An augmented reality app that facilitates inquiry-based exploration of the Burke Museum’s research labs
The Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture (Burke Museum) is a natural history museum in Seattle, Washington. This research museum has a collection of more than 16 million biological, geological, and cultural artifacts related to Pacific Northwest history.
The old Burke followed the typical natural history museum model — where exhibits are on one side of the wall and collections and research are on the other, hidden from visitors. Prior to the renovation, the broad reaction to the museum was that it was stale, dated, and not inviting to the audiences they wanted to attract.
In late 2019, the new Burke Museum reopened and turned the museum "inside-out," breaking down traditional museum barriers and inviting visitors to be part of a working research facility. Alongside the exhibits, visitors could view and interact with 12 visible labs and workrooms.
After reopening for a few months, there was an opportunity to evaluate whether the new visitor experience was meeting the museum's new goals and vision.
Based on this evaluation, we can identify spaces for improvement and explore potential technologies that can enhance the visitor experience.
Examining the current inside-out experience and how it is being implemented through the museum.
This class was less focused on research and more focused on building interfaces and interactions. So while we didn't conduct a full-scale research process, we analyzed provided interview data and spent time observing in the museum.
Director of Interpretation and Visitor Experience
Analyzed the interview transcript
Contextual Inquiry + Observation
3 Museum Visits
Observed and spoke to Burke researchers, volunteers, and visitors
Director Kate Fernandez helped developed this visitor philosophy.
“Our goal is to compel all visitors to believe
and takeaway that the new burke is alive.”
Active with research. Alive with questions.
Full of culture. Not a place where dead things go to die.
For this project, we focused on examining two of the objectives: Active with research and alive with questions.
The Burke is a working research facility that allows visitors to get a behind the scenes look at the ongoing research being conducted. The workrooms change daily where the same staff are working on many different artifacts each day.
Researchers station themselves in front of the glass windows daily as they work on preparing, examining, and cataloging artifacts. Researchers passively share their work with the public without much interference.
Positioning whiteboards around the labs allow researchers to quickly write and display relevant and accessible bites of info about their work while conveying their personality behind the glass.
The Burke engages with their visitors using an inquiry-based learning approach. Rather than presenting information at the expert level, they encourage visitors to ask questions about what they are curious about. This way, researchers and volunteers can share knowledge that is relevant to the individual.
On weekends, Sparks Volunteers connect with researchers and walk the floor to facilitate conversations with visitors, building on questions they might have about the labs in an approachable way.
On weekends, four workrooms from different departments open their doors at set times where visitors can interact directly with researchers and get a closer look at the collections.
While the museum is open 7 days a week, volunteers and researchers are only available to talk to visitors on the weekends. Weekday visitors are receiving a much more passive experience.
If there is no human interaction, the whiteboards serve as the only method of conveying information about the researcher’s work to visitors. Whiteboards are not equipped to tell the richer stories of the artifacts.
There is a lack of inquiry-based learning because there is no opportunity for dialogue between visitors and researchers. Visitors may be frustrated that they can only watch and interpret on their own.
While we recognize that we can’t replace the organic human interactions between the Burke staff and visitors, our goal is to create an exploratory experience built on inquiry-based learning that allows all visitors to gain a deeper connection to the lab work and the researchers behind it.
Since we were assigned to create a mobile app, we explored how we could use mobile technology and interactions to build our exploratory lab experience.
However, we took into consideration that mobile phones should not replace the entire experience. Instead, it should be a tool to mediate how we interact with the real world.
“A lot of these exhibits are ripe for AR. In biology and even cultural galleries, a big open field is adding more to the objects and their stories. Museum objects are inherently disconnected from their contexts. There could be cool ways to bring in context to say why it’s existing.” — Kate Fernandez
While Kate is referring to the exhibits, I proposed that utilizing AR could be even more beneficial for the workroom environments where signage is limited and things are ever-changing. As visitors observe the labs, this medium could provide a digital lens where they can acquire more information.
Volunteers capture and input information they gather from the workrooms by planting AR markers and referencing relevant field notes for more information.
Visitors get more information about the museum by browsing digital floor plans with location-triggered notifications and scanning fossils and artifacts in workrooms.
Visitors submit public questions attached to any objects or people in workrooms, which will be followed up by staff members or volunteers soon, using AR interface.
We down-selected to the AR Marker concept while pulling some ideas from the other concepts. I initially proposed this idea from the perspective of the staff who will input information into the app but we refocused on the visitor’s experience for the scope of this project.
With our mobile app, visitors will be able to explore the workrooms with a camera that reveals AR markers left by the Burke researchers. They will be able to select a marker to learn more about an artifact, researcher, research equipment, or workroom. Visitors will also be able to participate in some form of Q&A with the researchers.
We created low-fidelity wireframes to define the interactions and user flows
Researchers will plant digital markers for visitors to find by scanning 2D or 3D artifacts, fossils, and equipment. In the case that an object does not scan well, they can plant the marker on a whiteboard or a simple table tent/place card that is placed next to the object.
With an emphasis on exploration, we wanted the interaction for moving between the information and the camera to feel fluid and lightweight.
Inspired by Fluid Interfaces, we proposed a card stack interface that would allow us to present different hierarchies of information and enable visitors to swiftly go back to a previous screen or the camera with one gesture.
After talking to Spark’s volunteers and researchers, we learned that most of the visitor’s questions are quite straightforward and can be predictable.
“Where did they find that skull?”
“How old is that mammoth tusk?”
“What are they doing with that microscope?”
With some foresight, the Burke researchers can prepare answers to the most common questions they may get about an artifact or specimen which can then be inputted into our app.
Our goal was to frame the content so that it would mimic the dialogue a visitor would have with a Spark’s volunteer or their own internal monologue as they look into the workrooms.
Through UX writing, we wanted to establish a conversation between the visitor and our app by using language that communicates curiosity.
Instead of topic headings, we utilized question headings. Then when a visitor selects a question, they believe they are posing the question as opposed to just being served information.
To test with participants, I converted our wireframes into an interactive prototype with Protopie. The prototype utilizes the gyroscope sensor to simulate the Augmented Reality exploration interaction.
We conducted usability tests with 3 participants, asking them to complete 3 tasks in an imaginary museum setting.
Our goal was to observe whether the onboarding instructions were clear and if the user flows were easy to navigate.
Participants felt the responses to the questions were too dense and formal to resemble a conversation-like interaction. They wanted to feel like they were actually chatting with a Burke staff member.
We expanded on the idea of conversational dialogue by breaking up the response content into more digestible units and presenting them in a visual dialogue format that resembles instant messaging.
Participants had a hard time navigating the stacked cards. The IA was over complicated which resulted in too much page jumping.
We abandoned the card stack interface and opted for full screen content pages and a simple back button for navigation.
In AR camera mode, content off-screen was difficult to discover. There was also not enough feedback for participants to recognize the state changes when tapping on markers.
We provided more visual cues to give direction on where they can explore. The green dots indicate the nearby AR markers which are out of screen. We also added more motion to signal changes to the interface.
Complete walkthrough of the user experience through a visit to the Burke Museum.
When visitors check in at the information desk, staff will introduce them to an additional interactive AR lab experience and prompt them to download the mobile app.
To get started, visitors will be guided through an introduction of lab experience and a quick sign-up process. Once signed in, they will be greeted and informed of any events happening during their visit.
As they walk by workrooms, they will encounter messaging like, “What do you see? What are you curious about?” These prompts are followed by signage that encourages visitors to take out their phone and start exploring with the app.
When launching the AR camera for the first time, visitors will learn how to maneuver the camera to reveal markers and interact with them.
A visitor finds an artifact they are interesting in learning about:
Triassic Phytosaur Skull.
They were wondering where did the skull come from and taps on the question to start a “conversation” with the researchers.
They are also interested in learning more about the lab and who works there.
The visitor remembers that Kelsie answered their earlier question and wants to check out what her role is and what she has been working on recently. They can scroll through the work on done on a fossil over the past few days.
Throughout their visit or after they leave visitors can revisit the artifacts they have seen or bookmarked.
Visitors will also receive a notification when their question has been answered by a researcher in the workroom. They can check out those answers on the profile page.