Audio Guide

British Museum
Mentally Friendly

— The problem

The British Museum opened its doors in 1759, instantly becoming a world leading institution. Today they have over eight million objects and an annual visitor rate pushing seven million . In 2009 they launched the first version of a self guided walking tour — the audio guide.

This first version was limited in scope, but successful in assisting visitors. By 2009, with little in the way of updates the experience was suffering. With advancements in digital technology like device speed, indoor mapping, HD video, the museum was eager to iterate on this product; pushing the experience and creating magical visits.

— Project summary

Final product

Android (Lollipop) app deployed to a specialised closed network Android device. Available in 10 languages, including British Sign Language.

My involvement

Areas of responsibility included guiding the design process, team support and health, ensuring a positive client experience


Product Design Director (My role)
Lead Product Designer
Product Designer
Design Researcher
Android Developer
Platform Developer
Quality Assurance

— Project goals

Our objective was to create an experience that is enjoyable and easy, not only for the user but also for the museum's content team.

  1. Develop an intuitive and user-centric product, based on the unique needs of the museum’s visitors
  2. Greatly improve access to the museum’s collection. Striving to cater for the widest coverage of ability levels as possible. Including audio description and British Sign Language
  3. Establish a content management platform and workflow that is easy for the museum team to work with
  4. Create a product that makes it easy to learn about customers' usage. Supporting future content experiments. Providing metrics on customer usage so that the experience can continue to improve

— Primary research

Like a lot of other UK cultural institutions, the museum receives the bulk of funding from the government. With that funding comes a duty to reach as wide an audience as possible. This throws the net very wide when thinking about a target user, accounting for a wide range of ages, abilities and languages. To help understand our end user, their motivations and needs we ran a primary research phase over four weeks.

  1. Understand the type of pre-planning done by customers
    To gain a deeper understanding of the pre-planning process, especially for tourists from Asia. We looked at where customers research, how much time they spend on research and the criteria for selecting what to see at the museum, how they plan their time in London generally and what kind of percentage of time is allocated to sightseeing.
  2. Customer familiarity to audio guides
    Perceived value of an audio guide when visiting an attraction. Positive and negative experiences with self guiding experiences. Lessons to learn from other attractions
  3. Identify the most important tasks
    One of the most important things we did was to identify the user’s goals for the visit. When engaging with an audio guide what is the expected experience
  4. Understand the pains and successes of the current guide
    Understanding the value of existing features to customers after an experience. Identify friction points in the experience. Document customer behaviour during the experience

Research method

The research consisted of in-person qualitative interviews, captured in the Great Hall of the museum. Over the course of the four weeks we interviewed over a hundred visitors to the museum. We engaged translators for Chinese (Mandarin), Korean, and Japanese to work with our team. We offered no incentives for involvement in the research but found it very easy to find visitors willing to talk to us.

Towards the close of each research day we gathered at the museum to run a synthesis session, discussing the findings and adapting the research stimulus. As time went on we were able to create low fidelity mockups of potential interfaces to test also.

— Research insights

After the final synthesis session we had a great base for informing our design. These six insights were some of the bigger themes that emerged.

  1. On average visitors understood and valued what an audio guide could do to improve their trip
  2. But, many visitors believed they were too time poor to make valuable use of an audio guide during the visit
  3. We heard that lots of the tour guides of Asian tourists "dumped" the complete party at the audio guide desk and suggested they get an audio guide in native language
  4. Visitors make up new tours! They are hacking the predefined tours to make new ones that have all the best bits they want to see
  5. We heard from a great deal of visitors that they struggle with the museum maps. Interestingly this included the paper & digital forms
  6. The visitors referred to areas they wished to see by names they understand e.g. The Mummies. And not in the way they are classified by the museum e.g. Egyptians

— Design through to pilot

Design principles

As a team we worked to define a set of design principles to align the wider team around the experience we are striving for and help speed our decisions:

  1. Experience: Interface makes way for the real world experience to shine. The product is augmenting the experience, not owning the experience
  2. Magic: The experience thrills the user by exceeding their expectations. We have a duty to bind the physical and digital into one magic experience
  3. Accessible: The experience is inclusive, legible, simple and clear. It is for everyone, irrespective of ability, knowledge or status. Remove complexity and jargon to make the complicated simple and digestible
  4. Meaningful: We treat all artefacts with the respect. Being conscious of context and humanity involved.

Human–computer interaction

When entering the design process we looked to existing human–computer interaction research to help improve our solutions. For example we referenced Fitts's Law, an empirical model explaining speed-accuracy tradeoff characteristics of human muscle movement. This informed decisions on scale and placement of interface items where we know our user is likely to be focused elsewhere while operating the device.

Design exploration

It was very important for us as a team to be able to explore design options through user testing. We were able to take advantage of the constant stream of visitors to the museum to do ad hoc testing on site throughout the sprints. Therefore we were able to gain confidence in directions quickly.

Design system

As a part of this process we created a living design system, initially small and only serving this product, but ready to grow out to cover the complete museum. The system acts as a home for all components, guidelines and processes. We helped establish a light weight governance process and a new cross department Design Standards team, with defined roles and responsibilities.

Support for support staff

From our initial insights captured when talking to the museum support staff we defined a list of features that would improve their experience with the product. We also found a few more during the pilot weeks.

  1. Integration of NFC technology so staff can easily switch between products and end a visitor’s session
  2. Auto turn-off of wifi usage to limit network congestion in the Museum to accommodate up to 1,000 devices in circulation at any one time.
  3. In-app notifications to communicate to visitors when objects go off display for study, conservation, loan, photography or other reasons.
  4. Auto-scheduling of staggered overnight content updates for devices to ensure visitors experienced the most up-to-date content.

— Impact

The audio guide, was launched in December 2015. The leading business goal was to increase the uptake of audio guide usage from 2% to 4% by the end of 2016 but within six months we had already hit that target. At peak time in June the usage was up by 5% and the museum sold a whopping 67,000 units.