Creative Spaces – some more thoughts

It’s been an interesting day so far on the Museums Computer Group email list. The debate on Creative Spaces has been fast-paced with passion, criticism and defence. I won’t reiterate exactly what has been said, as you could catch up on the threads in the list archive, but I have had some more thoughts that I wish to share.

Despite the criticism from some of the more vocal members of the museum technology community, I stand by my previous post in that I can’t help but like the idea of the Creative Spaces project.

Why will people like it?

I think people (i.e. ‘normal’ users, not museums professionals per se) will like it because:

  • It encourages users to interact with the museum spaces and objects within
  • It fosters a sense of connection with the museum, which, in my unscientific experience, people like
  • It is an online space endorsed by the museums and galleries themselves, so it’s ‘safe’
  • You are free to do what you like on the site – sign up to groups, create notebooks about things you find interesting, comment on other notebooks and items within, etc.

It will, of course, only ‘work’ if a genuine community builds up around and within the website. Getting people to use it shouldn’t be a problem. I don’t know the exact visitor numbers for the nine museums involved with the pilot, but it’s certainly in the millions. Something as simplistic as a sign reading “Interact with this museum online. Share your experiences on Creative Spaces.”, displayed in prominent physical as well as virtual spaces ought to do the job. Maybe a place to have an experiment with QR codes too.

Homepage

Much of the criticism (e.g. Mike Ellis, New Curator) about Creative Spaces is that people have, when faced with the homepage for the first time, not known what to do, or how it will benefit them. This is generally true. It’s hard to design the perfect homepage (believe me, I know!), but I can suggest some improvements.

creative-spaces-welcome

Firstly, we need people to know immediately what the site is all about. Currently we have: “Connecting with your favourite Museums! Creative Spaces connects you with nine UK national museums and galleries allowing you to explore their collections, find like-minded people and create your own content.”

Maybe it could be ““Interact with museums and galleries. Upload your own experiences. Search the collections of 9 museums. Connect with like-minded people. Expand your visit online.” This explains why I might want to create an account and get involved – I don’t want to “create my own content”, I want to upload my stuff to share!

Those big buttons could do with a very short description (click to see a larger version):

Creative Spaces Buttons 

(as I write this, Frankie has written echoed some of my ideas, and had some great new ones)

Should Notebooks be called Notebooks? They’re more like your own collection. Whichever way it is done, I do think that it could be a tad clearer.

URLs

However, on the sign, you would have to display a URL. It would make sense to make this a single, memorable URL. I confess to being somewhat confused as to why there are so many URLs – one for each participating insitution:

British Museum http://bm.nmolp.org/creativespaces/
Imperial War Museum http://iwm.nmolp.org/creativespaces/
National Portrait Gallery http://npg.nmolp.org/creativespaces/
Natural History Museum http://nhm.nmolp.org/creativespaces/
Royal Armouries http://ram.nmolp.org/creativespaces/
Sir John Soane’s Museum http://sjs.nmolp.org/creativespaces/
TATE http://tate.nmolp.org/creativespaces/
The Wallace Collection http://twc.nmolp.org/creativespaces/
V&A Museum http://vna.nmolp.org/creativespaces/

 The only difference I can see when looking at these sites is the “Popular collection items” display. Perhaps a gateway page with a single URL would be an option, say at creativespaces.info (which is available, and easy to remember)? You could select which museum you wanted to see popular items from. There are many ways of doing this – I hope the stakeholders explore some of them.

Search

As I have mentioned elsewhere, I did find the search facility to be somewhat lacking. It’s great for casually browsing objects by keyword, but like many people, once you can see the power of a cross-collection search that previously (to the best of my knowledge) didn’t exist, I want more.

I found it very hard to locate objects that have an Iron Age date, for example. If I was to use this in an educational context I’d like to see a few more options in the search, such as provenance, period, and location.

In the search results, clicking “View larger image” opens a new browser window showing the result from the institution’s own website, which in turn often requires another click to view a larger version. If this could be integrated in a better way, that would be great (but it’s a start). Maybe using a “lightbox” style effect (using jQuery, for example) to float the detail page over Creative Spaces might make it seem slightly better integrated?

RSS

I’d like to see personalised RSS feeds for notebooks and groups. This would allow me, as a slightly more tech-savvy user, to display my Creative Spaces content elsewhere, such as here on Past Thinking, or even in Facebook.

Beta & User Help Forums

If the site is going to be in “beta”, it ought to be described somewhere on the site what this means in layman’s terms. Frankie Roberto suggested needs to be some kind of help forum (like GetSatisfaction). This should be separate from the “Groups” (as it wouldn’t be about museum/gallery content, but about the website itself), that is looked after by the Creative Spaces staff. They can listen to suggestions, and inform people of forthcoming changes. Communication needs to work both ways if there is a community involved.

Conclusion

Creative Spaces is in beta. Things will change as more people use the service, and those who designed it learn how it is used, and where its limitations lie. Any amount of user testing is no match for thousands of people trying to actually use it. It’s the approach Flickr took, and some radical changes have occurred there too over the years (for good or for bad – you can’t please everybody). They listened to their users.

With a better homepage, I think this could really work. Once that is improved, and people can see straight away why they would want to use Creative Spaces, it will gain more users, and begin the evolution of the beta site into a strong, vibrant community of, as the BBC put it “Museum lovers”.

Here’s to its success!

[Update] Mike Ellis’s post on his Electronic Museum blog has a really good conversation going on in the comments. It’s really worth heading over there to catch up on who’s saying what.

, , , , , ,

8 Responses to Creative Spaces – some more thoughts

  1. Pete NewCurator 4 March, 2009 at 4:01 pm #

    My criticism wasn’t that people wouldn’t know what to do, it’s that there’s nothing to it. You reasons for why people would like it could be done on the each of the museum’s own website and any bookmarking tool.

    In fact, I think this could be knocked up in ning.com in an afternoon.

    Alright, it’s still in Beta. But Beta is supposed to show a rough version with bugs to iron out. Not something so thin it’s not going to tell you where it’s going.

    When something worth mentioning happens on Creative Spaces, I’ll talk about it. But think about the fanfare this has got. This has been released far too early.

    • Tom Goskar 4 March, 2009 at 4:17 pm #

      Hi Pete,

      Thanks for your comment.

      It’s true that each museum could do the same on their own sites, but that’s limiting when you want to view collections beyond the bounds of a single institution. Many people may also visit a number of museums in one day, or over time, and want to aggregate stuff together. Not just saving favourite objects, but photos, text, whatever. A more reflexive approach, as it where. That’s how I see it anyway.

      True – much of the functionality could be created in Ning in a few hours. But who has control over that data? How safe would it be with Ning? How could you get data back out in a useable, controlled form? How can you control how well it will perform if the service gets very popular? You couldn’t do the federated search in Ning.

      There are a lot of improvements to be made, that’s for sure. I’ve just uploaded some images into a Notebook and it looks rather ugly (especially how it shows the larger image). But I expect that kind of thing to change from user feedback. Or at least, I hope it will 😉

      I do think that it’s newsworthy, as it is a start. I haven’t seen anything directly museum/gallery-related like this before. I only hope that there is some of the £1.5m left to make improvements, and that some of the constructive criticism levied by members of the museum community (and indeed, early users) will be taken onboard.

      We will have to, as they say, watch this Creative Space (har, har).

  2. Mia 4 March, 2009 at 4:24 pm #

    I think it’s a tough gig for the staff on Creative Spaces – I suspect a lot of the criticism actually relates to the project structures they inherited, not the implementation choices open to them. But the people who write those project bids aren’t around in these museum tech spaces to hear the comments – so who’s left to take responsibility for them?

    ‘beta’ as final bug fixes is a slightly outdated idea that doesn’t allow for open iterations – having a beta like this is a step closer to an agile model that allows for deep change, not just a thin layer of beta testing that can only poke around on the surface or fix bugs.

    I dunno, I’m still thinking through it all. Museum projects need to be more user-centred, and this is both a step forward (even if the geeks have trouble imagining it being useful for other people) and a step backwards (because it’s the same old top-heavy, old-fashioned project structure based around institutional needs).

  3. Pete NewCurator 4 March, 2009 at 6:53 pm #

    “limiting when you want to view collections beyond the bounds of a single institution.”

    As I proved, you could do it all on Google.

    http://newcurator.com/2009/03/how-to-make-creative-spaces-in-5-minutes/

  4. Andrew Larcombe 4 March, 2009 at 7:57 pm #

    ‘fraid I’m with Pete on this one.

    It doesn’t actually appear to *do* much apart from provide some social bookmarking features. Any ideas as to how this budget was spent? In terms of actual functionality, £150k seems generous for a site like this.

  5. Frankie Roberto 4 March, 2009 at 11:25 pm #

    The URL thing is COMPLETELY baffling. I can only suspect that there is some insane political reason behind it, with the people making the decision having no idea as to how the web works.

    I wonder which URL Google will consider the canonical one…

  6. Tom Goskar 5 March, 2009 at 8:57 pm #

    There’s a lot of passion behind this debate, that’s for sure 🙂

    @Pete What have you proved? You’ve made a Google Co-op search for the 9 institutions websites (whole website, not specifically their collections). You’ve suggested people use disparate bookmarking tools to save them, or use disparate social networking sites to do the social bit? Sorry, try again 🙂

    @Andrew But the site does do something, surely? I don’t really want to always be on the defence of CS, and there’s so much to this debate! The site seems to do something for me. I like the idea of the notebooks – it’s like a Tumblr style app in a museum/gallery space. Ticks a box for me. I like the groups idea. Maybe that’s too fluffy for some, but I think it’s a good idea. I just wish there were feeds for everything (and of course, an API).

    @Frankie Yes – the URLs are weird. I hope they sort that. It should be simple enough on a LAMP stack, but it looks Windows-ish to me.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Past Thinking » Blog Archive » Creative Spaces - Social Media and Museums - 5 March, 2009

    […] [Update] I’ve had some more thoughts on Creative Spaces. Feel free to follow this post with my first follow-up. […]