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Design thinking on the run: using rapid methods at the Getty Research Institute

Getty Research Institute
This guest post is from Liz McDermott, Managing Editor of Web & Communications at the Getty Research Institute (GRI). 

I work at the GRI, one of the four programs of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Located at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, the GRI has two exhibition galleries and houses the largest art library in the world. New scholarly exhibitions are presented twice a year, showcasing rare materials from the GRI’s vast special collections.

For our current exhibition, World War I: War of Images, Images of War, my team was asked to develop a mobile tour that highlights 15 key objects from the show.

Since this was the very first mobile tour developed for a GRI exhibition, many stakeholders were involved in discussions about content and design. Among the long list of creative challenges—from criteria for selecting featured works to finding a balance between scholarship and accessibility—was something very fundamental: how can we make visitors in our galleries aware that we have a mobile tour available?

Challenges and Questions

Located on 650 acres in the Santa Monica mountains, the Getty Center is routinely rated one of the top 10 attractions in Los Angeles, thanks to its Richard Meier-designed architecture, gardens by Robert Irwin, a museum with a permanent collection and rotating exhibitions, daily tours and free events, and panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean and Los Angeles.

All of those enticements, however, posed a challenge for us: visitors could be easily distracted from discovering and using our mobile tour.

Furthermore, the GRI galleries are not located inside the Museum complex, but in a separate building across a plaza.

Map of the Getty Center

Because of these issues regarding distractions and geography, we thought about developing promotional campus signage. The museum designers suggested that we might develop a handout that Getty volunteers could pass out to visitors as well as some type of larger graphic treatment located near the GRI gallery entrance.

But this brought up further questions:

  • What kind of text should we use to describe the tour?
  • How much instructional text would be needed to ensure that people know how to access the tour on their smart phones?
  • What kind of text would encourage visitors to not only access the mobile tour on their smart phones, but to do so inside our galleries?

With these questions in mind, we tried applying some design thinking methods to quickly arrive at answers.

Here’s What We Did

Like everyone, we have many competing digital projects and deadlines. At this stage in the project, I didn’t yet have an assigned UX person, developer, or designer. My available staff resources were myself and my colleague Alicia Houtrouw, the GRI editor and content producer on this project. We looked at our schedules and squeezed in a couple of hours spread out over two afternoons. We decided to test several types of signage by utilizing the following methods:

  • Low-fi paper prototyping
  • Rapid iteration
  • Short empathy interviews

Out on the Plaza

Our testing took place over a couple of sunny afternoons in July 2014 in the Getty Museum courtyard. Alicia and I developed a number of rough paper prototypes, and in between interviews, we iterated and redesigned on the fly, cycling through several versions. Our prototypes depicted possible text for promotional signage on the Getty campus. At this stage, we didn’t know if we were going to use this text for handouts, billboards, or floor graphics of some sort.

We worked as a team and took turns, with one of us taking notes and the other acting as the interviewer, asking questions of visitors. All together, we interviewed eight visitors.

We began by introducing ourselves and explaining that we wanted to improve the visitor experience. We told people we would not take more than five minutes of their time and that we would be grateful for their feedback. Very quickly, we discovered that, once we started asking questions, most visitors were intrigued and happy to talk for at least 15-20 minutes!

Possible text for campus promotional signage. At this stage, we didn’t know if we were going to use this text for handouts, billboards, or floor graphics of some sort.

Prototype 1

When we showed a paper prototype of signage that we might use, we asked open-ended questions to find out what people noticed and what they thought it might be for. We also made a point of reassuring participants that there were no right or wrong answers. And, using a tip from design thinking’s grounding in ethnographic methods, we made sure to keep asking “why?”

With Prototype 1, everyone was intrigued by the title “Words of War” and wanted to know more.

There were mixed reactions to the phone symbol. In general, younger people quickly understood what it was and that it could be used for accessing the mobile tour. Some older people understood the symbol (although others were uncertain), but nearly all of them said text instruction would be appreciated. When we asked one man if it would help to say “type in this URL,” his teenaged daughter laughed and said this was unnecessary. Her father heartily disagreed; he said it would be very helpful.

Prototype 2: Possible text for campus promotional signage. At this stage, we didn’t know if we were going to use this text for handouts, billboards, or floor graphics of some sort.

Prototype 2

For Prototype 2, we learned that the phrase “Exhibition Highlights” caused confusion among visitors whose native language was not English. They thought the word “highlight” indicated something joyful or celebratory. As one Swiss visitor commented, “how can there be anything joyful about war?”

The phrase “Look for these Words of War in the gallery” was intended to be instructional and convey that the tour could also take place in the exhibition space. However, almost everyone missed the phrase because they were focused on the phone symbol and the sample words.

Prototype 3

Prototype 3

For Prototype 3, we made the phrase “Look for these words in the gallery,” more prominent. This time, visitors noticed it and clearly understood that the mobile tour was connected to an exhibition.

 

Back in the Office

After reviewing our notes, we decided on the words, phrases, symbols, and hierarchy of information that would be used on the signage:

Title:

  • Words of War

In addition to icons, offer instructional text:

  • From your smart phone settings, enable Wi-Fi and connect to “GettyLink”
  • “Type [URL] on your smart phone”
  • “Find the words in the gallery”

Icons:

  • Mobile phone symbol
  • Offer a preview of what the mobile tour numbers look like inside the gallery

Along the way to developing this project, the concept for the mobile tour changed. The tour was not called “Words of War” and would not feature any key words. Even though we no longer had a title, our visitor interviews indicated that some type of descriptor other than “mobile tour” was necessary for clarity and to generate interest. We decided on a phrase that described the content of the mobile tour, but was also posed as a question that might pique the curiosity of visitors: “What can 15 featured works reveal about art and war?”

Final Design

Front

Front of handout that is given to visitors as they arrive; extra copies are available in the galleries.

Back

Back of handout

Billboard and floor graphic about the exhibition. Both will be located next to a coffee cart near the GRI galleries.


Billboard and floor graphic about the exhibition. Both are located near the GRI galleries.

After discussion with the curators and designers, we decided that the promotional text would be used in a handout for visitors and signage located along a pathway to the GRI galleries.

The designer went through several iterations, but some of the basic components remained:

  • Visual icons + written instructions for accessing the mobile tour on a smart phone and understanding how it works in the galleries
  • A phrase that concisely describes what the mobile tour offers (“What can 15 featured works reveal about art and war?”)

Conclusion

It’s easy to make assumptions about what visitors may or may not find helpful. But how do you know if your assumptions are accurate? Even though it was a challenge to drag ourselves away from our desks, we knew that getting into the museum courtyard and testing prototypes with visitors would strengthen the effectiveness of the mobile tour signage.

We plan to follow up with a formal visitor survey in mid-December. It will include questions about the signage and the mobile tour.

Liz McDermott of the Getty Research InstituteLiz McDermott manages the Getty Research Institute website, its social media presence, and contributions to the J. Paul Getty Trust’s communications publications. You can follow her on Twitter at @Lizmcdermott35.

 

All images courtesy Liz McDermott, Getty Research Institute.

 

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