Monthly Archives: July 2016

Exhibition Channels on Cooperhewitt.org

There’s a new organizational function on cooperhewitt.org that we’re calling “channels.” Channels are a filtering system for WordPress posts that allow us to group content in a blog-style format around themes. Our first iteration of this feature groups posts into exhibition-themed channels. Subsequent iterations can expand the implementation of channels to broader themed groupings that will help break cooperhewitt.org content out of the current menu organization. In our long-term web strategy this is an important progression to making the site more user-focused and less dictated by internal departmental organization.

The idea is that channels will promote browsing across different types of content on the site because any type of WordPress post—publication, event, Object of the Day, press, or video—can be added to a channel. Posts can also live in multiple channels at once. In this way, the channel configuration moves us toward our goal of creating pathways through cooperhewitt.org content that focus on user needs; as we develop a clearer picture of our web visitors, we can start implementing channels that cater to specific sets of users with content tailored to their interests and requirements. Leaning more heavily on posts and channels than pages in WordPress also leads us into shifting our focus from website = a static archive to website = an ever-changing flow of information, which will help keep our web content fresher and more engaged with concurrent museum programs and events.

Screenshot of the Fragile Beasts exhibition channel page on cooperhewitt.org

The Fragile Beasts exhibition channel page. Additional posts in the channel load as snippets below the main exhibition post (pictured here). The sidebar is populated with metadata entered into custom fields in the CMS.

In WordPress terms, channels are a type of taxonomy added through the CustomPress plugin. We enabled the channel taxonomy for all post types so that in the CMS our staff can flag posts to belong to whichever channels they wish. For the current exhibition channel system to work we also created a new type of post specifically for exhibitions. When an exhibition post is added to a channel, the channel code recognizes that this should be the featured post, which means its “featured image” (designated in the WordPress CMS) becomes the header image for the whole channel and the post is pinned to the top of the page. The exhibition post content is configured to appear in its entirety on the channel page, while all other posts in the channel display as snippets, cascading in reverse chronological order.

Through CustomPress we also created several custom fields for exhibition posts, which populate the sidebar with pertinent metadata and links. The new custom fields on exhibition posts are: Exhibition Title, Collection Site Exhibition URL, Exhibition Start Date, and Exhibition End Date. The sidebar accommodates important “at-a-glance” information provided by the custom field input: for example, if the date range falls in the present, the sidebar displays a link to online ticketing. Tags show up as well to act as short descriptors of the exhibition and channel content. The collection site URL builds a bridge to our other web presence at collection.cooperhewitt.org, where users can find extended curatorial information about the exhibition.

Screenshot of the sidebar on the <em>Fragile Beasts</em> exhibition channel page.

The sidebar on the Fragile Beasts exhibition channel page displays quick reference information and links.

On a channel page, clicking on a snippet (below the leading exhibition post) directs users to a post page where they can read extended content. On the post page we added an element in the sidebar called “Related Channels.” This link provides navigation back to the channel from which users flowed. It can also be a jumping-off point to a new channel. Since posts can live in multiple channels at once this feature promotes the lateral cross-content navigation we’re looking to foster.

Screenshot of sidebar on a post page displaying Related Channel navigation.

The sidebar on post pages provides “Related Channel” navigation, which can be a hub to jump into several editorial streams.

Our plan over the coming weeks is to on-board CMS users to the requirements of the new channel system. As we launch new channels we will help keep information flowing by maintaining a publishing schedule and identifying content that can fit into channel themes. Our upcoming exhibition Scraps: Fashion, Textiles and Creative Reuse will be our first major test of the channels system. The Scraps channel will include a wealth of extra-exhibition content, which we’re looking forward to showcasing with this new system.

My mock-up for the exhibition channel structure and design. Some of the features on the mock were knocked off the to-do list in service of getting an MVP on the live site.

My mock-up for the exhibition channel structure and design. Some of the features on the mock were knocked off the to-do list in service of getting an MVP on the live site. Additional feature roll-out will be on-going.

Object Phone: The continued evolution of a little chatbot

Object Phone is a project that started small, took less than a day to code, and consisted of about a page of code. Initially it was just an experiment–a way for me to explore a new interface to our API. Object Phone allowed users to call or text objects in our collection, and receive some kind of response. It was met with mild fanfare.

Next, I was curious about using Object Phone in our galleries. I looked towards developing some better audio content, and we decided to produce a short audio tour of the David Adjaye Selects exhibit. It was somewhat cumbersome to use but an interesting experiment and one of my first “in-gallery beta-tests.” Needless to say, I tried to be as clear as possible that this was an “experiment.”

Later I started thinking about the broader uses for a system like Object Phone. Could it replace an expensive audio guide? Could it be used as an accessibility device? I started to think of many possible uses for the platform, and started to rewrite the code to support multiple outputs. In a way, I was thinking about the code for Object Phone as a mini framework for building voice and text based interactions with our content.

All of this got put on the back burner for a while. Object Phone is after all my little side project. Something I come back to when I need to center myself and let my brain think through a few problems. It’s very much a project I meditate on when I need to do that kind of thing.

About 6 months later I started playing with the code again. I realized it was pretty trivial to deliver images via MMS using Twilio’s API and I had also started to notice that MMS worked pretty nicely on devices like an Apple Watch, and looked pretty good in the notification screen on my iPhone. All of the sudden it was kind of fun again to receive texts from Object Phone. So, I set up a subscription service.

Inspired by a few chatty SMS based apps out there like Poncho and The Edit, I built a simple subscription service that would send random objects and images to subscribers once a day at noon. Again, I set this up quickly, sent out a request for some people to try it out, and started to make realizations.

Object Phone is getting some upgrades. Feature requests welcome.

A photo posted by Micah Walter (@micahwalter) on

The main realization I had was that Object Phone had just become a chatbot. To be clear, Object Phone has technically always been a chatbot. You send it messages, and it replies with some response. But now that it sends you something periodically based on your preferences (currently just the preference that you want to continue receiving messages) it seems more like a real chatbot. More importantly, this experiment has started to make me “think” of Object Phone as a chatbot–something I should have likely realized from the start.

I also realized that Object Phone’s chattiness happens in multiple directions. It indeed chats with its subscribers. It can send you messages once a day, and it can reply to your requests for info about objects with ease. But, I also added a back end feature which follows this same line of thinking. If a user sends Object Phone a message that it doesn’t understand, Object Phone asks me for some assistance. Here is the flow:

  1. A user messages Object Phone something like “Tell me about spanking cat.”
  2. Object Phone isn’t smart enough yet to decipher the message.
  3. Object Phone replies “OK, I don’t really understand what you are saying but I’ll ask around and get back to you.”
  4. Object Phone then sends our Cooper Hewitt Slack channel a message.
  5. The Slack message contains the user’s phone number, their message, and a link to an admin page where the operator can reply directly to the user.
Screen_Shot_2016-07-04_at_10_13_26_AM

A Slack Channel where Object Phone can tell our staff when it needs a little assistance.

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An Object Phone admin page where our staff can reply directly to users

All of the sudden Object Phone is a conduit between Cooper Hewitt staff and its visitors. It’s talking directly to visitors, but also relaying messages back and forth to more knowledgeable staff when it needs assistance.

What the cool kids are doing

Conversational user experiences are all the rage right now. Facebook has recently opened up their Messenger platform and API to developers, which means anyone can build a simple chatbot on Facebook and reach all their followers with ease. Many other messaging services have open APIs as well. WeChat, LINE, What’sApp and Slack are just a few examples.

Slack for iOS Upload

Screenshot of the CNN chatbot for Facebook Messenger

It’s pretty clear that messaging apps are increasing in popularity, with users spending much of their days talking on platforms like SnapChat rather than thumbing through their Facebook feeds. Apple too has followed suit by announcing a much upgraded Messages app in their latest update to iOS.

Chatbots have also become much more sophisticated, with huge advancements in Natural Language Processing and Natural Language Understanding. There is now a wealth of information and publicly available code and APIs out there, making it easier than ever to spin up a pretty intelligent chatbot with little overhead.

The Future of Object Phone

My next steps are to make Object Phone more intelligent. It should be able to learn about your tastes and preferences. If you only want to receive objects from our Textiles department, you should be able to say so. If you want to get your daily update at 5am, you should be able to just tell it that.

More importantly, you should be able to interact with more than just objects. Users should be able to find out general info about our museum. Are we open today? How do I get to Cooper Hewitt? Can I buy tickets right here, right now?

Lastly, I’d love to see Object Phone make its way onto the platform of your choice. I think this is a critical next step. SMS is great, and available to nearly anyone with a cell phone, but apps like FB Messenger, WhatsApp, and LINE have the ability to connect a service like Object Phone with a captive audience, all over the world.

I think institutions like museums have a great opportunity in the chatbot space. If anything it represents a new way to broaden our reach and connect with people on the platforms they are already using. What’s more interesting to me is that chatbots themselves represent a way to interact with people that is by its very nature, bi-directional. It presents us with the challenge of conversation, and forces us to listen to our constituents in a very close and connected kind of a way. We should already be doing this.

If you’d like to participate in testing out Object Phone, please go to http://objectphone.cooperhewitt.org and sign up. You will receive an object every day at 12pm EST until you reply STOP.