‘War, Plague and Fire’ and ‘Bootstrapping Innovation in Museums’ at ‘Museum Ideas 2012 – Museums in the Era of Participatory Culture’

I’ve finally had a moment to catch up and post the first part of my notes from Museum/iD‘s conference, Museum Ideas 2012 – Museums in the Era of Participatory Culture. Overall it was a great conference that left me with a lot of things to think about for how museums can adapt and thrive in the current international context, and reminded me why museums should survive: they matter. I’ve posted my thoughts from the later sessions at Why museums matter: ‘Museum Ideas 2012 – Museums in the Era of Participatory Culture’ with a short summary of the whole event at the start.

Sharon Ament’s keynote at Museum of London Docklands

The day was chaired by Ben Gammon who began by pointing out that innovation is no longer a luxury, it’s now critical for survival.

The keynote speaker was the new Director of the Museum of London, Sharon Ament, who spoke on War, Plague and Fire: museums and libraries in the era of participatory culture. Previously Ament was director of public engagement at the Natural History Museum, and she drew on that background in her talk while also relating it to the collections of the Museum of London and the docklands location of the conference. She called for museums to look at what participatory culture means to the people they serve, especially when the individual has the capacity to be heard more loudly than ever before. The international context in which we’re living – with civil unrest, economic crises and global warming – is a time of change and fear means that adaptation to the external environment is an important concept for museums today. Her talk, and some of the discussion afterwards, focused on the role of museums and libraries as venues for independent discovery; accessible to many because entry was free. She suggested that creative responses – small things that can happen spontaneously, like the ‘pop-up’ concept – might be useful for reaching people.

One final quote to close, from the Salzburg Global Seminar and the Institute of Museum and Library Services report on ‘Libraries and Museums in an Era of Participatory Culture’: ‘technology is a tool, not an objective, and that the creation of increased public value is the end goal. Identifying stakeholders’ needs means addressing human relationships, a sense of organization, and an intellectual construct to shape information and access’.

The next session was a ‘fireside chat’ with Rob Stein (Dallas Museum of Art) and Seb Chan (Cooper-Hewitt Museum) reflecting on ‘Bootstrapping Innovation in Museums‘ and their experiences in changing museums. They discussed collaboration (Stein noted that everything he’s built that’s had a modicum of success has been a collaboration with lots of people), the pace of change in different museums (including the need to build a risk-tolerant culture), and the risk of assuming that technology is an inherent part of innovation (Stein observed that the change that needs to happen at DAM is cultural, about shifting ambition). How do you create a culture of innovation? Chan mentioned Elaine Heumann Gurian‘s Wanting to be the Third on your Block and said that the first thing he did when he started at the Cooper-Hewitt was create a space that gave people permission to change. He set up ‘labs’ as a space for people to talk about stuff, which also gave his immediate team a public voice for the first time. He pushed fast to get quick results on some straightforward things to start to set an expectation of speed and accelerate culture: ‘right now, doing things fast matters more than doing things well’. He talked about cultivating rogues and tricksters in the museum to accelerate change and get a paradigm shift and suggested tackling root problems rather than symptoms for issues like copyright. They also discussed how to play up the fun of museum jobs to make them more attractive in a competitive tech jobs market, and the importance of putting some money into innovation where possible. Stein suggested that it’s possible to support innovation without a budget, e.g. museums can hold ‘research forums’ where people share what they’re working on.

Chan also said museums have turned themselves into ‘exhibition farms’, letting them suck huge amounts of resource; together with the obsession with ‘finish’ this slows innovation that could come from re-thinking how exhibitions and public programmes work together. Stein observed ‘museums seem to like gargantuan problems, things that take five years to get out the door [like] exhibitions, publications, buildings.’

They discussed the mismatch between museum exhibition launch models and software models: ‘people want to feel that something’s finished when it launches, they want the party and the holiday’. But in software development, no-one takes a holiday straight after launch because they’re watching what people do with the new software. [I was really interested in this section as it’s something I’ve thought about a lot (e.g. does a museum’s obsession with polish hinder innovation?) – I suspect museum technologists have two clashing mental models about how to work: one is the web agency model, based around cycles of ‘launch, observe, iterate, update’; the other is the ‘long slog to an unmovable launch date then onto the next project’ of museums. When the rest of the world moves on the agile, iterative model, it’s frustrating being tied to the museum model, particularly when it seems to have more flaws than benefits for modern audiences.] In closing they talked about the effectiveness of various models of innovation, whether attempts at top-down innovation, departments of innovation or more integrated models of innovation.

This post is already quite long, so I might hit publish now and come back to the other talks later.

Disclosure: my ticket was provided by Museum/iD.

Geek for a week: residency at the Powerhouse Museum

I’ve spent the last week as ‘geek-in-residence’ with the Digital, Social and Emerging Technologies team at the Powerhouse Museum. I wasn’t sure what ‘geek-in-residence’ would mean in reality, but in this case it turned out to be a week of creativity, interesting constraints and rapid, iterative design.

When I arrived on Monday morning, I had no idea what I’d be working on, let alone how it would all work. By the end of the first day I knew how I’d be working, but not exactly what I’d focus on. I came in with fresh questions on Tuesday, and was sketching ideas by lunchtime. The next few days were spent getting stuck into wireframes to focus in on specific issues within that problem space; I turned initial ideas into wireframes and basic copy; and put that through two rounds of quick-and-dirty testing with members of the public and Powerhouse volunteers. By the time I left on Friday I was able to handover wireframes for a site called ‘conversations about collections’ which aims to record people’s memories of items from the collection. (I ran out of time to document the technical aspects of how the site could be built in WordPress, but given the skills of the team I think they’ll cope.)

The first day and a half were about finding the right-sized problem. In conversations with Paula (Manager of the Visual & Digitisation services team) and Luke (Web Manager), we discussed what each of us were interested in exploring, looking for the intersection between what was possible in the time and with the material to hand.

After those first conversations, I went back to Powerhouse’s strategy document for inspiration. If in doubt, go back to the mission! I was looking for a tie-in with their goals – luckily their plan made it easy to see where things might fit. Their strategy talked about ideas and technology that have changed our world and stories of people who create and inspire them, about being open to ‘rich engagement, to new conversations about the collections’.

I also considered what could be supported by the existing API, what kinds of activities worked well with their collections and what could be usefully built and tested as paper or on-screen prototypes.  Like many large collections, most of the objects lack the types of data that supports deeper engagement for non-experts (though the significance statements that exist are lovely).

Two threads emerged from the conversations: bringing social media conversations and activity back into the online collections interfaces to help provide an information scent for users of the site; and crowdsourcing games based around enhancing the collections data.
The first was an approach to the difficulties in surfacing the interesting objects in very large collections. Could you create a ‘heat map’ based on online activity about objects to help searchers and browsers spot objects that might be more interesting?

At one point Nico (Senior Producer) and I had a look at Google Analytics to see what social media sites were sending traffic to the collections and suss out how much data could be gleaned. Collection objects are already showing up on Pinterest, and I had wild thoughts about screen-scraping Pinterest (they have no API) to display related boards on the OPAC search results or object pages…

I also thought about building a crowdsourcing game that would use expert knowledge to data to make better games possible for the general public – this would be an interesting challenge, as open-ended activities are harder to score automatically so you need to design meaningful rewards and ensure an audience to help provide them. However, it was probably a bigger task than I had time for, especially with most of the team already busy on other tasks, though I’ve been interested in that kind of dual-phased project since my MSc project on crowdsourcing games for museums.

But in the end, I went back to two questions: what information is needed about the collections, what’s the best way to get it?  We decided to focus on conversations, stories and clues about objects in the collections with a site aimed at collecting ‘living memories’ about objects by asking people what they remember about an object and how they’d explain it to a kid.  The name, ‘Conversations about collections’ came directly from the strategy doc and was just too neat a description to pass up, though ‘memory bank’ was another contender.
I ended up with five wireframes (clickable PDF at that link) to cover the main tasks of the site: to persuade people (particularly older people) that their memories are worth sharing, and to get the right object in front of the right person.  Explaining more about the designs would be a whole other blog post, but in the interests of getting this post out I’ll save that for another day… I’m dashing out this post before I head out, but I’ll update in response to questions (and generally things out when I have more time).

My week at the Powerhouse was a brilliant chance to think through the differences between history of science/social history objects and art objects, and between history and art museums, but that’s for another post (perhaps when if I ever get around to posting my notes from the MCN session on a similar topic).
It also helped me reflect on my interests, which I would summarise as ‘meaningful audience participation’ – activities that are engaging and meaningful for the audience and also add value for the museum, activities that actually change the museum in some way (hopefully for the better!), whether that’s through crowdsourcing, co-curation or other types of engagement.

Finally, I owe particular thanks to Paula Bray and Luke Dearnley for running with Seb Chan’s original suggestion and for their time and contributions to shaping the project; to Nicolaas Earnshaw for wireframe work and Suse Cairns for going out testing on the gallery floor with me; and to Dan Collins, Estee Wah, Geoff Barker and everyone else in the office and on various tours for welcoming me into their space and their conversations.

Conference notes: Museums and Galleries Scotland’s ‘Collaborate to Compete’

My really quite rough-and-ready notes from Museums and Galleries Scotland’s ‘Collaborate to Compete’ conference.  I’ve already posted my introductory notes for the session on ‘Entrepreneurship and Social Media’, so these notes are about the keynotes and the other sessions I attended.

The first speaker was Jeremy Johnson from Australia’s Sovereign Hill, on ‘Engaging with China: the new horizon for cultural and heritage tourism’.  He talked about their research-led marketing program aimed at getting Chinese visitors to Sovereign Hill, which included marketing work in China, hiring Chinese-speaking staff, and developing tailored tours and experiences.  They’ve also hosted Chinese student[?] teachers in their education department and organised touring exhibitions.  They also had to deal with talking about racism in the past treatment of Chinese Australians in Sovereign Hill – their technique is apparently to ‘tell it how it was’, but because Chinese Australians were ‘extraordinary contributors to society’ it was easy to focus on the many success stories.  In general, they’ve developed some experiences to meet the expectations of Chinese visitors, but still, ‘the museum product has to be respected’.

Top quotes included:

  • ‘you must be able to answer the question “what would make someone visit your museum?”‘ – there must be a compelling reason to visit
  • China is like 56 countries wrapped up into one. ‘Saying you’re going to China is like saying you’re going to Europe’
  • ‘Develop a market strategy to deliver visitor experiences at the right price’. The best marketing strategy can be undone if visitor experience does not meet the promise. Cultural awareness training essential for all staff and volunteers.
  • ‘Bear in mind China isn’t a democracy, not everyone gets access to Google’.

I then went to the first ‘New Partnerships’ seminar, where I heard lessons from the ‘Curious’ project at Glasgow Museums, including the possibility that ‘sustainability can be about working with different people at different stages rather than the one group of people working with the museum during the whole process’, and that ‘people put together objects in ways that curators never would’ (e.g. a ceramist put together objects from different parts of the world based on the presence of finger marks in the clay); partnership successes: mutual benefits, increased understanding, new opportunities, positive feedback; partnership challenges: managing expectations (also finding the right people to talk to), organisational structures, a draw on resources, tracking increases in visits.

In the same session, people from the ‘Smart Collaborations’ project talked about conceptual frameworks for collaboration, with a focus on attracting and retaining visitors within an area – it was hard to see the slides, but it seemed to be about designing experiences for tourists. The top tip was: don’t be afraid to use offers, vouchers, or other deals to attract customers; and capture data when getting people in.

The plenary talk before lunch was Stuart Dempster (JISC’s Strategic Content Alliance) on ‘Sustaining Digital Resources’ [earlier report at Business modelling and sustainability, new one will go live there next month ?]. If the digital age is a game-changer for institutions, how can bricks-and-mortar organisations not only be on the web, but of the web. What skills, licensing need to be in place? They’ve been looking at business models, including the effects of economic downturn and government cuts. Funded projects must deliver value to users, not just driven by curatorial concerns; a key concern is how to generate new forms of income with integrity.

Tips for communicating value to adminstrators: have a seat at the table whenever decisions are made about digital resources; engage administrators early to develop shared sense of responsibility for the project; have an advocacy campaign with users outside the institution so you’ve got voices of support when needed; identify different types of stakeholders and work appropriately with each – identify champions if you can.  Sustainable projects: empower leadership to define the mission and take action; create a strong value proposition; creatively manage costs; cultivate diverse sources of revenue; have a system of accountability.  Collaborations need consensus, communication, capacity, trust, metrics…

After lunch, Alphonse Umulisa, Director General of The Institute of National Museums of Rwanda spoke on ‘Repositioning Cultural Tourism’. Previously at the Museum of London, his job is to raise awareness about Rwanda’s history and heritage sites – difficult when Rwanda’s history is so painful. They’re trying to look forward to the future, and forget the past, but even knowing where to start was hard.  He said you can’t learn history in schools in Rwanda – it’s not taught – but you can learn Rwandan history in museums. The museums had to change from research institutions to learn how to attract tourists, and they had to get Rwandans visiting museums again. His talk was both utterly humbling – the Rwandan government’s vision for 2020 is for every family to have a cow – and inspiring – his motto is: ‘discover your museums, cherish your heritage’.

Tony Butler has posted his own notes from his inspiring talk on how the Museum of East Anglian Life transformed itself from a failing organisation to a thriving enterprise, and about his aim to make it a participative institution, a space for co-creation or to help people look at the world differently and to place the museum in the rhythm of daily life.

After my session on ‘Entrepreneurship and Social Media’, I went to a workshop on ‘Smarter Museums’ with Anne Murch (who prefers the concepts of resilience or entrepreneurship to ‘sustainability’).  The workshop covered the principles of a ‘thinking environment’: appreciation, attention, equality, incisive questions. We did a really interesting (and at first, challenging) exercise in pairs, where you had to either just listen, or just talk, for three minutes, before swapping with your partner.  It’s hard – if you’re meant to be listening, you want to encourage the person talking, or if you’re talking, you want to stop and let the other person have a go.  We did it again later, and it was much easier.  We were also asked to consider “if we knew that together we can have a thriving museum that provides the very best experience for our visitors, what would the org look and feel like? What is the shift we need to make to deliver this?”, and the importance of diversity as both the identity of the people that are shaping the future plans and the ideas that are generated. A team that takes a ‘diagonal slice’ across and down through the museum can be effective – the people with least power are often most creative and least encumbered. Another suggestion for better meetings was to frame each agenda item as a question.

The event closed with the launch of the National Strategy Consultation by Fiona Hyslop, Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Cultural & External Affairs National Strategy Consultation, with a speech that was a lovely celebration of the contribution of museums and cultural heritage to Scottish life.  The document itself outlines the context, guiding principles, vision, themes and objectives of the proposed sector consultation process, which will lead to the national strategy for Scotland’s Museums and Galleries.  (Interestingly, Australia is also running a ‘Digital Culture Public Sphere‘ consultation for input into National Cultural Policy.)

Define your purpose or others will define you (and you may not like the results)

[A re-post, as the blogger outage seems to have eaten the first version. I’m incredibly grateful to Ben W. Brumfield @benwbrum for sending me a copy of the post from his RSS reader. I’ve set blogger up to email me a copy of posts in future so I won’t have to go diving into my Safari cache to try and retrieve a post again!]

There’s a lot of this going around as the arts and cultural heritage face on-going cuts: define yourself, or be defined, a search for a new business model that doesn’t injure the unbusinesslike values at the core of public cultural institutions. Mark Ravenhill in the Guardian, Global art: nice canapes, shame about the show:

Many of our UK institutions operate under a strange contradiction: most of the signals we give out suggest that we offer the international glamour, the pampering loveliness, the partnerships with banks and brands… But at the same time, we agonise about access: we want everyone to be let into the business lounge.

In a modern world that buys and sells information and luxury, the arts deal in something very different: wisdom, a complex, challenging, lifelong search that can make you happy and furious, discontented and questioning, elated or bored.

What we need now, more than ever, is a clear message about what we do and why we do it. The government has opted for swift deficit reduction and a good hack at the arts: it’s up to us to set the long-term agenda for the role of the arts in public life over the next decade and beyond if we’re not going to be cut, cut and cut again. Boom and bust are here to stay: capitalism will always be in a permanent state of crisis.

Nick Poole has also written on A New Way Forward for Museums, saying:

It is entirely possible to be commercially savvy, operate sharply and make sophisticated uses of licensing as an artefact of control all in the name of serving a public cultural purpose. Equally, it is possible to throw open the doors and make content universally accessible in the name of driving commercial value to the bottom-line. The cultural and commercial imperatives are not in opposition, but coexist along a spectrum of activity which runs from non-commercial, through non-transactional (things like brand equity and audience engagement) to strictly financially transactional.

If the financial future of museums lies in becoming commercially acute, then a key part of true sustainability will lie in recognising our place in the supply-chain of culture to consumers, and in truly understanding and embracing our core competence and their value.

…we need to recognise that focussing on our core competencies and using them to create cultural assets and experiences which we can monetise (and therefore sustain) in partnership with the private sector is a story of success and advantage, not failure or loss.

His post has some interesting suggestions, so do go read it (and comment).

Nick also describes a vision “of a world in which museums have renegotiated the social contract with the public so that people everywhere understand that museums are places where culture is made and celebrated, rather than preserved and hidden from view” – it’s easy, in my happy little bubble, to forget that many people don’t see the point of museums. Some I’ve talked to might make an allowance for the big national institutions, but won’t have any time for smaller or local museums. Working out how to deal with this might mean changing the public offer of these museums – or is it too late? There’s a silent cull of museums happening in the UK right now, and yet I don’t hear about big campaigns to save them. What do you think?

Thinking aloud: does a museum’s obsession with polish hinder innovation?

I’m blogging several conversations on twitter around the subject of innovation and experimentation that I thought were worth saving, not least because I’m still thinking about their implications.

To start with, Lynda Kelly (@lyndakelly61) quoted @sebchan at the Hot Science conference on climate change and museums:

‘Museums want everything to be slick and polished for mass audience, we lose capacity to be experimental and rapid’

 which lead me to tweet:

‘does big museum obsession with polish hinder innovation? (‘innovation’ = keeping up with digital world outside)’.

which lead to a really interesting series of conversations.  Erin Blasco responded (over several tweets):

We can’t pilot if it’s not perfect. … Need to pilot 15 quick/dirty QR codes but we can’t put ANY up unless there are 50 & perfectly, expensively designed & impressive. … So basically not allowed to fail and learn = not allowed to pilot = we spend a bunch of $ and fail anyway? … To clarify: it’s a cross-dept project. One dept ok with post-it notes & golf pencils. Two others are not. Kinda deadlock.

I think this perfectly illustrates the point and it neatly defines the kind of ‘polish’ that slows things down – the quality of the user experience with the QR codes would rest with the explanatory text, call to action and the content the user finds at the other end, not the weight and texture of the paper or vinyl they’re printed on.  Suddenly you’ve got extra rounds of emails and meetings for those extra layers of sign-off, a work request or contract for design time, plus all the stakeholder engagement that you already, but does that extra investment of time and resources result in a better experiment in audience research?

But kudos to Erin for gettings things this far!  (An interesting discussion followed with Erin and @artlust about possible solutions, including holding stakeholder evaluations of the prototypes so they could see how the process worked, and ‘making the pilot-ness of it a selling point in the design, letting audiences feel they’re part of something special’, which made me realise that turning challenges into positives is one of my core design techniques.)

For Linda Spurdle, the barriers are more basic:

Innovation costs, even my plans to try things cheap/free get scuppered by lack of time. For me less about risk more about resources

Which also rings perfectly true – many potential museum innovators were in this position before the museum funding cuts took hold, so innovating your way out of funding-related crises must be even more difficult now.

On the topic of innovation, Lindsey Green said the ‘definite reluctance to pilot and fail impacts innovation’. Rachel Coldicutt had just blogged about ‘digital innovation in the arts’ in Making Things New, pointing out that the question ‘privileges the means of delivery over the thing that’s being delivered’, and tweeting that ‘innovating a system and innovating art aren’t the same thing and perhaps there’s more impact from innovating the system’.

If the quest is to, as Rachel problematises in her post, ‘use digital technologies to remake the Arts Establishment’, then (IMO) it’s doomed to failure. You can’t introduce new technologies and expect that the people and processes within a cultural organisation will magically upgrade themselves to match. More realistically, people will work around any technology that doesn’t suit them (for entirely understandable reasons), and even the best user experience design will fail if it doesn’t take account of its context of use. If you want to change the behaviour of people in an organisation, change the metrics they work to. Or, as Rachel says, ‘[r]ather than change for change’s sake, perhaps we should be identifying required outcomes’.  Handily, Bridget McKenzie pointed out that ‘The Museums for the Future toolkit includes new eval framework (GEOs = Generic Environmental Outcomes)’, so there’s hope on the horizon.

The caveats: it’s not that I’m against polish, and I think high production values really help our audiences value museum content. But – I think investing in a high level of polish is a waste of resources during prototyping or pilot stages, and a focus on high production values is incompatible with rapid prototyping – ‘fail faster’ becomes impossible. Usability researchers would also say polished prototypes get less useful feedback because people think the design is set (see also debates around the appearance of wireframes).

It’s also worth pointing out my ‘scare quotes’ around the term ‘innovation’ above – sadly, things that are regarded as amazing innovations in the museum world are often delayed enough that they’re regarded as pretty normal, even expected, by our more digitally-savvy audiences. But that’s a whole other conversation…

So, what do you think: does a museum’s obsession with polish hinder innovation?

Update, January 2013: Rob Stein has written ‘Museum Innovation: Risk, Experimentation and New Ideas‘, which resonated strongly:

A common pitfall for museums is an unhealthy addiction to monumental undertakings. When massive projects loom with ties to outside support and countless staff hours invested in a single deliverable, it becomes very difficult to admit the possibility of failure. As a result, we shy away from risk, mitigate the probability of embarrassment, and crush innovation in the process.

Museums and iterative agility: do your ideas get oxygen?

Re-visiting the results of the survey I ran about issues facing museum technologists has inspired me to gather together some great pieces I’ve read on museum projects moving away from detailed up-front briefs and specifications toward iterative and/or agile development.

In ‘WaterWorx – our first in-gallery iPad interactive at the Powerhouse Museum‘, Seb Chan writes:

“the process by which this game was developed was in itself very different for us. … Rather than an explicit and ‘completed’ brief be given to Digital Eskimo, the game developed using an iterative and agile methodology, begun by a process that they call ‘considered design‘. This brought together stakeholders and potential users all the way through the development process with ‘real working prototypes’ being delivered along the way – something which is pretty common for how websites and web applications are made, but is still unfortunately not common practice for exhibition development.”

I’d also recommend the presentation ‘Play at Work: Applying Agile Methods to Museum Website Development‘ given at the 2010 Museum Computer Network Conference by Dana Mitroff Silvers and Alon Salant for examples of how user stories were used to identify requirements and prioritise development, and for an insight into how games can be used to get everyone working in an agile way.  If their presentation inspires you, you can find games you can play with people to help everyone understand various agile, scrum and other project management techniques and approaches at tastycupcakes.com.

I’m really excited by these examples, as I’m probably not alone in worrying about the mis-match between industry-standard technology project management methods and museum processes. In a ‘lunchtime manifesto‘ written in early 2009, I hoped the sector would be able to ‘figure out agile project structures that funders and bid writers can also understand and buy into’ – maybe we’re finally at that point.

And from outside the museum sector, a view on why up-front briefs don’t work for projects that where user experience design is important.  Peter Merholz of Adaptive Path writes:

“1. The nature of the user experience problems are typically too complex and nuanced to be articulated explicitly in a brief. Because of that, good user experience work requires ongoing collaboration with the client. Ideally, client and agency basically work as one big team.

2. Unlike the marketing communications that ad agencies develop, user experience solutions will need to live on, and evolve, within the clients’ business. If you haven’t deeply involved the client throughout your process, there is a high likelihood that the client will be unable to maintain whatever you produce.”

Finally, a challenge to the perfectionism of museums.  Matt Mullenweg (of WordPress fame), writes in ‘1.0 Is the Loneliest Number‘: ‘if you’re not embarrassed when you ship your first version you waited too long’.  Ok, so that might be a bit difficult for museums to cope with, but what if it was ok to release your beta websites to the public?  Mullenweg makes a strong case for iterating in public:

“Usage is like oxygen for ideas. You can never fully anticipate how an audience is going to react to something you’ve created until it’s out there. That means every moment you’re working on something without it being in the public it’s actually dying, deprived of the oxygen of the real world.

By shipping early and often you have the unique competitive advantage of hearing from real people what they think of your work, which in best case helps you anticipate market direction, and in worst case gives you a few people rooting for you that you can email when your team pivots to a new idea. Nothing can recreate the crucible of real usage.

You think your business is different, that you’re only going to have one shot at press and everything needs to be perfect for when Techcrunch brings the world to your door. But if you only have one shot at getting an audience, you’re doing it wrong.”

* The Merholz article above is great because you can play a fun game with the paragraph below – in your museum, what job titles would you put in place of ‘art director’ and ‘copywriter’?  Answers in a comment, if you dare!  I think it feels particularly relevant because of the number of survey responses that suggested museums still aren’t very good at applying the expertise of their museum technologists.

“One thing I haven’t yet touched on is the legacy ad agency practice where the art director and copywriter are the voices that matter, and the rest of the team exists to serve their bidding. This might be fine in communications work, but in user experience, where utility is king, this means that the people who best understand user engagement are often the least empowered to do anything about it, while those who have little true understanding of the medium are put in charge. In user experience, design teams need to recognize that great ideas can come from anywhere, and are not just the purview of a creative director.”


If you liked this post, you may also be interested in Confluence on digital channels; technologists and organisational change? (29 September 2012) and A call for agile museum projects (a lunchtime manifesto) (10 March 2009).

Let’s push things forward – V&A and British Library beta collections search

The V&A and the British Library have both recently released beta sites for their collections searches.  I’d mentioned the V&A’s beta collections search in passing elsewhere, but basically it’s great to see such a nicely designed interface – it’s already a delight to use and has a simplicity that usually only comes from lots of hard work – and I love that the team were able to publish it as a beta.  Congratulations to all involved!

(I’m thinking about faceted browsing for the Science Museum collections, and it’s interesting to see which fields the V&A have included in the ‘Explore related objects’ panel (example).  I’d be interested to see any usability research on whether users prefer ‘inline’ links to explore related objects (e.g. in the ‘tombstone data’ bit to the right of the image) or for the links to appear in a distinct area, as on this site. )

I’m not sure how long it’s been live, but the British Library beta catalogue search features a useful ‘Refine My Results’ panel on the right-hand side of the search results page.  

There’s also a ‘workspace’, where items and queries can be saved and managed.  I think there’s a unique purpose for users of the BL search that most sites with ‘save your items’ functions don’t have – you can request items directly from your workspace in advance for delivery when next in the library.  My friendly local British Library regular says the ability to save searches between sessions is immensely useful.  You can also export to delicious, Connotea, RefWorks or EndNote, so your data is transportable, though unfortunately when I tested my notes on an item weren’t also exported.  I don’t have a BL login so I haven’t been able to play with their tagging system.

They’ve included a link to a survey, which is a useful way to get feedback from their users.

Both beta sites are already useful, and I look forward to seeing how they develop.

A call for agile museum projects (a lunchtime manifesto)

Yet another conversation on twitter about the NMOLP/Creative Spaces project lead to a discussion of the long lead times for digital projects in the cultural heritage sector. I’ve worked on projects that were specced and goals agreed with funders five years before delivery, and two years before any technical or user-focussed specification or development began, and I wouldn’t be surprised if something similar happened with NMOLP.

Five years is obviously a *very* long time in internet time, though it’s a blink of an eye for a museum. So how do we work with that institutional reality? We need to figure out agile, adaptable project structures that funders and bid writers can also understand and buy into…

The initial project bid must be written to allow for implementation decisions that take into account the current context, and ideally a major goal of the bid writing process should be finding points where existing infrastructure could be re-used. The first step for any new project should be a proper study of the needs of current and potential users in the context of the stated goals of the project. All schema, infrastructure and interface design decisions should have a link to one or more of those goals. Projects should built around usability goals, not object counts or interface milestones set in stone three years earlier.

Taking institutional parameters into account is of course necessary, but letting them drive the decision making process leads to sub-optimal projects, so projects should have the ability to point out where institutional constraints are a risk for the project. Constraints might be cultural, technical, political or collections-related – we’re good at talking about the technical and resourcing constraints, but while we all acknowledge the cultural and political constraints it often happens behind closed doors and usually not in a way that explicitly helps the project succeed.

And since this is my lunchtime dream world, I would like plain old digitisation to be considered sexy without the need to promise funders more infrastructure they can show their grandkids.

We also need to work out project models that will get buy-in from contractors and 3rd party suppliers. As Dan Zambonini said, ”Usability goals’ sounds like an incredibly difficult thing to quantify’ so existing models like Agile/sprint-esque ‘user stories’ might be easier to manage.

We, as developers, need to create a culture in which ‘failing intelligently’ is rewarded. I think most of us believe in ‘failing faster to succeed sooner’, at least to some extent, but we need to think carefully about the discourse around public discussions of project weaknesses or failures if we want this to be a reality. My notes from Clay Shirky’s ICA talk earlier this year say that the members of the Invisible College (a society which aimed to ‘acquire knowledge through experimental investigation’) “went after alchemists for failing to be informative when they were wrong” – ” it was ok to be wrong but they wanted them to think about and share what went wrong”. They had ideas about how results should be written up and shared for maximum benefit. I think we should too.

I think the MCG and Collections Trust could both have a role to play in advocating more agile models to those who write and fund project bids. Each museum also has a responsibility to make sure projects it puts forward (whether singly or in a partnership) have been reality checked by its own web or digital specialists as well as other consultants, but we should also look to projects and developers (regardless of sector) that have managed to figure out agile project structures that funders and bid writers can also understand and buy into.

So – a blatant call for self-promotion – if you’ve worked on projects that could provide a good example, written about your dream project structures, know people or projects that’d make a good case study – let me know in the comments.

Thanks also to Mike, Giv and Mike, Daniel Evans (and the MCG plus people who listened to me rant at dev8D in general) for the conversations that triggered this post.


If you liked this post, you may also be interested in Confluence on digital channels; technologists and organisational change? (29 September 2012) and Museums and iterative agility: do your ideas get oxygen? (21 November 2010).

Innovation crunch?

Slightly old (mid-December) news, but I’ve had deadlines/been on holidays: Google Shutters Its Science Data Service:

Google will shutter its highly-anticipated scientific data service in January without even officially launching the product, the company said in an e-mail to its beta testers.

Once nicknamed Palimpsests, but more recently going by the staid name, Google Research Datasets, the service was going to offer scientists a way to store the massive amounts of data generated in an increasing number of fields. About 30 datasets — mostly tests — had already been uploaded to the site.

The dream appears to have fallen prey to belt-tightening at Silicon Valley’s most innovative company.

What do stories like this mean for innovation in 2009, as we lurch on in a state of financial panic/crisis? And as with layoffs at Flickr, there’s possibly a salutary lesson for cultural heritage organisations investing resources with even the biggest companies – always make sure you’ve got backups and an exit strategy.