I am voraciously hungry for knowledge. My (almost) 40 year old brain has likely had enough of the input, given how hard it is to remember anything these days. Yet, I still keep trying to feed it more, usually in vain.

This hunger is what lead me to try out Tate Modern’s multimedia guide last weekend; I like hearing more about the context in which art happens. I’m a big fan of behind the scenes content too, like ‘Classic Albums‘.

I’ve come close to working on similar products, and when I’ve tried them in the past I felt disappointed. When I used the Dynamo exhibition app in Paris last year, I felt frustrated enough to imagine throwing my phone against the wall. I tried hard to get some benefit from the app by following the instructions, but in the end it just detracted from the gallery visit.

Why write this review?

The Tate guide is much better than what I saw in Paris; but I still learned a lot about what I would and *would not* do in a design. I’m going to try and identify which elements would add something to the gallery experience rather than take away from it. Has anyone in the sector cracked it? Based on two experiences, I’m guessing not. This might change soon, now that there are new possibilities with detecting location and proximity (more on that later).

The multimedia guide

The Tate guide is an android device on a lanyard, connected to a set of headphones.

I rented the device for £4 at a desk outside one of the exhibitions. A helpful guy gave me some instructions which, in my ignorance, I immediately forgot.

Multimedia guide kiosk

Initial experience

I wondered into the busy Poetry and Dream exhibition. I took my first look at the introductory interface (I don’t remember whether it prompted me or not). The audio guide took me through the controls one by one. Have a guess at what these controls do in the image below.

Multimedia guide interface

The toolbar at the top from left to right contains: back, home (the word ‘Tate’), maps, enter codes, and volume. The audio guide told me what each of these did in turn. I’m not sure this was good use of my time: if the icons were clearer (or included wording) I probably wouldn’t have needed to be told what each one did.

Entering codes

My first attempt to get something from the app was also a failure: I punched a code into an app next to a painting to learn something about it. You can see the result of this interaction below: N/A.

My first attempt to use the guide

This error message isn’t the result of a mis-entered number. I was punching in codes that I saw on the panels that weren’t part of the guide. Later on, I spotted the usable codes for selected works, see below. At first though, I was none the wiser: there are numbers on all the panels. The feedback on the device wasn’t helping me find the content.

Usable guide code

It was at this point in the first room, after a couple of failed attempts, that I gave up with the codes. Experience wise, I was giving my attention to the device, and none to the art.

Maps and orientation

My next move was to use the map option below. I tapped the pink area marked ‘Poetry and Dream’. This didn’t get me anything other than the ‘magnify’ icon. I then needed to tap that icon, a small tap target which I missed two or three times, still thinking that the entire pink region was tappable.

Map screen

Below, I had found the correct map. First problem: where am I now? Standing in a smaller room that lead to a larger one, and facing into the gallery, I assumed I was in room 7, when I was in fact in room 1.

Exhibition map

I think by this point I had wondered into room 2. I started to hunt around for the works 586, 583, and 102. I realized later that I had completely ignored the other art, pretty much everything in room 1. Thankfully though, I started to get something back from the guide.

Adding context to art

The Fig Leaf, Francis Picabia

In the above picture I’m listening to audio about the ‘The Fig Leaf’. The touch target for this content about this painting was too small (it’s the 583 circle in the map above; much smaller than my thumb!). Once I got there the guide gave me a rich background to the painting. It also showed me:

  • another painting that influenced this one
  • the original painting on the canvas (this work was a protest against censorship of the original)
  • an image of the technical diagram that the artist was accused of copying

Its at this point that I start to feel like the £4 might be worth it. Small thing: I couldn’t take a zoom in to the extra images, or rotate the device for a closer look. Now that I was in the swing of things, I also learned about Smith’s ‘The Home of The Welder’, shown below.

The Home of the Welder

Hearing this artist and seeing him at work added a rich layer to the gallery experience. Smith would sometimes throw random objects onto the floor of his workshop and see what might be nice to weld together. The thought of the artistic possibilities in mess, randomness and chaos sparked my imagination.

Highlighting details

A few rooms later (you’ll see in the maps that few of the works have guide content) I encountered a new depth to the guide. It could tell me more about specific details in the works. You can (just about!) see this in the image below.

Lightning with Stag in its glare, Joseph Bueys

This wasn’t all plain sailing though: some of the objects weren’t in the same place as shown in the guide. You could manage without the screen shown above as the excerpts were quite short. I would have just reduced it to one clip about the objects. I’m not a fan of interaction for the sake of it – see Bret Victor’s Magic Ink.

The human alternative

Later on in the visit, my wife and I happened to stand next to a guided tour. For a few moments we enjoyed the way the tour guide contextualised the art for everyone. In thinking about which I preferred (the multimedia guide or the human), I realized I’d like the freedom to move around the gallery in my own time without a crowd, but with the depth and passion of a human showing me the objects. The audio content in the multimedia guide was useful, but it didn’t quite have the enthusiasm of a human guide. This is presumably because it’s scripted, and read by a narrator.

Something else occurs to me about the social aspect of putting on the headphones and using the guide. Listening (and not looking at the screen) increased my immersion in the exhibition. It provided insulation from the swathe of tourists, but it did mean my wife and I drifted apart. I wasn’t about to talk to anyone with those headphones on.

In summary…

Although some of the above points may seem like nitpicking, the ‘death by a thousand cuts’ principle applies to this product as much as any other. By analysing smaller details we can understand how they add up to pleasure or pain. I saw a lot of possibility in this product; here’s what I’d keep and what I’d change.

The Good

  • Immersion is *everything*

    Having the headphones on was a new experience for me in a gallery, rich with possibility. I want a mixture of context, sound design (like Radiolab), and music (Brian Eno’s 77 million paintings comes to mind). Relying on audio alone allowed my other senses to focus on the art itself.

  • Content
    The content did add something, particularly as a replacement for staring at labels. I sometimes find myself reading labels before I’ve had a chance to take in the art. I would like the audio to take a few more risks, and be a bit less formal.
  • Lanyard
    One thing struck me using the rented device: if I had to use my own phone it would have been in and out of my pockets every few minutes. With the device hanging around my neck for the occasional glance (when prompted) it was far more convenient to look at.

The Bad

  • Finding the content
    Neither the map or the codes worked well at first; I saw others struggle with this. This might be solved by new technology like iBeacons or Estimote (which we’ll be playing around with at clearleft). We might be able to detect location and proximity in a way that reduces unnecessary interaction.
  • Navigation
    The menu is something of a guessing game. I’d use more generic icons that people will recognise in an instant.
  • Touch targets
    Apple’s Human Interface Guidelines recommend a minimum size for our fingers to tap on. I’d refactor the interface to meet these by making the targets much bigger than the icon itself (e.g. on the map). This should be far less error prone.
  • Too object focussed
    The guide had some content that contextualised the exhibition, rather than the objects themselves. I wanted more of this: how is x movement connected to y? Did these artists know each other? Why did the curator put these together?
  • Attention cost / benefit
    Far too much of my attention went to the device instead of the art. I would use it again, but only because I now know how to use it to get to the good stuff. I wouldn’t, for example, recommend it to a family member.

Thoughts on the future

I left the Tate Modern inspired to think about how I wanted this to work. It’s an area rich with creative and technological possibility. I wanted more immersion, less formality. If the curators will allow it, the experience could be an artistic endeavour – think music that reacts to your location.

Most of all I wanted freedom from the tyranny of the device. If iBeacons works well, the device could detect when I’m standing in front of a work, and automatically provide me with audio. No screen distractions or interactions unless they have something to add.

If the effort to get to the right content could be minimised (by something like iBeacons) – then my final thought is that the user be offered optional layers of experience within the application. This would allow the visitor some say in what kind of experience they want: educational, immersive, or both. Perhaps map physical modes to each layer:

  • Audio context
    Audio guides to the content, triggered by the room you’re in or the work you’re standing in front of. I would broaden what is currently considered content. For example: I’d like to hear a conversation between two people about the works, more informal Q+A, less lecture (just like a guided tour does).
  • Related works / images / video
    Hold up the device at any point in the experience to access visual media that’s related to what you’re looking at
  • Music + ambient sound design
    Music from the same era or movement, like minimalism, could add context. Or, enhance the emotional experience in the same way a film director uses an instrumental soundtrack.

Better experiences with art and culture in a physical space seem just around the corner; ones that inspire, educate, and immerse, all at once. If we can focus on the experience of use, rather than the technology itself, we could make something wonderful in the near future.

This was originally posted on my own website.