Kevin Bickham on how user-centred design methodologies and co-design sessions are helping to improve the British Museum’s offering for schools and young audiences.
About the author: Kevin Bickham is an award-winning product designer, specialising in user experience and user interface design. Born in California, Kevin gained his degree in Product Design at Stanford University before working as a Strategic Consultant at DEGW (now AECOM) in New York. Following a Master’s Degree in Innovation Design Engineering at the Royal College of Art and Imperial College London, Kevin currently creates new products and experiences as Lead Interaction Designer at The British Museum. Kevin is speaking at Museum Ideas 2018
Here are two facts about my life at the British Museum. First, my office is located right behind the galleries that hold the Museum’s collection of mummies. Second, I am often late for meetings. These two facts are not unrelated. Nope. One is actually the cause of the other. It is the case that I am often late for meetings because my office is located right behind the galleries that hold the Museum’s collection of mummies. This is a fact. But, I need to apply a qualifier in order for people to understand why this is the case. I am often late for meetings because my office is located right behind the galleries that hold the Museum’s collection of mummies, where there are hordes of school children with their activity sheets, blocking the flow of traffic. Navigating through excited children and their meticulously organised teachers usually brings my walking pace to a shuffle. Ergo, I am frequently late for meetings.
Now, I notice a few things about these school children during my shuffle to my meeting. The first is that each school group has a different activity sheet or activity backpack. One group is studying a panel of painted hieroglyphs with fierce intensity, while another group is feverishly moving from case to case in search of items for their scavenger sheet. The next thing I notice as I leave the gallery is the queue of students waiting to enter the gallery. The teachers work in unison to temper the excitement of the students as they wait their turn for entry. Then, the thought occurs to me that for every school day, we have hundreds of school children arriving at the Museum, organised into time slots for gallery viewings with their various activity sheets. I am fascinated. Is this an activity sheet that the teacher has prepared himself or did we provide the resource? How far in advance did they book their time slot in order to see this gallery? What was the experience like booking through our website? That question alone piques my interest, as it is my job to make that online experience the best possible.
“This participatory approach to design allows our key Museum stakeholders – both the visiting public, as well as internal staff members – to have a say about their needs for a digital platform for one of the world’s leading cultural institutions”
The Digital Programme Delivery team in the British Museum is currently working towards delivering a new website next year to the public. As Lead Interaction Designer here at the Museum, my team and I work across a portfolio of key digital products essential to delivering the Museum’s digital strategy. On top of delivering a new suite of technology solutions (including a new content management system), we employ user-centred design methodologies, like iterative user testing and co-design sessions, to create products that reflect both the brand values of the Museum, as well as the needs of an expanding global audience interested in our collection. This participatory approach to design allows our key Museum stakeholders – both the visiting public, as well as internal staff members – to have a say about their needs for a digital platform for one of the world’s leading cultural institutions. It is my team’s prerogative to balance these diverse needs in creating a seamless user experience. One example of our engagement with stakeholders for the website includes working with the Schools and Young Audience (SYA) team to re-design the learning section.
It is a grey, January day in London and my team sits down with SYA team for the first of four workshops to discuss the new learning section on the website. I am a tad giddy because I believe that this is one of the more important sections of the website, so I am excited at the prospect of collaborating with SYA to get it right. If we can design a better user experience for this section, then I can quickly imagine a domino effect, positively impacting the experience of teachers, students, and British Museum staff. The vibe that I sense from SYA is one of cautious optimism. They know that their sections are fairly bloated with outdated content and that it needs a thorough audit, but they haven’t been empowered to completely re-imagine what the website could be for their audiences.
So, here we are… We begin by discussing their key challenges in delivering content and information to their audiences. The first challenge identified is that the current learning section is heavily focused on primary schools and young family visitors. Even though secondary schools and teenage audiences are important demographics for the SYA team, their content tends to be under-represented. This makes sense since primary school curricula tend to focus on cultural areas or historical time periods, which neatly align with the layout of our collection. Secondary schools tend just to focus on particular subject matter. So, more effort has to go into the interpretation of the objects in order to retrieve the relevant stories supporting the subject.
Another key challenge is the presentation of teaching resources and teaching sessions for both on-site visits and the classroom. Currently, navigating resources and sessions on the website is difficult because of the lack of both visual and content hierarchy, as well as the lack of filtering functionality. When a teacher comes to the resources section of the website, they are presented with a long, scrolling page of resources, all on display at once. A veteran teacher familiar with our website might not have any difficulty navigating this mammoth list of hyperlinks, but first-time visitors would find navigating our resources page a daunting task. When a teacher has finally located the resource or session, the process of booking is time-consuming, tedious, and difficult for not only the teachers making the booking, but also the Museum staff processing the booking.
A related challenge for re-designing the learning section was to clarify the ambiguous category of ‘adult learner’ and define their user experience on the platform. It is fair to say that one of the main objectives of any cultural institution is to educate the viewer about the meaning and context of the objects collected and displayed. ‘Learning’ is the explicit objective for all of the Museum’s programming. So, how do we then decide what constitutes an ‘adult learner’ as a target audience for our platform? For the Museum, the team responsible for delivering content for adult learning predominantly channels their efforts into programmes like gallery talks and lectures. The big question is whether or not this content should live in the learning section or elsewhere on the website?
My team and I used the first workshop with the SYA team to gather their perspectives and understand what they saw as key challenges for delivering content to young audiences. We then went through our huge data bank of user research from the last two years, pulling out key user stories and journeys from our young families and school audiences. Over the last two years, we have amassed insights into how people use digital products on-site, and how they use our online platforms to plan their visits.
“Doing user research in the Museum is extremely easy, in comparison to doing it in other industries. This level of contact with our visitors is brilliant, and we feel confident that we know what works and what doesn’t work for them”
This is a good time to note that doing user research in the Museum is extremely easy, in comparison to doing it in other industries. Our users are directly outside our offices and since most of them are on holiday, it is very likely that you can politely ask them for a bit of their time to test out a prototype or answer a few questions regarding their visit. This level of contact with our visitors is brilliant, and we feel confident that we know what works and what doesn’t work for them.
After we worked through a few concepts and wireframes, we presented our work to the SYA team via the second and third collaborative workshops. The structure for these sessions was mainly us presenting our user journeys and wireframes and then discussing what was working and what needed improvement. During these sessions, both primary and secondary school teachers were also invited to provide feedback and shed some light on how they would approach our website and carry out some of the key tasks. We found the participation of both the SYA team and the teachers to be extremely helpful in developing the user experience. We gathered new insights and tailored content in a way that made sense for teachers visiting our Museum. The act of designing any digital product for a particular built environment means that the approach would slightly vary between cultural institutions, thus making the experience feel entirely unique to the British Museum.
One of the exciting moments from this engagement with the SYA team was when I received an email from a member of that team including some of their own sketched wireframes! These educators, with zero professional design experience, took it upon themselves to think creatively through user journeys and produce designs that reflected that. I was impressed that some teams in the Museum were starting to embrace new ways of working creatively.
Some creative solutions
One of our aims was to improve the on-site experience for our teachers, school groups and young audiences. Our research revealed that these audiences were more likely to pre-plan than any other visitor. The logistics of taking a large group of students from school to the Museum means that teachers must have everything mapped out with tight precision. In our new visiting section, we created ‘audience portals’ which collate content relevant to specific audience types, including visiting families and visiting schools. Audience portals centralise content relevant to their on-site experience, including what to expect upon arrival, activities and facilities on offer. This is where we present teachers with an array of options for their school’s visit: on-site resources (like activity packs) and Museum-led sessions.
“One of our aims was to improve the on-site experience for our teachers, school groups and young audiences. The logistics of taking a large group of students from school to the Museum means that teachers must have everything mapped out with tight precision”
Though the visual design of an audience portal is fairly straightforward, the real work is designing content in a way that presents information to teachers at the right time and with the right fidelity of detail. As the design team, we work hard with our content strategist to fine tune the information so that it is both accessible and informative for teachers. This is the case for how we design essential booking information when teachers find an interesting Museum-led session on our website. At the moment, the process of booking a session with our ticketing office is not as efficient as it could be. The booking is made by the ticketing office, which is then passed on to the SYA team, who carry out the school sessions. Sometimes, though, information is lost somewhere along the chain, and in the end, the SYA team might not have all of the necessary information about the class prior to giving the lesson. By improving the display of the content, we hope that teachers will have an easier experience when booking their classes into our sessions.
An easier solution to implement is the introduction of a filtering function for our online resources, in the hope of improving accessibility and usefulness. We collected user insights from teachers to help inform us how to make this filter most practical. Labelling each resource with the appropriate key stage was useful, but adding the age range associated with each key stage meant that international audiences would be able to identity suitable content for their classrooms or children, as well. Through our user research, we found that filtering by calendar months wasn’t as useful as filtering by term dates. We also made the distinction that primary school teachers are more likely to filter by a specific cultural area like Ancient Egypt, while secondary school teachers are more likely to filter by a specific subject, like mathematics.
Lastly, we had to tackle the ambiguous ‘adult learner’ category in the learning section. We first had to make the distinction between the courses offered through our further education programme and the ongoing lecture series, where learning is an explicit objective. We designed the content in a way that improved visitors’ expectations of the learning objectives within the events calendar of the exhibitions and events section of the website. Also, we carried out an audit of all of the events that take place at the Museum and then made intelligent groupings of similar events. This provided website visitors with broader categories to begin searching for events that would be of interest to them.
In May 2017, we carried out an evaluation of our new proposed designs with a selection of London-based school teachers. The majority of them taught primary students, while one teacher was a special education teacher for 16-25 year olds (teaching primary school subjects). Our methodology included one-hour usability interviews focused on carrying out key tasks on the learning section of the website.
The results revealed that teachers feel they know what is in the British Museum and will look at the school offerings on the website when they know that the British Museum has something that matches the national curriculum (i.e. Rome, Greece or Egypt). However, teachers were unaware of other offerings available to them and consequently would not look to the British Museum for subjects such as STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), financial or digital. All of the teachers were pleasantly surprised that the Museum did indeed have resources available for these subjects.
“The effect of designing content better is that we, the British Museum, do not waste teachers’ extremely precious time”
One of the other important findings was the order of content on pages related to visiting the Museum. For all of the teachers, they would first need to decide if the British Museum was their preferred destination for their class. After deciding to come to the Museum, they would want to investigate the Museum offerings that are available to them. This would include things like workshops on-site with British Museum staff members, visiting the Museum with their own resources or just looking for resources to use in the classroom. After deciding which offering makes the most sense for their class, they will then look at resources to support that offering. This methodical process for decision making meant that the positioning of content related to what is on offer needed more visibility on the page, before teachers have to delve into the logistics of bringing their class on-site. Both pieces of information are important, but the order that they are presented actually has a noticeable effect on the usability of the page. The effect of designing content better is that we, the British Museum, do not waste teachers’ extremely precious time.
The learning section has come a long way since our initial kickoff meeting with the SYA team. Our aim was to empower teachers and young families with the tools needed to make informed decisions regarding the type of experience they want to have at the British Museum. For many of our pre-planners, the British Museum website is the first touch point in their journey with us. If we can’t instil confidence that our Museum is the obvious choice for their visit, then we will likely lose out to other museums in Central London. And with an increasingly technology-savvy population, a user-friendly website will become even more of an imperative.
“Our aim was to empower teachers and young families with the tools needed to make informed decisions regarding the type of experience they want to have at the British Museum”
User experience and design can help us reach to this aim. It puts people at the centre of the design process. We care deeply about what people say and how they feel about the goods and services that we, as the British Museum, provide. If every cultural institution keeps this empathetic mentality at the centre of their values, then every museum would see improved visitor experiences. There is a reason why technology companies, financial services and business consultants have recruited designers in record numbers over the last ten years to innovate in their workforces. Good design is good for business. Museums and other cultural institutions should take note, if they haven’t already.
Now, I still continue to run late for my meetings (it really can’t be helped!) and I still look out to the hordes of students jammed against the glass to get a closer look at the mummies. I hope that we make a meaningful impact for them. I hope that the teachers have a seamless experience organising their trip with us. It would be great if the next project that I can work on here is improving crowd flow and wayfinding. I would have no more excuses for running late for meetings then. Oh, and I guess it would improve our visitors’ experiences with us, too.
Lead Interaction Designer, The British Museum
Published 23 January 2018