Sala Rotunda, Museo Vaticano

UX Observations from Holiday

It’s amazing how much you can learn about user experience by getting out, going to places and doing things. Unless you’ve actually tried it, in which case it’s pretty obvious that experiencing things is going to teach you about experiences.

Let’s note, for pedantry’s sake, that I’m not a UX Designer in the web industry (or anyone else’s) definition. But I am a game designer, and with a little lateral thought (of the kind I always recommend) everything I say here will have analogies in your web design, your level design or whatever else you’re doing, and I suggest reading with that in mind.

Without further ado, an almost stream-of-consciousness hail of headings and bullets.

Public Transport

I rode a variety of trains in Naples, Rome and across Italy, and I tried the buses in Rome and Florence. I also clocked up a few more hours of commercial airline passage.

  • I quite liked the general approach of buying open tickets in advance and validating them at start of the journey (or the valid period, for day passes etc.).
    • However, it can be challenging to find places to purchase them when you’re new in town. There should be points of sale as close as possible to journey’s start; the tickets in question could easily have been in a small vending machine at each station and on each bus.
  • If one of multiple ticket offices is closed, put up a sign telling users how to find another. Consider whether a user entering the station for the first time (from any given entrance) is going to assume the closed office they find is the only office.
  • Rome’s Metro has some really nice touches:
    • Not only is there a screen at each end of each carriages saying which station is next, but it also indicates which side the doors will open. The common diagram of the line has little blocks showing the platform side for each station.
    • Signs in stations always refer to the station directions by terminating station. The firm convention helps directions-givers.
      • It is another thing to know, but in my opinion it’s a fact that’s more concretely about your journey than (e.g.) using compass directions, which may not be as obvious to other users.
  • Similarly their bus stops were well done, with each having a full list of all the major roads the bus goes down, with how many stops in each, etc.
    • One neat convention is that the ‘road’ word (via, viale, corso, etc.) was consistently dropped. I don’t know whether this introduces problems with uniqueness (I got the impression it didn’t), but it solves the problem of never being able to remember what kind of road you’re looking for.

Queues and Tickets

Tourist attractions in those cities were using a fairly standardised ticket system:

  • Buy the ticket on the door for one amount.
  • Or buy it in advance, with a booking fee, but skip the queue on the door.

Which is fine, except that most of those places were advertising the booking as ‘skip the line’, when actually it puts you into a separate (generally shorter) line. Other queuing and ticket craziness:

  • In some places there was a separate queue for guided parties; in other places those people used the reservations queue.
  • At the Duomo in Florence, the two queues were ‘those who already have an audio guide’ and ‘those who don’t’. In practice I didn’t work out what that priority queue was for, because it didn’t actually seem to have anything to do with audio guides.
    • Also, entry to the main space of the Duomo was free, which was why we couldn’t find a ticket-holders queue. This wasn’t very clear, and having purchased a ticket for all the non-free parts of the complex it was quite confusing.
  • We thought we were being smart, buying a ticket to the Vatican museums while we were at the central station in Rome. To some extent we were, but that ticket needed to be redeemed at the visitor centre of the tour company, and the giant receipt it was replaced with turned out to need redemption at one of the museum ticket offices, in return for tickets that would actually go through the ticket barriers. We still skipped some lines, but did a certain amount of back-and-forth trying to work out where the current incarnation of our ticket was valid.
    • That ticket also cost slightly more still than using a Vatican ticket office to pre-buy, but didn’t require us to specify our entry time in advance as we would have otherwise. Yet another option to consider, assuming you actually know about it.
  • The ‘Roma Pass’ ticket gives you 2 or three days of all-inclusive local travel, and free access to one or two attractions, with priority queuing at subsequent ones. It has no internal state, just a barcode (which assuming it works, immediately says impressive things about networking, centralisation and trusted clients).
    • Unfortunately we never saw a way to read back any of the relevant information: no idea when the travel period started, no idea how many museums it had ticked off, etc.
    • This wasn’t a big problem, but it was a point of concern when we went to the forum/colosseum/palatine. Those three places are close together, related (they’re all Roman ruins), and jointly run, offering a combined ticket or separate tickets for each. The little book that comes with Roma Pass lists both those options, but on entering the colosseum we simply scanned the barcode and were allowed in. I still don’t know whether it assumed we needed a combined ticket, because I think in practice we didn’t get around to visiting a second (or third) attraction.

Level Design and Museums

A museum (or art gallery) is a space that the visitor must travel around, experiencing the content that’s on offer. It might be a linear experience, but generally some content will be optional, and perhaps approachable in an optional order. The exhibition spaces must be optimised for that journey, so that the visitor is always comfortable with where they are and where they’re going, and otherwise not distracted from the content.

In short, a museum is equivalent to a video game level. In particular, it’s a multiplayer game in which visitors block each other’s movement and sight, and otherwise impact on each other’s experience. If you’re a game designer and don’t remember the last museum or gallery you went to, go somewhere at the next opportunity.

(And stop by a hospital while you’re out, to look at the signs and (if applicable, hopefully) the coloured stripes on the floor.)

Incidentally, I’m a systems designer rather than a level designer, and any level designer worth their salt can probably explain (or correct) this stuff much better than me.

The ‘Round Room’ in the Vatican museums makes a nice case study.

Sala Rotunda, Museo Vaticano
A view from the south-east corner, showing some of the statues and the way the path is kept away from the mosaics around the basin. Photo by Flikr user Richard Mortel, CC by-nc-sa

There are statues around the outside, and one might want to look at the basin or the mosaic in the middle, or stand and gawp at the ceiling. Valid paths are around the edge of the room, like so:

A diagram of the narrow walkway at the edge of a circular room, with entrance on the east and exit at the south.
The entrance and exit. Content lines the inside and outside of the narrow channel.

Heading anticlockwise from the entrance is clearly the more interesting route, and most visitors will go that way and leave at the exit. I went around anticlockwise, but then I wanted a look at a statue in the SE corner so I had to struggle against the flow along the short edge.

Personally I’d block off the short side, very close to the entrance, so that everyone went around the long side and those who decide to look at the short side only have to struggle against the flow of other optionals coming back down. Is that the right answer? I’ve blocked the short route through the room, so if it’s a big concern that people can skip it (such as to get to the Sistine Chapel, which for many is the big draw of the Vatican museums) then maybe not.

The maths is solved, by the way, it’s called the route inspection problem (although it was Chinese Postman when I was at school). If you can make your museum solvable – there’s a route that passes all the content exactly once, with no repetition – that’s great, but probably you can’t, and then we’re into looking at how the repetition is supported, as above.

Incidentally, the level design answer is to use your control of the space to decide how much repetition and backtracking you want to ask, and how optional it’ll be. Knock through a few walls (and build some impossible spaces if you need), and be glad you aren’t building your level into an existing historical building, as many museums are.

Signs That Forbid or Request

I saw some signs saying ‘no flash photography’ and some saying ‘no photography or video’. The Sistine Chapel even had men shouting ‘no photo, no video’ (and ‘silence, please’ over a loud PA system). Never did I see anyone explain why.

If your collection is sensitive to light, say so. A sign saying ‘No flash photography please: the artworks can be damaged by bright lights’ is much more persuasive than simply ‘No flash photography’. Your visitors care about art: asking nicely and giving a good reason gets them on your side in trying to preserve it, rather than rebelling against your apparently arbitrary diktats.

When places ban photography outright, I can think of two reasons:

  • You actually want to ban flash photography, for the reason above, but you’re concerned that the distinct won’t be clear, or that flashes will go off by accident. In this case you’re stuck with an arbitrary-looking demand unless you make the effort, as above, to explain your needs and concerns.
  • For copyright reasons.
    • If you’re showing off visual things and demanding that nobody take photos then in my opinion you’ve failed to understand the modern audience. You may also have a problem with your business model: the chance to experience things in person is not really under threat from the chance to see a picture online, and if your business is waning it’s probably for some other reason (like discouraging visitors with arbitrary demands).
    • That said, maybe you do a nice trade in the gift shop and worry about competition. A polite, honest and clear message is still your best bet: ‘The museum’s efforts to protect and maintain the artworks depends on sales of posters and other licensed items. Please do not take your own photographs of the works.’
      • But I make no promises. Visitors probably won’t believe you.

But enough on your business model: many users respond better to the purpose behind a request than your simple authority to make it. And if they know why you asked and still won’t comply, think about whether your request was reasonable.

While we’re on the subject, various places had subsets closed when we visited. Explain why this is: be it renovation or whatever. And if you’re worried that the reason sounds flimsy, it may be that the mistake is to close it, rather than to admit why on the sign.

And always do your best to warn people in advance of what’s closed.

Conclusions

As always, the secret to avoiding these pitfalls and providing these advantages is empathy with the user. Get into their shoes as thoroughly as possible:

  • What do users need to know?
    • What do they already know? Crucially, which knowledge of mine I set aside in order to properly emulate a user who has no prior experience or knowledge of my system?
  • What would users like to know? What concerns might they have that I can alleviate?
    • This is where being a perpetually worried person comes in handy. I worry about not getting off the train in time, so I know that some users would like to know how long to their stop (how much time and how many stops), which doors will open and on which side, etc. You can be a blasé or carefree designer, but it’s still your responsibility to empathise with those who aren’t.
  • The user doesn’t care about your other pressures.
    • She doesn’t know why your agent sells a voucher for the ticket, rather than being able to generate a real ticket (or why their agent had the same problem again): she just notices the extra step(s) trying to get the ticket to work.
    • He’d probably quite like you to stay in business, but that’s not going to override his desire to feel fairly-treated.

And so on. I’m sure that’s in every UX book (having not really read any), but getting into your user’s shoes basically underpins all the considerations you need to have.