Leah Kim

Competitive Research

Thursday, February 23, 2017

This week we are looking at accessibility programming and services providing by other cultural institutions to get a better understanding of what differently-abled visitors might expect to encounter when visiting the Cooper Hewitt, gather examples of best practices, and take note of experiences that do not work for visitors.

Competitive Research Summary

The competitive set included New York City cultural institutions with a focus on art, and purposely included institutions with a range of sizes to understand how visitor volume and funding are related to accessibility programming and resources:

  • Not covered in the above research is mobility and wheelchair access.
  • Audio Guides: Across the board, the above institutions all offer audio guides with t-coil induction systems that can be used by blind/partially sighted and deaf/hard of hearing visitors to enhance their experience.
  • ASL Interpretation: All of the larger institutions offer programming with ASL interpretation
  • Notable approaches:
    • The MoMa has received awards from several Alzheimer’s associations for their Meet Me at the MoMa program, which is designed for individuals with dementia.

  • Institutions with sculpture and more durable pieces of art offer Touch Tours that allow people with visual impairments to touch the art while wearing gloves.

  • The Whitney has gone a step further beyond their ASL-interpreted tours and special programming and has created a vlog to their website for deaf visitors and a separate ASL multimedia tour device.

  • The Guggenheim uses an app as its primary multimedia guide for the museum. It has a building map, as well as thumbnail photographs and audio guides of exhibits. However, I’m not sure how useful the app is to people with low vision. Additionally, the process of finding, downloading, and setting up the app introduces friction to the visitor experience that distracts from the art.


  • Blind or Low Vision – Adoption of Braille programs and large-text labels seems limited with all institutions. Most rely primarily on audio tours to serve visitors with visual impairments. The largest gap for the Cooper Hewitt today in terms of parity with their peer institutions in New York City is audio interpretation, which if combined with audio units with t-coil compatability, could serve two groups of visitors, people with vision loss and people with hearing loss.
  • Learning disability, autism spectrum – Only the largest institutions have the ability to create resources for these group, but all museums could likely easily create a social interaction guide for those on the autism spectrum. There is an opportunity to innovate with programming or resources in this category if the Cooper Hewitt would like to distinguish itself in a particular way.

Cooper Hewitt Contextual Inquiry

Friday, February 5, 2017

Goal: Assess accessibility of the Cooper Hewitt visitor experience

Television Displays and Lighting

For a small fraction of people with epilepsy, seizures are triggered by very specific stimuli or situations. About 3 percent of people with epilepsy have photosensitive epilepsy where exposure to flashing lights at certain intensities or to certain visual patterns can trigger seizures.

These triggers can come from television screens with rapid flashes or alternative patterns of different colors or strobe lights. A frequency of 5 to 30 flashes per second are most likely to trigger seizures, but the frequency varies from person to person.

I didn’t observe any strobe lighting throughout the museum space with the current exhibits, and I didn’t observe any rapidly flashing animation on the large television displays with visitor information or interactive media.

However, low lighting may be a temporary challenge for visitors with low vision. Due to the architecture of the Carnegie Mansion, lighting in interior spaces of the museum could be dim.

Exhibit Design and Interaction

Exhibit are largely a visual experience centered around objects/artefacts from the Cooper Hewitt collection with accompany labeling or interpretation. Blind and low-vision museum visitors will have the largest challenges with the current museum experience.

Guests with low-vision could gain additional context by participating in a tour with a docent, and one of the accessibility goals of the Cooper Hewitt team this year is to add verbal descriptions of objects and tactile elements to tours.

Most of the exhibit interaction focuses on the Pen, a tool for bookmarking objects of interest in exhibitions and interacting with touch-sensitive tables to explore the full Cooper Hewitt collection. Interaction with the table and Pen were intuitive and immediately rewarding. Visitors with cognitive disabilities may not fully understand the content and context of the collection objects revealed by the table/pen, but may be able to enjoy interaction with the touch UI.

Did not identify any issues for hearing impaired visitors. The only audio elements in the museum are the sound of birds chirping near the Hewitt sisters bird cages.

The decision to center the visitor experience on the pen came at the expense of audio guides. The Cooper Hewitt team has experimented with Twilio to give visitors the ability to have an object description read to them via phone. Audio guides are currently perceived as time-consuming and expensive to create and maintain, though noted executions include the David Bowie audio exhibit created in conjunction with Sennheiser and the SFMoma app created with Detour. However, those experiences, along with other museum guides, were seen as cutting off interaction and conversation with other visitors, enforcing a solitary experience of the museum. In contrast, Micah has observed that the Pen, by giving people a tactile device to interact with, has produced a wonderful and unintended side effect of encouraging visitors to interact with one another.

Side note: The Pen only saved one item from my visit! 🙁

Exhibit Labels

The Cooper Hewitt team has created a script to automatically create and format large print versions of exhibit labels. The goal is to have large print labels for all ten galleries.

Most of the interpretive text for exhibits and object labels require a fairly advanced level of reading, and ability to understand historical or social context.

Colors are used to create visual themes for exhibits, but were not central to understand information or concepts and don’t currently pose a challenge for color blind individuals.

Building and Furniture

Spun Chair

The Magis Spun chair is a memorable way for visitors to interact with a design object. A group of visitors (ages 60+?) sat in the chairs (“It’s an experience of a lifetime!”). Visitors with mobility issues, such as those using canes or wheelchairs, are not likely to sit on the chairs. Several visitors with canes seemed to appreciate the benches and other opportunities to sit on each floor.

Elderly visitors and those with canes made frequent use to the modern elevators.


The Cooper Hewitt team is exploring accessibility programming for children with autism spectrum disorders. Through a program called “Learning at the Museum” they are following a model used at other Smithsonian museums by providing early hours for families with children with ASD so that they can experience the museum with fewer distractions. The hope is that this pilot could then be extended to adults with ASD as well.

Additional Notes

How to Design for Color Blindness – medium.theUXblog.com