November 15, 2018

accessibility for in-gallery digital experiences, part 1 of 3


Digital interactives have become a common part of gallery experiences. And today’s digital interactives are more than flashy experiments  or after-thoughts — they are integral components to the visitor’s exhibition journey. The best digital interactives are thoughtfully woven into exhibition design from conception with specific curatorial and educational goals in mind.  When digital interactives are approached in that way, they can add a special dimension that makes an exhibition even more memorable and compelling.

Visitors bring high expectations to digital interactives.  Surrounded by web sites, games, and apps that use the latest technologies and up-to-date designs, visitors assume that the digital experiences they encounter in a galley will be just as adept at meeting their needs, including needs around accessibility.  This means that visitors of all kinds must be able perceive, understand, navigate, and interact with digital interactives.

The common standard for evaluating the accessibility of a web product, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), goes a long way in helping to ensure that in-gallery interactives are accessible, but the WCAG do not go far enough given in-gallery interactives’ unique context.

In this series of posts, I’ll

  • articulate the notable differences between websites and in-gallery interactives,
  • identify best practices in accessibility borrowed from other contexts, and
  • synthesizes this information into a practical set of accessibility guidelines for in-gallery interactives.

websites vs digital in-gallery interactives

Digital interactives and web products have a lot in common.  Visitors bring to both their high expectations in terms of design, usability, performance (i.e., speed), and accessibility.  And many best practices that apply to web products also apply to digital interactives. But there are important distinctions between the two.

On the web, the user is in control

When it comes to web products, the user is in control. The user not only controls the device they use to access the web, they also control the physical environment and browser.  To accommodate the infinite combinations of device, environment, and browser, designers and developers have adopted the responsive design approach, which helps ensure that digital products function well regardless of screen size or browser.  

When the user is in control of their device, they also can control what assistive technologies are employed.  They can incorporate screen readers, sip-and-puff devices, earbuds, and microphones. They can increase the font-size on a web page, mute volume, or translate it into their native language.  They can position the device in a way that is physically comfortable – on a lap, table, etc.

With digital interactives, control is transferred to the presenter.  None of those accommodations are available unless the presenter decides to include them.

Getting from here to there

Many web products make browsing easy.  Users can use a navigation menu, often at the top of each page, to get to any other part of a site. Often the menu is accompanied by a search tool. The user can then learn how to use the site, and how to complete their task that brought them to the site in the first place, by wandering through the site without encountering an error or dead-end.

Digital interactives often do not have a menu or any recognizable navigation or means of orienting themselves.  Learning to use the interactive, or even discern the purpose of it, can be what makes the interactive compelling, but it can also lead to frustration for a variety of users.

What do I click on?

Conventional websites and apps employ design patterns that are familiar to users, such as underlines on links, hover states on buttons, breadcrumbs, and search bars.  Users recognize these patterns and it helps them feel comfortable using the site.

What can make digital interactives a joyful experience is the creativity that they can bring to an exhibition, and that can include an imaginative or playful  user interface. This can cause users encountering a touch screen or touch table to wonder aloud “what do I click on?”

The clock is ticking

While users can browse web apps and sites for seemingly infinite periods of time, digital interactives often employ a reset that is triggered after a period of inactivity. This usability feature, which helps ensure that the next user to engage with the interactivity has a fresh start, can unintentionally interrupt users who need additional time to complete a task.

Websites Digital Interactives
User controls device, which can range in size, as well as location, which can be almost anywhere Fixed device and location, controlled by presenter
Flexible user flows mean that there is more than one way to get to a web page User flows are relatively rigid, users complete tasks in a stepwise fashion</td
User Interface (UI) elements conform to conventional design patterns UI elements can be intentionally creative and unconventional
Users may browse sites or apps for limitless periods of time; cookies and other tracking mechanisms personalize return visits Time on device is restricted, with automatic resets triggered frequently; return visits are rare

Read the second part of this series.