How Does One Wall Become Good UX Design During a Pandemic?

It was the beginning of 2021 when a manager warned us that a new traveling exhibition, opening in two weeks, was expected to be a hit with our guests. And while that would normally be more than welcome, the warning came ten months into the COVID-19 pandemic — a once-in-a-century crisis featuring the requirements of social distancing, stringent cleaning procedures, and mask policies which we strictly enforced.

We were five months into the routine after reopening with these guidelines, and my responsibilities had changed dramatically. And while I’d been a part-time worker before the pandemic, many of my new coworkers used to be full-time workers at this museum. It was a testament to their dedication that they remained onboard, patiently waiting for their jobs to return. Me? I was just good enough to stand among their ranks and even teach them a thing or two about what we did on the floors.

It was this environment of new peers, plus a smaller staff, that encouraged me. At the time, I was pursuing my certificate in UX design, and had already begun to spot the parallels between this coursework and my freelance commissions as a tabletop RPG game designer. So when this manager warned us, and said he would be open to any of our suggestions as frontline staff, I immediately connected the field of exhibition design to user experience. Before I left work that day, I spoke to him about my current courses and how I thought they would benefit us as an institution.

He was immediately interested, and said that he would provide some pictures of the incoming exhibit for me to analyze. We had our meeting less than a week later, during which I pointed out many specific details that only a UX designer could point out. It was during this meeting that I outlined a user experience pain point that could compromise our new capacity restrictions:

Imagine that you have a large, square room. On one of the walls, you have two entryways, each in the corners. As laid out by both our team and the original designers, the primary entrance to the exhibit will be on the right corner, while the main exit will be on the left.

Now imagine the user experience. You’re a parent with a very young child, but you’ve heard that your local children’s museum is opening up the perfect exhibit for them. And lately, they’ve been cooped up. No, seriously, there’s been a pandemic. Seriously cooped up.

You arrive. You go directly to the third floor, via elevator or stairs. But no matter what path you take directly to this exhibit, you will always end up in front of the left archway. It’s not your fault; that’s just how the building was designed! But while you, the parent, might be able to figure out which corner is the designated entrance to the exhibit, your tiny child has already spotted colorful attractions and interactive activities. And they don’t know the purpose of stanchions! They’re already waddling under the ropes and heading in! Their parents follow, and as a result, your entire group has entered this room through the exit by accident.

A sketch of the floor plan in this scenario. The area where children are distracted while parents evaluate a course of action is labeled as the Point of Determination.

Now normally, this is perfectly acceptable. Our guests are commonly free to roam about the science center in whatever directions they choose. But nothing about the COVID-19 pandemic is normal. At reduced capacity, the room can only hold about 40 people at a time, and over the course of a busy day, hundreds want to go in. We cannot afford to let our guests enter the room via the exit when we have a queue at the entrance.

But there’s a shockingly simple solution: block the view.

All you need, in order to solve this user problem, is a wall, designed so that a person can leave the exhibit by simply walking around it. Yes, it’s a few extra steps, and the exit is harder to see inside the exhibit. But the true purpose of this wall is so that young learners aren’t distracted. At their early stage of development, a black wall doesn’t capture their attention. In this new scenario, they instinctively move past the left aperture, and so, their parents follow. During those crucial seconds, the adults will identify the signage for the exhibit and determine the correct entrance. They will bring their kids to the line, and there they will wait until there’s room for them to enter the exhibit safely.

During my meeting, I noted several other important observations from the perspective of UX design. I highlighted the viewpoints of both our guests and the frontline workers who would be stationed with the exhibit during peak periods, watching the capacity and cleaning exhibit elements. I also chose to respect that not every idea I outlined in this meeting would come to fruition; from start to finish, there are about four phases to bringing in a traveling exhibit, and this meeting of mine technically outside of that workflow. But I knew everything I said was important, and it was easily the most productive meeting I’d ever had with the organization.

Fast forward to opening weekend for the exhibit.

Right away, we learned that everybody on staff had grossly underestimated the hype. Or perhaps our marketing team grew stronger despite a six-month closure in 2020. Or some other factor, such as pandemic fatigue. Either way, this new exhibit was swamped on the first day. On the fly, my managers built a socially distanced line that stretched into the neighboring exhibit. Frontline workers then implemented time limits on every group that entered. It was hectic, and surprising, and nerve-wrecking, and intimidating, all because of this pandemic.

But we had that wall.

A close-up sketch of the installed wall, and the path of people walking past the exit.

Throughout the day, this new wall redirected our guests away from the exit and to the proper entrance, because their children’s curiosity could not be satisfied by a black wall. And in the weeks to follow, as employees learned about my sudden involvement in the process, I was thanked by many, many coworkers for making their jobs even a little bit easier. Indeed, now that they didn’t have to watch the exit for wayward guests, they could actually engage with young learners at the various exhibits inside the new gallery!

In UX design, we’re trained to design with equity in mind. So when you design a solution to solve a big problem, you tend to discover later on that it solved a lot of smaller problems as well. Will we be perfect at this? Probably not. But when I spotted a note left behind by one of the kids in the exhibit, thanking my coworker for her help and company, I knew I helped make that happen.

Sometimes, that’s all the difference.

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Nicolas Hornyak is a writer and UX designer. You can check out his UX portfolio at nicolashornyak.pro or his written works at nicolashornyak.com.

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Nicolas Hornyak

Nicolas Hornyak

Nicolas Hornyak is a writer and UX designer. You can check out his UX portfolio at nicolashornyak.pro or his written works at nicolashornyak.com.

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