When the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore Maryland approached Fastspot to help solve one of its core challenges, allowing online visitors to browse its collection of works, we jumped at the opportunity. Here is a recap of some of the hurdles, surprises, successes...

When the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore Maryland approached Fastspot to help solve one of its core challenges, allowing online visitors to browse its collection of works, we jumped at the opportunity.

Here is a recap of some of the hurdles, surprises, successes, and failures that we encountered during the course of the project, with insights from Curt Kotula, Art & Technology Director and the lead designer on this project, and Ben Plum, Senior Developer and the lead developer on this project.

UX Challenges

The Walters Art Museum has a huge online collection containing thousands of images. Just like the artwork featured in the images, you can't count on a consistent image aspect ratio. Images range from the absurdly wide to the ridiculously tall, creating a huge layout challenge for us. You also can’t just crop a work of art—it’s impossible to set a standard size, and one solution will not work for all situations.

We attacked this problem on two fronts. First, when browsing, the artwork thumbnails are organized into columns instead of rows, allowing the variety of image sizes to cascade down the page without wasting space. Second, the artwork detail page is organized in such a way that the supporting content flexes and shifts to fit the aspect ratio of the image; wide images span the width of the page with content below, while tall images fill the left side with content to the right. Our goal was to let these beautiful images be the focus no matter what shape the artwork happens to be.

Browse Simple, Make it Stick

The best part about visiting a museum is stumbling upon a piece of art that sticks with you long after you leave. We felt that browsing the Walters' online collection should also provide that experience. When the project started, there were over 7,000 items in the collection (currently there are over 11,000!). Increasing users' access to this impressive body of work and overall "browsability" are two of the main objectives for the project.

We engineered several distinct browsing experiences to promote discovery and surprise. Users can browse by category, material, date range, location in the museum, creator, place of origin, tags, and popularity in the community. We engineered browsing options for a variety of audiences, and these options are presented in a simple and direct tabbed interface.

How Many Clicks Does it Take?

Have we mentioned how big the Walters online collection is? Paged results are a necessity when dealing with thumbnail images. Too many images would cripple older computers or take too long to load over a slow Internet connection. Too many pages make larger result sets a bear to navigate.

We asked ourselves: How do you navigate seventy pages of image based results with the same ease and control that you navigate three? How do you conveniently navigate a thousand individual works of art? We decided to throw out the traditional design pattern of numbered pagination (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 … 450), instead opting for a custom solution based on the ease of drag-and-drop. We engineered the pagination system to give the user fine-grain control; the user can step through smaller result sets with the "next" and "previous" buttons, while large result sets can be quickly navigated by simply dragging the handle to an exact page or piece of art. Every result in a particular set is now easily accessible—no more skipping 10 pages at a time just to get to the center of the set.

Community Organizers

Another challenge was that the previous version of the Website offered user curation tools—they are popular with teachers and museum staff but were not well-utilized outside of those audiences. The ability to organize and curate art isn’t just an important tool for educators; it also helps art novices and children alike begin to analyze and appreciate art by making their own connections.

We needed the barrier of entry to be low and the result to be useful and fun. We decided to use Facebook connect rather than managing our own user system, allowing anyone with an active Facebook account to get started quickly and easily. Finally, we branded the curator feature “Community Collections” and brought recent collections to the homepage to promote the feature and encourage sharing.

Programming Challenges

Modern museums have internal database systems for cataloging and archiving collections. The most popular choice for large institutions seems to be the Museum System by Gallery Systems. We don’t doubt that TMS is a fantastic offline collection management system, but simply put, the Web extensions offered are lacking and don’t seem to be a primary focus of the company. Customization options are limited and the default layout is a generic, confusing mess. The result is a hard-to-navigate online collection that isn’t particularly attractive and tends to look a lot like competitors.

Fresh From The Oven

We decided early on to throw out the generic box mix provided by Gallery Systems and work with the Walters database team to create our solution from scratch. We knew right away that we didn’t want to expose the entire TMS database to the Internet nor did we need the massive amount of information it stored. What we did need was a second database that only contained the information necessary for the new online experience. We used our own content management platform, BigTree CMS, as the core technology that drives the site and engineered a scheduled synching process that eliminates double work.

The Fruits of our Labor

Many at Fastspot would argue that this project was one of our most challenging—and most inspiring. We were lucky to have a fantastic team at the Walters to work with, and they gave us a lot of room to flex our UX muscles and explore possibilities. We insisted on keeping things as simple as possible, even as we tried to integrate more complex functionality, so as to always let the artworks remain front and center. More importantly, we re-envisioned what was possible for a museum to offer its online visitors. Through a diligent process of refinement, a willingness to throw away things that weren't working, and a constant focus on the visitor's browsing experience, a wonderful new interface and interactive experience emerged.

So far the new Works of Art site has received glowing feedback, and users have jumped right in and started doing what the Walters Art Museum and all of us at Fastspot hoped they would do: delighting in the experience of exploring art.

Share on Twitter or Facebook Published November 11th 2011