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Let’s Get Physical. UX Beyond the Screen.

Loved this post at Adaptive Path, from Kim Cullen. It finally seems that more and more people start to figure out that what they design isn’t used in the office, but in a world with other people in a social and environmental context.

Let’s Get Physical. UX Beyond the Screen.

by Kim Cullen

One thing I love about UX designers is our diversity of backgrounds. We tend to be refugees from other disciplines. At Adaptive Path we have former librarians, journalists, engineers, musicians, and literary theorists. We make good designers because of the breadth of skills we bring from these backgrounds. For this reason I’m disappointed to find that once we become UX designers we tend to focus mainly on screen experiences.

In an effort to get back to the roots of my interest in UX design I decided to talk to some of my former coworkers at SFMOMA. My work in exhibition design was a catalyst for my career shift into the UX field.

Creating Context

I met with Peter Samis, Associate Curator of Interpretation at SFMOMA. Peter’s job is to help define the visitor experience at SFMOMA so I was interested in how he spoke about UX design. We met and headed to SFMOMA’s rooftop garden to chat over tea and were soon joined by Peter Selz, former curator at MoMA in New York and founding director of the Berkeley Art Museum. I asked the two Peters how they defined visitor experience in the museum space.

My job, Peter Samis explained, “is to restore context to the artwork that the gallery has stripped away.” Peter Selz told me that when designing exhibitions at MoMA NY, he tried to reestablish the light and spatial relations in which the artwork was originally created. Rothkos, explained, “should be hung low on the wall, in dim light, and close together to create a sense of intimacy. Kellys should be exhibited in natural light because that is the light in which the artist originally created them.” In recreating these elements, they hoped to establish some level of shared context between the artists and museum visitors.

User Experience without the Apps

As the curators spoke I found myself anxiously looking for breaks in the conversation in which to insert insightful commentary about customized iPad tours and smart phone technology. But at a certain point I realized the wisdom that they could offer me. While neither has probably ever designed an app, the two reminded me of some of the basic principles of UX design.

“What is the most important part of the gallery experience?” I asked. “Benches.” they both agreed. You need to allow people to pause and experience the art in their own time. When asked about their use of multimedia tours they agreed that audio/video tours could, in fact, help restore context. But in the end they could also be too deterministic. Rather then define the experience for them, they preferred put the basic tools in place for people to establish their own interpretations of the art.

As we talked it suddenly occurred to me: this was user experience, wasn’t it? Apps are great but they just aren’t the same as tea and real conversation. Obviously we can’t offer the experience of chatting with curators to each visitor entering a gallery. However we jokingly considered, “What if the audio tour instructed people to turn to someone in the gallery and engage them in some sort of conversation about the art?”

Curating Experience in the Physical World

The curators reminded me that in addition to establishing relationships in the digital world, UX design can be about light, space, and social interaction in the physical world. Our chat forced me to take a step back from the apps consider how we can apply our UX design principles to physical space. It also made me wonder how much the apps that we design, while making interactions more efficient and customized, sometimes isolate us from human connection and shared context. And how often do they over determine our experience?

As UX designers we need to look beyond to the screen and consider the relationship between digital and physical space. With the rise of gestural interfaces, natural user interfaces, and a recognition of the need for consistent cross channel experiences, the line between the online and real world has become increasingly blurry. In my opinion the most powerful experiences exist somewhere between tea and iPads.

After our meeting I borrowed one of the SFMOMA audio tours. As I punched in painting ID numbers on the touch screen device I glanced around at the other visitors quietly drifting around the gallery, headphones on. And I found myself missing the conversation.


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