The Museum of Customer Experience

Confession time; I’m a museum geek and I love history, so last month I felt very fortunate to have been able to visit St Petersburg and spend a few days wandering the State Hermitage Museum, formerly the Winter Palace of the Tsars. It’s an incredible edifice and full of enough art and artefacts that would keep a visitor occupied for three years if they chose to view the entire collection. I had a mere three days to visit, but came away with some indelible impressions. Firstly, those peasants might just have had something to grumble about and secondly, I realised that the Hermitage Museum is a great place to research experience design.

An Entry Difficulty of 3.0

The hermitage museum website helpfully suggests that visitors purchase their tickets online in order to bypass crowds at the ticket counters. What the website doesn’t tell you is that on arrival, staff will have no clue as to how to process your printed tickets and will suggest you stand in line to redeem them anyway. Several elderly Russians will object to your apparent queue-jumping and will encourage you to modify your behaviour with what I can only presume are colourful Russian phrases.

Plenty of customer experiences are like that; for example an app might look beautiful, but you can’t quite work out how to access the functions you need or even how to ‘get into’ the main functionality. An interface might feature an over-reliance on non-standard iconography rather than clearly labelling functions, making the user experience one of experimentation and failure rather than achievement. You think a service interface has what you need, but you just can’t seem to access the damn service! Unless the purposeof the experience is to encourage low-risk exploration, forcing the user into a test and fail mode is a recipe for disgust and failure.

Signing Off

Except for the cloakroom, which helpfully informs you that it has room for 3,000 visitors, almost all signage is written in Cyrillic as well as… ok, pretty much just Cyrillic. Sure, it’s a Russian museum, however the majority of visitors are now foreigners and making signage visitor-friendly would go a long way to assisting the almost 3 million people they receive each year. In many areas of the palace, groups of people could be seen milling around, sharing notes on how to get from A to W and then back to Q again just to visit the bathrooms. Many of the exhibit plaques also had explanations written in Russian – which is fairly pointless if the intention of a museum is to educate visitors.

This applies particularly to interface design; when poorly defined ‘signage’ is used, the results can range from annoyance to despair, even to disaster. If you think I’m being melodramatic, consider the USS Vincennes incident of 1998 which was caused by poor interface design. A radar operator incorrectly identified an approaching Airbus full of passengers as a hostile military aircraft because the radar system simply didn’t display important information like descent rates or radar cross section. While most of our user experiences don’t usually result in a plane load of innocents being shot down, poorly defined interface elements can certainly result in significant operational risks for our customers and stakeholders.

Flowing, but not like a river

The size of the Hermitage and the sheer volume of bodies within it at any given time means that visitor flow is a critically important component, but a sadly neglected part of this museum experience. On our visit, I found myself becoming disoriented several times, losing my way, backtracking, going in circles and generally wandering around like a deranged battery hen. I tried to find a washroom and found that they were one the other side of the ticket gates and I couldn’t get back in again! Perhaps a series of coloured floor-lines leading to specific parts of the complex would have been useful?

Poorly designed user experiences can be similarly frustrating, whether they apply to services or interfaces. Customers experience services and interfaces as part of a journey or flow, rather than as static events or objects. If you haven’t carefully considered the dynamics of movement through an entire service or application then it’s likely that serious friction could be occurring. While a static interface or service interface component can be beautiful (just like a museum can look gorgeous), the movement through it can be truly heinous.

Unmanageable scale

Did I mention that the Hermitage is huge? I mean, utterly seriously massive. So big that I doubt whether the likes of Catherine the Great even visited all of the rooms in her own palace. While it does lead to some end-of-day feet soreness, unmanageable scale is a good thing in a museum. Give the punters lots of baubles to look at for their money.

Not so with experience design. Sometimes the experience of using services or interfaces is simply overwhelming; there is so much to offer the user that we fall into the trap of offering everything. Sometimes it’s client-driven; “try to fit as much into this app/experience as possible”. This generally leads to anxiety and sometimes rejection of the very experience that would have solved a customer’s problems in the first place.

Would I visit the Hermitage Museum again on a future trip to St Petersburg? Definitely, but then again there is only one Hermitage, despite its experiential flaws. Your customer interfaces are not the only ones in town and your users are unlikely to be as forgiving as the average museum geek.


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