Interaction, Design & Our New Normal

Covid-19 has changed what interaction looks like… But with good design and a thirst for innovation; this is an opportunity for creativity.

The year is 2019. You’re in a new immersive exhibition. Strangers are all around you, you touch and interact with technologies and see your environment transform. You can smell the excitement in the room, you can see people engaging with all sorts of aspects of the exhibit. No face masks. No hand sanitizer.

The saying ‘how time flies’ comes to mind, along with ‘the good ol’ days’; But with an industry like technology formed on the idea of innovation, of creation and constant momentum… some are thriving off the opportunity, nay the need, to transform what ‘interaction’ means in the context of exhibitions and visitor attractions.

Does it look different to 2019? Yes. But can it also spark that feeling of joy, of entertainment, and of discovery? Absolutely yes.

“This pandemic has led to a new, unexpected era in the museum experience, ripe for innovation.” (Cuseum)

For institutions like Museums, Visitor Attractions and Science Centres, they are built on historic foundations. Foundations of engaging audiences and enlightening them beyond their usual knowledge or interests. To host the exploration of our Galaxy (and all firmly with feet on the ground on Earth), to facilitate the sharing of complex global data, or to enhance our historic references beyond our geographical location… these are inspiring environments.

So, how do traditional foundations of sensory exploration develop with the onset of something like Coronavirus? How do health and safety, physical distancing and new restrictions not stand in the way of memorable engagement? The short answer is design.

"Covid-19 literally changed the rules over night, but the demand for engaging experiences remained. The resulting attempts to engage audiences have been wide ranging... Events, museums, visitor attractions, they all have the advantage of controlling the surroundings, of being new and unfamiliar, drawing our attention where they want it. We talk of a 'new normal', where we hope to open our doors again, with a few modifications to our experiences, but there is an opportunity here to to learn from our currently restricted world. The opportunity to explore how we attract and retain attention in any environment, in peoples homes, in their offices; and how this might allow us to extend the reach of a physical experience. There are opportunities here. It's time to engage our teams, our customers, our suppliers, our friends in a robust design process to unlock these opportunities."

Bjorn Hulman, Head of Design at Pufferfish

We are under no illusions that the world is still in a state of flux, and still in a state of learning and taking our ‘new normal’ a day at a time. But with the very premise of design relying on the idea of empathy and solving problems we don’t even know we have (before we know we have them); it is a sector we must nurture to survive and thrive (again).

“At the end of the day, human interaction on the museum floor is one of the most powerful interaction tools we have. This moment is not taking that tool away from us. But it is causing us to look at the tool itself through a new lens.” (Blooloop)

A lot of attention has been put on the idea of touch interaction versus non-touch interaction. Is it one or the other? And we feel it doesn’t need to be a trade-off. Nothing will replace the sensory engagement of touching a piece of technology and seeing content transform before you. To control an exhibition, to control your consumption of that information – user-led exploration is a powerful tool. Non-touch is also a powerful tool! Voice control is everywhere now, it’s even infiltrated our homes, and gesture controls, facial recognition and mobile integration has been on the scene for years too.

So does the sweet spot, the true glory, sit in combining these potent communication tools? This is where digital enhancement comes in, and where design becomes pivotal. Ensuring we don’t need to make compromises on engagement, entertainment, or in transporting audiences. We can take the most transformative elements of both, and curate memorable digital campfires worth social distancing for.

“We have a design intent and the visitors coming in have a user intent,” Timpson reminds us. “So, when those intentions don’t line up, that’s when a barrier is created. What we want to do is understand the intentions of our audience as we’re creating our design intentions. If we do that, then we’re going to mitigate as many of those barriers as possible.” (Blooloop)

Some examples of great design in the pandemic have been surrounding accessibility; and using this opportunity to make exhibitions more viable for all audiences.

The word ‘phygital’ comes to mind here! A combination of physical and digital communications.

“Nearly every museum in the country has upped its digital offerings with online exhibits, curator video chats, and virtual kids’ activities. Many are also re-thinking their reach and collections in a time of accelerated technological change and turmoil in the U.S., debating how racial and social injustice are reflected in their art.” (National Geographic)

Online Learning

A favourite of ours at Pufferfish, is Newcastle’s very own Centre for Life. Their interactive Museum is a crowd favourite, and throughout the pandemic they have taken their education programme to digital heights. From daily activities across their social media platforms for family’s home schooling, to science experiments, home crafts, and more. A great way to innovate digital stimulation, and still correlate with their exhibition topics for when doors re-open.


Another experience-based shift we’ve seen is in the US, the ‘BYOD’ or bring your own device exhibits. “The vast majority of Americans own a smartphone, so this was just a matter of time.” (Cuseum) This is both a welcome shift in terms of health and safety, but also in terms of the phygital experience and important takeaways. To use one’s mobile device in an exhibit, it can become an intuitive remote for engagement.

For example, it can trigger supplementary information on your device (by scanning dynamic QR codes), it can link with additional learning resources post-visit (as handling literature can be worrisome too), and it can also gather valuable insights on audience behaviours by linking with Google Analytics and other data collecting tools on dwell time, users, bounce rates and so much more. A great example of using this necessary shift to also enhance knowledge sharing for your organisation and curators of future exhibits!

Cuseum's free [AR]T Museum

Another great design innovation was for all our art lovers out there! Cuseum created an iOS application called ‘Cuseum’s free [AR]T Museum’ – An app which allows you to select a piece of art from a gallery of your choice, aim your device in the direction of a wall in your home, and then watch through the device screen as the object anchors itself in place. It allows you to interrogate the artwork from the comfort of your home, finding a way to side-step pandemic restrictions and the closing of art galleries the world over. It also talks to the options available for AR, VR and MR integrations within exhibition spaces in the future.

Interactive Tools

Then there are the new-age interactive tools like voice control, foot triggered content, and so much more.

Make sure to see our Industry Insights Lab on these here.

I think we can all agree, there is still so much to learn and so much more room to grow. The pandemic has changed a lot in our lives, but a positive takeaway is: “It has compelled cultural organizations to leverage the internet and mobile technology to a more dynamic, creative, and fuller extent.” (cuseum) And with a concentration on design, and on utilising key design fundamentals, we are confident this ‘new normal’ could be better than ever!

We look forward to seeing how phygital entertainment and phygital engagement develops over time. We look forward to being part of this new age of interactive exhibits, interactive attractions, and interactive design in general. And we also look forward (more than ever) to seeing respected institutions open their doors to a new world of engagement!

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