The Whitney Museum of American Art has needed a new website for years. Information was increasingly hard to find, navigation was inconsistent, and the site’s design was of variable quality. Some sections were outstanding but many more areas were confusing and poorly laid out. Overall, the site struggled to clearly present the museum’s wide range of programs. It also wasn’t suited to showcasing multimedia and integrating with social media services like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter which are increasingly driving museum visits.
Fixing all this required a redesign and after a long incubation the Whitney has relaunched their new site.
They enter a highly innovative field. The past three years have seen growing recognition among museum management that mission is enhanced by a robust online program. The Indianapolis Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum, Walker, MoMA, and SFMOMA have upgraded their sites to enterprise-level content management systems delivering gigabytes of audio, video, and text to millions of viewers annually. As museums have increased their digital output and come to recognize that “audience” includes a vast online public, directors are coming to realize that an intuitive, attractive website is a worthwhile, mission-critical investment.
2008 saw many museums of the Whitney’s caliber relaunch their websites including the Hammer Museum, Guggenheim, MoMA, SFMOMA, and Museum of Art and Design. These organizations produced polished, professional sites to serve as content delivery platforms for a swiftly expanding online audience hungry for museum content. It’s against this backdrop that the museum community has been eagerly awaiting the Whitney’s entry into the field.
It’s a shock, then, that the new Whitney website not only fails to improve upon its old website but actually ends up being worse. Visual confusion, counterintuitive navigation, and illogical organization put it on par with its predecessor but setting it a step backwards is an absence of a compelling design that knits the site together into a coherent whole. The lack of color, proper division of page elements, and clear information hierarchy leaves the viewer with pages where content floats without clear order or priority. Perhaps more dispiriting is how generic the site feels. It’s lifeless. More a wireframe suitable for preliminary development than a digital platform to project Whitney mission and programs.
If this was a lesser organization such a website would be a shame. But for the Whitney it’s a liability. In a highly competitive culture industry, the Whitney needs to continue to assert itself as the dynamic, relevant, and high-quality organization it is. When its website declares the opposite – that it’s pedestrian, unsophisticated, and banal – the brand takes a beating and its reputation is called into question.
Breaking It Down
12 RSS feeds are available for fine-grained subscription to specific site content and 9 iCal feeds allow for users to keep tabs on the museum’s date-based programs. A “Your Collection” feature allows users to select and save images, video, and web pages from the site. Internet art projects will be integrated into the site which – while at first blush appearing little more than gimmickry – will likely be worthwhile given the Whitney’s strong track record of supporting digital art through its ARTPORT.
The site features a completely new design and re-ordered information architecture. And this is where the site’s problems begin to appear. 7 main categories on the old site have ballooned to 17 main categories on the new site. Redesigns usually reduce and simplify than expand and complicate. The new site obfuscates a clear visual flow of hierarchical information. Little is grounded by bordering, shading, or sectioning (the common methods in web design). Instead, content blocks float in white space without adhering to a consistent grid. And within that white space, text leading is used to differentiate sections but that type is of inconsistent style and positioning across the site.
I counted over 12 different link styles: blue underline, bold black, bold grey, bold blue, bordered black, green background, light blue background, yellow background, grey background, white text on black background, white text on red background, bold black with grey underline, and orange. It’s such an overwhelming array, it suggests that anything could be a link – a paralyzing position to put a user in.
Since the site is designed exclusively with text and that text is styled in no consistent way, the site’s color palette is hard to define but if pressed I’d say it’s black, white, and forest green. When I think of the Whitney I think of slate grey – the color of the building. A proper design should build off of this color and incorporate complementary hues that draw connections between the website and the museum location.
The main vertical navigation bar breaks basic user interface design rules over and over again. First, its 17 top-level options need to be reduced. Even the old Whitney nav bar was better than the new one.
The priority of information within the bar is also questionable. Is “Support” and “Membership” – the first two links – more important to a visitor than “Visitor Information” or “Exhibitions?” Certainly not. Is “Support” and “Membership” of greater importance to the museum than its exhibitions and events? I hope not. The “About” section features fascinating information about the organization’s past and promising future but isn’t even a link on the nav bar. It’s sunk to the bottom of every page, relegated to what is effectively a website’s graveyard. Is the museum’s history that irrelevant? I doubt it, but it’s sending a disconcerting message. Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter that increasingly drive word-of-mouth traffic are hidden in the “Feeds and Email Notifications” section. They’re doing great things on these sites and should elevate them to the top-level or at least group them in a logical category.
The navigation bar violates the most fundamental rule of user interface design: persistence. Instead of remaining in the same place when you click a top-level link, that link is pulled out and elevated to the top of the list.
After clicking “Exhibitions”:
When you click into certain sections – “Education,” for example – links that were once in the nav bar disappear (“For Kids / For Teens”).
Sections two-levels deep make the higher-level parents disappear.
Inconsistency like this is considered unsound by professional web designers because it breaks the convention of a persistent navigation bar where high-level content sections stay put no matter what. A nav bar with sections that move or even disappear makes a site feel unpredictable, leading to visitor exasperation.
Other oddities include subsection links that because of their green color appear visually to be of higher priority than their desaturated parent and horizontal navigation links within a vertical link structure. “Film / Performance” are actually two separate sections masquerading as one. When you click “Film” it’s pulled to the top leaving “Performance” behind even though it’s on the same line.
Visually, the site’s elements are adrift as if they’ve been casually dropped onto the page. The lack of a uniform grid and an absence of grounding makes viewing page content difficult because everything appears of nearly equal importance.
Let’s look at the “Exhibitions” page:
The top “Your Collection” strip should be sectioned off from the rest of the site content because it’s part of the website and does not specifically refer to the page. The Whitney logo should be flush with the vertical nav bar’s left margin. The nav bar should be drawn up to match the horizontal alignment of the page title. Images should be equally sized and in horizontal alignment with one another. The border around “more info” should be removed to indicate its lesser importance in the order of title and date.
Problems like these abound on nearly every page but a redesigned template could pretty easily fix them.
A harder fix is the “Education” section where a collection of ambiguous phrases in orange lettering appear on the top of that section’s landing page.
It’s unclear what one is supposed to do here or how one should choose where to click. “Curiosity” may be an option they provide but “Confusion” is really what I’m thinking. I don’t know where I’m going to go or what I’m going to get when I click one of these links (I assume they are links – but perhaps I shouldn’t since they aren’t underlined – another convention disregarded). When I do finally decide that I’m “playful” I am presented with a page but no indication through a bread crumb or a nav bar entry where I am. The navigation system here completely breaks down and a user is adrift in a sea of links without reference or bearing.
“Your Collection” vs. “The Collection”
The “Your Collection” feature allows users to collect pages, images, and video from across the site and store it in a personal user account for future access. This would have been innovative had MoMA not already introduced an identical feature more elegantly implemented on its own site months ago. I’m skeptical of the utility of such a tool. I think a more effective approach is to design a site that enables visitors to easily export site content to whatever content aggregation service they’ve adopted (Delicious, Evernote, Facebook, Tumblr, bookmarking, etc.). I suppose these “collections” features are supposed to increase site stickiness but I think they probably just go unused.
“Your Collection” is not to be confused with “The Collection” which is a growing online database of the museum’s permanent holdings and is the new website’s highlight. Images are impressively sized, and navigation – though rudimentary – is at least functional. This section holds great promise.
I’m not sure what went wrong here. How could a museum as first-rate as the Whitney have produced a site so inferior? Linked by Air – the development company the museum hired – should shoulder much of the responsibility. Apparently the backend is robust and well designed for the staff but this must not come at an expense to the end user. The failure to successfully integrate a strong back end and an elegant front end throws the firm’s credibility into serious doubt. I would also venture to guess that the museum had no dedicated project manager familiar with the web to help guide the museum through the thicket of options. There may also not have been the will to redirect a project going down the wrong path.
I have great confidence in the Whitney. The staff is enthusiastic and recent hires indicate an institutional understanding of the importance of the web. Although this particular site is stillborn, I’m certain that with a new developer and a strong project manager the Whitney will retool their site into something they – and the museum community – can be proud of.
Update 11/13/09: In the interest of full disclosure, I’m the Digital Projects Manager at the New Museum of Contemporary Art.