Are you a browser or a searcher? The answer will probably depend on how familiar you are with what you are looking at. If you know a lot about the subject you may have the confidence to search, in order to go straight to what you are looking for. If it’s a topic that’s unfamiliar to you, you might like to browse more generally to get a feel for the subject.
This basic premise is true whether you are in a bookshop, visiting a museum, or looking at museum collections online. Most museum exhibitions aim to satisfy the casual browser, who has wandered in because it’s raining, or who is tagging along with someone else. But often the search pages of museum websites require a lot of prior knowledge, which can be off-putting for those who don’t possess it.
When designing MoDA’s new website, we used a model adapted from Morris Hargreaves McIntyre (2005 – model illustrated in the graphic above) to help us think about how users might engage with our collections online. Arguably, the majority of visitors to museums are ‘browsers’: they come without knowing much about what they are going to see, and they don’t have a clear question in mind. We realised that our website needed to cater for browsers as well: the aim, after all, is to engage users’ interest rather than put them off. As part of Middlesex University, one of our key audiences is Art & Design students; these are highly visual people, interested in the museum’s collections as a resource for their own creative practice, but not equipped with prior knowledge of our collections to facilitate searching by entering words into search boxes. We therefore realised that the website had to meet their needs as ‘browsers’. We also realised that success would not be measured by number of visits to the site alone. Instead, we aim to move users along the spectrum from ‘browser’ to ‘follower’, increasing/deepening their level of engagement.
As you’ll see if you visit the website (www.moda.mdx.ac.uk) it aims to provide a number of ‘ways in’ to the collections, in a carefully curated way. For example, you can browse by theme or collection, drill down to individual object records, or click ‘show me more’ or ‘show me even more’ to expand the selection in various places. The website aims to provide a ‘taster’ of what the museum contains, so although records are drawn directly from our database, the entire contents of that database is not made available online. This was a deliberate decision because we wanted to ensure that users encountered a manageable number of quality records, rather than a large number of poor quality records (without images, and without proper captions – which was the case with our old site).
The other thought behind the website design was to remove some of the museum conventions for the presentation of collections. For example, the ‘Themes’ and ‘Collections’ sections are under headings that make sense to users, rather than the way that we might categorise things internally. And we tried to avoid saying “here are some very important facts”, and instead say, “here are some interesting things that you might like to explore further, perhaps for your own creative practice.”
Evaluation carried out so far suggest that two thirds of our website users are returning for a second or third time, that returning visitors are more likely to spend longer on the site, and they are more likely to search as well as browse. We count this as evidence that we have successfully engaged users’ interest, and have moved them along the spectrum from browser to follower, or follower to searcher. Google analytics data also suggests that visitors are making good use of the ‘show me more’/ ‘show me even more’ functions, so that they are finding their way deep into the site, exactly as we hoped they would.
The website definitely does what we wanted in terms of being collections-driven, visual and browsable. The evidence we’ve collected suggests that it’s working well for both Art & Design students and people with a general interest in MoDA’s collections. In the future we intend to add examples of creative work or other research based on or inspired by the museum’s collections, thus enriching the records and making users’ engagement with MoDA’s collections more evident to others.
In the meantime, we’re pleased that most users agree that we have achieved our goal of creating a website which showcases the collections in a highly visual and browsable way. What do you think? Having had a look at the website, (www.moda.mdx.ac.uk ) have we converted you from browser to follower? Email MoDA@mdx.ac.uk with your comments!
Zoe Hendon, Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture, Middlesex University and LMG Member.