Fresh & New(er)

discussion of issues around digital media and museums by Seb Chan

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User experience is all that matters – a reminder about content, search and users

June 6th, 2008 by Seb Chan

Scott Karp over at Publishing 2.0 has been griping about his experience using his local newspaper website which just so happens to be the Washington Post. Driven by a desire to find out about power cuts as a result of storm, Karp was unable to quickly find what he wanted, and thus turned to other websites, finding them through Google.

Reading his posts, and my recent thinking around the similarities and differences between newspapers and museums as media, threw up some interesting resonances. Karp writes,

. . in an analysis of a user experience with a web site, the publisher’s intent DOESN’T MATTER. Web users are utterly unforgiving. If it doesn’t work the way I want, I’m gone in a click. There is no other side to the story.

That’s brutal and, as the commenter asserted, rude and irresponsible. It just doesn’t seem fair.

But it’s also the reality of the web. Google understands this. If publishers want to compete, they need to accept this reality, swallow their pride, and realize that the user experience is EVERYTHING. Design on the web is not about ideals — all that matters is whether the user succeeds.

Before the web, having great content was enough. The irony of my critique of WashingtonPost.com is that it wasn’t a critique of content. They had GREAT content, when I actually found it — there weren’t really any editorial shortcomings. The critique had much more to do with software design than with editorial quality or judgment. News organizations need to add software user interface design to their core competencies.

In every meeting, every presentation, every workshop, museum staff all over, assert that they focus on ‘quality content’ as the differentiator between them and other ‘less authoritative’ information sources. ‘Less authoritative’ generally being code for ‘amateur’ or worse, ‘Wikipedia’. Yet even now in 2008, few museums have really embraced SEO (search engine optimisation) across their sites; and, as we all well know, most of our collection databases are just whatever the enterprise collection management system provider supplies out of the box.

“If your users can’t find it, it may as well not exist.”

Obviously museums aren’t like newspapers. We think our users (comparatively small in number as they are) come to us knowing what we are, what we do, and what we specialise in. They don’t. At last measurement search (mainly Google) was sending the Powerhouse 84% of its monthly traffic, 6% being brand-related (‘Powerhouse’ and variants). Likewise, search delivers users directly to deep content on our sites, often without any navigational scaffolding.

Quality matters, but only when findability issues are solved first.

Findability issues are different for expert users and for those who understand museums, and this is largely why we feel comfortable writing and designing content for them. These expert users are also less likely to go elsewhere. But it needs to be stressed that they are in the absolute minority.

Here’s a statistic I generated for a recent presentation to give a bit of perspective.

In April 2008, a month dominated by school holidays and a blockbuster exhibition at both the Powerhouse Museum (Princess Diana) and Australian Museum (dinosaurs), both museums combined only managed to capture only 0.017% of the visits to websites by Australian internet users (source: Hitwise Australia). That’s not a lot given that both museums were heaving with people and at least in the case of the Powerhouse we had one of our biggest months on record for through the door attendance.

Subtract the online visits related to visit planning (opening hours, prices, what’s on information) and what remains is the traffic that has come to us because of our ‘high quality’ content.

Could/should we be pulling in more?

Another statistic.

In the entirety of 2007 the Tyrrell Photographic Collection on the Powerhouse Museum website received 39,000 visits despite being Google-able and indexed by Picture Australia. In the first four weeks in the Commons on Flickr, those same images were seen 41,000 times! Visibility, findability, user experience matter enormously. (But I will elaborate on that in a separate post).

Tags: 5 Comments

  • Hi Seb,

    I think some of this conversation has to do with visitor (and non-visitor!) expectations.

    For good or bad, try as we might, I don’t think (and apparently neither do the web stats) that most of the public considers our online efforts integral, and integrated, to the museums’ physical presence —- YET!

  • Yep, I agree with Paul’s point. It explains why “Tyrrell Photographic Collection” got a lot more hits at Flickr than on power house museum (phm) site. I didn’t find the phm commons collection by visiting phm website but rather through the serendipitous nature of the web. However after seeing phm’s involvement in the Flickr’s Commons initiative my perception of PHM’s website has radically changed. So even though I live in Canberra, and won’t be checking the site for on-site exhibits, I will still frequent the site to see if they have new online content

  • Seb Chan

    My feeling is that at least 50% of the Museum’s traffic comes across our content serendipitously – and with little awareness of what they are visiting until they are on our site (and perhaps not even then either given the nature of some our email enquiries).

    My proposition is that we should be designing for these users as much as we design for the users we expect will purposely come to our sites (learners, educators, tourists, through the door visitors).

    Especially as we are finding out that even these ‘purposeful visitors’ are now also coming to us via search – deep into our site without scaffolding. See my recent post on Google’s Teleportation.

  • Seb Chan

    On the Tyrrells . . . traditionally we have wanted users to find those images as ‘Tyrrell images’ as if they were an exhibition.

    But realistically people find these images because of what they are images of, and what they want to use them for (and in so doing perhaps come to appreciate their history and importance).

  • Mia

    Do those 2007 figures include views of the images on sites like Picture Australia, or just direct hits to your sites?

    There are so many potential visitors who would never think to visit a museum website, but who would get a lot out of our content. With sites like Flickr we’re going to where the eyeballs are rather than expecting people to stumble across our stuff through searches or links.

    FWIW, I got some good notes on designing websites for findability from an event in London, they’re online at http://openobjects.blogspot.com/2008/05/building-websites-with-findability-in.html