For virtual exhibits, the medium is the message

This post is the fourth post in a series on virtual exhibits. Here are the other posts (in case you want to check them out!):

  1. Should museums invest in virtual exhibits?
  2. What is a virtual exhibit?
  3. Who is going to visit your virtual exhibit?
  4. For virtual exhibits, the medium is the message.
  5. Personalizing Virtual Exhibits to Your Visitors.
  6. Giving Visitors Control Over Virtual Content
  7. Designing Virtual Exhibits to Facilitate Better Social Interactions than Facebook
  8. Virtual Exhibit Case Study: Making Friends around American History

*BONUS POST: Top 10 Virtual Experiences of 2020*

When COVID19 shut down New York City, New York Times art critic Jason Farago wrote an article on museums’ online offerings, in which he stated, “A museum’s digital assets can’t duplicate its brick-and-mortar presence — and the best of them…do not try. Rather, they regard a museum’s physical and digital activities as complementary platforms of a single mission,” (Farago, 2020). Digital assets that try to duplicate physical experiences usually fail to engage audiences because the way people interact with physical spaces is completely different than how they interact with virtual spaces. Unfortunately, if you peruse the Museum Computer Network (MCN)’s fairly comprehensive guide to virtual museum resources, you will find the majority of the exhibits on the list are 3D walkthroughs of physical spaces, which exemplify the problem Farago points out. 

Remember: the medium is the message. It’s imperative to design to your medium and play to its strengths.

Great user experience (UX) design processes help you take advantage of your medium – virtual, physical, or mixed reality.

At it’s simplest,user experience is how a person feels when interacting with a system(Gangadharan, 2019).

UX stems from the relationship between objects, users, and their context:

  • An object is a service (ex. Spotify, dry cleaning, etc), a physical thing that you can see and touch (a painting, a baseball, etc.), or a digital representation of a thing (digital image of a painting, a digital baseball in a video game, etc.). 
  • The context is where, when, with whom, and under what conditions the object-user interaction happens. For virtual exhibits, the context can include everything from the visitor’s familiarity to with the physical museum to the weather that day. As David Fingland, formerly a UX/UI designer at the Canadian Museum of History, stated, “your design needs to coexist with the other visitor touchpoints, physical or digital, before, during or after the visit. Or, all throughout an institution’s digital offering. It needs to make use of the same patterns that are found across the visitor’s journey, to ensure that interactions are intuitive, expected, and memorable.”

Although UX designers’ aim to create experiences, they actually design objects and some of their context. The experience itself is internal to the user and cannot be designed. As Caglar Araz, a UX designer at LEGO, states, “user experience refers to the singular and accumulated experiences that occur for users as a consequence of them interacting with an object in a given context,” (Araz, 2019).

To create objects and contexts, UX designers start by exploring three questions:

  1. Why will my target visitors want to engage with my virtual exhibit?

    The answer lies in audience research. Based on your audience research, you can define overarching goals for the exhibit.
  1. What will the visitors do, feel, and learn in the exhibit?

    To answer this question, start by defining your content (the Big Idea, supporting messaging, and content themes). Be just as judicious about the amount of content you aim to present in your virtual exhibit as you would be for an in-person exhibit. “Often those involved in creating virtual exhibits think that because it’s the internet and people have unlimited time and you aren’t limited by wall space or label space, you can just shove all the information you wanted to put in an in-person exhibit on the website,” Sydney Stewart, a UX Researcher and Strategist at RK&A, stated. “This assumes that your online user wants that information and will want to spend hours on your site reading it, or will come back several times to continue the experience.”

    Your content and audience research form a foundation from which you can brainstorm visitor experiences. There are a ton of resources that can help you facilitate effective design thinking brainstorms, like those provided by The Interaction Design Foundation, IDEO, and the Nielsen Norman Group . 
  1. How will visitors accomplish these things?

    The answer lies in your interaction design, which is explored more below.

Interaction design is a subset of UX design. It is the process of creating the look and feel of an space based on how users will interact with it. The goal is to make interfaces seamless to use, to make the design invisible. Good interaction design is not simple to achieve. But, here is the fundamental thing to remember: form follows function

In order to  design a great user interface (UI), interaction designers creating a virtual exhibit ask themselves: what is the visitor doing here and what information do they need to do it? As a rule of thumb, interaction designers group items together that the visitor will need to use together or in quick succession. They put items in order on the page that the visitor will need them and employ decoration (ex. Colors, buttons, fun fonts, etc.) to highlight items. Once they have a layout, they test it on different devices – iphones, androids, computers, and tablets – to make sure it looks good on all of them.

Interaction designers build on their UI to create a user-friendly navigation system that supports the content. The opportunities for virtual interaction and interface design are almost as limitless as human imagination. This may feel daunting, but there are already a number of models for fairly simple virtual exhibit interaction design.

Many exhibits employ a linear navigation structure because it is simplest.  Blubber, Bone and Baleen: Lynn’s Whaling Industry by the Lynn Museum on Google Arts & Culture has a user-friendly linear navigation system where visitors scroll from page to page. The navigation is complemented by a clean UI, beautiful photos of artifacts, and an appropriate amount of text, as you can see in the photo below. If you’re looking for a simple way to create a virtual exhibit with a clean UI and simple navigation on a very limited budget, Google Arts and Culture’s online exhibits feature is a good platform.

While linear navigation is beautifully simple, it does not play to digital media’s strengths and usually fails to excite visitors. Americans and Rethinking Guernica both have interaction designs that take better advantage of the digital medium than linear navigation.

The Americans exhibit by the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) arranges lots of objects randomly on a screen to create a sense of haphazard discovery, as you can see in the image below. The exhibit’s look complements this navigation; it’s image heavy and text light. As Dan Davis, the integrated media manager at NMAI, stated, “because of the huge amount of choices visitors can make when they are visiting the museum online, we try to make the content easy to skim through quickly, with opportunities to swim more deeply,” (Abels, 2020)

Rethinking Guernica by the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia takes advantage of the virtual medium to display aspects of Picasso’s Guernica that cannot be seen in-person. The exhibit invites visitors to compare multiple views of the painting – visible light, UV, and Infrared and X-ray. While this could be an interactive in a physical exhibit, it functions better as a virtual space that you can explore at home as an extension of an exhibit.  

Rethinking Guernica’s interaction design is incredibly user-friendly. When you first open the website, the exhibit has you scroll through linear introductory text. When you enter the screen where you can explore the painting, the exhibit automatically initiates a tour of the platform that orients you to all of the features. As you can see in the image below, you can explore through the four views on your own by selecting a view on the bottom of the page and zooming into different parts of it with plus/minus buttons on the right side. Or, you can read an accompanying text that pulls you to the view and section of the painting that it is referring to as you scroll through it. You can also visit another page to explore an interactive timeline about the painting or connect to another section of the website to read about the painting’s context in more depth. 

Once you’ve crafted a working model of your exhibit’s UX/UI, conduct user testing to make sure it’s achieving your goals and edit the exhibit to improve pieces that aren’t working. As Stewart related “you can avoid a lot of pitfalls simply by doing testing (and not with internal staff). You don’t need to do anything fancy for it to be useful, just ask 5 people to complete a handful of tasks within the virtual exhibit while talking aloud and you’ll see pretty fast where major problem areas occur.” To learn more about user prototyping, Stewart recommends You may also want to check out Smashing Magazine and Designing UX: Prototyping by Ben Coleman and Dan Goodwin.

After launching your virtual exhibit, you probably want to evaluate its impact. Evaluation helps you understand whether the objects and context you designed actually created your desired user experience.  Craig MacDonald provides an excellent evaluation rubric for virtual exhibits on the Museums and the Web 2015 conference blog.

The final stage of UX design is to iterate (in other words, you’re never finished designing :P). You always have the opportunity to weak your designs based on your evaluations in order to better achieve your objectives.

Embracing that the medium is the message will not only help you create great UX/UI for virtual exhibits, but also a better visitor journey for your museum’s entire experience, physical, digital, and mixed reality. 

“For the digital museum to come of age our online presence cannot play second fiddle but must be equal to our physical galleries.”

Adam Koszary, social media editor at the Royal Academy of Arts, London

Sources (click on a source to access it)

Ables, Kelsey. “Perspective | This Smithsonian Exhibit Says Something Powerful about Native Americans, Even through Your Screen.” The Washington Post, April 3, 2020.

Americans. Accessed September 2, 2020. 

Araz, Caglar. “Why You Should Ditch Your UX Definition, and Use This One Instead 👈,” May 2, 2019.

“Anatomy Of An Exhibit”. 1992. Visitor Behavior VII (4): 4-15.

Byrd-McDevitt, Lori. “The Ultimate Guide to Virtual Museum Resources,” August 27, 2020.

Borba, Demian. “How We Use Prototyping, And How It Made Us More Efficient.” Smashing Magazine, August 31, 2016.

MacDonald, Craig. “Assessing the User Experience (UX) of Online Museum Collections: Perspectives from Design and Museum Professionals.” Museums and the Web 2015, February 1, 2015. 

Murphey, Christopher. “A Comprehensive Guide To Wireframing And Prototyping,” March 1, 2018.

Farago, Jason. “Now Virtual and in Video, Museum Websites Shake Off the Dust.” The New York Times. The New York Times, April 23, 2020.

Gangadharan, Prayag. “The Importance of User Experience Design,” August 4, 2020.

“Gigapixel – Rethinking Guernica.” Repensar Guernica: una investigación sobre la obra-icono de Picasso. Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia. Accessed September 1, 2020.

Herck, Sytze Van, and Christopher Morse. “#LuxLife: Reflections on The Recurated Museum.” C2DH, July 13, 2020.

Kalfatovic, Martin R. Creating a Winning Online Exhibition: a Guide for Libraries, Archives, and Museums. Chicago, IL: American Library Association, 2002. 

Koszary, Adam. “Has the Digital Museum Finally Come of Age?” Apollo Magazine, May 4, 2020. 

Lynn Museum. “Blubber, Bone and Baleen: Lynn’s Whaling Industry – Lynn Museum – Google Arts & Culture.” Accessed September 4, 2020. 

Madrigal, Juan. “Accreditations, Certifications, and Meaningful Conversations,” June 1, 2018.

Mateos-Rusillo, Santos, and Arnau Gifreu-Castells. “Museums and Online Exhibitions: a Model for Analysing and Charting Existing Types.” Museum Management and Curatorship 32, no. 1 (2016): 40–49.

Perry, Sara, Maria Roussou, Maria Economou, Hilary Young, and Laia Pujol. “Moving beyond the Virtual Museum: Engaging Visitors Emotionally.” 2017 23rd International Conference on Virtual System & Multimedia (VSMM), 2017.

Resnicow, David. “Museums Have Moved Online, But They Must Reinvent Themselves to Thrive.”, May 13, 2020.

Singer, Isabel, and David Fingland. Personal Correspondence, September 2, 2020. 

Singer, Isabel, and Sydney Stewart. Personal Correspondence, September 11, 2020.

T, Will. “UI Design vs UX Design vs Interaction Design,” January 8, 2020.

They Make Design. “What Is UI vs. UX Design? What’s the Difference?” Medium. UX Planet, July 21, 2020.

“What Is User Experience (UX) Design?” The Interaction Design Foundation. Accessed September 1, 2020.

“What Is User Interface Design?” The Interaction Design Foundation. Accessed September 1, 2020.

Photo Credits (in order of use)

Photo by Marcus Aurelius from Pexels

Photo by HY AAN from Pexels

Photo by Amélie Mourichon on Unsplash

Madrigal, Juan. “Accreditations, Certifications, and Meaningful Conversations,” June 1, 2018.

Lynn Museum. “Blubber, Bone and Baleen: Lynn’s Whaling Industry – Lynn Museum – Google Arts & Culture.” Accessed September 4, 2020.

Americans. Accessed September 2, 2020. 

“Gigapixel – Rethinking Guernica.” Repensar Guernica: una investigación sobre la obra-icono de Picasso. Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia. Accessed September 1, 2020.

Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

Photo by Sheng Li on Unsplash


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