The Metrics Museum

(Reading time: 4m, 58s)

List member Nomi Dayan responded to last week’s look at MoMA’s website (shared with her permission):

Kyle, examining Moma's website is interesting. Some of my thoughts: -- I see why the simplicity is refreshing, but is it possible the website is TOO simple? It doesn't reflect Moma's importance as one of the top museums in the world. Compare to MET website …

Today, let’s look at the Met’s website.

In subsequent emails, Nomi added more detail, saying that she felt the Met’s website was more memorable, and that it did a better job of communicating the museum’s stature as a world-class art museum. She also said that the Met’s website made her want to visit the museum more.

Let’s dig in.

Do the things that motivate us also motivate others?

If you visit the Met’s site, the first thing you probably notice is the video background that shows the museum’s grand interiors and impressive collection. People are drawing from the artwork, talking about the pieces on display — there’s a painting by Van Gogh.

There’s a lot to love about this website. I gushed last week about how much I loved MoMA’s outwardly simple navigation, and I could do some gushing about the Met’s site, too. Looking at that video, I wish I still lived in the city.

But then I have to remind myself that I’m just one person.

I’ve been a designer and New Yorker for the past 14 years or so. That’s a very limited perspective — and it’s also a rather inside perspective. It’s easy for designers to forget that regular ol’ people use and view websites in ways very different from their own. It’s just as easy for decision-makers within an organization to forget that, too. For example, we may think people will appreciate an “innovative” design when 99% of them just want to complete a task or transaction and get on with their lives, thank you very much.

So, when I evaluate a website, I have to set aside my own feelings and preferences and rely on behavioral data (preferably) and, when that’s not available, best practices.

Let’s go back to that feeling Nomi and I have that the Met’s website makes us want to visit the museum. How can we know if the design makes other people feel the same way? How can we know if the design actually helps get people up out of their chairs and into the museum?

The most immediate way to tie the design to visitation would be to look at how many people are buying tickets online. More precisely, how many people take that first step to buy a ticket — clicking on the link to buy. You wouldn’t want to look at actual ticket sales because then you’d be adding other variables into the mix, like the ticketing page and checkout functionality.

If the goal is to understand how the homepage design impacts people’s desire to visit the museum, you’d just want to look at what they do next.

This is where historical data becomes so important — It’s very hard to measure without context.

Let’s imagine 3% of homepage visitors click to purchase tickets from the homepage. Is that good or bad? We don’t really know unless we can test alternatives.

What happens if we replace the video with (God help us) a carousel? What happens if we replace it with a static image? How do people browsing on phones behave differently in each of these scenarios? What about first-time visitors? And so on.

There are people at the Met thinking about these things. I can see they have Crazy Egg installed on the museum’s website, and no doubt they’re studying analytics carefully. The website we see today is an ongoing experiment.

We can’t see the results of that experiment, so we fall back to best practices.

And it is interesting to look at the homepage in terms of best practices because there is some questionable stuff going on here.

For example, look at that button in the middle of the video that says “Plan your visit”:

The Met website’s video background with ghost button in the middle

If the video is supposed to motivate people to visit, how many people click on that button? It’s pretty low contrast against that video background. I’d love to learn how many people are clicking on that button. And then I’d love to see how many people would click if it were just a button that looked more like a button — a color block — rather than small text with a rectangular line around it.

When you hover your cursor over it, it actually becomes readable:

The Met’s video background with button in hover state

There’s a little animation when you hover that looks cool, but I’d bet dollars to donuts that that button would see more clicks if they abandoned the cool animation and just made the thing look like a button with better contrast. Don't forget that there is no hover state on mobile devices. The many, many people visiting on phones will only see the ghost button.

Button contrast may seem like a minor detail, but these are the kinds of design decisions that can distort assessments of how a significant design element like that video background is influencing people’s behavior. You want to understand if more or fewer people are clicking to buy tickets or plan their visit based on how the video makes them feel, not based on whether they have perfect vision and can see the button text.

Scroll down and you’ll see a row of images that you can click through:

Row of images from The Met’s website

Is this a carousel?! Have they committed the ultimate sin?

Yes and no. I’m glad this is here — it gives me a chance to temper my condemnation of carousels.

Perhaps the most important thing here is that the row of images doesn’t automatically rotate — the user is in control. The images at both ends of the row are cut off, which is a good indication to the visitor that there’s more to be seen. The one thing that might be lacking here is that there’s no indication of place — You can keep cycling through the collection endlessly. To respect the visitor’s time and attention, it’s better to give people an indication of where they are and when they’ve seen everything there is to be seen.

Again, everything depends on how peopel are acutally using (or not using) the design. Are people actually clicking through that row of images? Are they clicking to view individual exhibitions? How does the behavior compare to other ways of showing what's on view at the museum? Knowing these things is how you would measure the effectiveness of this approach.

Measure the cost to the visitor

Here’s a different way to compare MoMA and the Met’s websites: Cost to the user. We forget that loading data onto a phone actually costs some people money. Think of a tourist browsing on their phone with a limited data plan — or perhaps someone local whose only computer is their phone and can’t afford unlimited data.

A US citizen visiting the Met’s website who is on a post-paid data would pay 7 cents to visit the site. That same person visiting MoMA’s website would pay 51 cents. The Met scores some points here for designing for accessibility in terms of cost. How much does your museum’s website cost these kinds of visitors?

Measure, Experiment, and Test

These are some things I think about when looking at the Met’s website.

The important thing, in my view, is using data (preferably) and best practices (as needed) to try to assess the impact of design decisions on different kinds of people in different contexts. That’s how I try to overcome my own biases and personal preferences to create a more valuable experience for both the visitor and the organization.

Thanks for reading,

Kyle