Friday, May 20, 2011

From Prototype to Reality!

In a third post about our Museum's prototyping process, Peter Crabbe, Associate Director of Exhibits and Design, shares how we use observation during prototyping experiences at DCM.

We’ve been prototyping a new large-scale Roller Coaster with tubes and tunnels that children can create and modify in the Museum’s Make It Move Neighborhood. In the last post on “Using Observations to Modify Exhibits,” I wrote about the overall process and what we hoped to find out. Well, we’ve completed our observations. So what did we find out from observing our prototypes?

First, it was obvious from eleven observations, each lasting one half hour, that older children were engaged and challenged by the free-form, tube-building opportunities the prototypes afforded. They stayed with it and tried different configurations. Success! On the other hand, it was just as obvious that the large clear flexible tubes were a little too large for some of the younger ones to manipulate, join, and position. We also observed many younger children still using the simple fixed-wall ramps that have been a staple in the Make It Move Neighborhood since it was first installed in 2001. Based on these observations, the new Roller Coaster area will include some simpler, separate activities for younger children, for example rolling balls down a fixed-ramp configuration to experience how they build speed and momentum. Some of our observations also showed us that our youngest visitors enjoy just holding a single flexible tube in their hands, then dropping a ball down the tube while they peer down inside to track where it goes. So, of course, we’ve made sure that there are small lengths of tube to do just that!

Observations also showed us that visitors sometimes did not intuitively know what to do. Making sure of that “intuitive” feeling is very important in our open-ended environment, and the Museum doesn’t rely much on signage. So exhibit staff added a fixed-ramp element to one of the new components as a more overt inspiration for further engagement. They made this element a different color so it would stand out and be noticed.
Not surprisingly, we read many comments in the field notes that indicated the importance of how the exhibit looks for it to be successful. For example, the unpainted prototypes with hoses hanging from them tended to make people think they were giant vacuum cleaners! The final exhibit components will be finished instead with bright colors. And while we started with cylindrical towers to build on, we’ll be adding some different-shaped towers for more variety – open, angular forms that you can walk between. We even switched to brighter colored balls based on our observations because the wooden balls we used at first were still a bit too hard to see through the transparent flexible tubing.
And the observations are not over even now. When the new components open to the public in June, we’ll do observations again to see if our prototype adjustments worked. So exhibits are never really “done.” Stay tuned…

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