It’s hard not to be delighted by Elvira Barriga’s work. As the creative director at New York’s Local Projects, she pulls together teams of designers to create experiences that fuse the digital with the physical. Working mostly with museums and other cultural institutions, she creates exhibitions and installations that merge storytelling, graphic design, spatial design, interactive design, and creative technology together. For her, creating a solid user experience has to go way beyond wireframes and the screen (even though those are important to her, too).
At Adobe MAX, Elvira will be sharing her experiences working as a multi-disciplinary designer in her talk, Storytelling at The Intersection of Architecture, Design, and Technology. We asked her for a sneak peek, and asked her to share tips for taking UX way beyond the screen.
You don’t like to define your work as exclusively UX design. What’s your definition of UX to you?
It’s actually a good term, but I think most people understand it primarily in reference to digital applications, and it’s a very different scenario when you go beyond the screen and design interpretive experiences for physical spaces.
Of course we also delve into building wireframes and designing user interfaces for our digital installations, but when we define entire museum experiences, we have to think more broadly about the user experience. I prefer the term visitor experience in that context. In essence we have an institution that wants to convey its story, we have a physical space with its specific conditions, an array of media options to express the content, and then there are the visitors with all their senses and diverse behavioral traits. That means we have to crack a multidimensional experience flow. At Local Projects we are constantly investigating how to use the opportunities of space, media, and technology to tell narratives in unconventional ways. And every design discipline can be in the driver’s seat at a different moment in that regard. I am very curious about the opportunities of that diversity and I am so happy that we have all the disciplines in house at LP. It enriches the ideation process so much.
What’s the best way to create effective, multidisciplinary user experiences?
As designers we have to be the visitor’s advocates. Museum fatigue is not a myth. It’s a real thing. Most curators know that it affects people but they still have a hard time accepting the consequences and editing to amplify. They are spending years and years researching the topic, so to them every artefact has it’s own story and becomes incredibly precious. But the visitors only have a couple of hours.
It’s crucial for me to start a project by spending “quality time” with the key stakeholders and to be able to ask the bigger, sometimes uncomfortable questions. I am intrigued by tensions and ambiguities—but when it comes to projects I just want to clarify them. It may seem like ‘duh, of course you’d do that,’ but it’s simply not always easy to vindicate the time and budget for a proper research and interview phase. We sometimes jumpstart too quickly into designing because we assume that we “get it” or because the client is not open to this kind of engagement.
One of my favourite process tools is to translate key insights from this initial immersion phase into experience guidelines and design principles. That ideally happens before we start digging up ideas and evaluating them. Getting those principles signed off by the client puts the train on the right track and all parties involved understand where we’re heading. It’s surprising how often everybody thinks they’re on the same page while they’re actually not even in the same book.
I truly believe that it’s most valuable and actually most efficient in the long run to take the time in the beginning to understand the landscape of motivations, aspirations, and personalities. When I don’t take it, it pretty much always backfires.
If you don’t put that early work in, what can happen?
A classic outcome are taste discussions and I just hate them. I mainly experienced them while working in Europe, because there was less of a research driven process in place that involved the client. You just got a brief, you worked it out by yourself, you came back to the client with your design proposal and then you suddenly realized that you didn’t have the same design sensibility.
But if you align experience and design principles in advance, then you can always refer back to them as common ground and the guide for decision making. This guide is also my best friend when directing the teams internally. That said, there also needs to be space for intuition and emotional response to the design besides this more rational approach.
Another classic outcome of not engaging the client at the beginning, especially if they are a disparate group, is that they will work out their internal differences on the back of the concept. The creative just becomes a projection surface for their tensions and weeks of design work can end up in the trash bin simply because they haven’t aligned their goals and expectations in advance. That’s when you really lose time and money.
How detailed do your design guidelines get before you actually start creating?
That depends on the complexity of the project and the stakeholder group, but I generally try to be fairly explicit while also leaving some breathing room for the design process. It also helps to use visual references to show and discuss how these terms translate into a look & feel and spatial atmospheres.
Language clarification is also very important to me. There are so many terms that we use all the time without ever questioning if there is a shared understanding of them or what the specific connotations are. It might be a remnant from speaking German as a first language, which is much more precise and nuanced in its vocabulary.
Clarifying design terms is very important and sometimes it’s most helpful to just show visual examples. Let’s say we advise an institution to express themselves in a “bold but minimal” way. It’s most helpful to show references for how that might translate into an atmosphere and we can test how comfortable they feel with different visual expressions that speak to that notion.
But to be clear, I’m not interested at all in a process that starts with design references. I always advise designers not to start there. Always start with your own sketches and then back them up with design references to clarify the atmosphere. If a reference can stand in for your idea then you are obviously on a copycat track.
What’s to gain from doing multi-disciplinary experience design really well?
As a studio, we are trying to shift the paradigms for interpretive experiences. We are trying to break with traditional patterns of how public institutions usually convey their story and how visitors usually interact with the content. To me it’s most satisfying when we are able to break the logic of the everyday and offer visitors experiences that allow them to be alert and engaged and simply present in the here and now.
A good example in that regard are the installations we created for ARoS, the art museum in Denmark. They are on a mission to break out of the ivory tower and make art relevant for everyday people and their lives, and they asked us to add a series of interactive installations to their new educational floor.
One of the installations is an eye-tracker experience, where you sit down and look at an artwork for 10 seconds. Then you get a variety of feedback on how you looked, like the path your eyes took or the number of fixations, which directly correlates to how well you will remember the image.
What is really striking about this installation is that visitors spend on average over 4.5 minutes with the eye tracker while the average dwell time in a gallery is 5 to 20 seconds per artwork. Visitors learn a lot about art and composition by getting feedback on their perception of the artwork. I am really proud of that outcome.
What’s your advice to UX designers who want to branch into more multi-disciplinary design?
It takes a certain mindset to relax within the discomfort of not being the expert on everything. Being outside of your comfort zone sounds interesting in theory but in reality is literally damn uncomfortable. Our projects are so different in their nature that most of us feel again and again like novices. But at least it’s never boring.
For designers it’s crucial to keep learning new tools and to continuously become more resourceful in their creative thinking, expression, and execution. And we all need to stop taking things personally. That just makes us weak and we won’t be able to listen to what’s in and behind feedback if our egos are getting in the way.