Designing for participatory projects: emergent best practice, getting discussion started

I was invited over to New Zealand (from Australia) recently to talk at Te Papa in Wellington and the Auckland Museum.  After the talks I was asked if I could share some of my notes on design for participatory projects and for planning for the impact of participatory projects on museums.  Each museum has a copy of my slides, but I thought I’d share the final points here rather than by email, and take the opportunity to share some possible workshop activities to help museums plan audience participation around its core goals.

Both talks started by problematising the definition of a ‘museum website’ – it doesn’t work to think of your ‘museum website’ as purely stuff that lives under your domain name when it’s now it’s also the social media accounts under your brand, your games and mobile apps, and maybe also your objects and content on Google Art Project or even your content in a student’s Tumblr.  The talks were written to respond to the particular context of each museum so they varied from there, but each ended up with these points.  The sharp-eyed among you might notice that they’re a continuation of ideas I first shared in my Europeana Tech keynote: Open for engagement: GLAM audiences and digital participation.  The second set are particularly aimed at helping museums think about how to market participatory projects and sustain them over the longer term by making them more visible in the museum as a whole.

Best practice in participatory project design

  • Have an answer to ‘Why would someone spend precious time on your project?’
  • Be inspired by things people love
  • Design for the audience you want
  • Make it a joy to participate
  • Don’t add unnecessary friction, barriers (e.g. don’t add sign-up forms if you don’t really need them, or try using lazy registration if you really must make users create accounts)
  • Show how much you value contributions (don’t just tell people you value their work)
  • Validate procrastination – offer the opportunity to make a difference by providing meaningful work
  • Provide an easy start and scaffolded tasks (see e.g. Nina Simon’s Self-Expression is Overrated: Better Constraints Make Better Participatory Experiences)
  • Let audiences help manage problems – let them know which behaviours are acceptable and empower them to keep the place tidy
  • Test with users; iterate; polish

Best practice within your museum

  • Fish where the fish are – find the spaces where people are already engaging with similar content and see how you can slot in, don’t expect people to find their way to you unless you have something they can’t find anywhere else
  • Allow for community management resources – you’ll need some outreach to existing online and offline communities to encourage participation, some moderation and just a general sense that the site hasn’t been abandoned. If you can’t provide this for the life of the project, you might need to question why you’re doing it.
  • Decide where it’s ok to lose control. Try letting go… you may find audiences you didn’t expect, or people may make use of your content in ways you never imagined. Watch and learn and tweak in response – this is a good reason to design in iterations, and to go into public or invited-beta earlier rather than later. 
  • Realistically assess fears, decide acceptable levels of risk. Usually fears can be turned into design requirements, they’re rarely show-stoppers.
  • Have a clear objective, ideally tied to your museum’s mission. Make sure the point of the project is also clear to your audience.
  • Put the audience needs first. You’re asking people to give up their time and life experience, so make sure the experience respects this. Think carefully before sacrificing engagement to gain efficiency.
  • Know how to measure success
  • Plan to make the online activity visible in the organisation and in the museum. Displaying online content in the museum is a great way to show how much you value it, as well as marketing the project to potential contributors.  Working out how you can share the results with the rest of the organization helps everyone understand how much potential there is, and helps make online visitors ‘real’.
  • Have an exit strategy – staff leave, services fold or change their T&Cs

I’d love to know what you think – what have I missed?  [Update: for some useful background on the organisational challenges many museums face when engaging with technology, check out Collections Access and the use of Digital Technology (pdf).]

More on designing museum projects for audience participation

I prepared this activity for one of the museums, but on the day the discussion after my talk went on so long that we didn’t need to use a formal structure to get people talking. In the spirit of openness, I thought I’d share it. If you try it in your organisation, let me know how it goes!

The structure – exploratory idea generation followed by convergence and verification – was loosely based on the ‘creativity workshops’ developed by City University’s Centre for Creativity (e.g. the RESCUE creativity workshops discussed in Use and Influence of Creative Ideas and Requirements for a Work-Integrated Learning System).  It’s designed to be a hackday-like creative activity for non-programmers.

In small groups…

  • Pick two strategic priorities or organisational goals…
  • In 5 minutes: generate as many ideas as possible
  • In 2 minutes: pick one idea to develop further

Ideas can include in-gallery and in-person activity; they must include at least two departments and some digital component.

Developing your idea…
Ideas can include in-gallery and in-person activity; they must include at least two departments

  • You have x minutes to develop your idea
  • You have 2 minutes each to report back. Include: which previous museum projects provide relevant lessons? How will you market it? How will it change the lives of its target audience? How will it change the museum?
  • How will you alleviate potential risks?  How will you maximise potential benefits?
  • You have x minutes for general discussion. How can you build on the ideas you’ve heard?

For bonus points…

These discussion points were written for another museum, but they might be useful for other organisations thinking about audience participation and online collections:

What are the museum’s goals in engaging audiences with collections online?

  • What does success look like?
  • How will it change the museum?
  • Which past projects provide useful lessons?

How can the whole organisation be involved in supporting online conversations?

  • What are the barriers?
  • What small, sustainable steps can be taken?
  • Where are online contributions visible in the museum?

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.

Usability: the key that unlocks geeky goodness

This is a quick pointer to three posts about some usability work I did for the JISC-funded Pelagios project, and a reflection on the process. Pelagios aims to ‘help introduce Linked Open Data goodness into online resources that refer to places in the Ancient World’. The project has already done lots of great work with the various partners to bring lots of different data sources together, but they wanted to find out whether the various visualisations (particularly the graph explorer) let users discover the full potential of the linked data sets.

I posted on the project blog about how I worked out a testing plan to encourage user-centred design and set up the usability sessions in Evaluating Pelagios’ usability, set out how a test session runs (with sample scripts and tasks) in Evaluating usability: what happens in a user testing session? and finally I posted some early Pelagios usability testing results. The results are from a very small sample of potential users but they were consistent in the issues and positive results uncovered.

The wider lesson for LOD-LAM (linked open data in library, archives, museums) projects is that user testing (and/or a strong user-centred design process) helps general audiences (including subject specialists) appreciate the full potential of a technically-led project – without thoughtful design, the results of all those hours of code may go unloved by the people they were written for. In other words, user experience design is the key that unlocks the geeky goodness that drives these projects. It’s old news, but the joy of user testing is that it reminds you of what’s really important…

Design constraints and research questions: museum metadata games

Back in June I posted parts of my dissertation project outline in ‘Game mechanics for social good: a case study on interaction models for crowdsourcing museum collections enhancement‘. Since then, I’ve been getting on with researching, designing, building and evaluating museum metadata games (in my copious spare time after work, in a year when we launched three major galleries).

I’m planning to blog bits of my dissertation as I write it up so there’ll be more posts over the next month, but for now I wanted to contextualise the two games I’m evaluating at the moment.  In the next post I’ll talk about the changes I made after the first solid round of evaluation.

Casual games
The two games, nicknamed ‘Dora‘ and ‘Donald‘ are designed as casual games – something you can pick up and play for five minutes at a time.  Design goals included: an instantly playable game that provides stress relief, supports a competitive spirit (but not necessarily against other people), inherently rewarding experience, simple game play and puts ‘fun before do-gooding’.  The games were designed around a specific research-based persona (‘Meet Janet‘, pdf link) – hopefully it’s exactly right for some people who are close to the persona in various ways, and quite fun for a wider group.  It won’t suit everyone, not least because definitions of ‘fun’ and expectations around ‘games’ can be deeply individual.

Design constraints
The games are also designed to test ideas about the types of objects and records that can be used successfully, and the types of content people would be able to contribute about the less charismatic and emotionally accessible reaches of science, technology and social history collections – this means that some of the objects I’ve used are quite technical, not all the images are great and small variations on object records are repeated (risking ‘not another bloody telescope’).  While this might match the reality of museum catalogues, would it still allow for a fun game?

The realities of a project I was building in my free time and my lack of graphic design and illustration skills also provided constraints – it had to be browser-based, it couldn’t rely on a critical mass of concurrent players to validate actions or content, it had to help the player dive straight into playing and overcome any fears about creating content about museum objects, and it had to use objects ingested through available museum APIs (I selected broad subjects for testing but didn’t individually select any objects).

I then added a few extra constraints by deciding to build it as a WordPress plugin – I wanted to take advantage of the CMS-like framework for user logins, navigation and page layout, and I wanted the code I wrote to be usable by others without too much programming overhead.  I’ll need to tidy up the code at the end, but once that’s done you should be able to install it on any hosted WordPress installation.  I’m making a related plugin to help you populate the database with objects (also part of an experiment in the effectiveness of letting people choose their own subject areas or terms to select playable objects).  I’ll talk more about how I worked with those constraints and how they informed the changes I made after evaluation in a later post.

Different games for different purposes
I’ve been thinking about a museum metadata game typology, which not only considers different types of fun, but also design constraints like:

  • the type and state of the collection (e.g. art works, technical/specialist and social history objects; photographs and other media vs objects; reference collections vs selected highlights; ‘tombstone’ vs general vs interpretative records)
  • the type of data sought including information curators could add if they had infinite time (detail on the significance of the object, links to other subjects, people, events, objects, collections, etc); information that can be extrapolated from the existing catalogue record; things curators couldn’t know (personal history, experiential accounts about the design, manufacture, use, disposal etc of objects); emotional responses; external specialist knowledge; amateur/hobbyist specialist knowledge; synonyms in every day language; terms in other spoken languages

I’ve also been playing with the idea of linking different game types to different ‘life stages’ of museum collection metadata.  For example, some games could help a museum work out which of its catalogued items seem more interesting to the public, others help gather tags, create links between items or encourage players to research objects and record new information or links about them, and others still could work well for validating data created in earlier games.  The data I gather through evaluating the games I’ve designed will help test this model.

So, all that said, if you’d like to play (and help with my evaluation), the two games are:

Donald’s detective puzzle – find a fact about an object
Dora’s lost data – a simpler tagging game

What do you mean by ‘wireframe’?

This post on ‘The future of wireframes?‘ chimed a few bells, not only because I’m revising for a Requirements Engineering exam but because I’ve been in the start-up phase for projects of all sizes lately and have been thinking hard about the best way to understand and communicate requirements. In doing so, I’ve realised that ‘wireframes’ has become one of those terms that mean different things to different people – and that of course, it’s an entirely new term to people who haven’t worked on a design phase of a digital project before. This summed up past and current definitions neatly:

For many years the primary role of wireframes was to specify software. We now use wireframes to investigate and explore how people will interact with a site. Using a ‘just enough’ approach, we often create a series of simple interactive prototypes to try out a variety of approaches to solving a problem. These prototypes can be made in HTML or they can be as simple as a series of Keynote slide for someone to click through.

This is a very different approach to wireframing. Rather than simply documenting where a link goes, the goal is to model and start experiencing what moving around a site feels like as quickly as possible. The prototype can then be tested and the results used to iteratively improve the end solution.

Of course, sites still need to be specified, but wireframes aren’t always the right tool for doing this.

Here’s a list of wireframe and prototype tools – do you have any favourites?

A rare post from me – I’ve been completely caught up in work and my MSc for the past few months. Normal service will be resumed soon – I’ve still got to report on UKMW09 and a trip to Oslo to give a lecture on social media and museums, libraries and archives.

Get thee to a wiki – the great API challenge in action

Help us work on an informal, lightweight way of devising shared data, API standards for museum and cultural heritage organisations – museum-api.pbwiki.com is open for business.

You could provide examples of APIs you’ve used or produced, share your experience as a consumer of web services, tell us about your collections.

Commenting on other people’s queries and content is an easy way to get started.  I’d particularly love to hear from curators and collections managers – we should be working together to enable greater access to collections.  If you check it out and none of it makes any sense – be brave and say so!  We should be able to explain what we’re doing clearly, or we’re not doing it right.

Some background: as announced on the nascent museumdev blog, the Science Museum is looking at releasing an API soon – it’ll be project-specific to start with, but we’re creating it with the intention of using that as an iterative testing and learning process to design an API for wider use. We could re-invent the wheel, but we’d rather make it easy for people to use what they’ve learnt using other APIs and other museum collections – the easiest way to do that is to work with other museums and developers. The Science Museum’s initial public-facing collections API will be used for a ‘mashup competition’ based on object metadata from our ‘cosmos and culture’ gallery.

Speaking of museumdev, I started it as somewhere where I could ask questions, point people to discussions, a home for collections of links and stuff in development.  It’s also got random technical bits like ‘Tip of the Day: saving web.config as Unicode‘ because I figure I might as well share my mistakes^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H learning experiences in the hope that someone, somewhere, benefits.

What would you create with public (UK) information?

Show Us a Better Way want to know, and if your idea is good they might give you £20,000 to develop it to the next level.

Do you think that better use of public information could improve health, education, justice or society at large?

The UK Government wants to hear your ideas for new products that could improve the way public information is communicated.

Importantly, you don’t need to be a geek:

You don’t have to have any technical knowledge, nor any money, just a good idea, and 5 minutes spare to enter the competition.

And they’ve made “gigabytes of new or previously invisible public information” available for the project, including health, crime and education data (but no personal information).

Nice information design/visualisation pattern browser

infodesignpatterns.com is a Flash-based site that presents over 50 design patterns ‘that describe the functional aspects of graphic components for the display, behaviour and user interaction of complex infographics’.

The development of a design pattern taxonomy for data visualisation and information design is a work in progress, but the site already has a useful pattern search, based on order principle, user goal, graphic class and number of dimensions.

Play with your customer profiles

It’s a bit early for a random Friday fun link, but this Forrester ‘Build Your Customers’ Social Technographics Profile‘ interactive counts as work too.

Companies often approach Social Computing as a list of technologies to be deployed as needed — a blog here, a podcast there — to achieve a marketing goal. But a more coherent approach is to start with your target audience and determine what kind of relationship you want to build with them, based on what they are ready for. You can use the tool on this page to get started.

You can pull down menus to change the age group, country and gender of your target audience, and the graph below updates to show you how many are in each ‘Social Technographics’ group.

The definitions of the ‘Social Technographics’ groups are given in a slideshow.

Hat tip to Nina Simon. [Update to get Nina’s name right, I’m very sorry!]

Let’s help our visitors get lost

In ‘Community: From Little Things, Big Things Grow‘ on ALA, George Oates from Flickr says:

It’s easy to get lost on Flickr. You click from here to there, this to that, then suddenly you look up and notice you’ve lost hours. Allow visitors to cut their own path through the place and they’ll curate their own experiences. The idea that every Flickr visitor has an entirely different view of its content is both unsettling, because you can’t control it, and liberating, because you’ve given control away. Embrace the idea that the site map might look more like a spider web than a hierarchy. There are natural links in content created by many, many different people. Everyone who uses a site like Flickr has an entirely different picture of it, so the question becomes, what can you do to suggest the next step in the display you design?

I’ve been thinking about something like this for a while, though the example I’ve used is Wikipedia. I have friends who’ve had to ban themselves from Wikipedia because they literally lose hours there after starting with one innocent question, then clicking onto an interesting link, then onto another…

That ability to lose yourself as you click from one interesting thing to another is exactly what I want for our museum sites: our visitor experience should be as seductive and serendipitous as browsing Wikipedia or Flickr.

And hey, if we look at the links visitors are making between our content, we might even learn something new about our content ourselves.