Beyond the Screen: Creating interactives that are location, time, preference, and skill responsive

Brad Baer, Bluecadet, USA, Emily Fry, Peabody Essex Museum, USA, Daniel Davis, Smithsonian, National Museum of the American Indian, USA


When we think of Responsive Design, a singular experience on various screen sizes is what most often comes to mind. However, it's equally important that interactives are designed to be responsive in regards to location, time, preference, & skill. Using examples from several museums and related industries, this talk will inform participants on how they can more effectively work with staff and vendors to design sites, apps, touchscreens, and environments that better respond to patrons.

The success of push notifications and apps like Foursquare show us the importance of geo-location. By creating experiences that cater to a visitor's location we not only improve wayfinding but also make sure guests don't miss out on a nearby friend or something of interest.

When we think of how many visitors experience museums, we realize that patrons typically allow a certain amount of time. While this might be an hour or a day, the goal remains to provide them with an experience that leaves them wanting more. Time-based designs can help craft bespoke experiences for each guest and even help them coordinate transportation to and from the venue.

Whether it's language preference, how we like to receive information, or even specific styles that we're drawn to, preference-based experiences help get the most out of a visit without having to dig through information that isn't of interest. While this concept is relatively new to museums, other industries from athletics to air travel allow us to make several decisions well before events.

One can look at a television remote to see the importance of "skill-based" design. While there is a portion of the population that uses every button, there are just as many that use only basic functions like power, volume, or channel. Technology and video game companies are now creating systems that allow users to select a skill level to provide a custom display without excess information.

Keywords: responsive, interactives, experience,


Calling on examples from several implemented projects, this paper focuses on the importance of creating interactive experiences that are not only responsively designed for multiple different viewing formats (mobile, tablets, & computers), but also designed to be responsive to location, time, preference, and skill. Using examples from museums and related industries, this paper advances the conversation about how to effectively work with staff and vendors on designing sites, apps, touchscreens, and environments that better respond to audiences needs during the pre-, during-, and post-museum experience.

Why This Is a Problem

Richard Kissell, the Yale Peabody Director of Exhibitions and Education recently told the story of a young man who intended to propose to his girlfriend by inserting a diamond engagement ring into one of the Peabody’s display cases with several other precious stones as well as a beautifully written note that matched the style of the other text at the museum. The concept was brilliant, but the young romantic failed to realize something most curators have long known: a good percentage of museum text is never read. The couple walked directly up to the gems and after a few seconds, the young woman moved on to something new which caught her interest. A bit frazzled, the gentlemen insisted that the text was really interesting and that she should read further. A second time she glimpsed over the text and moved on. It wasn’t until a third effort that the woman finally made it to the end and realized it was a special diamond meant directly  for her. Fear not though; despite the short attention span, she said yes.

Funny tales aside, the average attention span, currently, is estimated to be five seconds, as compared to twelve seconds ten years ago (Vidyarthi, 2011). While strategies have been employed in museums, universities, and cultural institutions to strengthen and lengthen the span in which we captivate audiences, museums are still exploring how best to adapt to multi-tasking audiences through installation design, curation and digital strategies.

Information is ever-present and can be delivered on-demand by sophisticated mobile devices. Although, to some, personal devices can be seen as distractions in gallery settings, they have ability to provide an increased amount of accessible interpretation. Rather than delivering didactic, one-sided content, a challenge remains to create interactions that are more personal, and as a result, have greater resonance. This points to a dramatic shift in audience expectations. Museums and cultural institutions are acknowledging and responding to the need to create an open environment that cultivates democratic, participatory experiences where audiences can dig deeper when they want and whenever they want. In other words, there’s a shift of expectation and museum practices must adapt and employ processes that allow audiences multiple options and points of entry ( Deploying responsive techniques – both digital and analog – yield vast opportunities to elevate access to collections both locally and globally.

How Do We Remedy This

The standard solution to this problem has routinely been what visionary designers, Ray & Charles Eames referred to as creating “the best for the most for the least” ( – in other words, find the information that appeals to the largest potential audience. In a recent observational study at the Field Museum in Chicago, the team found that the majority of users interacting with their interactive Sue the T. Rex puzzle had a dwell time of 2-3 minutes, yet others spent up to 12 minutes carefully reading each piece of text, watching all of the videos, and carefully examining each bone (Georg, 2012).

There is certainly no single visitor type but rather several modes of motivation for people visiting and behaving in a museum. John Falk describes five visitor motivation types: the explorer, the experience seeker, the recharger, the professional/hobbyist, and the facilitator. (Falk, 2009). Andrew Pekarik and Barbara Mogel have conducted their own visitor studies and developed their own visitor types identified by the IPOP acronym (Pekarik, 2010):

  • The “Idea” person likes to understand how the ‘big picture’ works
  • The “People” person is attracted to personal and emotional connections.
  • The “Object”  person is attracted by the aesthetics of the object, and
  • The “Physical” person seeks physical and sensory experiences.

A stereotypical example would be that while a teen might be looking for less text in an exhibit, an older adult might want to be able to delve deeply into a topic. Delivering a single middle-ground compromise solution unfortunately means that neither visitor will be satisfied. The same goes for television: “Prime Time” literally refers to the time when the majority of a viewing audience is typically available. Fortunately, in the same way that video-on-demand has changed the landscape of television for the better, responsive approaches now give museums the potential to provide audiences what they want, when they want it, and how they want it. Let’s break this down a bit more to better understand what we mean:

  • “What they want refers to individually curating offerings based on specific preferences, tendencies, skills, or interests.
  • “When they want it” alludes to allowing visitors to experience something on their own time. This could mean dwell time (how long they spend at a specific piece) or what time of day they want to interact with something.
  • How they want it” focuses on the specific format they prefer receiving new information. One example might be viewing images as opposed to text, another might be viewing it via a tablet as opposed to a projection.

These three areas make up what we call the responsive triangle. While all three probably resonate with your past internal discussions, you might be most familiar with “How they want it”, which is more commonly referred to as “responsive design.” This is where we’ll begin:


The concept of graceful degradation is the evolution of a web strategy where designers and developers would create sites that looked optimal in the newest web browsers while also still working (on some level) in older browsers. As you might have encountered, this strategy sounds good but fails to rectify the fact that many users fail to upgrade over long periods of time eventually leading to very poor user experiences. It also fails to reconcile the fact that technology evolves so quickly that designing specifically for a single operating system or browser would become nearly impossible. Beyond the Internet, this same situation can be paralleled with museum curation as new technology has been incorporated yet many visitors have failed to upgrade their own tech proficiency.

The resulting solution is what we now know as responsive design or progressive enhancements. Originally introduced by Steven Champeon at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival in 2003, the concept involved using various CSS techniques allowing flexibility in page layouts based on specific screen dimensions. Rather than code for various different browsers, a responsive approach automatically resizes and shifts content to fit any aspect ratio (Champeon, 2003). While it accounts for more time up front, it does its best to future-proof against different browser proportions or even different display types such as tablets, mobile phones, and desktops. It even anticipates future displays which might occur on refrigerators, car dashboards, or a variety of other locations. With over 75% of museum-goers traveling with a smartphone or tablet, this provides a valuable opportunity to create a seamless, comprehensive experience ranging from pre-visit through post-visit.

One example of this is a site of the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid. The App allows users to learn about the pieces ahead of time so they can note specific trends or areas of interest. Once they arrive at the museum, the mobile interface automatically adjusts based on the location identification and includes a map for wayfinding at the museum. This is crucial because it doesn’t clutter the display with information that is irrelevant (at the time) but does provide it when necessary. For guests who don’t have smart devices, the museum provides a series of tablets with access to the same experience. From there, guests can easily save works that are of interest to them to their personal account which can be viewed later from any device – desktop, tablet, or mobile. On the marketing side of things, this also allows organizations to have better metrics about their visitors which in-turn can result in improved exhibition planning and wayfinding.

Another museum, The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, became a major topic of discussion when they decided to put free, high-resolution images of their 125,000 masterpieces online and encouraged people to copy and remix the collection into “stationary, t-shirts, tattoos, plates or even toilet paper” ( While some criticized the decision saying that it would prevent visitors from actually visiting the museum in person and dilute the experience, others applauded the effort even awarding the institution with three international “Best of the Web” awards at the 2013 Museums and the Web conference. While it’s still too early to tell, the numbers of museums duplicating the Rijksmuseum’s plan seem to indicate a popular decision. As Taco Dibbits, the Director of Collections said, “We’re a public institution, and so the art and objects we have are, in a way, everyone’s property,” ( “‘With the Internet, it’s so difficult to control your copyright or use of images that we decided we’d rather people use a very good high-resolution image of the ‘Milkmaid’ from the Rijksmuseum rather than using a very bad reproduction”

WHEN THEY WANT IT (Time & Location)

The second important responsive aspect is providing information when a user wants or needs it. This is crucial because we often imagine ideal situations – a user following a specific path and spending hours on end in a museum. Unfortunately, visits are rarely predictable. Guests might have several activities planned during a specific vacation or they might only be interested in a specific portion of a show or exhibit. While this might be an hour or a day, the goal remains to provide them with an experience that leaves them wanting more. As pointed out in the Smithsonian’s report titled “Location Based Technologies,” location-aware platforms like LED/infrared triangulation, radio frequency (RF), Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), Bluetooth Beacons, Node Systems, and WiFi Slam have have opened up an entire new layer of architecture ( With broadband being the fastest growing technology in human history, these once-expensive technologies are quickly becoming mainstream.

“Augmented overlays for smartphones-as-cursors make the physical city browsable.” The same can be done in a museum. Ambient awareness, and social discovery – understanding who and what surrounds you, through mobile, will change not only the nature of mobile use, but how we see the world. Embedded, situated technologies, also network of sensors and internet access points, will eventually connect as the Internet of Things (IoT), a pervasive, connected digital environment.

-Malcolm McCullough from “Ambient Commons”

One example of this might be for a museum with several time-specific shows. If an app or native experience displays the events occurring that day or those closest to the current time or their current location, guests aren’t stuck digging through shows that have happened in the past or that won’t occur for months ahead. Using the same geo-location technologies as apps like Foursquare, visitors can also be easily be sent a simple push notification if they’re near an area where a live demo or tour is beginning. Other applications like Field Trip, which aggregates locations and Google Now are beginning to take this a step further by recommending public transportation times, weather conditions, and nearby relevant suggestions. Looking even further, Apps like PumaTrak use sounds panned right or left as way to indicate to runners which way to turn and actively utilize the user’s metrics to highlight ways that runners can customize the experience based on their previous preferences. Wearable technology may be able to tap visitor on the shoulder to indicate which way to turn or where to look eliminating the issue of people looking more at their phone than the actual exhibit. In the future, museums may not distribute devices but rather jackets with embedded technology that deliver information that helps guide and shape their experience.

Another example is the soon-to-be-released Franklin Institute in Philadelphia website. The site allows guests to select the duration of their trip (2 hours, 4 hours, 6 hours, or 8 hours) and identify their audience (Kids, Adults, Teachers). It then provides them with a recommended itinerary based on the amount of time they have. Since guests often have their museum visit planned either before, between, or after other events, this solution helps them identify the best way of experiencing an exhibit within a certain set time frame.

Outside of the world of museums, stadiums like the Barclay Center in New York have truly perfected time-based delivery. Since the professional basketball experience is both time specific and extremely dynamic, they can easily present extremely targeted information, real-time data, discounts, and features based on where someone is sitting or the status of the game. The Nets, who play at the Barclay center, now provide the option to upgrade tickets available at the game using a mobile phone, order concessions from your seats, and see different replays in real time. On top of that, they’ve built in gamification components allowing discounts at the team store. This not only improves the visitor experience but also allows the organization to capitalize on additional potential revenue. Those who want to watch the game purely without interruption are able to do so, while those who want an augmented experience already have all the tools in the palm of their hands. In a similar fashion, the Dallas Museum of Art took a page from this playbook by creating the DMA Friends program which is “a free membership program that allows visitors to earn badges and points to unlock special rewards when visiting the DMA.” ( The program has been such a success that it was awarded a highly-competitive Institute of Museum and Library Services grant to expand their Badge OS platform to several other museums around the United States. Perhaps it’s time we view museums in the same way: while the analog experience will attract the visitor, we’re at a point in time where that event by itself may not be enough to keep one’s interest.

WHAT THEY WANT (Preferences, Skills, & Interests)

The last of the responsive puzzle is perhaps the most important: giving guests information based on their preferences or based how they want to learn. One example is language localization. Rather than producing laminated cards in different languages, digital tools allow us to localize text in nearly any language and provide access to voice-driven tours for all our visitors.

While this is relatively new to cultural institutions, entertainment organizations have been focusing on this for many years. For example, apps by Disney, such as in “Despicable Me: Minion Rush” ( ask the user to specify a ‘skill level.’ The result is content that is adjusted accordingly, leading to longer dwell time, deeper, more relevant engagement, and an overall better experience. These apps adapt based on the user’s actions, learn tendencies and adjust the content accordingly to ensure a positive experience.

The same framework can be applied for in-gallery museum experiences. With location-based technologies listed earlier, guests can spend a minute answering a few questions about themselves, identify their motivation for visiting, select preferred collection areas, and content is customized accordingly. This has the potential to include demographic information, interests, or event preferences about content or types of media.

Digital aside, organizations like the Smithsonian are experimenting with creating “journey maps” as helpful exercises in trying to understand visitor’s museum expectations and adjusting the experience to improve it. Design personas are developed that reflect characteristics represented by a target audience. These often include demographic information but more importantly they identify what a guest or user hopes to get out of a situation. Perhaps a 35 year old father wants to introduce his children to art while also being intellectually stimulated himself. A 65 year old Spanish speaking local woman might be interested in becoming more worldly or impressing her friends. While these journeys may not map with any one visitor’s experience, looking at analytics and trying to see through the eyes of visitors can result in a better understanding of the audience and what they hope to gain by spending their time and money in a museum.

One way of thinking about this can best be explained by considering television remote controls. While a large portion of the population only uses roughly three features  (power, channel, and volume), the other side of the spectrum literally uses hundreds of features. Neither side is “right” but by just settling in the middle, you create poor experiences for both the novice and advanced user. Studies show that most interactive products contain all of the features users desire but fail based on complexity and bad user experiences. See below:

An increasing number of interactive products are being returned. In 2002, 48% of all returned products were technically fully functional, but were returned on the basis of failing to satisfy user needs (28%) or purely on users’ remorse (20%). Even though the product contains all the features the user may desire, complexity and bad user experience may lead users to never adopt the product in their lives. User experiences are subjective and dynamic, but they are not designed to take the user’s changing capacity and experience into account.

– Philip Battin from “The Next Big UI Idea” – Fast Company


Fortunately with adaptable, responsive interfaces, this issue can be addressed. By allowing users to select their skill level, they can have a custom experience that allows them to concentrate more on content than the actual technology itself.  The key is to create an interface that makes this selection simple and intuitive.

Another helpful reminder is to not reinvent the wheel with completely new technology. Some of the most successful museum interactives take common processes, standard consumer technologies, or familiar interfaces and adjust them for slightly different content. Although oftentimes we want to utilize the latest technical innovations, we have to make sure that we are not seduced into incorporating the latest development before evaluating whether it is the most effective way to present information.

Tapping into visitor preferences and interests also suggests that these experiences cater to individualized states of emotion. Responsive design from both a digital and physical standpoint has the potential to showcase empathy in a way that cannot be easily accomplished in traditional display and interpretation models (Walter, 2011). The content not only needs to respond to one’s interest, but also be varied to touch on an individual’s emotional state at a specific moment in time. Streaming recommendation services such as Songza and 5by offer carefully curated sets of music or videos based on what you are doing or how you are feeling. Creating these emotional tracks within the concept of Responsive Design is something that museums have the opportunity to think more critically about in developing visitor experiences. Questions that can be explored through this preference model include: How can design be shaped by visitor emotion and preference? How do we create a customizable experience that arouses or reacts to how visitors are feeling? In what ways can museums better anticipate these preferences or provide opportunities for audiences to share well before visiting?


While many of the solutions involve digital technologies, principles of responsive design is intended to be interpreted as a process that ensures stronger, real life connections with the content. Although digital solutions open up new opportunities, it’s equally critical to understand how they can also be applied to analog solutions:

“What they want can begin long before an exhibit opens by including aspects of crowdsourcing to see what really interests the targeted audience. This can include involving community voices throughout the exhibition planning process through visitor panels or focus groups, so their preferences are integrated into the entire conceptual development. This visitor-centered approach ensures decisions are made by a community rather than from a singular perspective. Several museums like the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston are cited as crowd-sourcing aspects of upcoming exhibitions ( Equally as important to letting their visitors know they are listening to them is the sociological concept of buy-in. If we think of crowdfunding websites like kickstarter, a portion of the value is in getting financial capital up-front but the early buy-in leading to free promotion driven by a sense of ownership is the real benefit. Early evangelists spread the word amongst friends and are driven to make their cause a success. On a smaller scale, exhibits like the United States Memorial Holocaust Museum manually allow guests to chose their identity before entering an exhibit. This is an inexpensive and easy way of creating a tangible way to personally connect. Crowdsourcing has additional benefits as long as we give visitors meaningful work to do. The visitors who participate can become stakeholders in our shared success.

“When they want it” can also be built into the museum experience when we consider wayfinding and flexibility. While web designers for years have used metrics to track when visitors are most likely to look for certain information or what wording leads to the most conversions, curators and spatial designers are relatively new to the game. Surveys and on-site analysis paired with an open perspective allows exhibition planners to use the lean methodology of building, measuring, and editing to present visitors with the information they’re looking for exactly when they want it. Perhaps after analysis it becomes evident that at a certain place in an exhibition, visitors are consistently asking similar questions. Rather than add another page to the museum guide or squeeze in more text, it might make sense to strategically place information or conversation starters where people to linger in museums like waiting areas, lounges, cafes, or even bathrooms. Location based technology also opens up a new world of experience for visitors by adding geo located triggered elements that do not require reading or active participation.

“How they want it” can be built into a program by creating variations of an exhibition on different days or at different times of the day. Perhaps one physical tour focuses on individual stories while another really zeroes in on craft. Museums like the Tenement Museum in New York are successful at accomplishing this by allowing guests to choose their own adventure. Rather than having a single experience, the museum has individually priced experiences that can be viewed individually or as a series. This accounts for the quick-trip out-of-town tourist or the rainy Saturday regular who has some time to kill.  At certain points, the docent-driven tours also give visitors the option to choose a specific personality and follow their story.

When responsive digital and analog methods work together, it prompts one to look more closely at a work of art or material culture object, as opposed to being a potential distraction. Responsive design as a process and product encourages audiences to question more, pique interest to visit again, or research more deeply at home. While content is king, if even a bride-to-be doesn’t notice her very own diamond ring in a case in front of her, it’s worth investigating new modes and opportunities that create responsive, customized experiences that entertain, engage, and enrich.


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Cite as:
. "Beyond the Screen: Creating interactives that are location, time, preference, and skill responsive." MW2014: Museums and the Web 2014. Published February 1, 2014. Consulted .

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