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

Scott Brewer

I recently returned from Denver (Colorado) where I was able to present at this year’s MCN conference alongside Courtney OCallaghan, the Chief Digital Officer of the Freer|Sackler on the work we had undertaken together.  The title of the talk, and the goal, was to show how we used a relatively simple framework influenced heavily from our combined understanding of Universal Design to make our design decisions while we undertook the Freer Thinking project.

As a brief summary Freer Thinking was launched in October 2017 with the re-opening of the Freer|Sackler gallery.  It’s part interactive audio guide, part take home podcast, part object deep-dive, part family tour and very, very accessible (as you’ll see).  Perhaps the best way to summarise it is to watch the intro video that plays when you first launch the application:

Universal Design was first coined back in the 1950’s 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.  It was heavily informed in 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 UD is a subset of HCD.  But this isn’t a blog about these things so you should probably go to read the Wikipedia page to get more information.

Now, returning to the talk and why we chose and how we used universal design as the framework.  Looking back at the history of the interaction Courtney had been 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 technology.  Knowing that they were re-opening the Freer | Sackler in 2017 she got in touch towards the end of 2015 to see if we would be able to assist.  In conversation it was clear that, while the gallery knew they were hoping to achieve something for launch, the final decision on what that would be and what it might look like hadn’t be fully decided yet.

To get to the next stage we undertook a two day workshop in May 2016 with the aim of aligning stakeholders and gaining a 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’re really trying to use technology to help solve problems.  The workshop was designed specifically to get to the crux of problems the Freer|Sackler were looking to solve.  It ran through four key phases:
  1. Case studies: we took the F|S staff through both successful and unsuccessful projects(both ours and those done by others) to look at what had led to the outcomes.  It was designed to allow everyone to speak to similar understanding when we would discuss potential outcomes later.
  2. Goals and objectives: We had everybody write down their one main goal and many other objectives they would like to see this technology solve.  Again, 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’re designing for.
  4. Value / Feasibly matrix: For this one we ran through a list of all the ‘features’ people had requested in their solution and we positioned them all on a matrix using value as the x axis and feasibility as the y axis.  It really helps to remove certain features and again, gives 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 that 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 was where the case for universal design as a guiding resource became helpful.  We were able to break down access into key demographics and make sure that anything we were going to do from a creative stand point 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 four 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 possiblethe 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 soproceed. 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 themis 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 here if you want a bigger version. 
Universal Design Flow Chart
Creative Solution:
Now that we had a model to follow we could start putting some creative solutions to the test.  During the workshops we also learnt that the stories that were missing from the physical realm were the interconnections between objects in the collection, that due to the layout of the collection, couldn’t be easily explained through traditional manners.

We combined these two elements into an experience that would see the nature of the ‘podcast’ used as a narrative tool, that could be of value to visitors onsite by placing a digital layer on top of the physical visit by way of navigating people through the space and that these stories could also be accessible in all kinds of people offsite through the means of a standard podcast.

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

For instance, when looking at users who were hoping for an instant experience, we could look at the podcast example and note that we would need another means to access 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.

For the handling of language concern, we were able to look at the design of the application itself and focus 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 abled and disabled users.  We were able to make a lot of decisions based on knowing in advance that we were going to build these features in from the start.  We were able to use a video for the on boarding, thus embedding closed captioning and handling multiple languages with significant ease.  We were able to look at how we would use navigational queues and borrow from the work done in the 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 and 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 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:

Overall the decisions have been justfied in the metrics.  The application is getting almost 50% of its usage offsite (not something we anticipated when building it) and 10% of usage in foreign languages (with Chinese being the most popular, also not something we anticipated).  The design framework we used really helped to make sure that the goals that were set at the start of the process (creating content that is accessible by as many people as possible) were able to be met throughout and delivered on time and to a happy audience.

As always, if you have any questions or would like to get in touch about this work or any other please feel free to reach out using the links below.