Bart Marable, Owner and Designer, Terra Incognita

Bart Marable is an interactive designer that works independently with a variety of teams. He is currently the owner of his own company, Terra Incognita. For years he has been working with interactives since his years as a student. Intending to teach, he actually ended up becoming an interactive designer and pursued his creative outlet. With his background in research and mini projects in history, he has been able to work with interactive storytelling and online exhibits. His specialties include, interactive design, user experience design, information architecture, interpretive design, and museum media.

Making Mobile vs. Traditional Online Exhibits

The entire process itself is fairly similar to the core processes used on any project. What he’s found is that the projects that he works with have a core process that can be adapted to the individual idiosyncrasies of a particular projects. None are the same, but are similar. Bart mentions that these processes are divided into two phases.

  1. Design phase – clarify strategies and requirements. Explore different approaches. From functional to visual graphic design. Outline any tech or design specs.
  2. Production phase- building phase where you implement the design and bring it to life

This core phase can migrate from project to project even though the platform could be different. Website vs. touchscreens and mobile can all be different. He mentioned these experiences are related but not twins, but more like cousins where you have a lot of shared content and experiences. Overall, they can be different depending on platform. They require different approaches to the user experience. The core process usually remains the same.

Is There a Bigger Social Aspect to Mobile?

Bart said it really depends on app. It’s smaller as far as content. What you are looking for in a mobile app, is that its more focused and directed, so it’s very surgical in its approach. The web however, can allow for deeper exploration. There are definitely opportunities for social interaction with mobile around the device. For example, in his National Park app, there is an invitation to be social with a photo taking interactive which can be shared online.

Request for Proposals (RFP’s)

Responding to a RFP is how he undertakes new work. They take a lot of forms from e-mails to extensive designs. He will sometimes be approached by a vendor saying that they have already created a design and feel like they are comfortable with it and are looking for someone to develop it. Or they’ll approach him in a way that’s like – “Here, this is what we want” and Bart will have to develop the concept design. The hardest ones to respond to from a developer and designers perspective is something that is vague or a not clear scope of work. He describes that as being pretty challenging. When ultimately choosing a project to take on, he likes to invest a lot of thought and time in doing it because it involves a lot of resources and time in the end.

Challenges With Certain RFP’s

He mentioned it’s always a risky undertaking  preliminary concept work. He has found that you either hit it out of the park where you understand the concept or you miss the mark. It’s just as likely that it may undermine what designers can bring to the table. It’s about designing something that meets objectives and is a clear and compelling engaging experience. Sometimes it’s clear that the museum knows what they want, other times they say they know they want to do an online exhibition and ask his team to design it. It’s varied. The most successful projects he’s taken are ones that the client has put a lot of thought into the groundwork of what they want, what resources, etc.

Meeting Audience Needs

You want to create experiences that are enjoyable by multiple audience types. Either people come in knowing very little about a subject or are “experts”. He found that the types of experiences that they are looking for are different. Either they want to be told a story, or you deal with an advanced, more knowledgeable user looking for specifics. So the idea is to create an experience that can work on multiple levels and allow for deeper exploration. When talking about search needs, he said that there is this sort of movement towards a less deep solid, monolithic experience. It’s more toward the creation of smaller modular experiences and creating an experience so people can have micro-stories. What you want is to turn a visitor from someone who is to a lean back visitor to a lean forward visitor where they are hooked to the story you are telling. You want to encourage them to search more.

Juggling Needs of Physical and Online Users

In exhibition based websites that have attached physical exhibits, you find there is some pre and post visit emphasis. Exploring beforehand or following up is something that is important to the institutions, but take different philosophies on it. Some put everything from the exhibition online plus extra info and have more content than the physical site would. Some would do the opposite which are more selective of what they would put online. Bart thinks it’s beneficial for visitors to do the former because it’s hard to absorb everything while at a physical museum. Having extra things online can help that. Also, the online-exhibitions can outlast the physical. He made aware of the fact that the mystery of the artifact is something that you can’t replace online. Online exhibits have certain limitations such as this, but so does the physical site and its something that can be hard to overcome.

Evaluation/Testing: Using Internal or External Sources?

Depends on the project. Budget limitations lead to internal staff or visitors to test something. It’s pretty reliable from what he’s found as far as limitations. Beta versions are good to test user interaction and how clear everything is. The testing process can involve going to the field to work on accessibility and to overcome other challenges. They found this guerilla testing more effective rather than something such as focus groups or evaluations. This will depend on the experience but for story based projects he’s found this testing most effective.  It can take weeks to get results. The key is that you don’t want to do it to late. So test early.  Things can come up that you do not anticipate. This goes for user and internal testing as well. Do this during the later part of your design phase.

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Listen to the interview

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  1. cherie says:

    Are website projects like children? You can’t pick a favorite but there aspects of each that make them unique and special. Bart gave some great examples from the National Parks app for iPhones, Nazi propaganda for the Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Lewis and Clark expedition. I’ve spent time on the Monticello site, so I didn’t realize I’d already seen Bart’s work on Jefferson’s Poplar Forrest retreat. I appreciated Bart’s visual presentation that went along with his interview. His comment on “lean back visitors and look forward visitors” resonated in a different way than John Falk’s classifications. I could definitely envision a visitor in either of these postures and was an apt way to think about engagement.

    I also work in the e-learning world (the day job) and we follow a similar development model. Effective development process is iterative. Analyzing, vetting with stakeholders, designing and vetting with stakeholders, developing and vetting with stakeholders, and doing it once more actually fits the ‘agile’ model which has become so popular in the software industry. I also liked his explanation of formal versus informal testing and when each is appropriate. I agree that each has its merit, focus group or simple questions to visitors in a gallery, to garner on the spot evaluation.

  2. juliana says:

    Marable made a seemingly paradoxical statement that’s stayed with me since his talk. On the one hand, the possibilities for educational sites/projects have expanded thanks to increased bandwidth, collaborative social-driven models of communication, and the rise of mobile which allows users to take stories into the environment. On the other hand, despite these major changes in storytelling capabilities, Marable says they still approach all projects in the same way: design first (where they explore different approaches) and production second (implementation of design). True, there’s no way to do production without first doing the design work, but I wonder how much Terra Nova’s approach has changed through the years as new technologies pop up.
    I’d imagine they need to do more front-end studies, to see which route they want to go with a project. If more types of platforms are possible, you have make major choices early on: mobile? touchscreen? website? game or narrative? I wonder if they do any front-end informal testing before doing any preliminary concept work…

  3. ryan says:

    I enjoyed how candid Bart was in his discussion, especially with offering examples of his own work. It was interesting to me to hear that Bart and his team do not really seek out projects, most of their work comes to them. It just goes to show that institutions are aware that the work he does is essential to the visitor experience these days, be it in-gallery or on mobile devices. I also found it interesting that he emphasized BETA testing instead of formative/summative evaluation. I can see benefits to all three but I am definitely in the BETA testing camp. I just feel it is important to get users’ perspectives and responses to an actual product rather than survey questions.

  4. jared says:

    This was an interesting interview, Bart definitely has a lot of knowledge and experience in the field. I think it’s really important to remember Bart’s analogy that different virtual experiences aren’t twins, they’re more like cousins. A kiosk on site will evoke a different experience when the information is presented on the web, and will “require different approaches to the user experience that is appropriate for that platform.” This is something I feel like not everyone keeps in mind, and needs to be planned out. What else really stuck with me was the importance of websites in regards to an exhibition’s history. Bart mentioned how the Lewis and Clark example is for an exhibit that is no longer active, and the only way to still be a part of it is to visit the website. It’s almost as if the websites for these exhibitions are monuments, but are at the same time the only way to still experience it, giving different experiences for those who visited the physical exhibition and those who only viewed the website.

  5. angela says:

    I feel like I’ve learned a lot about what the real world is like for museums developing web / mobile projects from Bart’s experiences and there were a few surprises. One was that he mentioned how some museums would use the web as an extension of physical exhibits while others are STILL conservatively perceiving it as “giving the baby away” and remain selective in what to be made available online. We discussed in class whether museums should let go of some of its control to the public, and his sharing proved that many museums are still trying to hold onto their authority over benefiting the public. That’s a bit sad. Another surprise was that his projects are moving towards smaller modular experiences and telling micro-stories. I think this aligns with the macro trend of how content are developed to meet changing user needs in general, which is to provide more specific and relevant content for better user and possibly learning experiences. It’s encouraging that industry experts like Bart and their clients (museums) are aware of and adapting to the changes to better suit audiences’ needs.

  6. megan says:

    Like others, I found Bart Marable’s interview to be quite interesting, particularly in his discussion of museum approaches to online exhibition design, keeping up with technological developments (flash vs. HTML5) and how to appeal to the needs of both online browsers and searchers.
    His use of microstories or modular components in projects like the National Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Nazi Propaganda site seems to be an effective way to encourage browsers to go deeper and create a self-directed narrative experience. This technique can also successfully appeal to both generalists and specialists (which is no easy task). Teachers especially love a more modular approach–they are short on planning time and can target and sample information from a site or assign portion of it to students in a way that can fit into their curriculum requirements and lesson plans. This type of more flexible content design can almost guarantee that it will be utilized by educators more than a more “monolithic” approach like “Becoming Human” or an overly prescriptive lesson plan unit that is designed for teachers who can’t devote enough classtime to implement this.

    Also thought provoking to me was the mention of testing newer platforms like mobile (the NPS app) to meet accessibility needs. I think that this aspect of mobile, as well as the more “tangible” technologies discussed in Slavko Milekic’s article, “Torward Tangible Virtualities: Tangialities” holds so much potential for meeting the needs of all types of learners, and democratizing content to previously underserved audiences.

  7. Amber Glen says:

    I really enjoyed Bart’s talk. The discussion about RFPs was extremely interesting to me since I had to write a mock-RFP for a class last term. I can imagine that when Bart is presented or looks at an RFP that is vague on the details, it is a real struggle for him to determine what the client wants or what he can do for the client.

    Another aspect of his interview that stood out for me was his comment about complementary online and physical exhibits. Although it seems obvious now, I’d never really though about how long online exhibits last. Many times I think we forget that not everyone who views the online exhibit can see the phyiscal one, so it would make sense to have all the information accessible online for later.

  8. Emma says:

    I thought that the interview with Bart was very interesting and I really liked and appreciated that he used examples from his own experience to discuss his role in creating and designing various exhibitions. In one part of the interview Bart talked about evaluation and specifically “guerrilla testing” and its effectiveness in finding information about how specific users interact with different apps and interactives. I thought his examples of implementing kiosks in the National Zoo, during beta testing, and testing the National Park mobile app on a ranger who was blind (to help incorporate different features to make the app more accessible) were interesting examples of “guerrilla testing”. When I think of testing and evaluation, I automatically think of more formal methods of evaluation (surveys, questionnaires, interviews, etc). I like the idea of “guerrilla testing” and think that it can, in some cases, be much more effective than formal evaluations, especially with interactives like the kiosk Bart mentioned. I think you get a real sense of what visitors and users are thinking and how they are interacting.

    Another thing that Bart talked about, in terms of evaluations, was making sure testing occurs at an early stage. He highlighted and discussed the importance of interactives/apps/online exhibitions being tested and evaluated throughout the design entire process (as opposed to months before the launch). As he said, there are always things that might be unexpected or unanticipated and museums can prepare for these hiccups by frequently testing the prototypes in each stage of the design process. This is something to think about as we design our web development projects.

  9. brian says:

    I think one of Bart’s points that really struck me was that too many museums are trying to create a one platform fits all concept, where the Kiosk is put on the web or the website is the mobile app. I think it was a subtle but important point that each of the various platforms are used in different ways by users.
    It was my intention to link website content of the various sites of the museum outside of the museum via QR codes. Bart’s advise has me rethinking about how people in the remote locations would be using the content they would get on that site. His comments about the social aspects of mobile apps had me further rethinking my initial ideas.

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