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On the trail of attracting visitors to the Imperial War Museum

Image depicts the front entrance to the Imperial War Museum in Elephant and Castle.
Image depicts the front entrance to the Imperial War Museum in Elephant and Castle.
Image courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.
Written by
Kayley Stanbridge
Published date
04 January 2020

Imperial War Museum curator Vikki Hawkins and MA User Experience Design student Yae Jin discuss the challenges of creating a family ‘walk’ through warfare.

Of all the major museums in London, the Imperial War Museum may just be the most overlooked on a list of attractions for both foreign tourists and British visitors. A pair of huge 15-inch naval guns from a First World War battleship help to give it an imposing entrance, but the museum’s location in Lambeth — on the south side of the river and some distance away from many of the capital’s main cultural attractions — is not ideal. Then, there is the sensitive topic of its main subject matter: military conflict. So, how do you attract people to the museum in the first place, and make walking through exhibitions about warfare, death and tragedy a positive, engaging and thought-provoking experience?

To help achieve these aims, the Imperial War Museum (IWM) decided to tap into the creativity of MA User Experience Design tutors and students from its near-neighbour, London College of Communication (LCC).

Image depicts the front entrance to the Imperial War Museum in Elephant and Castle.
Image courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.

“User experience design is about designing better experiences for people”

User experience design (commonly referred to as UX design) refers to ‘the judicious application of certain user-centred design practices, a highly contextual design mentality, and use of certain methods and techniques to produce cohesive, predictable, and desirable effects in [people]... All so that the effects produced meet the user’s own goals and measures of success and enjoyment, as well as the objectives of the providing organisation.’

It was originally coined by Don Normal, former Vice-President of the advanced technology group at Apple, who explained: “I invented the term because I thought human interface and usability were too narrow. I wanted to cover all aspects of the person’s experience with the system including industrial design, graphics, the interface, the physical interaction, and the manual.”

LCC student Yae Jin puts it more simply: “User experience design is about designing better experiences for people.”

During her MA course at LCC, Yae Jin was among 4 students selected by the Imperial War Museum to take part in a paid six-week project called ‘Family Trail’. Part of the IWM’s new Second World War galleries, which are set to open to the public in 2021, the Family Trail is series of activities placed throughout the galleries for visitors to interact with and learn through in a more engaging, hands-on way. The project involved the students visiting the museum once a week in order to develop prototypes for those activities and to user-test their designs on members of the public.

The exhibition is focused on stories and family, showcasing the different roles ordinary people undertook during the war. Each of the MA students used a variety of approaches to plan, design and test the trail. Methods including storyboarding, UX speed dating, coding, and the use of visual or audio elements to enhance the visitor experience.

A group of museum visitors explore an exhibition themed around the spitfire.
Image courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.

"Try to design for each and every experience"

Vikki Hawkins, the IWM curator involved in the process, explained: “We are going to make sure that our audiences have the ability to find information in a number of ways, and that could be traditionally through the object that we display. it could be through audio or film, or photograph.

“Another way we have found to be really successful is having family trails within our museum with elements positioned throughout the gallery spaces where families or groups can interact in a more tactile way to find out information.”

“We have based the ones that are going to be in the Second World War galleries on people and roles, and what we wanted to do was work with students at LCC to help us develop those activities for our audiences — to make them as user-friendly and interesting as possible.”

Yae Jin said: “I learnt a lot of design research methods and just how to speak — to really speak — to people and to learn what people want and need. Every single person has a different life, a different experience, and we should try to design for each and every experience.

“This was especially helpful for the Imperial War Museum project because I had the mindset that I am not just designing for a five-year-old boy, I am designing for 12-year-old girls who hate history, and a 40-year-old man who brings his son every month. Everyone has their own story, everyone has their own mind, and through the course, I have learnt how to design for different backgrounds.”

At the beginning of the project, Yae interviewed members of the public to find out more about what kind of ‘audience’ the museum attracts, and explore what they want from their visit. She said: “I think that because it is a war museum, it’s not one of those ‘easy’ places that lots of people go - it’s not like the Natural History Museum or Science Museum, because at least one person [in a visitor group] has to be interested in war. It could be a kid, the dad, the mum, the grandma. I think that’s why the museum created the family trail to bring in more visitors who are part of families, because at the moment, it’s very educational. They are doing this project to attract more people to the museum.”

A student draws concepts on a desk filled with paper and post-it notes.
Image courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.

UX Design in the cultural sector

UX design is not a new phenomenon among museums and galleries, and one ahead of the game — and not far from the IWM — is Tate Modern. One of its most successful uses of UX design is through its long-standing partnership with Hyundai Motors — The Hyundai Commission.

It is through this project that Tate has been able to fund an array of exciting, thought-provoking and interactive displays in its giant Turbine Hall exhibition space. One of the most notable displays was One, Two, Three, Swing! by artist collective SUPERFLEX, which encouraged people to interact and swing in pairs or threes on orange swings around the Hall.

Another exhibition created by artist Tania Bruguera, 10, 148, 451, consisted of a large heat-sensitive floor on which visitors could interact with each other to reveal a hidden portrait of a young man who left Syria to come to London. Their pressure on it also produced low-frequency sounds to create an unsettling energy, producing tears and creating what the artist referred to as ‘forced empathy’ — her response to the use of emotion in politics.

“By working with people who haven’t had the same relationship with museums, we were getting some really fresh and exciting ideas”

The UX approach towards the IWM’s Second World War galleries using the Family Trail is an exciting step towards achieving its goal of bringing in more visitors and focusing on people and personal experiences.

Vikki, the curator of the new galleries, said: “It was such a good opportunity to be able to work with designers early in their careers who are experimental, and who might not see the museum as the usual place where their work could be exhibited, so to speak. Building that collaboration, showing the students what we do, but also getting those fresh eyes and fresh perspectives, was really important for us.

“Sometimes, when you work with the bigger design companies, they know how museums work and they know the types of activities that are popular. You can get very similar types of styles [of design solutions], but we realised that, by working with people who haven’t had the same relationship with museums, we were getting some really fresh and exciting ideas.

“I think it’s really important that we can encourage people [to visit], especially locally…it’s great that the IWM is so close to the College, and it was such a simple collaboration, but so effective.”

This feature was taken from our Business and Innovation Developing Partnerships with the Local Community publication, where all articles were produced by third-year students from our BA (Hons) Magazine Journalism and Publishing course.

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