The art of wandering

Interfaces to explore museums' online art collections

Background

Thanks to the developments in digitization and web technologies, many museums publish their collections online, and the possibility to interact with art beyond the physical visit to a museum is now a reality.

However, museums’ online interfaces mostly address the needs of existing users: researchers, academics and professionals. They allow to perform highly specific searches, use domain-specific keywords and focus on reducing the time needed to retrieve information.

Instead, how can we expand the audience of digital collections? The Art of Wandering focused on art lovers that engage with physical museums but do not yet interact with digital museums. How can we design interfaces that support these potential users in art discovery, casual explorations and engaging experiences?

Aim
Increasing the engagement of art lovers with museums’ online art collections

Methodology

I addressed this challenge by conducting three studies.

WikiArt • I conducted a usability study to highlight problems and limitations of current interface designs.

In a laboratory setting, I evaluated the experience of potential users with the interface of WikiArt. The study investigated the use of search and browse features and the factors that increased users’ engagement.

ArtOfWonder • I explored users’ needs for additional information about artworks.

During two public events, I collected and analysed potential users’ interest for the single paintings of a small art collection. Interest was collected in the form of questions written on post-it notes, adapting the Thinking Routines method.

ArtRooms • I evaluated the potential of designing interfaces that increase users’ curiosity.

I created the ArtRoom, a prototype that implements principles of Design for Curiosity. Then, I conducted a usability study in a laboratory setting, where I compared the user experience with the novel interface to the experience with a control one.

Results

The research produced an infinite number of findings regarding the behaviours and needs of non-expert art lovers. Here I synthesize the most interesting insights; below, I describe design concepts and frameworks derived from the insghts.
INSIGHTS
  • ENGAGEMENT FACTORS

Art explorations are engaging when the interface provides inspiration, personal connection, heterogeneity, novelty, information gap, and when it enables the user to create and pursue self-set goals. Conversely, users are disengaged if the interface does not support interaction with single paintings, or if it uses a vocabulary that does not match their level of expertise.

  • USER PROFILES

Users’ expectations and preferences regarding the art experience differ. Some are engaged by contemplative intimate interactions with the artworks, others prefer interactive or gamified activities. Despite this difference, both groups seek to have an active role in the exploration, interpreting, reflecting, playing, exploring, rather than passively observing or navigating.

  • USERS’ NEEDS

When requesting more information about artworks, non-expert art-lovers express interest for four main topics.
Moreover, they interact with the paintings using three main interaction modes, which highlight their need to understand, communicate and add to the art experience.

DESIGN CONCEPTS
  • DESIGN FOR EXPLORATORY STYLES

There are three exploratory profiles that describe three ways of navigating a collection. The mono-maniac, the multi-thematic, and the jumper. In each one, the user seeks novelty to a different degree and frequency. Interfaces could be tailored to meet the need of one or more exploratory styles.

  • DESIGN FOR INFORMATION NEEDS

Novel interfaces can be designed based on the topics and modes of interaction displayed by existing users or potential users when observing paintings. This research offers the Inquiry Technique as a method to collect users’ needs and the Information Curiosities as a framework to analyse them.

  • DESIGN FOR CURIOSITY

Applying Design for Curiosity can increase users’ engagement and satisfaction. It can also increase the diversity of content users engage with. However, it can disengage users looking for contemplative experiences and it can reduce the engagement time if it is not implemented carefully. The research offers additional recommendations to effectively implement principles of Design for Curiosity.

Users navigate collections with different degree of exploratory behaviours and need for novelty. Based on their use of exploration features (search bar and menu) we identified three groups

Engagement is supported by the following factors: inspiration, personal connection, heterogeneity, novelty, information gap, self-set activities/goals; it is reduced by lack of interaction with single paintings and mismatch between expertise and vocabulary
When observing paintings, people express information curiosities. These represent the interest for information that arises from our interaction with the content and can be the base to design additional information on the interface.
The information curiosities of non-expert art lovers are centred around four main topics and eight main modes of interaction. These are influenced by both contextual and individual variables
Users that enter an engaged mode, adopt an inquisitive, proactive attitude that continues even after the engaging stimulus has ended we define this phenomenon as priming effect .
Implementing design for curiosity in the UI does increase engagement but it can change the nature of the art experience, which some users find disengaging.
Additional recommendations are needed to effectively implement principles of design for curiosity (we offer some of them).
Digital designs should support purposeful experiences that go beyond the navigation of the content. We provide a categorisation of modes of interactions to inspire future designs.
The findings of this research have broader implications for the fields of HCI, Museum Studies and Information Science. This research led to the definition of Information Curiosities, Priming Effect and led to a better understanding of casual leisure explorations. These aspects are presented and discussed in my Ph.D thesis. I am happy to chat about my research and provide more details at any time.