Museum

LACMA iPhone App v1.0: A Study in User Frustration

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LACMA

Los Angeles County Museum of Art

App icon for LACMARated Two StarsThe current version (1.0) of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) app is as a study in creating a frustrating user experience. This app, in its current version, is not ready for prime time.  Twice in exploring this app I’ve had to uninstall and reinstall the app in order to proceed. This app doesn’t crash but it does lead the user down poorly designed paths from which there is no return. No hints. No suggestions. Just a dead end.  Although graphically the LACMA app is aesthetically appealing the accumulated frustration from frictions great and small in interacting with the app results in a poor user experience overall.Screenshot of LACMA start screen

The LACMA app excels at giving the user a quick look at current events at the museum but struggles with providing an engaging experience for the virtual visitor.  As such the frequent LACMA visitor may be more likely to forgive the shortcomings of the current version.  A quick tap on “Today” and the user has a handy, concise view of current and upcoming events.  Digging deeper into the app is where the friction occurs and the frustration mounts. On Apple’s App Store the LACMA app is described as “by Los Angles County Museum of Art“. It is that lack of attention to detail that is symptomatic of this app.

Let’s begin with the start screen where the text invites “Welcome, Welcome to LACMA. Swipe to see this week’s highlights”.  This is a promising prompt.  Just be careful which way you swipe. If you swipe left to right a blur of pictures whirls past.  If from this point the user then attempts to swipe right to left the pictures blur past again until you are back at the welcome screen.  It’s really a most frustrating welcome. With patience the user manages to read the designer’s mind on which way to swipe when. This experience aside what is appreciated here is the front and center highlights for this week at the LACMA.

Swiping to a current exhibition “India’s Fabled City: The Art of Courtly Lucknow”  there is an information icon “i” in the title and tapping that reveals a text based description of the exhibition. There are no pictures from the exhibition here but at the bottom of the exhibition description is the text “See 19th century photographs of the city of Lucknow” and a link indicating “VIEW SLIDESHOW (you will be redirected to Flickr)”.  Sounds like a promising use of Flickr. The problem is once the user is finished exploring the Slideshow there’s no obvious way out of Flickr to return to the app. Initially I thought the app had redirected me to Flickr via Safari but when I pressed the iPhone’s home button and then tapped the LACMA app icon I still ended up stuck in Flickr.

Another interesting design choice in this app is that all of the descriptions are white text on a black background.  Yes, it looks stylish but it’s not very user friendly in a mobile app. As Webdesigner Depot noted about websites, “Most people don’t like viewing light text against a dark background on websites because it strains their eyes, making for a much less enjoyable experience“. Combine this stylistic choice of white text on a black background with an inability to increase the size of the font and the developer is inviting user frustration on a mobile device. My suggestion would be to use the stylistic choice of white text on a dark background sparingly on screens within the app where there is minimal text.

Screenshot of Description for "Michael Jackson and Bubbles"On a high note, four of the current exhibitions contain brief videos which are a welcome introduction to the respective exhibitions. For the exhibition “Fashioning Fashion: European Dress in Detail, 1700-1915” the user is treated to Vogue magazine editor Lisa Love’s perspective.  The exhibition “Olmec: Colossal Masterworks of Ancient Mexico” there is an interview with the muralist who created two murals based on ancient iconography for the exhibition.  And for “Steve Wolfe on Paper” and “Blinky Palermo: Retrospective 1964-1977” an introduction to each is exhibit is provided by curator Franklin Sirmans. These videos plus the prominent placement of the current exhibitions within the app provide the user with a quick way to see what’s up at the LACMA and decide if they want to visit.

In a nice innovation the LACMA app start page provides the user with a convenient way to purchase tickets in advance.  Unfortunately, the first step is to create an account.  Once the user creates an account by entering their email address and creating a password they are then presented with a screen in which the the only mention of tickets is a button for “My Tickets”. Tapping “My Tickets” the user receives a blank screen because the user hasn’t purchased any tickets. The user has to, without any prompts, navigate back to the start screen and re-tap “Tickets” to start the purchasing process a second time. Is that really a good user experience? Why not follow convention and allow the user to first purchase the tickets and in the checkout create the account? And is creating an account really necessary for a single visit? There’s also an element of redundancy here. The “Login” button on the start screen seems to exist only for the purpose of accessing “My Tickets” after they’ve been purchased. While the ability to purchase tickets via the app is much appreciated it seems there could be a smoother overall experienced designed for doing so.

The menu options across the top of the LACMA app’s start screen are “LACMA”, “Today”, “Art”, “Map” and “Tour”. Tapping “LACMA” takes the user back to the start screen highlighting the exhibition the user last viewed. “Today” provides a convenient list view of what is on view at the museum and also provides a brief look ahead at upcoming events. In addition to yet a third view of the current exhibitions tapping “Art” allows the users to view information on thirty “Great Works from LACMA’s Collections”.  Remember to follow the earlier developer’s rules about which way to swipe because they also apply here. The user is presented with a single image of the work of art with no ability to zoom or pan. Tapping “Info” the user receives a screen a description in white text on a black background.  That’s it.  No podcasts. No videos. No additional images. However, if you locate a work which you want to share with a friend along the lines of “Hey, let’s check this out at the LACMA” there are buttons for Facebook and Twitter.  User beware! Remember what happened with tapping Flickr earlier. Finding yourself stuck in Flickr. The only exit was to uninstall and reinstall the app.  It happens here again with the Twitter icon. Suddenly LACMA became my Twitter app.  If you want to return to the app you’ll have to uninstall and reinstall the app. And of course you are right by your computer when Screenshot of Jeff Koons' Michael Jackson and Bubblesyou discover this aren’t you? One plus though was that the text the LACMA app pre-populated my tweet with is specific to the work of art I tapped the Twitter icon from.  In this case providing a link to Andy Warhol’s “Kellogg’s Corn Flakes Boxes” on the LACMA website.  This was handy as the website indicates that this work of art is “Not currently on public view”.  That’s an odd message to receive for one of the 30 highlighted works on an app.

Pursuing another path in the app let’s take a look at another of the 30 highlighted works: “Michael Jackson and Bubbles” by Jeff Koons. On the LACMA website one can download a video for this artwork in English, Korean and Spanish.  But the app user doesn’t have this option as this video isn’t included in the app for some reason. Although the description provided on the app follows the same script as the video narrator some users might find the video to be a better user experience than reading the small white text on the black background.  In any case having the option, given the content already exist, would broaden the accessibility of this information.  One nice option provided with each description is a button to “Map it”. Tap “Map it” and the app shows you a very nice graphic representation of which building the art work is located within.  This is handy given that the LACMA complex consists of seven buildings on twenty acres. “Michael Jackson and Bubbles” is located on the third floor of the Broad Contemporary Art Museum.  Got it.  At this point it would be nice to be able to tag the work as a favorite or some way to allow the user to bookmark art works they are interested in seeing in advance of a visit.  In any case we know where “Michael Jackson and Bubbles” is located now how do we get back to the highlights. Oddly there’s no obvious way to return to the last place in the highlights the user was at prior to tapping “Map it”. The user has to intuit that tapping “Art” on the top menu bar again and “Great Works from the LACMA’s Collections” again will cause “Michael Jackson and Bubbles” to return to the screen.  Make it easier on the user by always providing an obvious navigation path to return back down the path from which they navigated to get to the present screen.

Screenshot of Map Indicating Location for "Michael Jackson and Bubbles"Tap “Map” on the top menu bar and the user views a very nice 3-D graphical representation of the LACMA complex.  There are little red pin dots at various points on the map.  Tap on a red pin dot and the name of the building, park, piazza etc pops up. The user must make a second, and unnecessary, tap on this title bar  before receiving any additional information. In some cases the additional information provided shows which of the 30 highlighted works are in that location.  In other cases the user sees the message “Update Coming Soon”.  Interestingly “Update Coming Soon” is the message one receives for the “Urban Light Palm Garden” which is featured on the app’s start screen and which also, as one of the highlighted 30 works of art, has a description elsewhere on the app.

The final option on the top menu bar is “Tour”.  Unfortunately, the user has to be on site and looking at the work of art to see the code to enter first in order to access the tour.  Oddly when the user taps the area “Enter Code Here” a qwerty keyboard pops up when it is a numeric code that is to be entered.  The user’s required to make that additional tap to access the small numbers on the standard keyboard. Wouldn’t it have been considerate to have a numeric keypad with larger number buttons to tap pop up? Since the prompt to enter a code indicates that the format for the code is 7xx the adventurous user can type in random 7xx numbers to see what shows up. In any case what the user finds is more white text on a black background.  No audio or video clips on this tour apparently.

The LACMA app is available for free on Apple’s App Store.  Compatible with iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad. Requires iOS 4.2 or later.

iPhone Art Apps for Cars, Quilts, Copyright Humain, Grünes Gewölbe, & Graphic Design

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This week we have an eclectic mix of apps.  Some you may like because you are interested in the subject and in such cases I’m sure the app developers would appreciate your support and feedback as the apps covered here are not as developed as they could be with some user feedback. Even if the particular subjects of these apps do not draw your attention if you are developing an app for your institution there are design pluses and minuses of each that are worth reviewing.

Mercedes-Benz Classic

App icon for Mercedes-Benze ClassicRated Three Stars“The Mercedes-Benz Museum is the only museum in the world that can document in a single continuous timeline over 120 years of auto industry history from its very beginnings to the present day. On nine levels and covering a floor space of 16,500 square metres, the museum presents 160 vehicles and over 1,500 exhibits.” – From the developer description.

The Mercedes-Benz Classic app is impressive for the sheer quantity of content covered in the app. Users gain access to all 160 vehicles within the Mercedes-Benz museum tours. If you want a pocket encyclopedia for Mercedes-Benz’s history then this app is a good start.  This app represents a good start on a number of fronts. I like the use of Cover Flow however,  Mercedes-Benz could learn a few things from the Rubens, Poussin and 17th Century Artist (HD) app (see my review here).  For example, in the Rubens app once the user selects an image to view the controls shift to a slideshow view.  In the Mercedes-Benz app after viewing each image the user has to resurface to the Cover Flow view before proceeding. Also odd is that the user is requested to shift from landscape view to portrait view in order to view “more info”? (There’s even a nice graphic icon to illustrate this odd request for the user).  Also odd is the inability to slide through the audio in this app. I thought slider controls were almost a standard feature by now. If the user wants to rehear something they briefly missed they have to start from the beginning. Additionally, any automobile magazine in publication includes multiple perspectives on a vehicle reviewed but here the viewer gets but one static image of each vehicle. Not even an interior shot of a dashboard.

This app has real potential as a foundation to bring alive the Mercedes-Benz history and in doing so provide a broader perspective on automotive history in general.  However, in the current version this app misses the chance to be more than a corporate feeling piece of marketing which is slightly disappointing.  What’s missing is a sense of authenticity in the storytelling. All the audio clips are in the single professional voice on one woman provided while the user views a single image.  While being completely professional in her delivery of scripted information about each vehicle there’s, for lack of a better description, a human element missing in the audio.  The information provided in the audio clips are informative but the cumulative effect of this one professional voice is as if listening to the public address voice in a science-fiction film.  Why isn’t the audio interspersed with voices from automobile historians, automobile journalists, and automobile enthusiasts?

Screenshot of Hector Prieto's Collectivo

Hector Prieto's Restored Collectivo

For example, in the screenshot  to the right is Hector Prieto’s collectivo which operated for thirty years on the streets of Buenos Aires. Wouldn’t it be great to hear Mr. Prieto tell the story of this bus if he’s available or even a relative or business associate? What about a video with shots of collectivo’s operating in Beunos Aires? Are there archival shots of the bus? You get the idea. The point here is the contrast between a corporate approach to the app’s content and a more thoughtful curated approach.  Providing less quantity of content but of a richer quality creates a better app experience for the user than an exhaustive but shallow touch-the-base approach. Although there are audio clips for each picture (to Mercedes-Benz’s credit) the overall feel of the app is as if we are in the black and white era of movies before the talkies were invented.  For example, the “Stories” section of the Mercedes-Benz app pales in comparison to the “Love Stories” in The Phillips Collection app (see my review here).

This app excels in including information users expect but are often disappointed to find lacking in other apps. In addition to the “Museum” there are options to explore the “Marketplace”, “News”, “Clubs & Community” and “Specials” (links to other Mercedes-Benz apps).  In the “Marketplace” there’s a museum shop which teasingly provides descriptions of Mercedes-Benz’s DVDs, model cars, books etc. which the user can view but you’ll have to search elsewhere to buy as there are no links or means to purchase in the app. “Clubs & Community”  provides information and links to the 80 plus Mercedes-Benz Trademark Clubs as well as upcoming events.

Now if we can only get Mr. Lauren to create an app for his fabulous collection.

The Mercedes-Benz Classic app is free and informative but falls short of the design standards one would expect from Mercedes-Benz. In short, it’s a bit rough around the design edges.  Compatible with iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad. Requires iOS 3.1 or later.

The corporate museum is naturally a combination of education and brand sales and when done well can provide for a rich and rewarding experience. For interested readers here’s an excellent article on “The Corporate Museum“.

Quilt Index To Go

App icon for Quilt Index

Rated Two StarsQuilt Index To Go “brings you a unique quilt every day, and allows you to scroll endlessly through the more than 50,000 quilts in the Quilt Index contributed by more than 25 museums, libraries, and documentation projects. View historic and contemporary quilts straight from the Quilt Index with detailed information about pattern names, dates, quiltmakers, and the collections that contributed them.You can follow links to their detailed collections records on the online Quilt Index for even more information.” – from the developer description.

The Quilt Index is undeniably an ambitious collaborative project and it is amazing to think of all of the coordinated efforts to bring together “resources on quilts, quiltmakers and quiltmaking in a centralized online repository for education, research and public assess”  for the online Quilt Index, a joint project of The Alliance for American Quilts, MATRIX: Center for Humane Arts, Letters and Social Sciences Online at Michigan State University and the Michigan State University Museum.

Screenshot of "For All the World to See"

Screenshot of "For All the World to See"

Viewport View for Online Information

Viewport View for Online Information

Recently the online Quilt Index released an upgraded version of the repository which allows for users to see 60 quilts per page in a “grid” view, view a quilt without leaving the search results, sort search results by maker, pattern, date or ID number, and search by specific years and locations.  However, the current version of Quilt Index To Go does not yet contain these navigation and search conveniences.  When they say the user can “scroll endlessly” they mean it literally in this case. The user’s only option to browse the quilts is to swipe, swipe, swipe.   It’s probably best to think of this app as a public beta forming the beginnings of a bridge with the online repository. Once search and navigation features make their way from the website to the mobile app this will be a much more user friendly app.

The app includes a viewport view which facilitates viewing the online repository however, online the user is able to click and drag on the quilt image and see a close up of the area of the quilt highlighted.  The online experience doesn’t translate to the app and trying to use two fingers to zoom doesn’t result in the same quality of experience as online. The Quilt Index recently received a $100,000 planning grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services to “to build a collaborative virtual museum across dozens of countries and cultures that share a passion for quilting”. As these ambitious plans mature I’m sure the Quilt Index To Go app experience will only get richer.

The Quilt Index To Go costs $0.99 on Apple’s App Store and this costs goes toward support the app’s ongoing development. Compatible with iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad. Requires iOS 3.1.3 or later.

Copyright Humain

App icon for Human Copyright

Rated Three StarsThe description for the app for the recent Human Copyright exhibition at Musee de la Civilisation in Quebec sounds promising enough. “The Human Copyright exhibition maps the journey of the most fundamental human faculty – thought – which paved the way for civilization. From the origins of thought to artificial intelligence. The ability to think, unique to our species, is OUR Human Copyright. This application tells that fascinating story. The Human Copyright exhibition on human thought was presented at the Musee de la civilisation from November 2009 to September 2010. However, the application can be viewed without a visit to the exhibition.”- from the developer’s description.

After the user selects from a choice of French or English, the app begins with a brief introduction to the exhibition and includes a short video demonstration of how to use the app. I think it is a thoughtful touch that the developers included this demonstration video. This is not a complicated app to navigate but it is very considerate of the developers to add this video to aid users.  Something which app developers might consider making a standard feature as not all apps are as straightforward to navigate as Copyright Humain.Screenshot of Audio Guide Stops

And with that start the user has reason to suspect that they will indeed be able to view the exhibition but they may be disappointed, at least initially.  What the user experiences instead is something akin a psychiatrist’s couch.  While the soft smooth voice of the male narrator gently describes a particular stop on the tour the screen plays a morphing blue blob that is I guess, the app equivalent of a lava lamp. For example, stop number eight is “The Trials and Tribulations of Descartes’ Skull” and we hear the voice of the narrator say, “René Descartes died while he was living in Sweden in 1650. A few years later, France asked for his body to be repatriated. But the grave diggers were bribed and the body wasn’t returned in its entirety. His head remained in Sweden, where it become the object of several transactions. In fact, the signatures that you see on the skull are signs of the pride of certain owners.” That there might be several collector’s signatures on Descartes’ skull seems a bit shocking. Instead of seeing a picture of Descartes’ skull the viewer sees this movie clip.

Essentially, the first half of the content of the Human Copyright app turns out to be a straightforward audio guide with 20 stops, accompanied by the aforementioned lava lamp video, followed by a bonus video interview with the artist Louis-Philippe Demers. Following the audio guide section though is a section of the exhibition entitled “Artificial Dialogue”. 16 audio and video clips with scientists, philosophers, writers and a Buddhist monk among others. The effect of these multiple viewpoints coupled with the audio guide makes for a stimulating meditation on “thought”. After viewing a video clip the user is given an option to submit a comment about this video to the museum or to “send this interview by email”. The link emailed will take the recipient to a page with all 16 of the video and audio clips. One small glitch here though is that the link from the English version of the app takes one to the French video clips without the subtitles. The user can locate the link on the web page to the English page which has subtitles but if you received the link to the clip and didn’t know there were subtitles available you could easily miss this.

One final note on the name of the app.  On Apple’s App Store the app is listed as “MCQ” for Musee de la Civilisation, Quebec. The app description refers to the “Human Copyright” exhibition but if you search for “Human” on your iPhone after downloading you won’t find the app. The user has to search for “Copyright”, “Humain”, or “MCQ” because the title of the exhibition is Copyright Humain.  It would seem to be a bit more user friendly if the name on the App Store, the description, and the name of the app as on the iPhone synced up consistently and most preferably with that of the exhibition itself.

MCQ, Copyright Humain is a free app on Apple’s App Store.  Compatible with iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad. Requires iOS 3.1.2 or later.

Grünes Gewölbe

App icon for Grünes Gewölbe

Rated Two StarsAs this app begins large metal doors swing open on the screen and the user is welcomed to the Grünes Gewölbe (Green Vault) in the Residenzschloss (Royal Palace) in Dresden, Germany. The screen changes and immediately the user has a rotating 360 degree panoramic shot of the Large Vaulted Hall (1).  The user can stop the rotating view with the touch of a finger and then in a limited fashion control the view of the Hall on the screen. Limited because the user can’t zoom in on any of the display cases in the room or change viewing angles. However, this app could have benefited from a brief demonstration video because as it turns out you can move from one room to the next by holding your finger on the image of the door or opening to the next room. The 360 degree panoramic shots really establish the scene for the virtual visitor. Often, as is the case with the Grünes Gewölbe, the experience for the virtual visitor is vastly enhanced with this simple addition.  Without the 360 degree panoramic shots this app would be a much different experience.

Jewel Room ScreenshotAcross the bottom of the screen is four simple tabs: “Groundplan”, “Objects”, “Info” and Settings. The “Groundplan” gives the viewer a color coded map by which to orient the rooms.  The design of the map is such that one would think that you can tap on the map and be taken to the room. And indeed this is the case but at present the experience is a bit buggy.  Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

In a simple but very thoughtful design touch whenever you tap “Objects” the objects presented to the viewer match with the room the viewer is currently visiting. Developers most often seem to insert a list view here adding a tap by the user. In Grünes Gewölbe when you are viewing a room you automatically have access to the objects in that room. A simple design step that reduces the friction of the user experience.  However, in the next step this app adds friction unnecessarily.  All the objects in the room are presented in one long scrolling screen (which also acts in a rather buggy fashion).  A better user experience would have been to incorporate a Cover Flow approach or at least to have provided a separate viewing screen for each object.  The user also can’t zoom and pan on each object image as would be desirable.  The text accompanying each object image provides only the most basic information. There are no audio or video clips aiding in interpretation so the overall effect is as if flipping through an art auction catalogue. The “Info” tab provides a brief text history of the Green Vault, visitor information and an aerial shot of the Royal Palace.

Every since Vonnegut’s Slaughter-House Five I’ve been curious about Dresden and this app add’s to my curiosity.  In it’s current version, however, the Grünes Gewölbe leaves quite a bit out which is unfortunate. Pretty pictures alone do not an app make.

The Grünes Gewölbe app is available on Apple’s App Store for $0.99. The description on the store indicates German only for the language but the text on the app downloaded from the US store is in English. Compatible with iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad. Requires iOS 3.1.2 or later

Graphic Design Museum

App icon for Graphic Design Museum

Rated Three StarsDid you enjoy the excellent design documentary Objectified by Gary Hustwit? If so then I think you’ll enjoy this app which has been downloaded over 16,000 times since March and ranked by Appylizer.com in 71 countries. Didn’t see Objectified or Helvetica? Well you should still check out the Graphic Design Museum’s well designed app.  It’s not perfect. And some features are a little glitchy but the overall user experience is smooth.

The Graphic Design Museum is the first museum in the world for graphic design. The museum is in the centre of Breda, Netherlands and exhibits the broad and dynamic area of graphic design. The Graphic Design Museum places current graphic design in an historical and cultural context, open to the world and technology. It represents all forms of media, from print material to interactive web design.This App shows highlights from the collection with explanatory texts, images and video interviews about different exhibitions currently on display.”-from the developer’s description.

Screenshot with grid view of nine graphic images

Fingers and eyes dance in concert together as the user explores the content on this app. The start up screen shows two exhibitions, “100 Years of Graphic Design” and “Infodecodata” and the tab bar below has five options: “Explore”, “Map”, “Search”, “Agenda”, and “Info”.  This gives the user three ways to navigate to the content. “Search” provides not only a search field but also a standard list view of the images available. “Map” provides a floor plan with pin drops associated with images located in their respective spots. From “Explore” the user taps one of the two exhibitions and the screen changes to a creative variation on the Cover Flow design.  A grid of nine images fills the screen with the central one size prominently, and the user can swipe in any direction to explore. Up, down, left, right, and even diagonally. Tap any image in the grid and it moves to the central space. Tap again (an unnecessary tap really) and the image fills out the screen. The user can zoom and pan. Tap the image and it flips to reveal a text image. And here is one of my few complaints about this app. Sometimes the text for the image is brief and other times the user scrolls through several screens.  Screenshot of floor plan view with pin drop markers relating to image locationsAt the bottom of the text is a “links” section which always includes a link back to the image and sometimes includes video clips. Below that sometimes there are links to related works (an appreciated touch). My complaint is that we’re now at the opposite extreme from an app which is too structured around the stops on an audio tour. Here it’s impossible to know images have video clips associated and which do not without having to flip each image to the text and then scroll to the bottom of the text.  There’s no shortcuts or alternate routes available to the user.  So if the user has a few minutes and would like to watch a video clip they may get lucky and locate one or the few minutes might be spent searching with no luck.

At the top of each image screen is a button encouraging the user to “React!”. Tapping this button their is a field to input your name and add comments.  What is interesting is that these comments are then associated with that image for other users to read (after some moderation?). There are only a few works which have comments associated with them so it doesn’t seem this feature has been well promoted.  But the potential is there. Also below the comments field is a choice of rating the image with a thumbs up or thumbs down.  However, on every image I tried pressing one or the other the app crashed.  Still the potential is there.

One final note regarding the video clips.  These are available in English and Dutch. The English clips have English voiceovers over the Dutch speakers.  Comparing this with the way the Copyright Humain used subtitles for the French speakers I’d have to say I found the voiceover experience on the iPhone to be better than using subtitles.

The Graphic Design Museum is a free app on Apple’s App Store for English and Dutch languages. Compatible with iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad. Requires iOS 3.0 or later.

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