Museum Website Fails

“Tell me what this website is about?” That’s what the Museums & the Web crit team asked members of the public about the museum websites they were critiquing. The answer? “Um a B&B maybe?” “A restaurant?”…. It took these users far too long to figure out what the websites were about.

By Flickr user Nima Badiey.

By Flickr user Nima Badiey.

Many museum websites fail this very basic test. We’ve overlooked the primary purpose of a website – to tell the world who you are. We know what we’re about and our dedicated members and volunteers do too which is probably why we forgot to make it clear on the first place people come to find out about us – our websites.

We need to show our visitors who we are as soon as they click onto our website. It’s likely they won’t just stumble upon it cold but if they do they should be able to tell what we are about. This is especially important for museums with names that don’t describe who we are.

We have beautiful websites with large high quality images dominating them. Absolutely gorgeous. But absolutely useless if online visitors can’t find the information that they are looking for. We don’t want to make our users feel dumb and frustrated because they can’t figure out what is happening at the museum today because it’s buried under “public programs” – a term that doesn’t mean anything to them.

Photo by Flickr user Sybren Stüvel.

Photo by Flickr user Sybren Stüvel.

We talk about being more user focused but this quick and dirty test of the usability of our sites tells us we aren’t applying it to our websites. What categories do our online visitors understand and look for? What terms do they use to describe permanent vs. temporary exhibitions? Where do they naturally expect to find information about our open hours?

This is all about the structure and not about the content. Normally I’m an advocate for content first but in this case the structure really does matter. Set up an easily navigable website with what basic information visitors need to find up front and then worry about giving them behind the scenes glimpses into the collection and innovative digital experiences. So what do we need the structure to do? Back in 2013 John Stack of the Tate wrote a great blog post where he asked a few people to weigh in on what a good museum website looks like. The quote from a web designer is exactly what I’m talking about:

I would expect an excellent museum website to pass certain tests:

1. Is there an immediately obvious route to finding the museum’s location, opening hours and admission times?

2. Can I access clear, comprehensive information about the exhibitions and events at the museum without getting tangled in navigational knots – and book online if I choose to?

3. Is the museum’s collection accessible and well presented online, with searching and browsing tools that are simple to use and good quality colour photography of individual objects?

4. Can I find my way around 1, 2 and 3 with only a sketchy knowledge of the website’s language?

Alex Pilcher, Web Designer

Want to see an example of a museum website that does this? Look no farther than the Rjiksmuseum. You have three choices when you arrive on the homepage: Plan your visit, Collection, and About the museum. Each category expands further to give information to the online visitor in a simple way. It was designed and launched by Fabrique back in 2012. Why haven’t more of us followed this example?

Photo by Flickr user Eric Parker.

Photo by Flickr user Eric Parker.

My website is guilty of all the transgressions I’ve been talking about. So you know what I’ll be doing? Grabbing my laptop and hitting a coffee shop. Join me to see if random members of the public know what your website is about and how to find information they are looking for.

Go ahead. I dare you.

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