Website usability testing for the Clyfford Still Museum

This post is based on a report produced for Spellerberg Associates by Amanda Moon and Marian Oman. Their research was conducted at the School of Information at the University of Texas at Austin as part of a usability course taught by Randolph Bias.

CSM Homepage, Sept 2014
Clyfford Still Museum homepage, Sept 2014

The Clyfford Still Museum in Denver, Colorado is a single-artist museum dedicated to the American master abstract expressionist painter. The Museum’s collection contains nearly 95 percent of the artist’s total output—more than 3,200 artworks—and houses the complete Still archives of sketchbooks, journals, and notebooks.

At the beginning of a website redesign project, we undertook a usability evaluation of the Museum’s website. Designing this evaluation to assist in identifying key areas of focus, our primary objectives were to:

  • Better understand the mental models and expectations of website’s users;
  • Identify the most salient usability shortcomings of the current site design;
  • Offer recommendations for improving the overall user experience;
  • Create a benchmark for any future usability testing.

We identified key use cases and goals by consulting with Museum stakeholders and conducting a heuristic site audit.

SitemapClick to enlarge. Pre-redesign sitemap, produced by Sarah Wambold.

We then designed and conducted two evaluation activities:

  1. A card sort protocol generated insight into visitors’ mental models of site content and identified ways to improve the website’s information architecture and navigation;
  2. Three persona-based test scripts identified the most salient usability challenges presented to website visitors.

Twelve individuals participated in the evaluation, which was conducted at the University of Texas at Austin.

Card Sort

We narrowed 40 words from the existing website navigation down to 26 words that best represented the content. Each user then sorted these words into named categories using language of his or her own devising. They were encouraged to define no fewer than three and no more than five categories.

This activity was conducted using the the browser-based software program Optimal Sort, the results from which were used to generate a similarity matrix showing the percentage of participants who agree with each card pairing.

CSM Matrix
Words with highest levels of similarity are located adjacent or near one another. Directions and hours, for example, were grouped together by 100 percent of participants.

Task-based Test Session

User personas function as lenses through which to evaluate the site; each persona represents a distinct segment of the target audience and provides a framework for understanding that user segment’s typical goals and tasks.

We tested a broad swath of the site by testing three different user persona “paths,” which allowed us to test more tasks across all session types than would be reasonable to include in a single user’s test session. The three user personas we developed for this evaluation were:

The Art Enthusiast

You’re an art enthusiast living in Denver. Even though the Clyfford Still Museum has been open for a few years, you’ve never visited. You decide you’d like to check it out this Saturday. You will take your 7-year-old daughter and you will buy tickets online.

The Researcher

You’re a graduate student in Art History. You’re writing your thesis on some of Clyfford Still’s contemporaries, and you think some of their letters to Still may be housed in the Clyfford Still Museum’s archive.

The Educator

You’re a 5th grade teacher in Denver. You want to bring your class to visit the Clyfford Still Museum. Ideally, you’d like to schedule the field trip for a Tuesday morning next month.

Participants were assigned for their relative similarity to the user personas. For instance, the participants who completed “the educator” tasks were actually teachers.

We read each participant the persona-based scenario to which they had been assigned, then directed them to the website. They were asked to complete the tasks while “thinking aloud,” which provided insight into their thought processes as they moved through the website.

After the tasks were completed, the moderator asked several open-ended questions to identify any additional user needs or expectations that were not met by the website.

From Research to Redesign

This research revealed that improving the site’s navigation structure and consistency, creating more connections between pages, and increasing the image-to-text ratio throughout the site would be essential in the creation of a more user-friendly experience for Museum visitors.

This study provided was followed by additional phases of evaluation, including with Museum stakeholders, which tested the assumptions we’d made and the conclusions we’d arrived at. The entire process informed a website redesign, which launched in October 2014.

Posted October 2014

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