Universal Design and its impact on the “Freer Thinking” project

Scott Brewer

In March 2016, 18 months before the re-opening of the Smithsonian Freer Gallery of Art, we collaborated with the institution to create an inclusive digital experience with a focus on accessibility that followed the practices of Universal Design.

The result: The award-winning Freer Thinking app.

Freer Thinking was designed to cater to four distinct user demographics, based on their location and the accessibility levels set on their mobile devices. Through following the key tenets of Universal Design, we were able to create an app that delivered user-first functionality for each of the four audiences.

At the Museum Computer Network’s 2018 conference in Denver, Colorado, I presented on this project with Courtney OCallaghan, the Chief Digital Officer of the Freer|Sackler. In this article, I’ll draw on that presentation, setting out the key questions and design decisions we made to deliver a welcoming and engaging digital experience for users on and off-site, with and without disabilities.

The Freer Thinking app

The Freer Thinking digital experience allows visitors to the museum to embark on a variety of audio journeys through the vast collections of the Freer|Sackler, where Asia meets America. Artists, researchers, and special guests share their insights and discoveries.

The location-based app uses your current location in the museum to provide two distinct experiences: you can choose to wander the gallery at your leisure and the app’s host will alert you to nearby highlights; or you can select a theme and the app will guide you on a journey of discovery through the museum.

Freer Thinking is part-interactive audio guide, part-take home podcast, part-object deep-dive, part-family tour, and very, very accessible, as you’ll see as we explore its creation in this article.

What is Universal Design?

Universal Design was first coined back in the 1950s by an architect Ronald Mace as a means to describe the concept for designing objects to be usable by the greatest number of people possible.

Universal Design was heavily informed by architecture and later product design. I was first introduced to it as a concept when undertaking my master’s degree at the Spatial Information Architecture Laboratory at RMIT University quite a few years ago now.  

There are 7 key principles that it has set up to guide key decisions:

  1. Equitable use
  2. Flexibility in use
  3. Simple and Intuitive
  4. Perceptible information
  5. Tolerance for error
  6. Low physical effort
  7. Size and space for approach and use

In case you’re wondering “where does this sit next to Human Centred Design?” It appears as though Universal Design is a subset of Human Centred Design. But this isn’t an article about these things, so you should probably go read the Universal Design to get more information.

How the Freer Thinking project came about

Now, returning to the talk and why we chose, and how we used, Universal Design as the framework.

Looking back at the history of our interaction with the Smithsonian Freer Gallery of Art, it started when Courtney was fortunate enough to visit Mona (the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart, Tasmania, the museum from which Art Processors spun out of in 2011) and was, as are most people, blown away by the use of the technology there that we created.

Knowing that they were re-opening the Freer|Sackler in 2017, Courtney got in touch with us towards the end of 2015 to see if we would be able to assist in creating a digital experience. In our conversation, it was clear that while the gallery knew they were hoping to achieve something in time for launch, the final decision on what that would be and what it might look like hadn’t be fully decided yet.

Conceptualising the Freer Thinking app

To get to the next stage — conceptualising what we wanted to create — we undertook a two-day workshop in May 2016 with the aim of aligning stakeholders and gaining clarity around the key goals and outcomes of the institution.

As should be clear from the case studies on this website, we don’t simply “implement an app” — we use technology to help solve problems. As such, the workshop was designed specifically to get to the crux of the problems the Freer|Sackler were looking to solve. The workshops covered 4 key phases:

  1. Case studies. We took the Freer|Sackler staff through both successful and unsuccessful projects (both ours and those done by others) to look at what had led to the outcomes. This phase was designed to allow everyone to speak to a similar understanding when we would discuss potential outcomes later.
  2. Goals and objectives. We had everybody write down their 1 main goal and other objectives they wanted to see this technology solve. Again, this phase was designed to get everyone in the room to share their values so we could talk to them later.
  3. User studies. More empathy raising, this time to get everyone to understand how vast their audience is and how many different demographics we were designing for.
  4. Value / feasibly matrix. For this phase, we ran through a list of all the “features” people had requested for the solution we were going to develop and we positioned them all on a matrix using “value” as the x-axis and “feasibility” as the y-axis. It helped to remove certain features and, again, gave everyone in the room the same level of understanding as to why certain features should be given heavy consideration or not.

The outcomes of the workshop were quite clear: after all the work the Freer|Sackler — and Courtney in particular — had put into creating digital access, we quickly honed in on “access” being the highest level priority.

This outcome was where the case for Universal Design as a guiding resource became helpful. We were able to break down access into key demographics, making sure that anything we were going to do from a creative standpoint would not be excluding anyone from these groups.

The demographics we chose to focus on were:

In order to work out whether features would exclude anyone from the defined groups, we worked through a high-level decision tree with applicable outcomes. This tree focussed on 4 key questions to which we could apply our answers to the problems we were working to solve:

  1. Are we including everyone? If we were going for as much access as possible, the goal was to include as many people as possible.
  2. If we are including everyone, is it achievable?  Will it fit within time frames and budgets and technical feasibility?  If so, proceed. If not, keep searching for a solution!
  3. If we aren’t including everyone, do we know how to include them? Maybe we can solve this quickly by rethinking it!
  4. If we are excluding someone and don’t know how to include them, is it the best we can do for now? If we truly believe that, and it is achievable we might find out ways to include them later, maybe we need more money, or time, or both?

Here’s what the tree looks like if you want to pin it up somewhere. We’ve turned it into a PDF for you to download.

Universal Design Flow Chart

Developing a creative solution for Freer Thinking

Now that we had a model to follow, we could start putting some creative solutions to the test. During the workshops, we also learnt the stories that were missing from the physical realm were the interconnections between objects in the collection — due to the layout of the collection, these interconnections couldn’t be easily explained through traditional manners, such as wall texts.

To solve this, we combined these two elements into an experience that would see the medium of the “podcast” used as a narrative tool. This meant we could provide value to visitors on-site by placing a digital layer on top of the physical visit by way of navigating people through the space, and these stories could also be accessible to all kinds of people off-site via a standard podcast.

By placing the demographics we were testing for inclusion over the decision tree, we were able to make key decisions using a simple framework that aligned with the vision of the institution.

For instance, when looking at visitors who were hoping for an instant experience, we could look at the podcast example and note that we would need to deliver another means for accessing content. So, the first decision was to include not just the podcast content, but also a standard highlights audio tour designed to be dipped in and out of, as the user saw fit.

To handle language concerns, we looked at the design of the application itself and focused on making it icon driven rather than text driven (layout, once you start getting into heavy text, can be pretty un-fun).

This framework definitely shone when it came to working across the abled and disabled user demographics. We made a lot of decisions based on knowing in advance that we were going to build these features in from the start. We used a video for onboarding, thus embedding closed captioning and handling multiple languages with significant ease.

We also looked at how we would use navigational queues and borrow from the work completed as part of the gallery’s renovations, by the way finding company 2 x 4 to make sure we could leverage signage and language in a manner that felt natural.

Even though we had used and created accessible applications before, we partnered with Sina Barham at Prime Access Consulting to really help our developers understand how to take full advantage of the native accessibility features within iOS. We also worked with Beth Ziebarth, the director of the Smithsonian Institution Accessibility Program, who was able to bring in a group of expert users to test the application for us in situ prior to opening.

The feedback from the expert users, together with the design philosophy we implemented to build agility in our workflow, meant that we could adapt to these changes and bring in more functionality in the three weeks we had prior to opening. In this instance, we were able to leverage the indoor location technologies we were already using and add in a visual description of each room that would be read out by iOS to visitors who had screen reading facilities turned on. A huge win at a very small price.

The Results validated our approach to Freer Thinking

Overall, the decisions we made have been justified in the metrics. Freer Thinking is getting almost 50% of its usage off-site (not something we anticipated when building it) and 10% of its usage in foreign languages (with Chinese being the most popular, also not something we anticipated).

The Universal Design framework helped ensure the goals that were set at the start of the process — creating content that was accessible by as many people as possible — were met throughout and delivered on time and to a happy audience. Ultimately, Freer Thinking has been able to provide a welcome, inclusive and engaging experience for all visitors to the Freer Gallery.

As always, if you have any questions or would like to get in touch about this work, please feel free to reach out via our Contact page.