Digital elements are becoming increasingly common components of displays and exhibitions, but there is more to creating a successful user experience than simply loading up existing printed material. Stuart Smith, director of digital design at multidisciplinary design agency Lighthouse, takes a look at the potential and pitfalls of interactive touchscreens.
January 2017 marked the tenth anniversary of the launch of the iPhone – an event that arguably went on to transform expectations of digital interactivity in all aspects of our lives. Today, in museums, visitors’ centres, trade shows and retail environments, people have come to expect the same kind of responsive, interactive user experience that they have at home on their tablets and smartphones – and it is easy to see why that is. There are many benefits to the introduction of interactive touch screens to exhibitions and displays.
Passive to active
The most obvious benefit of interactive touch screens is their ability to transform the visitor experience from a passive one to an interactive, engaging and memorable one. Touchscreens can provide a responsive and intuitive interface. Interactivity harnesses the power of curiosity and can tailor the information delivered to the level of knowledge and interest of the visitor. Interactivity encourages the visitor to explore further, and investigate related topics. It can ask questions and reward engagement.
Target different user groups
All venues, to some extent, need cater for different user groups. This could include different age groups, individuals who are interested in different aspects of a topic, or those with different accessibility needs.
Interactive touch screens can be a really useful tool for improving accessibility. For example they can be used to incorporate the option of variable type size, or audio commentary for the visually impaired. They can also offer language options and subtitles.
Many museums and visitor centres aim to cater for family groups and interactive touch screens can allow information to be presented in different ways for different age groups. Games or quizzes can be incorporated to appeal to younger visitors, and information can be layered so that more knowledgeable visitors can drill down to the level of detail that interests them.
Bring displays to life
A great use of interactive touchscreens is to allow visitors to hear (and watch) experts talking about exhibits and discoveries. Hearing the voice of an expert, or an eye witness account, can really bring exhibits to life and has been used to great effect in museum settings, allowing visitors to share, first hand, the enthusiasm of, for example, eminent archaeologists and historians. Expert interviews can also be a great way to explain complex scientific and technical subjects and can complement photographs, diagrams and interactive 3D models. Archive material can not only be made accessible and searchable to visitors, but can be explained and woven together to create a structured and captivating story. Items that cannot be displayed due to lack of space, and could never be handled at close quarters by visitors, can be examined in 3D using interactive touch screens.
In summary, interactive touch screens can be used to achieve a balance between entertainment, education and inspiration. In settings where, in the past, the options available were restricted to printed display boards and looped video, interactive touch screens can now be used to introduce layers of information, with multiple options for video clips, archive material and other content formats that the user can tailor to their own area of interest or level of understanding.
Things to consider – hardware
Touch screen technology has developed very rapidly in recent years and there is an ever-broadening range of options available. Large touchscreens can represent quite a significant investment, and deciding on the solution that is right for you can feel like quite a daunting process. While in ideal world, the choice would be based on the design mantra “form follows function”, with the starting point being the user experience that you want to create, in reality budget is a key consideration for most organisations seeking to introduce an interactive touch screen to their exhibition experience.
Tablets can be a very effective way of introducing an interactive element on a tight budget. They also offer the possibility of introducing multiple stations that, for example lead visitors around an exhibition. A word of warning with respect to tablets, is to make sure that you invest in equipment that can stand up to the level of use that you expect. The use of domestic touchscreens in a commercial setting can result in disappointment and really is a false economy. Tablets that are made for personal use just aren’t designed to withstand the level of usage that will get in a busy museum or visitor centre. A broken interactive display can leave visitors remembering your venue for all the wrong reasons, and while no manufacturer can guarantee 100% reliability, choosing an appropriately robust touchscreen can significantly reduce the risk of disappointment.
Content is King
Of course there is no substitute for good, accurate and informative content, and this has to be where any project starts. For me, working with subject experts is the most enjoyable part of any museum or visitor centre project – it is always fascinating to learn just a little of what the experts know and share in their enthusiasm for their area of expertise.
All interactive touch screen projects are a collaborative effort with the designer working closely with the client throughout. The goals of introducing an interactive touch screen need to be considered along with other factors such as number of visitors, before the most appropriate approach can be identified. In some cases a fully bespoke development may be the best option but in recent years many content managed presentations tools and off-the-shelf solutions have been developed. New software means that creating interactive touch screens can be a relatively straightforward process that is no longer the preserve of national museums or corporate centres with large public relations budgets. Today interesting and interactive presentations really are within the reach of an ever growing number of visitor destinations.
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