The San Francisco Museum of Modern art (SFMOMA) has redesigned their website, sfmoma.org, after more than 8 years. The new site takes few risks, adhering to conservative and time-tested user interface and design standards. As a result, it’s a success – head and shoulders above most of the museum websites in its class.
Of course, it’s not perfect but first with the good and then with the bad:
Simple, clear, consistent user interface
The navigation interface is in the time-tested, user-approved tradition of horizontal navigation bars. Sure, it’s conventional but it works. Things stay put as you go from section to section and as a result, the site coheres. Some museums try to go experimental and end up user interface nightmares. Take, for example, the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Look at the IMA’s frightfully confusing homepage. There are literally three separate content sections with their own horizontal tabbed-interface bars instead of one unifying interface. How do I know where to click? Inundated in a deluge of information, I’d rather leave than “explore” which is what most of these bad websites expect visitors to do. That assumption is wrong. 90% of visitors want to get in and get out. 10% are ready for some exploration. The Metropolitan Museum is a user interface disaster of another order. Many times its navigation bar COMPLETELY DISAPPEARS after a mouse click leaving a visitor with no navigation reference. That’s one site in need of a serious overhaul. There are others that need redesigns too.
SFMOMA has one of the most logical, organized, and consistent navigation structures among museum sites making it stand tall amongst its peers. Thoughtful and smart copy, too.
Good use of Flash
There’s been some griping about the Flash introduction SFMOMA uses on their homepage: too fast! too much stimulation! As the guy that runs the New Museum website I can tell you that since the average site visitor will give you about 1 minute of their precious time, you better offer as many visuals as possible in the hopes of stimulating a longer visit. SFMOMA understands this imperative and their Flash intro is smart. It will show visitors with extraordinarily short attention spans (most) what’s on view in an engaging way and encourage them to learn about those exhibitions. It’s also nicely designed; if you roll over one of the items it pauses so you can carefully look at the picture or read the text. That’s considerate. Compare this to MoMA‘s lumbering Flash show which is too boring, too slow, and keeps rolling on irrespective of user attempts to pause it. Also, SFMOMA is using sIFR to render non-websafe fonts. It’s done really well and it’s nice to see such a good implementation.
This is completely subjective but I like the boxy, flat design of the site. No faddish gradients, rounded corners, or pinstripes. It’s a simple and elegant container to house the text and images that make a museum site so strong.
SFMOMA has a massive amount of content – events, exhibitions, collections, education initiatives – on and on. Their calendar tool is very powerful and well organized: clearly showing information and allowing for fine-grained filtering. The search tool is surprisingly good. The collection highlights encourage exploration without resorting to visual tricks.
But with the good comes the bad.
No RSS or iCal
I’m very unlikely to visit the site repeatedly but if updates were to drift into my RSS feed or into my calendar – then I’m far more likely to stay connected to the museum. This omission is completely unforgivable in a modern website.
SFMOMA: add RSS and iCal right now.
Hidden email signup form
A site, heck, a museum, thrives on email outreach. Why bury the email signup form in the Exhibitions and Events section? It’s illogical. More emails means more contact which means more members and more visits.
SFMOMA: put your email subscription form on every single page.
Confusing Events and Exhibitions section
This is going to be SFMOMA’s most frequently visited section and its contents are surprisingly unclear. The Exhibitions column is broken into two sections – what appear to be Featured Exhibitions and Other Current Exhibitions. The necessity of a horizontal division is questionable (isn’t the difference in size enough?). But if they insist on a horizontal break, each should be titled. As it currently stands it interrupts the understanding that all of these exhibitions are happening at once. Also, Events should have pictures associated with them. I happen to know who RoseLee Goldberg is and I also happen to know who Tom Marioni is but the majority of site visitors will not be art geeks and would rather click on a picture of a woman with a bob or a photograph of a bottle of beer. People don’t click on words; they click on pictures. SFMOMA: don’t do it for all events – far too big a task – but add pictures to Featured events.
Confusing Exhibitions detail page
Take this page as a sample of their Exhibition page template: http://www.sfmoma.org/exhibitions/306
Their design is based on keeping things “above the fold” – the 600 pixel height that content can appear in safely without the user having to scroll down to see it. To keep things above the fold they are making people click. But they’ve gotten it all wrong. People aren’t afraid to scroll, they are afraid to click. When you scroll, you know where you are and you know where you’re going. When you click, you have no idea what’s going to happen or what’s going to change. Amazon.com and their millions in user testing is proof of the power of the scroll. Their product pages are incredibly long but Amazon knows that’s preferable to a user than a click-intensive option.
The way that subsection content relates to the overall exhibition detail page is not intuitive. If you click “Participating Artists” under “Related Links” you are shown the list of artists and the other related links but the main exhibition information is gone and you have to click “Back to Exhibition Page” to get there. That’s just bad design, folks. Since these “Related Links” well, relate, directly to the exhibition at hand, it’s important to keep that Exhibition overview information on the same page.
SFMOMA: put all the exhibition content on one, long page.
I’ll leave it there. I know that the web team has a list longer than mine of bugs, design issues, and problems they need to fix. Also, they’ve likely got close to zero budget for user testing so this is effectively their beta release. Keep going SFMOMA! You’re doing alright.