Monthly Archives: August 2013

Pandas, Press, Planetary

It has been a few crazy days since we announced the addition of iPad App, Planetary, to the museum’s collection.

If you haven’t yet read the long essay about what we’ve done, then it is squirrelled away on the Museum’s Object of the Day blog. The short version is that it is the first time that the museum has acquired code, and that code has also been open sourced as a part of the preservation strategy.

Here’s some of the press it has generated so far. We’ll spare you the hundreds of tweets!

Smithsonian Magazine – “How Does a Museum Collect an iPad app for its Collections?

The Verge – “Hello art world: Smithsonian acquires first piece of code for design collection

Blouin ArtInfo – “The Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt Museum Redefines Design by Acquiring Its First Code

Slate – “How Does a Design Museum Add Software to Its Collection? There’s an App for That.

cNet – “Bragging rights for iPad app: First code in Smithsonian design museum

Gizmodo – “The Smithsonian Just Added a Chunk of Code to Its Permanent Collection

Tech Crunch – “Cooper-Hewitt Adds The First Piece Of Code To Its Design Collection

AllThingsD – “Your iTunes Collection, Displayed as a Solar System

TUAW – “Smithsonian adds iPad app code to its collection

MemeBurn – “Smithsonian acquires first piece of code for design collection

LA Times – “Planetary, an iPad app, enters collection of Cooper-Hewitt museum

Hyperallergic – “The First Code Acquired by Smithsonian’s Design Museum is Released to the World

Future Insights – “Intergalactic Planetary: Tell us what you think

We’re really happy – not least of all because we can confirm that like the Internet, the press also really love pandas.

And also Fast Company – “To Preserve Digital Design, The Smithsonian Begins Collecting Apps

Three adventures: shadowing a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art (3/3)

This is the third in a series of three “adventures in universal design,” a design research experiment carried out by Rachel Sakai and Katie Shelly. For an introduction to the project, see our earlier post, here.

AUGUST 22 2013

On the Science Sense tour, we met a wonderfully friendly and warm husband and wife duo named Linda & Dave. We asked if they’d be interested in volunteering for some more research by allowing us to shadow them at any museum they chose.

They agreed, and a week later, off we went. Linda is blind and Dave is sighted. They love museums, and they have visited many around the world, together.


Linda & Dave stand in front of the museum, Dave has his arm around Linda. It is a sunny summer day and the entrance is full of people. They are smiling and Dave is wearing a red flowered shirt.

Linda & Dave in front of the Met Museum

Here’s a play-by-play of their visit:

-As we entered the crowded lobby, I noticed that Dave firmly placed his hand near the back of Linda’s neck to guide her—it was so crowded and loud, he had to use firm physical contact to help her navigate the security bag check and chaotic lobby. Linda also used her rolling cane in her left hand.

-Once we got inside, the first thing they did was go to the information desk and ask how to find the exhibition they wanted to see—Brush Writing in the Arts of Japan. The desk person indicated the location on a paper map. L & D didn’t use the map; instead they listened and remembered the attendant’s verbal instructions (left at the arch, elevator to floor 3, make a left, etc).

-Linda carried a paper flyer in her purse with a list of special exhibitions on it, and she brought it out when talking to the attendant, saying “yes, we want to see the one on this list.” Interesting that though she herself could not see what was on the paper, she knew what it said (ostensibly because Dave had told her earlier) and she kept it in her hand, so she could use it later when conversing with others.

-On the way to the elevator, we walked past a table with audioguides, L&D did not notice it.

-At the top of the elevator, we saw an Information Desk with an attendant. Dave expressed excitement that they have Info Desks throughout the Met, saying “before they had these things, I would just wander around this place getting lost!”

-L&D approached the satellite info desk, and asked about the acoustiguide— does it include the Japanese Brush Writing exhibition? The attendant explained that the audioguide covers the whole museum. Audioguides are not being given out from this desk, though. L&D did not get an audioguide.

-We walk down a hall full of artifacts toward the Japanese Brush Writing show. Dave went into “concise tour guide mode” just to give Linda a sense of the scenery, simply naming a few of the objects we went past: “Perfume bottles.” “Ceramic horses.”

-We found our destination: a dimly lit gallery. Linda asked, “is it all paintings?” And Dave explained that no, the gallery had a combination of statues, ceramics, and scrolls. They were pleased that there was a variety of objects and it wasn’t all flat work.

-L&D approached the standing warrior statue at the entrance of the show. Dave began with a visual description of the statue— materials, colors, posture. When talking about the statue’s long earlobes, he lightly tugged Linda’s earlobes. When talking about the statue’s tufty hair, he lightly touched the crown of Linda’s head— anything to make the experience more than just standing and listening. After his thorough description, he read the object label aloud.

-They were very methodical. This is what they did in front of each object they looked at:

1) Dave gave a purely visual description. Colors, size, subject matter, mood.

2) Maybe a few clarifying questions from Linda (“Are the lines roundish or squarish?” “Are the lines harsh?” “Are the people done finely?”)

3) Dave read the object label aloud, sometimes omitting a bit of info, sometimes reading it all right down to the donor details.

4) A bit of back-and-forth, sharing their reactions to the piece, making a connection to prior knowledge or experiences, or simply expressing how pretty and/or interesting they find it.

Dave & Linda standing with their backs to us, facing a beige and black painting.. Dave has Linda's hand in his, and is holding it outstretched.

In front of this artwork, Dave guided Linda’s hand through the air to help explain the size and composition. (It looks a bit like she is touching the artwork because of the angle of this photo, but we assure you that she is not).

-Dave often would take Linda’s hand in his, hold it outstretched, and wave it around to delineate shapes and spatial relationships (“there are mountains here, and a waterfall right here…”)

-A few of the Buddha statues were doing mudras with their hands. Dave would put Linda’s arms and hands into the same position, mimicking the statue. Sometimes he’d join her in the pose, so they’d both be frozen, holding the pose for a moment of contemplation. (Extremely adorable.) I don’t think many sighted visitors would think to do this, but it looked like they were having fun, and perhaps gave them a bit of “somatic insight” into how that statue might be feeling.

-As Linda got more details about the piece in front of her, she would exclaim surprise, “oh!” “oo-ooh!” As if she was building an image in her imagination, and each new bit of info from Dave was like an exciting clue in an unsolved mystery.

Dave and Linda are facing each other, standing a few feet in front of a Buddha statue. Dave is looking at the statue, and hoding Linta's arms. Linda is facing Dave and holding the pose.

Dave puts Linda’s arms into the same position as the statue.

-I noticed that sometimes Linda would touch the glass in front of an object. Just to get some sense of space and anchoring, I’d guess.

-About halfway through the exhibition, Dave took a break to sit down on a bench. Linda, Rachel and I took the chance to chat a bit. Linda commented that she would like to get a sense of scale and mood upon entering a museum. A sighted visitor gets a whole bunch of scene-setting information right upon entering with a sweep of the eye, and can choose what piece they want to check out. For her, however, she’s generally subject to Dave’s decisions about what to look at when they tour an exhibition. She said that she doesn’t mind this, because she likes Dave’s taste, but it is a consideration for any blind visitor.

-From Dave’s perspective, it’s a lot of talking and mental work. He seemed to be a bit worn out at times when reading aloud those long object labels. No wonder he needed a break!

-Linda also mentioned that they like to go to the gift shop, and that sometimes there are statuettes or replicas of things in the exhibition that you can touch, so that’s a good blind person’s “hack.”

Linda stands in front of three shelves full of smallish, about one foot tall statues and figurines. She is touching one of the statues.

Hacking the museum: the gift shop is a good place to find touchable replicas of objects in the collection.

-As we moved on, we neared a fountain. Right away, Linda heard the water trickling and said, “I hear a fountain!” Dave started to describe the fountain, which, as it turned out, is kinda hard to describe in words. There were some children seated on the wooden platform beside the fountain. Linda asked if she could sit down on the platform, which is somewhat bench-like, but sort of ambiguous-looking as to whether you can sit there or not. We said, sure, go for it. One thing led to another.. and soon Linda was feeling the white stones, and then the fountain itself. There was no guard in the area, just a few fellow patrons who seemed touched and tickled, as were we, watching Linda light up as she discovered the different textures and shapes. “Ooooh!” “Ahhh!” “Wowww!!” She was so, so into it. Just totally beaming. Finally, something to touch! Dave turned to us with a wink, and said “See what a difference tactile makes?”

A darkly colored, slick slab of basalt perfectly centered in a rectangular bed of round white stones. The basalt slab has some smooth planes and some rough planes, and a well of water in the top. Water is running down all sides of the slab.

The Water Stone, a basalt fountain by Isamu Noguchi. Photo by Flickr user wallyg

-Our last stop was a Japanese Reading Room, where the museum has tea ceremonies and other social events. The room has some Japanese-style floral arrangements, and beautiful wooden furniture by George Nakashima. Linda gave herself a thorough tour of the furniture, feeling the curves, bends, and joints in the massive walnut table and matching chairs. since it was definitely OK to touch. It was really the only moment when Linda could be independent in the museum.

A room with wood-paneled walls and a large raw-edge, round wooden table in the center. Linda is standing, stooped at the far end of the table, with one hand on the table surface and the other hand on her rolling cane.

Linda giving herself a tactile tour of the Japanese Reading Room furniture at the Met.


– Linda & Dave had carbon-copy experiences. Many people enjoy visiting a museum with a partner and staying side-by-side the whole time. Sometimes, though, you don’t want to visit in that way. Personally, when I’m in a museum, I tend to break off from the group and explore on my own. How might we allow blind visitors to have the option for an independent experience?

– Sighted visitors can easily get a sweep of the room immediately upon entering. What looks interesting in this gallery? What’s the mood? Where do I want to go first? How might we afford blind visitors a “sweep of the room” upon entering?

– Linda pointed this out to us during the tour: neutral description > coded description. A neutral (and blind-friendly) description would be, “on the left there is a small, simple building with a thatched roof and open balcony on all sides.” A coded (and blind-unfriendly) description would be “on the left there is a small building, looks like early Japanese architecture.” Get the difference? A neutral description uses transparent language that requires a minimum amount of previous knowledge. A coded description requires some prior education or knowledge to understand it.

Tactile makes a huge difference. Tactile moments were highlights of the tour: Dave tapping Linda on the head while describing a warrior’s messy hairdo, Dave sweeping her hand around to convey space, folding her hands into a Buddhist mudra, Linda tapping the glass in front of her for a spatial anchor, detailedly exploring the furniture in the Reading Room and a covert tickling of the Noguchi fountain. I’d argue that if these literal “touchpoints” were formally afforded to all visitors, all visitors’ experiences would be enhanced, not just experiences of the blind and partially sighted.

Quietness of the gallery was on our side. The gallery was small, only had a few people in it, and was carpeted. Dave and Linda could hear each other without straining their voices or their ears. This made the experience very tranquil and pleasant. Imagine how different their visit would have felt in a noisier, more echoy gallery.

We didn’t observe much active use of sound. L&D didn’t have audioguides, and there was no music or anything like that in the galleries. Linda mentioned various fountains in different museums that she liked. As a sighted person, I have to admit that fountains are not usually a highlight for me, but I think for Linda, because it’s something she can experience directly, they are often a highlight. What if museums with fountains (or any acoustically cool architectural feature) encouraged all visitors to close their eyes and really listen?

We didn’t observe any use of tech. L&D kept this visit analog. Wonder how the visit might have been better/worse/the same with some type of technological aid? How to design such technology to support and enhance rather than distract and annoy?

Linda, Rachel and Katie smiling inside a contemporary Asian art gallery at the Met museum. There is a very unusual sculpture in the background of a real deer, taxidermied and covered in glass orbs of variable sizes, as if it had been dunked in an oversized glass of club soda, and all the bubbles were sticking to its sides.

Linda, Rachel and Katie at the Met. We had a good time!


Three adventures: the Science Sense tour at American Museum of Natural History (2/3)

This is the second in a series of three “adventures in universal design,” a design research experiment carried out by Rachel Sakai and Katie Shelly. For an introduction to the project, see our earlier post, here.

The entrance to the American Museum of Natural History. Clear blue sky, pedestrians walking up the stairs, banners hanging on the facade, and taxicabs in the foreground. Architecture is stately, four tall columns and ornate inscriptions and statues near the roofline.

The American Museum of Natural History. Photo by Flickr user vagueonthehow.

AUGUST 15 2013

About once a month, AMNH offers a special tour for the blind, a program called Science Sense. Many museums in New York City have similar monthly tours for the blind. (The Jewish Museum’s Touch Tours, The Whitney Museum’s Touch Tours, MoMA’s Art inSight, the Met Museum’s Picture This! Workshop, and many more).

We chose to go on Science Sense because it worked with our schedule. Our tour was in the iconic Hall of North American Mammals.

Screenshot of the AMNH site. The page reads: Science Sense Tours  Visitors who are blind or partially sighted are invited to attend this program, held monthly in the Museum galleries. Specially trained Museum tour guides highlight specific themes and exhibition halls, engaging participants through extensive verbal descriptions and touchable objects.  Science Sense is free with Museum admission.  Thursday, August 15th, 2:30 PM North American Mammals Discover the dioramas in the stunningly restored Bernard Family Hall of North American Mammals, which offers a snapshot of North America’s rich environmental heritage.

The AMNH website’s info page about access for the blind and partially sighted

Here are some highlights and observations from our tour:

– We gathered in the lobby of the planetarium. The tour’s organizer, Jess, explained that the tour meets in the planetarium entrance and not the main NMAH entrance because it is a more accessible entrance. (Ramp, no stairs, large doorways with push-button opening, etc)

– It was a summer Thursday at 2:30, so we were a small group. Many of our fellow tour-goers appeared to be about retirement-age, which makes sense given the time of day. There was one teenaged boy, who was with his mom who has partial vision.

– The group had a chatty and friendly vibe. About 10 guests total. People were chatting with each other and having getting-to-know-you type conversations during our walk to the Hall of Mammals.

– Only 2 out of the 10 attendees appeared to be blind or low-vision. Each of the blind/low-vision guests had a sighted companion with them. The other 6 attendees appeared to be fully sighted.

– Irene, our tour guide, wore a small amplifier around her waist and a head-mounted microphone (something like this). The hall wasn’t terribly loud, but the amplifier made for more comfortable listening (and probably more comfortable speaking, too).

In a very dimly lit gallery, Irene stands with a group of attentively listening museumgoers on her left, and a brighly lit diorama of taxidemy bison on her right. She wears a blue employee badge and microphone headset.

Our guide Irene describing the bison diorama for the group.

– Once we arrived in the darkened Hall, Irene began our tour the same way most tours begin: an explanation of historical context. (When and why the dioramas were originally created, when and why they were restored… etc.)

– Irene described the first diorama thoroughly, element by element. (Backdrop, foreground elements, taxidermy animals.) One guest asked about how big the diorama is. Good question. Irene suggested that a second guide take the blind guests for a walk from one edge of the diorama to the other to get a sense of scale. This was a suggestion I wouldn’t have thought of; seems more fun than just stating a measurement.

Irene is holding an approximately two foot by one foot swatch of bison fur in both hands, grinning as she holds it out for others to feel.

Irene delights in sharing the touch sample (bison fur) with the group.

– Irene had a number of touch samples on a rolling cart. Some plastic animal skulls and a sample swatch of bison fur. At the end of our time in front of the bison diorama, she gave everyone a chance to feel the musky, matted fur.

– Naturally, as Irene was explaining the diorama and the touch samples were sitting behind her on the cart, many other visitors to the Hall (not part of the tour) took the opportunity to touch the fun stuff as it sat unattended on the cart.

– We went around to four more stunning dioramas, where Irene and a second guide (who was in training) took turns describing and contextualizing the displays.

– I noticed that sometimes the sighted companion of one of the attendees would quietly add on his own description to what the tour guide was saying. Once I saw him lift his blind partner’s arm, and sweep it through the space to explain where different objects in the diorama were positioned. (We would later chat with these folks, Linda & Dave, who ended up going on a trip with us to the Met, which we’ll talk about in the next section.)


– Rachel & I both happen to be big radio/podcast listeners. During the tour, I realized that a blind person’s experience is a lot like listening to radio. They are relying only on the guide’s words to “see” what’s there.

What if museum tour guides were trained to think and speak like radio hosts? What if each stop on the tour opened with a detailed, theatrically delivered, visual description? Listening to a luscious, mood-setting, masterfully crafted description of anything on display— be it a Bison diorama or a Dyson Vacuum Cleaner or a Van Gogh painting would be a delight for sighted and blind visitors alike.

A photo of Ira Glass smiling and looking into the distance. There is a microphone in front of him.

What if your tour guide could describe works as viscerally and virtuosically as Ira Glass could?

-There was some confusion about the basic size and shape of the dioramas. What if there was a tiny model of each diorama that visitors could feel? Blind visitors could understand scale and shape right away, and sighted visitors might enjoy a touchable model, too. Imagine touchable mini-models of paintings, sculptures, and other museum stuff, too.

Check out our third and last adventure in universal design research, observing a blind person’s museum visit.

Three adventures: a blindfolded visit to the Guggenheim (1/3)

This is the first in a series of three “adventures in universal design,” a design research experiment carried out by Rachel Sakai and Katie Shelly. For an introduction to the project, see our earlier post, here.

A black and white photo of the Guggenheim Museum in NYC. Traffic lights and pedestrians on the sidewalk are in the foreground. The museum's famous architecture looks like lots of big smooth white shapes stacked on each other: A big rectangle at the bottom, four big circles stacked on the right, and a second rotunda with windows on the left.

The Guggenheim Museum, which is just a stone’s throw away from our office. Photo by Flickr user Ramón Torrent.

AUGUST 5 2013 

Taking a cue from Patricia Moore’s empathy research in NYC in the 1990s, Katie and I began our research with an empathy-building field trip to the Guggenheim. I took on the role of the blind visitor and Katie played the part of my sighted companion. The entire trip lasted for about 45 minutes and I kept my eyes shut for the duration.

Even though the Guggenheim is just a block away from our office, this was my first visit so I had no pre-existing mental map of the space. With my eyes closed, it did not take long before I felt completely disoriented, vulnerable, and dependent on my companion. After five minutes I had no idea where I was or where we were going; it felt like we were walking in circles (actually, we may have been because of the Guggenheim spiral…). I trust Katie, but this was unnerving.

(Note: this intensity of discomfort would not apply for a “real” blind or partially-sighted person, who would be entirely familiar with the experience of walking around without sight. A mild feeling of disorientation in the space, though, is still worth noting. Maybe the level of discomfort for a blind person would be more subtle, more like how a sighted person would feel wandering around without a map.)

The Guggenheim's large round lobby, shown completely bathed in ruby-red light. The benches and floor area are crowded with people reclining, laying on the floor, and looking upwards at the light source.

The James Turrell exhibition at the Guggenheim. Photo by Flickr user Mr Shiv.

We started the visit on our own with Katie guiding me and doing her best to describe the space, the other visitors, and the art. After a few minutes, we found one of the Guggenheim’s Gallery Guides wearing a large “Ask Me About the Art” button. When Katie asked the guide whether she was trained to describe art to low-vision guests, her response, “…I had one training on that,” was hesitant. To my ear, it sounded like reluctance and I immediately felt as though our request was a bother. Katie also felt like a pest, like she was “drilling the attendant” on her training. After some initial awkwardness, though, she offered to just share what she usually says about the piece (James Turrell’s Prado (White)), which turned out to be a very interesting bit of interpretation. We thanked her for the info and moved on.

By the second half of our visit we had picked up a couple of audioguides. The Guggenheim, like many other museums, has the encased iPod touch flavor of audio guide. The look and feel is nice and slick, but it’s not great for accessibility because the home button is blocked. (A triple-tap of this button is how you open accessibility controls in iOS).

Dependence on the GUI meant that when I wanted to hear a description, Katie would take my audioguide, start it playing, hand it back to me, then start up her own audioguide. If I missed a word and needed to go back, or if I wanted to pause for a second, well, I was pretty much out of luck. I could have asked Katie, but I felt like too much of a bother, so just I let it go.

The audio content was interesting, but it was written with sighted visitors in mind, with very little visual description of the work being discussed.

There was a big chunk of text on the wall explaining a bit about James Turrell’s work, which Katie read aloud to me. It would have been great to just have that text available for playback in the audioguide.

After our visit, I dug deeper into the Guggenheim’s website and learned that they have a free app that includes verbal imaging description tours written for visitors who are blind. Some of these tours have associated “touch object packs” that can be picked up from staff. That would have been great, but at the time of our trip Katie and I were unaware that these options existed, even though we did check out the Guggenheim website before visiting. None of the staff (who could see that I appeared to be blind) reached out to let us know about these great accessibility options. What a shame!

On the afternoon we visited, the Guggenheim was packed. We didn’t want to be too much of a nuisance to the already-busy staff so Katie went into “hacker mode,” looking for ways to tweak the experience to fit our needs. The visit became about hunting for things we could share.

A white cable with one 3.5mm male audio jack plug connected to two 3.5mm female jacks.

A headphone splitter lets two people listen to the same device.


A simple hack idea: headphone splitters. Though it wouldn’t give blind visitors more control over their audio guide, it would take away the clumsiness of one person having to manage two audioguides. Plus, whether you are blind or not, using a headphone splitter is fun and can strengthen a shared experience.

– I was disoriented throughout the trip and this was very uncomfortable. A better understanding of how I was moving through the space would have helped. How might we orient blind visitors when they first enter the museum so that they have a broad mental map of the space?

– I was dependent on Katie and did not have many options for how I might want to experience the museum (deep engagement with a few works, shallow engagement with many works, explore independently, explore with a friend, etc). How might we provide blind visitors with options for different types of experiences?

– Katie did her best to “hack” the experience and tried to discover things we could share in order to create a meaningful museum visit for both of us. How might we help create and shape shared experiences for pairs who visit the museum?

Staff training is important. The Museum has great accessibility tools, but they were invisible to us because nobody on staff mentioned them. The front desk person didn’t ask whether we would be interested in the accessibility tools, even though she had seen that I appeared to be blind.

– Staff mood is important. Many of the staff we interacted with seemed bashful or embarrassed about the situation and our accessibility questions. The museum was hectic and they were very busy; we felt like asking for too much help would have been pesky.

Check out our next adventure in universal design, a museum tour designed for the blind.

Three adventures in universal design, or, what does a veggie peeler have in common with a museum? (0/3)

A hand shown holding a black, rubberized OXO veggie peeler against a crisp white backdrop.

Though designed specifically for the arthritic, this product “appeals” to everyone.

“The way to think about ‘everybody’ is not to think about the average person in the middle, but to think about the extremes. Think about people at the edges of your potential buying public and think about people who are most challenged.”
[Dan Formosa interviewed by Debbie Millman in Brand Thinking]

If you hang out at a design museum long enough, you start to pick up on certain recurring concepts. One good recurring concept has to do with a thing called universal design:

The term “universal design” was coined by the architect Ronald L. Mace to describe the concept of designing all products and the built environment to be aesthetic and usable to the greatest extent possible by everyone, regardless of their age, ability, or status in life.

So what’s the lesson behind universal design? Pretend you’re a bossman trying to cut costs wherever possible. For you, universal design might seem like a non-critical endeavor. Sure, it would be nice for the disabled and the elderly to have easy access to all aspects of your [insert product being designed here], but you don’t have room in the budget for anything elaborate. “We’ll tackle accessibility if we have leftover funds at the end of the project,” you’d say. Or “after we design the bulk of our [widget], then we’ll start work on the accessibility stuff because it’s required by law.”

If you were to study your design history, however, you’d realize that this view could limit your opportunities for innovation and crowd-pleasing design.

A sign in the foreground reads "This ramp and fishing platform meet the standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act and may be used by anyone. Please respect the desire of people with disabilities to fish on the fishing platform. In the background is a lake surrounded by trees.

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 required organizations and institutions to make buildings, public transportation, signage, and more accessible to everyone. Image by USFWS Pacific.

The amazing truth of universal design is that when a design team focuses on “edge users,” or “extreme users,” it very often leads to unexpected insights, which can then lead to innovative features that benefit all users. When you design for the edges, everybody benefits.

The OXO Good Grips line is one of the most commonly cited examples of this phenomenon. The Smart Design team sat down to design a line of veggie peelers, can openers and scissors for people with arthritis and limited hand mobility. After the chunky, ergonomically superior new products hit the market, they became a huge mainstream success.

A group of five people riding motorized segway scooters riding single-file down the sidewalk curb cut and into the crosswalk. Washington DC in wintertime. They are wearing winter coats and helmets.

Segway scooter riders enjoy the benefits of curb cut sidewalks. Photo by Mariordo Mario Roberto Duran Ortiz

Another example are Selwyn Goldsmith‘s “curb cuts.” The mini-ramps we see now on most city street corners were designed primarily with wheelchair users in mind. After they were implemented, it became obvious that this ergonomic consideration benefitted not only wheelchair users, but also luggage-toters, stroller-pushers, stiletto-wearers, cyclists and anybody who enjoys a bit of added ease and comfort in getting around.

With all this in mind, our summer intern (psst—applications for next year are open!Rachel Sakai and I set out to do some research. We have a very small part in the über-mega-process that is the Cooper Hewitt gallery re-design, and we wanted to take on a summer project that could enrich that work.

We decided to focus in on a blind person’s museum experience. How might an understanding of a blind visitor’s experience inform and enhance the design decisions being made in our re-design project?

We chose to embrace a mindset of Human Centered Design. (Note that Human Centered Design is not the same thing as universal design). I’ve helped to create lots of Museum content—videos, exhibitions, books—on the topic of Human Centered Design. After so much experience intellectualizing about the technique, I was pretty eager to find a way to try it myself.

Human-Centered Design (HCD) is a process and a set of techniques used to create new solutions for the world….The reason this process is called “human-centered” is because it starts with the people we are designing for. The HCD process begins by examining the needs, dreams, and behaviors of the people we want to affect with our solutions.
[From IDEO’s HCD ToolKit]

front and back of 3 different method cards. Each card explains a different HCD research method. The front of each card has a full-bleed photo, the back has the name of the method and a short paragraph describing it.

Our 3 chosen IDEO method cards: Empathy Tools, Competitive Product Survey, and Shadowing

We borrowed a set of IDEO method cards from Cara and chose three that served our goal to better understand the blind museum visitor’s experience. In the next three posts, we’ll explain how we applied the methods of Empathy tools, Competitive Product Survey, and Shadowing:

1. Empathy Tools: Go on a blindfolded museum visit.

2. Competitive Product Survey: Take a museum tour designed for the blind.

3. Shadowing: Observe a blind person’s museum visit.


Interns React to…the Whitney's Audio Guide

I spent my summer as an intern in the Digital and Emerging Media department here at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum. Next week, I head home to San Francisco where I will return to the graduate program in design at California College of the Arts. One of my projects this summer has been to visit museums, observe how visitors are using their devices (cell phones, iPads, etc), and to examine audio guides through the lens of an interaction designer.

When I went to check out MoMA’s new mobile guide, Audio+, it was the beginning of my stint at the Cooper-Hewitt, I had never before done a museum audio tour with an iPod touch, and my expectations were lofty. Now that I have spent a summer in Museum World, my perspective and my expectations have changed so I wanted to repeat the exercise of going to a museum and critiquing an audio guide experience.

Last Sunday I spent my afternoon at the Whitney. I arrived at the museum around 1pm. No wait for the audio guide, just walked up and handed over my ID in exchange. Like many other museums, the Whitney uses encased iPods for their audio guides. I was a bit surprised, however, to notice that the battery charge on my guide was around 40%. This turned out not to be a problem for me, but I did overhear other guests complaining that their guides had run out of batteries part way through the visit.

Whitney's audio guide interface

Two different views of the Whitney’s audio guide

The Whitney’s audio guide interface is simple and straight forward. All of the guide’s navigation is text based, and this digital affordance reinforced the fact that the guide does not offer endless paths and options. After just one or two minutes of clicking around the app, there was no more mystery. The minimalist design helped me to immediately understand what I was going to do with the device and it was easier for me to focus attention on what was on the walls rather than what was on the screen.

I was, and still am, pretty taken with the quality of content available on the Whitney’s guide. From what I could tell, in each room of each gallery there is audio content for at least two pieces. It may not sound like a lot, but it ended up being more than enough for me. The consistency of content allowed and encouraged me to use the guide throughout my visit and I was surprised to see how many visitors were using the audio guides – and not just tourists, but locals too.

According to Audio Guide stop 501, Oscar Bluemner once wrote, “Listen to my work as you listen to music…try to feel.” The Whitney’s audio guide embraces this idea by playing mood setting sounds and music to complement their audio descriptions.

Screen shot of audio guide player

Situation in Yellow on the Whitney’s web player

One of my favorites is the description of Burchfield’s Chicket and Chorus in the Arbor, which you can listen to here. With crickets chirping in the background, it’s much easier to put yourself into the world described (late summer, thick trees and bushes, crickets, sunset). The first time I came across one of the audio guide stops with background music I was surprised and delighted. It was a subtle gesture, but one that really elevated the content and did wonders for putting me in the mood, so to speak.

Compared to its counterpart at MoMA, the Audio+, this guide has less content and that was clear from the start. Less content may sound like one point for the “con” list, but I do not think it is always a bad thing. Yes, there were a few times when I missed being able to look up more info about the artist and see related works, but not having the option at all definitely made me more focussed on the art in front of me. In the case of the Whitney, the content is good enough that the “less is more” approach is working well. Plus, all of their audio content is available online, so when I am back at my desk, I can browse through and re-listen or learn more about the clips I found particularly interesting.
visitor looking at a painting

A Whitney visitor using the audio guide

In both the guide for the Whitney and the guide for the MoMA the museum’s own style is reflected. The MoMA states that their “mission is helping you understand and enjoy the art of our time” where as the Whitney is “dedicated to collecting, preserving, interpreting, and exhibiting American art.” It makes sense, then, that the MoMA (focussed on education) includes much more educational content in their mobile guide and that the Whitney does.

From what I’ve learned this summer (through working with the labs team and through visits to other museums), I know that the visitor experience at home is just as important as the visitor experience in the museum. For myself, I liked the Whitney guide so much because I didn’t feel compelled to do an incredibly deep dive on a mobile device when I should be focussing my attention on what is in front of me. However, where was my at home experience? Once I left the museum, I had nothing to take with me that would prompt me to visit their website and learn more about what I saw. I would love to follow up the great audio guide experience with a great at home experience in the vein of what MoMA is doing with the option to take your visit home. There is opportunity here and I hope the Whitney has plans to fill it.

Interns React to…MoMA's Audio+

I spent my summer as an intern in the Digital and Emerging Media department here at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum. Next week, I head home to San Francisco where I will return to the graduate program in design at California College of the Arts. One of my projects this summer has been to visit museums, observe how visitors are using their devices (cell phones, iPads, etc), and to examine audio guides through the lens of an interaction designer.

Before you start, it’s important to note that I ran over to try out the Audio+ out as soon as I could. The new guides are technically still in a pre-release phase and the team at MoMA is actively rolling out tweaks and fixes.

I arrived at the museum around 11 am (they open at 10.30) and already there was a pretty significant line for the mobile guide. After a bit of a wait, I exchanged my photo ID (note: passports and credit cards are not accepted) for the encased iPod touch. Although they are commonly used by museums as audio guides, this was the first time I had ever done an audio tour with an iPod touch and my expectations were lofty from the start. Hanging around my neck from a lanyard was a device full of content, and a device that I knew could connect my experience at MoMA to the world wide web! Cue sunburst and music from the heavens.

Visitors waiting in line

MoMA visitors waiting in line to pick up an audio guide

The guide is handed to you with the prompt to “Take your visit home” and here you can enter your email address, which I did, or skip this step and do it later (or not at all). The in-museum functionality is the same regardless of whether you decide to give them your email address or not.

Email address entered, ready to go.

…Or so I thought. After a few network connection failure screens, I took the guide back to the Audio+ desk and they inserted what looked like a folded up paperclip into a slot in the back of the case and pushed some kind of reset button. Not a big deal since I was still in the lobby, but it would have been nice to, as Nielsen’s 10 usability heuristics suggest, include some help and documentation outside of “network connection failure.” I assume this is one of the kinks being working out.

Image of the Audio+ guide

As I ambled around the third floor, I couldn’t help but get pulled into the guide’s glowing screen; it was a bit distracting, actually. The interface looks like a website; there are clickable images, clickable text, videos, a camera, and icon based navigation system. I spent at least 15 minutes playing around with the app not only trying to figure out what it could do, but trying to figure out what I should do. I had too many options and my attention was on the device in my hands rather than on the walls where it should have been. I wondered what else (besides explore content) I could do with the device. Is it going to navigate me through the maze of MoMA and tell me to turn right at the Gilda Mantilla drawings in order to get to the A Trip from Here to There exhibit? Does it know where I am? No, but I wish it did. This may be unavoidable, but I would be surprised if most visitors don’t feel the same way. It’s an iPod touch and I therefore expect it to do the things a Wi-Fi enabled iPod touch can do (mainly help me to find my way), but it doesn’t…and I really want it to.

Once I stopped fidgeting with the new toy, the first thing I did with the guide was listen to an audio description of Alighiero Boetti’s process in the piece Viaggi postali (Postal Voyages). The audio content was engaging and with the guide I could also read information, see the location within the museum, and…see related works! This last feature was my favorite; I love having a connection to something on the wall and immediately being able to see more from the artist. This was a significantly harder, however, when the piece I was interested in did not have the little audio icon on the label (which is true for the majority of the work at MoMA).

Audio content icon

I want info with a single tap or a simple search for all of the pieces on the walls, as I got for the Boetti piece, not just the ones with the audio icon. Unfortunately, access to extended content for artworks outside of the official tours meant effort because (without a clear alternative) my instinct was to search either the artist name or the title. As you can image, unfamiliar names and looooong titles made this a tiresome process. The cognitive load was on me, the user, rather than on the technology. I want to access to the content without having to think. 

screens from MoMA's new Audio+ guide

Screens on the Audio+ guide: menu options, audio content page, and search screen

One thing I loved about the Audio+ guide was the built in camera. Not having to juggle my own camera along with the audio guide was a relief and it was an easy way to ensure that content would be available for me to really explore on my own time, outside of the museum. Throughout my visit I used the guide to take photos and add stars to the pieces I liked, but unless the piece was part of an official tour (i.e. I didn’t have to search by artist/title), I was not compelled to look up any extended info. Call me lazy, but going through the search process was too much effort for the return. After about an hour I returned the guide and realized it was lucky I arrived when I had; by 11.50 am they were completely out of mobile guides and there was still a line of people waiting.

Post visit, I was emailed a link to My Path at MoMA; it is elegantly designed and responsive to screen size so is just as comfortable to view on a mobile device as it is on the desktop.

My Path at MoMA

Screen capture of My Path at MoMA

In My Path there are three different categories, Dashboard, Timeline, and Type. Dashboard gives a handful of metrics about the visit — duration (52 mins), works viewed (11 out of 1064), artists viewed (14 out of 590), and years explored (65 out of 132). My first thought: “What?! I saw more than 11 works!” I like what Dashboard tells me, but it is an incomplete story and I want to know more. Now that I’m back at my desk and I’ve walked through about ten doorways, my memory is fuzzy. What are these 11 works that I allegedly viewed and how is the guide determining what I did or did not see? 1984 is supposedly my Most Explored Year, well, what was it I saw from 1984?

Years Explored

Screen capture of the years explored section of My Path

The Timeline and Type sections show the stuff I did within the guide: audio listened to, photos taken, and items searched for. Same content in each section, just sorted differently. It’s really great to see, and excellent to have it all on one place. However, this is where I think there is a big opportunity lost from an interaction design perspective. I can play the audio tours in the My Path interface, but the links do not take me to the MoMA website where I can get more information about the artists, related works, etc. Basically, all of the functionality in the Audio+ mobile guide that made it easy to contextualize and relate individual works within a greater context is lost when I am back at my desk and most able to use it. I prefer to have more content and connections available when I’m at home processing my visit (and have a full sized monitor to use), but the Audio+ experience gives you the most content when you are on site (and looking at a tiny screen) and takes it away when you leave.

There are some errors with the My Path interface and I assume that some of these are tweaks being worked out. For example, when I open a photo, the sharing options are convenient, but they don’t include an option for downloading the original. Even the email link, which I expect will email me the photo, just sends a link to My Path. This again brings me to the point that with something like this, users shouldn’t have to think.

Photo share options

Screen capture of the photo share options in My Path

Beyond my gripes, let me say that overall my experience with the Audio+ was a strong positive. I generally hate using audio guides (because they are generally boring and clunky) but kudos to the folks behind the Audio+ because this first iteration is fun to use and provides delightful content above and beyond what I am used to. There is huge potential both with the guide and with the post-visit interface and I look forward to giving it another go in a few months once they have had a chance to work out the bumps.