Prototyping Interactive Data Viz: Lessons Learned in FY17

It’s been awhile since I last posted, in part because we’ve been making sense of all we learned last year prototyping interactive data visualizations and developing new projects this year to build on all we learned. At last I am happy to share below some of what we learned. This post will focus on the top-level key findings, followed by posts drilling into the details on each prototype (and the lessons learned there-in).

If you are new to my work at the American Museum of Natural History, I sit in the newly-renamed Science Visualization Group. We’re essentially doing experience design to engage visitors in our dozens of permanent halls with modern science practices, through the addition of digital layers of interpretation. What this looks like on the ground is working with one of the Museum’s scientists (we have over 200) and then turning their digital specimens (CT scans, genomic data, astronomical observations) into a digital asset we can port into a variety of digital tools to be tested with the public (Google’s Tango, Hololens, the Vive, Merge Holocube, and more).

We once went by the name Science Bulletins – bringing the work of scientists into the permanent halls through videos. Now, we are deploying a user-centric design process to publicly prototype and evaluate the data we collect by observing and interviewing the visitors. Last fiscal year, for example, we spent 57 hours over 34 sessions observing over 1,000 people who experienced our new type of interactives (and interviewing over 500 of them.)

After 15+ years of bringing the work of scientists to permanent halls through videos, the challenge for us now is to learn best practices for bringing digital specimens from AMNH scientists into the Halls through interactive, emerging media platforms.

Here is some of what we learned:

  • Data visualization provides a natural opportunity for engaging visitors with authentic science content and cutting-edge technology

Researchers across the natural sciences (and across the Museum) are creating digital content that we can leverage to serve AMNH’s mission and generate interest and excitement among visitors and staff.

  • Scientists are essential and enthusiastic collaborators

To visualize data accurately and surface compelling narratives, it’s critical to work directly with scientists. The more familiar a scientist is with the data, the more insight he or she can provide. Our colleagues are excited by this work and eager to provide assets, as well as ideas and content oversight.

  • Easy interaction is key

Visitors expect to interact with digital content. However, steep learning curves and uneven performance quickly frustrate them. The more sophisticated the technology, the more intuitive and seamless the interaction should be to meet expectations.

  • One asset, many platforms, different opportunities

With some effort, visualizations can be optimized for different platforms. However, all content does not work equally well across all devices, which vary in their resolution, stereo capabilities, tracking, and modes of interaction. Content goals should be matched carefully to the technology.

  • Location, location, location

Lighting, noise levels, traffic flow, crowd density and the design of physical exhibits must be taken into account when developing experiences for existing halls. Hall of Biodiversity is too dark for some technologies, while Hall of the Universe is too light. Object recognition requires clear targets and sightlines. Noisy environments will impede voice commands. Constraints will change as technologies evolve and improve, but the need to consider each unique environment we are designing for will remain constant.

  • Make experiences social

Visitors come to the Museum primarily to socialize with friends and family. Our work can support social interaction, specifically when we: develop content for multi-user platforms such as touch tables and large displays; create simple games with focused learning objectives such as Explorer’s Tree of Life and Avatour (learn the rules once, play many rounds, level up); and promote active spectating by setting up live preview screens that broadcast VR experiences or by creating interactive experiences on large public displays such as the Astro Bulletin.

  • Aim for universal design

Technology enables us to push the envelope on universal design with varied strategies including multiple languages, audio controls, and gesture-based interaction. User experience (UX) design to create successful interactives for a wide range of our visitors’ characteristics and needs– age, language, abilities – requires thoughtful development and design practices. We lack sufficient expertise in this area and should invest more resources.

  • It takes a village

Museum staff have valuable knowledge about our visitors. Youth and Teacher Educators, Public Programs staff, Visitors Services employees, Exhibition designers, Communication and Digital staff all have relevant experience and knowledge that can help inform our work.

We developed these findings during FY17 through iterating prototypes of digital interactives that brought scientific data to visitors within our halls. Below is a review of each series of prototypes and what they taught us, each in their own post:

  1. AR SHARK (learn more)
  2. CT SCANS WITH HOLOCUBE (learn more)
  3. VR WEEVIL (learn more)
  4. AR CONSTELLATIONS (learn more)
  5. ESCAPE THE PLANET (learn more)
  6. AR SCALES OF THE UNIVERSE (learn more)
  7. MEAD FESTIVAL 360 VIDEOS (learn more)
  8. PALEONTOLOGY 360 VIDEO (learn more)
  9. CT MUMMIES (learn more)
  10. TREE OF LIFE (learn more)

About Barry

The Associate Director For Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives at the American Museum of Natural History.
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