[Design Thesis] 3-0 Feedback and Reflection

I consciously stayed away from my thesis for a while during the winter break. For one thing, I have been working on my portfolio website. For the other, I didn’t feel excited about the scenarios I proposed.

Both user-triggered interaction and the responsive environment are doable. I could hack some software or hardware to actually make the final prototypes, which is something I was excited about from the beginning. But I still felt something is missing. Feedback from the audience was great. They said it was cool and would like to see it work. But I also felt, it’s too predictable, isn’t it? We all know new technology is on their way to change our lives, such as Google Glass, the sensor networks, etc. Technology, no doubt, could also solve the problems in the public exhibit space, to support personalization, or further information inquiry. But, is technology the only solution? What if technology could not solve the problems–just look at the mobile apps, sometimes they work, but sometimes they are no better than the traditional placards?

Notes from the mid-term poster session panel was inspiring as well as challenging. The professors made me rethink about the assumptions of my thesis: which space I am looking into, who my target audience are, what problem I am solving, what other solutions could be, etc. To be honest, I did not have solid answers to all those questions. After all the research, the literature reviews, the blog posting, I still felt I was not informative enough to make decisions to pick the directions.

To settle the uncertainty, I did a quick Mechanical Turk survey. I tried to make it fast and short to get some random ideas from MTurk users, which has a diversified demographic to get inspiration. I asked them eight questions and received 50 responses in the end, some of them were noises which didn’t provide any information, while some answers were genuine and informative.

I also did some more literature reviews on the topic. I read articles on design for Homo Ludens, museum research reports, museum in transition, and a series of research on museum and cultural heritage. A group of researchers from Northern Europe have been working on the topic from a perspective that combines tangible and intangible interactions in the space, which is very inspiring.

Yet, still, nothing new came up. It was a visit in the Art Institute in Chicago that made me feel something different. It was a large group of visitors standing and sitting in front of the famous painting, American Gothic. A grey-haired curator was standing in the center of the crowd. She told the audience stories of how the painting was created. The crowd nodded and some whispered to each other. One man raised his hand and asked her a question about why it was named American Gothic. She answered. Then another visitor raised another question. There was no technology involved in the scene, but visitors were so engaged that new questions kept coming up as if they were in an important lecture.

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That moment made me question the assumption of my thesis. As I proposed to solve the information needs of the visitors, which assumes that once this need is satisfied, the experience could be enhanced. But what if, the information has to be understood by the visitors themselves, instead of museums making every effort to use new technology to cater them? What if technology is not the solution to this problem? That’s how I stepped back and came up with the idea of 0 Information Museum.

[Design Thesis] 2-5 Brainstorm

To think about more solid ideas to enhance visit experiences, I did research on physical computing, wearable devices, and viewing techniques. Here are some bits of ideas that I came up with after some browsing, reading and meditating.

1. Show the creation process of the painting in augmented reality

– could be AR glasses: people put on the glasses and see the painting changing from a sketch to the final painting.

– could be an app on iPad, that visitors could see the paintings gradually appear from a sketch to the final painting,. One example to look at is the ad, Danielle.

–  could be an app, but the projection is a 3D object. If you move around, you can see different angles of the object, example.



2. Get contextual information on the go

– Could be a redesign of the audio guide, using a dial or a button to select information or to trigger interaction when people are walking around in the space. The interaction could be zoom in and out, overlay information(combine with a pair of glasses, or mobile devices), for projection, change the lighting in the gallery of impressionism, and the timeline projection (that is, design a switch for the other ideas).


In the field of wearable devices, other examples include the MagicBand that is currently under development in the Walt Disney Company; Jawbone’s Up, Xbox One, Highlight (hyper-intelligent apps that alerts you to interesting people near you), Automatic (a gadget that communicate with your smartphone to tell you when you are driving inefficiently) .


3. Growing timeline

A  subtle timeline of the lifespan of the artists and the year of the painting is projected under/above the artwork.  The projector detects visitor movements (like a Kinect does). The longer a visitor spends in front of a work, the more the timeline expands. Besides information of time, it could also display a) location, how the artists moved from one place to another; b) fame/wealth, or the life up-and-downs ; c) connection with other artists; d) connection with today (a growing timeline into today; or something that could create relevance with today), etc.



4. Grid labels

The information on labels are designed into grid system. This helps make the categories of information more explicit, and also could be valuable for further technology tweak, such as eye-tracking–when visitor is looking at one block of the information, the action triggers more information display that the visitor might be interested in.


– Typography: how designers lay out the information on a page –> The information is the interface.

– Web design: how grid system is applied to design websites.(Four types of grids)

 Manuscript grids work best for continuous blocks of text or images, but blocks of text might not be the best viewing experience in the exhibit setting.

Column grids work well when the information being presented is discontinuous and is in different types. That might or might not be the information in the museum. Some of the narratives are well written to tell a complete stories. It would be difficult to tear them apart and throw into different columns.

– Mobile device design: how to display information on small screens (Video by Edward Tufte ). Here’s a quote from the video that I found it interesting:

One of the general theory: To clarify, add detail. Clutter and overload are not an attribute of information. They are the failures of design. If the information is in chaos, don’t start throwing out information. Instead, fix the design.



5. Viewing kits

One thing I observed in the exhibit space is that when there’s a bench, people are more likely to sit and look at the work for a while ; when there’s button, people are likely to press it; when there’s a room, people tend to walk to or just poke their heads around to see what happens inside. All of these suggests how physical objects structure visitors’ behavior in an exhibit space. This makes me think about how objects engage us in the viewing experience: magnifiers direct us to see details, footprint stickers indicate the best viewing spot, sounds create some kind of atmosphere, etc. Thus, I come up with the idea of a viewing kit that the museums could use to engage visitors in different pieces. This might sound like a natural history or science museum, but for me, an interesting idea to explore.


Dominic Wilcox, everyday orchestra:how small day-to-day interactions be interpreted into instruments.


When I discussed the above concepts with my advisor, he said they were all just bits of ideas, which cannot be called design. He reminded me of the goal of the project is just to create a device or one way to display information, but the viewing experience. How a visitor trigger the information display? When does the interaction stop? How does the overall visit look like? Those are the questions that I am going to explore in the next step: Scenarios.



When I was browsing on the Internet, I came across an article on Bill Buxton and his design thinking.  I found his words inspiring to me at this point, because when designing an experience, it’s not a matter of designing an app, a device or a software, but the overall system that you are looking at. Here’ the quote.

Buxton has said that the solution is to “stop focusing on the individual objects as islands.” He has come up with a simple standard for whether a gadget should even exist: Each new device should reduce the complexity of the system and increase the value of everything else in the ecosystem.


[Design Thesis] 2-4 Ideation and revisit thesis statement

After the first round of research, I gained better understanding of the visitor profiles, the information needs of the visitors, and visitor behaviors in the exhibit spaces. One of the key findings is the viewing experience is vital to the exhibit space, by enhancing which, visitors and museum can both benefit intellectually and emotionally.

Based on the findings, I decided four directions for further research and prototype.

First, visualize the contextual information in the space to help build understanding of individual artwork as well as to help visitors navigate the space more smoothly.

Second, design for in-depth information inquiry. Expert visitors have different information needs, which is not fully satisfied with current informational tools(labels, audio guides, touch screens, etc.), and thus I am looking into new approach of providing multi-layers of information to visitors with various information needs.

Third, design the environment to be able to react to the visitors in a way that could enhance the viewing of artworks and information.

Fourth, explore the possibility of information living beyond the exhibit space into daily life.

It’s also time that I should revisit my thesis statement to compare my original direction and the current four directions. I rethink about the opportunity that I am looking into, my thesis topic and the goal of the project as below.

Opportunity Statement

In the viewing experience in museums, labels are such an important part that, according to my research, most people would read them. They provide visitors with general information as well as expanded information. They work, to some extent, but I also see the possibility of new types of information presentation to enhance this viewing experience. For example,  the information they could provide is limited by the size of the paper while some expert visitors would be willing to learn more; the information they provide is pre-canned to fit for all visitors which is mission impossible. Also, it’s interesting to explore how labels or other informational tools could sustain visitors’ interests when they are looking at the artworks.

Thesis Statement

My thesis is to explore new approaches to enhance viewing experience that leads to satisfying experience as well as knowledge gain within and outside of the exhibit space.


The goal of my thesis is to provide visitors with enhanced viewing experience via new approaches, including visualization of the contextual information, different levels of information inquiry for visitors with various level of appreciation, responsive physical space and information in daily life.

[Design Thesis] 2-3 Interview Synthesis – Scenarios

The interviews also helped me to construct the scenarios when visitors interact with the information. When do they stop? What motivates them to read? What do they do after reading the information? I tried to answer these questions by really looking into the microinteraction in the space. Here’s the scenario:

Scenarios(Click the image to see the complete version.)

This diagram helps me to see the connection of all the elements that interviewees mentioned about, including motivation, the touch-points (labels, audio guides, apps, etc.), the time element, the physical distance between the viewer and the work, note-taking, the beginning and the end of the interaction, etc. I used this chart to brainstorm design ideas or solutions.

At this point, I went back to the concepts: situated interest and personal interest; attractors and sustainers. For all three types of visitors, they all start with something that attracts their eyes, then they stop. This visual appeal is the attractors. Then what is the sustainers to keep this situated interest?

For expert visitors, they are self-motivated to read and learn. They might get useful information from the information touch-points in the museum, followed by more questions, which need to be answered. Or they might want more in-depth information instead of general information on the placard to fully solve their questions. The sustainers for them would be in-depth information.

For the other two categories, motivated learners and visual visitors, what are the sustainers? I think this question has been investigated well enough in the marketing and advertising industries. For me, I look at it from the label perspective. It’s a great tool to present information, but it can be better. They cannot sustain visitors’ interests, and they are not able to satisfy people with different eyesights and distances. At this point, there are three types of potential sustainers that I identify from the interview synthesis:

– fancy visualization of information to provide information at a glance, which could be digital or physical, such as layers of labels or cards;

– provide new ways to read information, such as projection around the painting, reading information from mobile devices, etc.

– provide new types of information. One thing people constantly mentioned about is the context. They would like to see underlying connections in the space or among the artworks to better understand the works.

Beyond the above visions from the interviews, I also think about other areas that I should pay attention to.

One thing is time. The time that visitors spend in front of a painting usually means something, such as they are interested, they have questions, they have discussion, etc. Though the goal is not to increase the time they spend in front of the paintings, it would be interesting to reveal this data to the visitors and see what might happen. It could be a sand glass along the labels to indicate how long you or other visitors have spend in front of the painting, or it could be a painting that reveals itself step by step when you spend in front of it long enough.

The other thing is back to the beginning and think about why I am interested in this topic. What exactly attracts me to work on it? For me, I just enjoy the looking experience, how looking itself trigger judgments, imagination, discussion, emotion. It’s poetic, with all the beauty as well as weirdness, uncomfortableness, and awkwardness. It’s organic for it’s should not and cannot be structured, and there are always dynamic interaction among the visitors and the works on display. I am not interested to innovate everything that current museums provide. What attracts me is to explore new possibilities of the visitor-exhibit interaction.


[Design Thesis] 2-2 Interview Synthesis – Information

What information they would like to know?

One of the questions in the interview is to let the interviewee rank some information that they wish the museum could provide. Here are the eight types of information:

– the life of the painting (how it was created, sold and ended up in the museum);

– how one painting relates to all the other paintings in the same gallery;

– how one artist relates to other artists;

– the personality of the artist;

– what the artist was thinking about when creating this piece;

– how other visitors think about this piece;

– how one piece of artwork affects daily life(fashion, interior design, education, etc.)

– other, please write down_________


Here’s a general ranking.


It does not show a very clear pattern of what they like or don’t like, which is fine because it’s not the goal of these interviews. I am not trying to make lists of what visitors like and don’t like. It’s more important to understand priority and connections between the visitor and the information.

Some clusters could be observed. Relatively speaking, more people are interested in “what the artist was thinking about when creating this piece”(row 2), and “how one painting relates to all the other paintings in the same gallery”(row 3). People are less excited about “the life of the painting (how it was created, sold and ended up in the museum)”(row 5).

I also did some comparisons among the three types of visitors. The difference is not obvious. Each person has a different ranking. Even people in the same category had  polarized opinion on the same information.

Main insight: In general, people could be interested in any type of information based on previous knowledge, personal experiences and the piece they are looking at. Yet, people seem to be curious about the meaning of the works, intention behind the piece and some backstage stories. The connection of the human behind the artworks intrigue visitors to continue further interaction. Also, the ranking also indicates that the context where the artwork lives is also important to some extent. It’s the core of the curation process but sometimes it’s also invisible to visitors in the space.

[Design Thesis] 2-1 Interview Synthesis – Personas

I started interviewing people the week before last. For me, that meant a new stage. I got in touch with real people instead of demographics from previous surveys or defined personas. I talked to eight people, most were young museum-goers from different backgrounds, artists, engineers, designers, etc. Each interview took 30 minutes or less. The questions can refer to previous post.

The conversations with different people are quite interesting. Most replies were not surprising, as might be covered in large-scale surveys done by big museums, but making connections among all the questions generated certain kind of information interaction patterns, which is exactly what I want to know from these interviews.


John Falk developed five types of visitors based on interviews with hundreds of visitors to California Science Center. They are explorer, facilitator, experience seeker, professional/hobbyists, rechargers.

– Explorers: visit museums because it interests them and appeals to their curiosity.

– Facilitators: visit museums in order to satisfy the needs and desires of someone they care about rather than just themselves.

– Experience Seekers: are ‘collecting’ experiences. They want to feel like they’ve ‘been there’ and they’ve ‘done that’ – they want to see the destination, building or what’s iconic on display.

– Professional/Hobbyists: Represent the smallest category of visitors but they are very influential. Could be museum professionals, art and antique collectors, teachers, artists, etc.

– Rechargers: visit in order to reflect, rejuvenate or just bask in the wonder of a place. Artmuseums, botanical gardens, aquariums have lots of these visitors. [1]

(For further explanation, could refer to this brief introduction. )

The model has a strong focus on motivations–why people come to the museum, and it highlights “visitor as an actor with personal interests, knowledge, and preferences” [2] in the exhibit space, instead of one of the general demographics.


From my interviews, I found out people could be playing different roles along the journey. They might start as an experience seeker, such as going with friends on a weekend. Then they become explorers because they feel like they should look for fun stuff or famous pieces that they haven’t seen before (according to John Falk, a large number of visitors fall in this category). In the end, they might just be rechargers, walking around and response to artworks emotionally.

That is to say, during the journey, visitors’  behaviors are not mainly decided by the motivation with which they arrive the museum, but could be influenced by other elements. One way to understand this is situational interest and personal interest.

According to Csikszentmihalyi & Hermanson(1995) , they distinguished between the situational interest, which occurs when we come across things of interest,  and the personal interest, which relates to our “enduring preference”. Csikszentmihalyi & Hermanson thus indicated that if visitors gain personal interest in a particular part of the exhibition, this opens the possibility of further involvement and development of the individual.[2] Edmond (2006) continued the discussion, suggesting that various attributes of artifacts in the exhibit spaces could play different roles: “attractors” stimulate situational interest, and “sustainers” help sustain the interest. [2]

If looking at visitors’ information interaction from this perspective, it can be concluded that situational interests and personal interests are two main factors deciding visitors’ actions, and thus it would be make more sense to categorize personas based on their situational or personal interest or both.

One thing I learned from my interviews is that people have different levels of appreciation. Some might value visual appeals more than any other information. They like looking at things that they find visually intriguing, cool, or amazing. They might reach for more information, especially stories and anecdotes, but they really don’t like labels and are unlikely to take more actions after the visit.

Some might invest time in things they find interesting. They are not driven mainly by visual appearance, instead, by things that are beyond their personal experience. They read labels and are more likely to use the audio guides and apps for more information. They usually engage in discussions with companions.

Some might be more specific about what they are looking at because they are either trained or self-taught as professionals in art or curation. They are attracted by things they find visually appealing, interesting or strange. They spend long time standing in front of one piece to look at every detail of the piece, from the brushstrokes, depths of paints, cracks; they examine the piece from every angle, standing at a distance, stepping closer to an alarming distance (which attracts security guards), the first visit, the second visit, their own perspective and other visitors’ perspectives. They might do more search or make more notes after the visit.

Based on the above introduction, three types of visitors could be concluded: visual visitors, motivated learners and expert visitors. The three types of personas are not real categories, but more like a spectrum, most people might be in-between two types of personas. Also, according to my research, they differentiate from each other but also share some similarities, which would be further described in future posts.



[2] Dindler, C. & Iversen O.S.,  Motivation in the museum-mediating between everyday engagement and cultural heritage, 2009,  http://www.nodem.org/admin/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/motivationinthemuseum.pdf