Title:Lessons Learned from WebExhibits: Practical Suggestions for Good Design
Authors:Michael Douma
Publication:MW2000: Museums and the Web 2000

What makes a good online exhibit? Good content, a narrative theme, intuitive navigation, and inviting graphics. The online “exhibit” has recently emerged as a highly successful motif -- favored over the “virtual museum,” and “online magazine” -- and is a vital component of any successful museum site; but what, specifically, makes them good? We have performed an extensive survey of online offerings, and have identified many common qualities of successful exhibits. Our efforts stem from development of the “WebExhibits Catalogue,” a new -- and very successful -- resource for finding high quality exhibits on the internet. Our catalogue links directly to exhibits within other sites, on topics including arts, sciences, and popular culture. We currently index over 500 exhibits and estimate that our survey includes more than half of all substantive English language exhibits. This index differs from other indexes on the internet because it is focused on illustrated educational exhibits, not just references. Some of the exhibits are from large organizations like the National Gallery, National Geographic or PBS, while others are smaller, little-known exhibits from various organizations. We find that visitors respond very favorably to sites that offer a lot of narrative guidance simultaneously with great ease of navigation. With advances in bandwidth and interactive capabilities like JavaScript, Flash, streaming media, and DHTML, web sites can be as interactive as CD-ROM\'s promised to be a few year ago. In fact, by dynamically interfacing with server-side databases, web sites can be more dynamic than CD-ROM. Despite these, advances, however, it is our experience that the most important quality of an exhibit (besides content, of course) is ease of navigation. This is more important than \"cool graphics,\" and certainly more important than any animations or sounds. It is vital that a visitor be immediately able to perceive the conceptual structure of the exhibit: what is available, and where information is located. Moreover, since visitors have become apprehensive about clicking uncertain hyperlinks, it is vital that visitors always be able to anticipate exactly what a link will bring. Our paper will draw from our extensive catalogue of exhibits to illustrate the shared qualities of good exhibits, including specific (cost effective) recommendations for new authors. For example, technologies that improve navigation are JavaScript/DHTML pop-up hierarchical menus that jump visitors to other sections of a site without cluttering the screen. We will also focus on a number of general subjective aspects of good exhibit design, such as creating a succinct, yet compelling story line to pull the visitor through the exhibit.