Monday, December 10, 2007


Prototyping--it sounds very serious like we might work at General Motors and we're prototyping some big gas-guzzling, laden with fins, new car. But...this year I've worked on three projects where I've prototyped interactive stations for exhibitions. And in every one, I've been stunned at how revealing and helpful the process has been.

Why prototype?

It helps identify those great ideas that are perhaps only great to exhibit developers. I loved the idea of boondoggle for an interactive on summer camp (that's the upstate New York term for making lanyards out of that plastic stuff). In testing, we discovered that directions are amazingly to hard to write for this. Without a sample, all were lost. The solution: one set of strands attached to a hook to try and take-home packets with instructions. The unexpected consequence: despite its difficulty, it brought forth wonderful memories from parents.

It helps refine language to make it accessible for many. In testing an I Spy sort of interactive about the AC transformer we found that few people knew or understood what an AC transformer was (me too, really), but even more surprising, that the idea of unintended outcomes was a little fuzzy as well. A rewritten and re-tested label (below)meant that it became more understandable--and more fun--for visitors.

It saves museums from expensive design and fabrication costs for things that don't quite work. For instance, in a prototype activity about matching dolls from around the world with a map, the name of the country with the doll was in upper and lower case; the name of the country on the map was in all upper case letters. In prototyping, we discovered that early readers were having a really tough time puzzling out the country names because of the type itself--a very easy fix.

You learn how to extend the experience from the visitors themselves. For a pretend picnic interactive, we noticed that, in the prototyping, young visitors not only packed their picnic basket, but then took it over to a corner in the room and sat and had a picnic--our revised label copy encouraged others to do the same.

And, I think, most importantly, it strengthens the connection between a museum and its visitors. Participants inevitably are pleased to be asked to participate, and as one parent wrote, "Thanks for the opportunity. We can't wait to try the real thing!"

Photos: Top and center, from prototyping at the Berkshire Museum for the new Feigenbaum Hall of Innovation, December, 2007. Bottom: Interactive label for Summer in the Finger Lakes exhibitions, June, 2007.

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