Monday, November 07, 2005

museum usability again

I sent this email to Jakob Nielsen...

From: Yvonne Aburrow
Sent: Monday, November 07, 2005 4:18 AM
To: Jakob Nielsen
Subject: Usability for museums

Hi Jakob

Recently I have become aware of an annoying example of poor usability and accessibility. It is the way museums label their exhibits. Frequently there is a number next to the object, and this refers to a panel with explanatory text. This is OK for small objects where there is no room to add captions next to the objects, but frequently it is employed for large objects, where the aesthetic value of the object is often seen as more important than its meaning.

Unfortunately this makes it very difficult for people with dyslexia to enjoy the exhibition, because by the time they have transferred their gaze from the exhibit to the interpretation panel, they have forgotten the number, and have to go back again. I myself am not dyslexic but frequently have this problem anyway! In one museum we visited, there was a costume exhibition, and the distance between the numbers and the explanatory text was so great that a lady who was both short- and long-sighted had to
change her glasses each time.

The solution is simply to place a short explanatory caption next to the object (e.g. 14th C English spoon), and a longer piece giving the context below or beside the display case.

If you feel like writing an Alertbox about this issue, I would greatly appreciate it.

And he replied:
Thank you. It's a classic usability problem to place labels or instructions too far from the object they relate to, and it's also a classic warning sign of poor usability when you have to introduce an extra UI element (here the number) to connect/relate items as opposed to relying on direct mappings. Maybe one day I will visit a major museum with my usability hat on and write about it.
I also sent a similar email to some museums I visited recently, and one of them responded to the effect that they will take my feedback into account when designing new displays. I also posted about it on the FISH list, and someone passed it on to the MDA forum, and I got an email from them asking if they could forward my comments to a museum accessibility mailing list. Hurrah!


Feena said...

I think you're absolutely right. I did an archaeology degree so went to lots of museums and those little signs in the corner of cases were so frustrating. I'd get a few cases in then give up looking at the labels unless it was something that I really liked.

I think your idea is excellent :-)

Yewtree said...

Some years ago, I was at an exhibition of clothing which had a number at the foot of the display, and a book in front of the glass for visitors to look up the number of the item. This was a problem for my companion with dyslexia, but it was also a problem for a lady who had glasses for close work and glasses for distance - she had to swap them over to read both the book and the number next to the exhibit. (Not sure why she didn't have varifocals though.)