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.

7 thoughts on “Let's help our visitors get lost”

  1. Hey Mia

    That's exactly what we tried to do with our OPAC at the Powerhouse. (I tried as much to express that – albeit inadequately – in my MW07 paper on serendipity) The real difficultly in the museum world is that this runs totally counter to everyone's training in museum studies (at least so far) and is the antithesis of what 'good exhibition design' is about.

    This is yet another of the problems that comes from letting the exhibition-process model spill over into the web, and another challenge for web teams to work to break within the organisation.

    So, it isn't at all about tech or even really UI design, it is about organisational mindset shifting.


  2. Interesting that Flickr and Wikipedia let you 'get lost' in two different ways. Flickr through structured, facet browsing (tag, user, place, etc), and Wikipedia through unstructured inline links.

  3. Seb/Frankie: the whole faceted browsing/search thing has been going around in my head, particularly since MW2008, but also since playing with OPAC on the Powerhouse site, and Seb's Open Calais work, and checking out some of the semantic webby faceted browsers…

    I'm thinking about the difference between traditional models that are based on a physical navigation method and ideas of curatorial authority versus born-digital navigation and a greater openness to letting the user 'curate their own experience'.

    On the one hand, you have an official exhibition microsite with fairly set paths through carefully structured hierarchical data, and on the other, the possibility of browsing across machine- or user-generated links between entities (people, places, things) within object or authority description/caption text. But would 'wikipedia in a caption' hinder or help – does the question of differentiating content generated from within or without the walls of the museum pop up again?

    Overall, I'm not sure whether 'collections you can get lost in' need a critical mass of data (whether by region or by subject matter) to provide the right level of detail and randomness, or whether it would work on the collections of a single museum – depends on the size of the museum, and the coherency of its collections for a start.

    Frankie: it is interesting but are the differences that great? You can't have links in a photograph, at least not as they stand, so they have to fit outside the 'main' content. They're both decentralised and ad hoc content (unless you use the category/related links at the bottom of Wikipedia entries). Flickr tags aren't themselves grouped by type of tag, whether it's a person, a place, an event or a mood.

  4. Mia: re differences between Flickr/Wikipedia. I think they're similar, but slightly different ways of achieving the same thing – multiple ways of browsing through the content.

    Museum website rarely do inline linking or faceted browsing…

  5. I think it needs to be a bit of both – a 'flow' experience for those who want it (students), a more structured one for those who want that (streakers) and then something in-between for the rest (strollers). That was a strong finding in my thesis. Mia, I got re-enthused to finish a blog post I was writing about classifying visitors/users and the whole idea of "flow".

    In the physical museum these can be realised but I'm not so sure about the on-line world, only coz I don't know if it's technically possible.

  6. I'm re-visiting this blast from the past to share some of Micah Walter's post about the Cooper-Hewitt's alpha collections site, Getting lost in the collection (alpha):

    "For me the key to a great, deep, user experience is to allow users to get lost within the site. It sounds odd at first. I mean if you are spending your precious time doing research on our site, you wouldn’t really want to “get lost” but in practice, it’s how we make connections, discover the oddities we never knew existed, and actually allow ourselves to uncover our own original thought. Trust me, getting lost is essential. (And it is exactly what we know visitors enjoy doing inside exhibitions.)

    As you can probably tell by now, getting lost on our old eMuseum was pretty tough to do. It was designed to do just the opposite. It was designed to help you find “an object.”"


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