody should have to live with a crappy interface, even if they’ve adjusted to it! And, there will be new staff, and they will get to skip the adjustment process and start on the right foot with a better-designed tool.

My struggle to use the app was fuel for its redesign, which you can see germinating in my drawings below.

some marker sketches of a tablet interface with lots of scribbled notes

After several rounds of paper sketches like these, the desk reps and I decided on this sequence as the starting point for version two of the app.

These were the last in a series of drawings that I worked through with the desk staff. So our first few “iterative prototypes” were created and improved upon in a matter of minutes, since they were simply scribbled on paper. We arrived at the above stopping point, which Sam turned into working code.

Here’s what’s new in version 2:

  • The most important information—the alphanumeric shortcode— is emphasized. The font is about 6 or 7 times bigger, with exaggerated spacing and lots of padding (white space) on all sides for increased legibility. Or as I like to call it, “glanceability.” This helps make sure that the front of house staff pair the correct pen with the correct ticket.
  • Fewer words. For example, “Check Out Pen With This Shortcode” changed to “GO”, “Pen has been successfully checked out and written with shortcode ABCD” changed to “Success,” etc. This makes it easier for staff to know, quickly, that the process has worked and they can move on to the next ticket/pen/customer.

“I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”
Mark Twain

  • More accurate words. Our team uses a different vernacular from the people working at the desk. This is normal, since we don’t work together often, and like any neighboring tribes, we’ve developed subtly different words for different things. Since this app is used by desk staff, I wanted it to reflect their language, not ours. For example, “Pair” is what they call “check-out” and “Return” is what they call “check-in.”
  • Better visual hierarchy: The original app had many competing horizontal bands of content, with no clear visual clue as to which band needed the operator’s attention at any given time. We used white space, color (green/yellow/red for go/wait/stop), and re-arranging of elements (less-used features to the bottom, more-used features to the top) to better direct the eye and make it clear to the user what she ought to be looking at.
  • Simple animations to help the user understand when the app is “working” and they should just wait.

Still to come are added features (bulk pairing, maintenance mode) and any ideas the desk reps might develop after a couple of weeks of using the new version.

Imagine how difficult this process would have been if the museum had outsourced all of its design and programming work, or if it were all encased in a proprietary system.

Exporting your visits

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Starting today you can export the items you have collected or created during your visits to the museum. When you export a visit we will bundle up all the objects you’ve collected and all the items you’ve created in to a static website that is then compressed and made available for you to download directly.

A static website means that you can view all of your visit items in any old web browser, even when it’s not connected to the Internet. It means that if you have your own website you can copy your visit export over it and host it and share it and, well… do whatever you want with it.

Where “whatever you want” means “so long as you comply” with the Smithsonian Terms of Use or assert your rights under Fair Use if you are based in the US.

We think that this is of particular importance to educators who may not have unfiltered or functional internet connections in their classrooms.

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A visit export doesn’t have all the same bells and whistles that your visit on the Cooper Hewitt collections website does but everything you need to view an export (except a web browser obviously) is contained in the file you download. There is a landing page, and a paginated view of everything you’ve done and a page for every object collected and each one of your creations.

Visit exports also come with a friendly and detailed JSON file for every item you’ve collected or created. If you don’t know what that last sentence means, don’t worry about it. It just means that everything you’ve done during a visit also has a file containing structured metadata about that activity which your developer friends may get excited about.

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Visit exports use are very own js-cooperhewitt-images library to manage square-cropped thumbnails that reveal the complete thumbnail when you mouse over them, just like on the collections website.

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Images for loan objects are not included with your visit download. That’s because they’re loan objects and we only have permission to host those images from our own collections website. Instead of including the images locally in your visit download every time there is a loan object we link directly to the image hosted on our own website.

If you’re not online (or your web browser hasn’t already cached a copy of the image on your hard drive) then your visit pages are smart enough to load a placeholder image for that object. Like this:

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We do the same for individual item pages too:

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online
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offline

Visit exports are deliberately minimal, by design. They contain a small amount of HTML markup that’s been enhanced with a little bit of JavaScript and CSS to create a minimally elegant export that people can easily tailor to their own needs. Some people may quibble with the idea that including both the jQuery and Bootstrap libraries is not really a “little bit of JavaScript and CSS” but we hope that we have done things in such a way that it’s easy for people to change if they choose to.

Visit exports are currently only available for visits that have been “paired” with your Cooper Hewitt account. A visit that has been exported is cached on our servers but it can be regenerated when something about your visit changes – you delete an item, or add a note and so on – not more than once per day. Each one of your visits (remember: each one of your paired visits) has a handy export button at the bottom of each page and you can see a list of all your exported/exportable visits by going to: https://collection.cooperhewitt.org/you/visits/exports/

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The exports themselves are generated using our own API and the recently released cooperhewitt.visit and cooperhewitt.visit.items family of methods. There is a bunch of bespoke code that we’ve written to manage how exports are scheduled and stored but the part that actually builds your export is a plain-vanilla API application using the same public API methods that you might use to generate your own visit export.

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In time we may open source the API application we’ve written but for now we’re going to keep putting it through its paces to make sure that it works consistently, as expected, and to force ourselves to use the same tools we’re making available to people outside the “hula hoop“.

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Finally, a little bit of administrivia: Your visit exports are made available under the Smithsonian Terms of Use agreement. You can read the entire document but the short (and relevant) bits are:

The Smithsonian Institution (the “Smithsonian”) provides the content on this website (www.si.edu), other Smithsonian websites, and third- party sites on which it maintains a presence (“SI Websites”) in support of its mission for the “increase and diffusion of knowledge.” The Smithsonian invites you to use its online content for personal, educational and other non-commercial purposes; this means that you are welcome you to make fair use of the Content as defined by copyright law. Information on United States copyright fair use law is available from the United States Copyright Office. Please note that you are responsible for determining whether your use is fair and for responding to any claims that may arise from your use.

In addition, the Smithsonian allows personal, educational, and other non-commercial uses of the Content on the following terms:

You must cite the author and source of the Content as you would material from any printed work.

You must also cite and link to, when possible, the SI Website as the source of the Content.

You may not remove any copyright, trademark, or other proprietary notices including attribution information, credits, and notices, that are placed in or near the text, images, or data.

In addition to copyright, you must comply with all other terms or restrictions (such as trademark, publicity and privacy rights, or contractual restrictions) as may be specified in the metadata or as may otherwise apply to the Content. Please note that you are responsible for making sure that your use does not violate or infringe upon the rights of anyone else.

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Enjoy!

Redesigning Post-Purchase Touchpoints

We re-opened the museum with “minimum viable product” relating to online ticket orders. Visitor-facing touchpoints like confirmation emails, eTicket PDFs and “thank you for your order” webpages were built to be simple and efficient. After putting them to the test with real visitors, room for improvement became obvious.

Here’s how we used staff feedback and designerly observation to iterate and improve upon 3 important touchpoints. The goal of this undertaking was to make things smoother for our front-of-house staff (who turned out to have quite a bit to juggle, given the new Pen and its backend complexities), and simpler for visitors (some of whom were confused by our system.. how dare they!).

The original confirmation webpage was designed with visitors buying on mobile (perhaps even while en route to the museum) in mind:

screen shot of a webpage with order number and a barcode for each ticket.

The original “Thank You” webpage was stripped of information, with the idea of getting you through the front desk transaction as efficiently as possible.

The original confirmation email was a few lines of text:

Screen shot of an email confirming cooper hewitt ticket order

Made in a pre-opening vacuum without real visitors to test upon, The original confirmation email was more self-promotional than it was anticipatory of visitors’ needs.

The original PDF attached to this confirmation email was designed for visitors who like to print things out and have something on paper:

The original eTicket PDF had one page (one "ticket") per visitor. The email went to the purchasing visitor's inbox.

The original eTicket PDF had one page (one “ticket”) per visitor. The email went to the purchasing visitor’s inbox.

Over a few weeks of heavy visitor traffic (with about 20% of visitors buying advance tickets online), I sat behind the front desk staff to quietly observe a handful of transactions every day. I initiated my observation sessions knowing that we needed to make the front desk move smoother and faster, but I didn’t yet know which touchpoints/services/operations would need changing.

These 3 touchpoints stood out to me as something that needed re-addressing if we wanted to make the front desk run more smoothly. (My daily observations also led to many efficiency-boosting changes made to internal tools, IT concerns, staffing needs, signage, and more.) This experience has made me a big believer in quiet observation as a direct route to improving services and systems. “Conference room conjecture” is worth very little compared to real observations and listening-based chats with your public-facing staff.

My advice on Observing and Listening for service design:

  •  You may observe a staff person answer a question incorrectly, or a problem that you could resolve yourself on the spot. Don’t intervene, tempting as it might be! You’re not there to fix problems, you’re there to fix problem patterns. Your mission is long-term.
  • When chatting with staff, listen quietly and attentively. It’s OK if you can’t offer an instant fix. You may not have a magic wand, but listening with empathy is at least half as good.
  • Focus on building trust with the staff you are observing over a period of days or weeks, so they will become comfortable sharing bad news as easily as they share the good. Remind them repeatedly that your intention is to improve their daily work situation.
  • Remember it can be very intimidating to feel “interrogated” or “observed” by someone who is your direct/indirect superior. Make sure they know your questions are motivated by a spirit of service, not by “tattle-telling” to other staff that things might be going amiss. You will get more honesty, and thereby, better design insights.

Here are the observation-based insights that motivated our choices:

  • Visitors sometimes get confused by the barcodes. They think something has to be scanned after their visit in order for their pen diary to get “Saved” or “sent to their email.”
  • Because this collateral is called an “eTicket,” some visitors are marching right up to the gallery entrance with their “eTicket,” and bypassing the front desk. “I already bought my ticket, why do I have to wait on this line?”
  • Visitors don’t know what the Pen is, and explaining it takes several minutes, slowing down the line.
  • Visitors may not have great cell service in our lobby, and probably haven’t gotten the wifi working yet, so if their email attachment hasn’t pre-downloaded, this will slow everything down.
  • Front desk staff each have different ways of handling eTickets. Most staff ask for the order number verbally. A few staff take the printout or phone and scan the barcode, avoiding the need to re-print a ticket (this is how the barcode was intended to be used).
  • The diversity of collateral that visitors may bring to the transaction makes things more complicated for our staff. “Is my customer looking at a webpage, an email, or a PDF? Should I tell them to look for an order number, hand me a barcode, or open the attachment?”
two gentlemen at a large white desk in a dark room full of wood paneling. a third gentleman sits behind the desk.

For their own ease of use, most desk reps were initiating the transaction by asking: “What’s your Order number?” so we designed to accommodate that preference instead of working against it.

The ideas we cycled through:

  • A picture of the Pen with an “enticing” explanation of what it does might help offset the burden on the front desk to explain it all very quickly.
  • We thought one barcode per visitor displayed in a list might let us hold on to our original “paperless dream.” (The “paperless dream” entailed scanning each barcode and pairing immediately with pens, bypassing our CRM and house-printed tickets.) When we ran this idea by our colleagues at the desk, though, we learned quickly that this would be extraordinarily confusing for guests, who need to remember their personal URL (usually printed on the ticket) to access their post-visit diary. What if a group of 5 friends come together, will we put the burden on the visitor to remember which URL goes with which friend? Will they have to write it down, or forward around the ticket email with added whose-URL-is-whose notes? That’s too much of a burden on guests, who are already working to assimilate new information about our Pen, which has already buffeted their expectations (and tried their transaction-length-patience) about what to expect during a museum front desk experience.
printouts of an email confirming tickets with barcodes and giant pen scribbled "x" with handwritten pen notes

What seems like a good idea at your desk may not seem so smart after you’ve shown it around to ground-level users

The current solution (after all, our work is never final):

screen shot of an email with lots of information about cafe, hours, map, the pen, and an image of museum interior and pen usage.

The order number is large and at the top of the email. It’s also in the subject line. Click this image to enlarge.

  • This solution makes the front desk staffer’s job simpler when a pre-order person arrives. It’s all about the order number. There is no more choice involved about whether to ask for the order number, or the barcode, or the purchaser’s name… or….
  • There is still a confirmation webpage, and it looks exactly like this.
  • There is no more PDF attachment to the email.
  • Since this is a “will-call” paradigm instead of an “eTicket” paradigm, we hope this solution will keep visitors from expecting that they can enter the museum directly without talking to a desk attendant first.
  • The order number is in the subject line, so if your email hasn’t fully downloaded, you won’t slow down the line.
  • The original idea was to save paper by allowing a visitor’s PDF to work as their ticket/URL reminder. This idea, though it does now involve reprinting tickets, may involve less user-printouts, since we’re simply asking folks to “bring” their order number, and not any printouts.

This is just one piece of an elaborate service design puzzle. More posts will be coming about other touchpoints we’ve created and re-designed based on observations made in the first months of running our new Pen service.