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Designing a living museum experience

I think I'll go for a walk outside...

U.S. National Arboretum Mobile Application

The backstory

The National Arboretum holds a unique distinction of being a research facility but also a living museum where Washington, DC locals and visitors alike come to spend some time in the tranquility of nature within steps of the busy energy of the city.

The US National Arboretum is situated in 446 acres in the middle of Northeast Washington, DC, and has 9 miles of roadways lined with thousands of different plant species, each with interesting stories, for people to explore. The Aboretum had something to offer during every season. In spring, the Azalea collection stuns with a sea of pink, coral and purple throughout the park. During the summer, visitors some to picnic around the crape myrtles and soak in the smells of the herb garden at it’s peak. And year-round, the Capitol Columns, which original stood on the East Portico of the Capitol, are a perennial crowd favorite.

After talking to members of the National Arboretum staff, we honed in on why it was crucial to create a mobile application for visitors to the site.

The application aimed to:

  • Help improve the overall visitor experience by being a supplemental resource and provide direction and information to all visitors
  • Decrease the number of visitor requests to the information desk (because of lack of staff ability to handle all the questions)
  • Get more visitors excited about learning and exploring nature by helping them understand the value of richness of the resources.
  • Help explain the purpose of the Arboretum as a living museum and research center.

Drew's Role

  • UX Strategy
  • UX Design

  • The Process

    I worked with the wonderful team at Blue Raster and members of the Arboretum staff to make this application a reality.

    Although our priority was building a mobile application, we looked at this app as just a small part of the overall experience. Together we worked in a visioning session to define what needed to be done to improve the experience at the Arboretum and where the mobile application could help.

    To find the answer, we started by asking the Arboretum staff about their typical day, workload, and what they love the most about being on the staff. During the conversations, we learned most of the staff was often asked the same questions over and over by visitors through the course of the day. Since these staff members worked on the grounds as scientists and researchers, not tour guides, these questions distracted them from their actual job. Hopefully, this application could make their jobs easier too.

    The End-Users

    Visitors to the Arboretum generally fell into 2 categories:

    • First time visitors
    • Primary needs: What should I see? Where should I go?

    • Repeat visitors
    • Primary need: To learn additional and new information about the Arboretum

    adventure ux

    By quickly iterating through rough sketches, we were able to explore many different directions to take before moving to wireframing and the client presentation.

    Discovery and Research

    Since this application was just a small part of the overall experience, we started to define the pieces of the current experience – the good and the bad – and what we could enhance even more and what we could improve. Because the U.S. National Arboretum is a government run institution, and unable to collect visitor data, we instead relied on the Arboretum staff, public reviews of the Arboretum and user journeys to understand the needs of visitors.

    Experience highlights:

    • The experience is very seasonal and can feel like a completed different location depending on the season.
    • Lots of open spaces for walking, jogging and picnicking.
    • Visitors give the collections – particularly the Asian Collection and Bonsai Garden -- rave reviews.
    • Nature walks and pathways are a great way to experience some calm and tranquility within the city.
    • Visitors of all ages can find something enjoyable to do.
    • Location is not metro accessible but there is ample parking.

    Experience challenges:

    • The entrance experience is poor. Signage for the entrance and parking locations is limited.
    • Hard to identify individual plants because of lack of signage which distracts from the natural beauty and is costly.
    • The current information kiosk is clumsy and hard to use.
    • It is unclear how expansive the Arboretum is and visitors often don’t experience everything it has to offer. Most visitors come to see Capital Columns and don’t know what else to explore.
    • People get lost often
    • Many of the same questions are asked, “Where are the flowers?”, “Where is the restroom?”, “Where are the trashcans?”, “When are the koi coming back?”
    • Some people visit the Arboretum to workout or walk their dogs. They see this as a big park — a local oasis to get away from the city — not a research facility. Can we engage them with additional information about the plants to enhance this experience?

    Read some reviews here.

    The results

    In order to enhance the experience, what does the application need to do?

    • Place the visitors in control of the experience
    • Since visitors come from all different backgrounds and with different needs and expectations, we aimed to design for autonomy – giving the uses the opportunity to accomplish goals on their own, aided by minimal design.

      • First this meant the inclusion of a great mapping tool to help orient visitors.
      • Clearly list park information such as hours of operation, parking options and facility locations.
      • Design walking tours for users to take at their leisure based on time, distance, season, age groups and level of mobility (children, handicap visitors).
      • Give users had the option to skip tour stops because of time, distance or personal interest, and be able to pick right back up and the next stop without interruption.

    • Give users rich interaction
    • We designed the application to give the users a sense they were being looked after and we understood their concerns and needs . This includes the ability to take many different paths to take to get to the same outcome. In this case, enjoying the Arboretum as much as possible. To add to the interaction, we ensured:

      • User must be able to shift direction through application quickly and without much effort
      • Addition of audio guides so users can enjoy the surrounding instead of looking at phone.

    • Engage relaxed attention
    • Not every visitor to the Arboretum wants to spend their time staring at their phone, and neither do we. So we aimed to engage both active and passive application users.

      • Use NFC (near field communication) to send out location information and fun facts even when not actively looking at application without being annoying.

    The application is currently being developed.

    To create happy users: Put them in control of their experience


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