The Bell Museum, Minnesota’s official natural history museum and planetarium, celebrated a grand reopening in a new building on the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus in 2018. To navigate the new building and exhibit spaces, the Bell Museum launched a mobile guide in 2019 that serves a wide variety of visitors from the local community. This meant providing an end-to-end app experience in multiple languages for English, Spanish, Hmong, and Somali-speaking visitors as well as accessible Audio Description tours for guests with low vision or no vision.
The Bell Museum’s mobile guide prioritized serving all of their audiences, equally to ensure equitable access to museum interpretation. This approach meant that Spanish, Hmong, and Somali interpretation all were at the forefront at every aspect of the project from the content, software, way-finding and overall project goals and management. Over 36 points of interest throughout the museum, visitors can experience carefully crafted audio bringing them on a wondrous journey through space and time, from the origin of life to the amazing diversity of nature. Ulimately the interpretation encouraged visitors to look, listen and learn, and engaged visitors who are blind or have low vision with detailed visual descriptions of the newly built exhibits.
Improving accessibility for guests who are blind or have low vision meant updating CultureConnect’s products and code base to meet the latest accessibility standards in order to work smoothly with a wide-variety of personal devices and screen readers (e.g. HTML hierarchy in the code to creating alt-text editors in the CMS as a standard feature for all application projects). However, the back-end technology was only part of the solution. Accessibility for all also meant adopting best practices for font sizes and color contrast on the front end as well as quality alt-text for media and aria labels for navigational elements.
In terms of way-finding, the traditional numbered stops and keypad solution for navigation was not an option for reasons including constraints in the design of the exhibits and galleries, which also made location triggering technology sub-optimal. Instead, other traditional way-finding features and more subtle cues were employed. For sighted visitors, the app’s color scheme altered to match the wall colors of each thematic area, the stops did have numbers that corresponded to both digital and printed maps, and every stop was displayed with a photograph of the space as a clear visual cue.
For users who have low or no vision, the alt-text of the images and audio description embedded in the audio places the user within the galleries. The Bell conducted extensive user testing, and the feedback they got was that the users didn’t want to interrupt the flow of the audio with directional navigation that was often difficult to follow anyway.
Fine-tuning the user experience, particularly around way-finding and accessibility features, required two rounds of user testing. As the mobile guide is intended for guests who are blind or have low vision, it was essential that this community validated the efficacy of the mobile guide on-site at the museum. This meant testing both content (text, media, alt-text, audio descriptions etc.) and software (UI, UX, aria labels, code hierarchy etc.) and then iterating as needed.
Because of this project, CultureConnect has been able to create and share some accessibility best practices through online guides for museums – particularly those with only non-technical staff, who cannot afford consultants, and/or must rely on DIY research and implementation – so they can follow in the path of the Bell Museum.
In addition to distributing the mobile guide to visitors on their own devices as a web app and through the App Store and Google Play, the Bell Museum also published the mobile guide in offline mode on iPods for visitors to borrow as needed. Providing multiple options for access also helped reach the widest possible audience.
Case Study: https://cultureconnectme.com/bell-museum/