The museum had a set of ideas (value propositions) that were uncovered in high level marketing research, and our mission was to evaluate how they might fit into the museum experience and if it would reate value for their visitors.

We prioritised a set of journeys:

  1. The 'Welcoming' experience
  2. An educaitonal expeirence with via a new public storage facility
  3. Wayfinding and guiding visitors through the building

Immediately we felt that it was a perfect opportunity for us to crack out the "Desktop Walkthrough" method to gain insight about physical spaces.

We've omitted specific details about the museum and the initiative as it's heavily under NDA, but we sitll wanted to share our learnings about this powerful method. We hope that you can take learnings of what worked well, but also those that didn't go to plan so that we all can evolve and grow the practice.

This post covers:

  • What is a "Desktop Walkthrough"?
  • Why did we use it?
  • Planning the study
  • Building the model
  • Facilitating the session
  • Key learnings

What is a Desktop Walkthrough?

It’s a service prototyping method that simulates a person's journey in a physical space using a physical model. It's purpose - like all prototypes- is to create visual stimulus to discuss an intended experience before investing time and money into building the real thing.

As it's a model of a real space, we can investigate all aspects of an experience. This means we're not just looking at a standalone kiosk or ticketing machine, but every component that makes a service the museum provides, including how museum staff greet and assist visitors.

It's valuable for internal alignment with stakeholders as it supports decision making, and triggers an internal checklist of things required to enable the experience. It's equally powerful as research stimulus for existing and potential visitors to the space as it enables the user to embody themselves in a very tangible way.

The outcome of the method is to elicit attitudes and let the user explore different paths and actions they'd take and why. It's the sense of playing in a safe space that helps us uncover what's of value and if not, why?

As with all research, this helps us make calculated risks in decision making: to go ahead, to evolve or to trash the idea.

For further reading, please check out TiSDD, this brief guide, and our Method Card.

Why did we use it?

As there were previous research activities that uncovered what they wanted to do, our focus was to uncover how they could be brought to life into the museum's space.

This type of study immediately calls for Desktop Walkthroughs, but physical models can take a long time to create. Our first question in determining the research method was: “Can we gain the same quality of insight without it?”

There's more common methods such as 1:1 Interviews, however the challenge with this is that it can be too hypothetical. Even having flat images as stimulus would still force the participants to hold a lot in their minds around moving in an imaginary space for an hour long session.

Additionally, as every human has unique mental models, the space could be interpretted in different ways. We needed to keep all participants on the same page of our intended experience - not only to reduce bias, but also support the participant's cognitive load.

Furthermore, with designing any experience we are cognizant of diversity, inclusion and accessibility. Whilst our focus was not focused soley on these areas, in all our research activities we do our best to respect and consider it. We believed that having a physical model would encourage open communication around ability, mental health, race and privilege.

Not the only method...

Through the process in planning, we realised that there were different altitudes we were to investgiate: the high level service we were going to provide, but also the finer detail of key touchpoints and interaction moments.

A Desktop Walkthrough helps us answer the former by wrapping everything up into a wider experience but we realised that we still needed to evaluate the latter. We believed to get the best out of the Desktop Walkthrough was to combine it with other prototypes which served as a "zoomed-in view", e.g. what content would the digital screen contain? What kind of object am I looking at in the museum?

Having both high level and detailed view enabled us to understand holistically the relationship and interactions between human, digital and physical as a visitor moves around a museum space.

Having both high level and detailed view enabled us to understand holistically the relationship and interactions between human, digital and physical as a visitor moves around a museum space.

We decided that the most effective way to answer research questions was to create a full interactive space with different components for the participant to engage with. This was our Mixed Methods which combined a modeled future environment, screen displays, cards and digital experiences participants could hold in their hands.

Our aim was to create a sense of playful interactivity to remove boundaries, create trust and expose vulnerabilities in a safe environment.

Planning the study

Once we finalised the research strategy (purpose, research objectives and methodology) it was time to plan the specific details of the study.

We followed our typical research planning process: identifying the detailed research questions we wanted to answer, determinig how we'd get them answered, adding to the discussion guide, testing the test and iterating.

However, for our Desktop Walkthrough there were a few additional considerations in our detailed planning.

Creating a safe space for our participants as they imagined themselves in a physical space meant that it was critical to respect representation. We not only wanted to ensure that people respected by giving them a choice of how to self identify via an avatar.

Choosing an avatar...

Many people are familiar with LEGO and as it's synonymous with play, we believed it make participants feel comfortable with touching so it was a natural choice for the participant avatar. We opted for a LEGO set called Everyone is Awesome which removes many of the physical characteristics of the figure.  

This meant it was still recognisably human, but participants could select any colour they wished - even purples or greens.

This self-selection aimed to get the participant invested in the study (Endowment Effect) and encourage play and by letting them choose how they'd be represented.

This self-selection aimed to get the participant invested in the study and encourage play by letting them choose how they'd be represented.

Choosing what to model...

Our first step was to get the architectural floor plans so we understood what we had to work with as a foundation.

We knew a builk of the study was around the welcoming experience and wayfinding to different areas - so the Foyer was at the core of the model.

We sketched out what we assumed we'd need to incorporate, and worked in parallel between the detailed prototypes (e.g. visual displays, staff reception areas, signage, digital prototypes), each time bringing the zoomed-out view back into the model and the wider context into the detailed prototypes.

Through several iterations of this, we determined our boundaries of the model. Our final model consisted of the Foyer, Cafe, lifts and stairs with a door into a wider area where we could rely on our other prototypes.

Building the model

In terms of material, we felt the museum may want to keep the model so we chose a durable 6mm white A2 board as the base and 4mm white card for the walls. Both typically available at craft stores, we used Hobbycraft.

Scaling the model...

Whilst scale is important with desktop walkthroughs to ensure the environment matches the dimensions of the real world space, there was no need to be millimetre accurate.

We scaled up the architectural plans to match the scale of the avatars we were using. We printed the plans and traced it out in pencil on the wider board that represented the floor.

For walls, the 4mm thick wall card was measured for length and we set a height of 7cms. We left 0.5cm at the bottom that were folded out so we could tape it down to have it stand vertically on its own. We used a glue stick and secured it to the base with matte "Scotch" tape for extra strength without a reflective surface.

For long walls (more than 15cms long) the cardboard was prone to warping so we cut the base fold in half and folded them either direction to create stability on both sides of the vertical surface.

We wanted to ensure that participants would understand it was a wall, but it wouldn't obstruct their view when standing over the model.

Filling the environment...

We made tables and chairs from LEGO pieces to simulate a cafe, seating areas, other visitors and museum staff. We were careful in the selection of representation of people - aiming to be vague in any depiction of age, gender, ethnicity, etc.

For the other components that we were testing: digital displays, ticketing, kiosks, signage, signage, we used the same wall card material. We scaled down screenshots of our prototypes proportionately to create a zoomed-out view and glued and taped everything together.

Facilitating the session

Testing the test...

Even with the simplest of research we like to prototype our research so that we can catch issues before we test with expensive test participants.

Originally our plan was to say very little to introduce the model and its contents with the aim to reduce skewing the study. However the model left too much for interpretation and when we clarified we realised we were subconsciously implying what was 'important' for them to notice.

Additionally, because the screenshots of the other prototypes didn't match precisely, our participants were confused when transitioning from our zoomed out view to our other prototypes.

We updated the discussion guide to add a broad introduction to the model, being upfront about all aspects of the space and a narrative of how they got to the museum in order to give enough context for the participant.

We also iterated the model to be more explicit: ensuring that all components visually matched our prototypes to help participants connect the dots.

As we left choosing an avatar to be more open, we sensed participants needed more reassurance and 'permission' than anticipated. We updated our guide to give an explicit invitation to start to choose their avatar and play.

Setting up the space...

There were a lot of components to the study, we had a large space where people could walk around to the different exhibits and play.

We laid all the stimulus in a sequential order, but ensured that if we needed to clarify anything or if we were over-running we could cut out the lowest priority items we could easily hop to the next task.

This research was run during COVID, we ensured that we had the right kind of sanitary and PPE equipment as they entered the space. We ensured the first thing we would do is to ask whether or not they want us to wear masks, offering new masks and making it clear we are sanitising all the equipment by doing it in front of them, etc.

Recording the sessions...

As we wanted to create an intimate session so that people felt comfortable to express their true feelings, we wanted to have just 1 facilitator in the room.

This meant that we didn't have a note-taker so were a bit reliant on recordings. Typically voice will suffice to capture the observations; however, as this is also about how someone moves in a physical space, we set up video recording pointed at the model via Quicktime on a laptop. This enabled us to see how people move around, interact and point at different things.

On the day...

As going to a gallery or museum is often a shared experience, our real participants on the day were actually set up in pairs.

This served as a check-in-balance of their thought process, understand how different personality types impact the experience and how decisions in a space are made between different people but also helped create an open and safe dialogue between each other.

We kept things friendly, open and conversational, encouraging them to talk toeach other about what they would do and why - but also let them challenge their own perspectives.

Whilst this also meant that we often would run over time (as per usual), we gleaned so many useful insights that helped us understand what kind of experiences were useful to some people and not others.

Different faciliators...

As very different facilitators - Alex and I found that we were able to captured very different insights. I managed to gather more insight around racial representation, colonialism, ethnic diversity than Alex did.

Whilst this is an article in itself, it was incredibly surprising that participants were open about it.

Conclusions! The power of a desktop walkthrough

Whilst there are many other methods to explore, we found that the desktop walkthrough was invaluable in helping the participants feel highly engaged, curious and excited about roleplaying through a yet-to-be-built physical space.

We found it a great tool to enable conversations around exceptions, hesitations and barriers when interacting with a space - and encouraging play to support potentially sensitive conversations.

Here are a few specific learnings:

  • Using familiar avatar (LEGO in our case) raised a smile from the participants and broke down barriers
  • Enabling participants to choose their avatar immediately connected them to the experience and helped them participate
  • The story building up to the transition into the model and explanation of the space was key to helping the participant imagine themselves their in real life.
  • Supplementing the model with other visual artifacts (just as external renders of the building) helped create a bigger picture in their mind which helped frame their experience.
  • Bonus: We found the physical model was useful beyond the research for the client to spark conversations within their organisation as it is far easier to understand than a 3D model or flat print out.

We hope our learnings gives both conceptual and tangible advice on the value of a desktop walkthrough; as well as logistical insights on how to create your own model.