Digital Works #8: human-centred design, usability, and social media

Author: Ash Mann

We held the eighth (8th!) Digital Works at the Bridge on 2nd of May.

This time we were focusing on two areas; usability and user testing; and social media. I’d chosen these topics as they were ones that people had said they wanted to hear more about a number of times (and seemed to be most popular based on a super-scientific Twitter poll I ran earlier this year).

Talking about user-testing and usability we had Dr Rebecca Gill from Bunnyfoot, and Chris Unitt from One Further. Discussing social media I was very pleased to welcome Adam Koszary from the Museum of English Rural Life, and Sian-Estelle Petty and Miki Govedarica from Shakespeare’s Globe.

Human-centred design and usability

Becs kicked the day off running us through the concepts of usability and user-testing. It quickly became clear that there was so much here that would be applicable in every organisation, and had a far broader relevance than ‘just digital’.

The idea of being user-centred seems so obviously beneficial but we still regularly hear stories where organisational priorities, people’s opinions or ‘innovative thinking’ has trumped user needs and common sense.

We looked at the advantages of a user-centred approach and found that, perhaps unsurprisingly, the resulting insights and actions will often have organisation-wide relevance and impact.

Becs shared examples of packaging, customer service, and marketing messaging that all had a fundamental (and not always positive) impact on user-experience, and usability.

The idea that poor usability somehow only impacts one part of the customer journey is clearly untrue but it’s easy to lose sight of that in the day-to-day grind.

Your audience or visitor’s experience starts long before they walk through your front door and continues long after they leave. How are you addressing that reality? How are you actively keeping user-needs front and centre in your conversations? How are you gathering and sharing insights about your users (/audiences/visitors/customers)?

Becs then shared some of the benefits of user-testing, and she and Chris ran an example test with Becs as the moderator which really demonstrated that anyone can do this as long as they understand how and why the test is taking place.

You can download Rebecca’s presentation here.

Chris’s session focused on examples of some of the tools and techniques you can look at to build a better understanding of your online users.

He also asked the question that all too often there will be someone focusing on the ‘real life’ visitor experience, but is there a similar focus on your digital users and their experience?

Once you better understand your users, their needs, and their frustrations you will be in a much better position to positively affect their experience.

And all too often there will be quick and easy things you can do to immediately improve that experience.

Whether that is reviewing the language you are using, the prominence of calls to action, the images you use, or the ordering of events on the page.

Chris then moved on to discuss how you measure success. Whilst this will need to be contextualised for your individual organisation, there are likely to be obvious quantitative measures through which you can understand how you have positively affected the user experience.

Simple things like reducing the the number of errors will begin to demonstrate that you’re frustrating your users less often.

Or, y’know ask them.


View Chris’s presentation here.

Social media

I was really pleased that Adam Koszary had agreed to speak.

Adam runs the Twitter account at the Museum of English Rural Life, which is perhaps best known for making a photo of a big sheep go viral.

However that wasn’t a one off, Adam has long been cultivating an unexpected, sarcastic, funny and very successful social media presence for the museum that has, through stories about (amongst other things) bats getting library cards, chickens in trousers, and yes, big sheep, built a loyal and highly engaged audience.

I asked Adam to speak because I thought the MERL was an interesting example of an organisation that had taken an unusual approach to social media and met with real, tangible success. If you look at their social media channels the tone of voice is probably not what you’d expect from a museum focused on English rural life.

Adam shared some of the insights around what he sees as the most important aspects behind the MERL’s success.

Something we’ve heard a lot about at past Digital Works is the importance of story-telling, having a tangible tone of voice, and engaging with your audience like they’re real people rather than just broadcasting marketing messages at them and never engaging anyone in real conversation.

After all it is called social media. And that came through loud and clear in Adam’s session.

The MERL’s success isn’t something that just happened, Adam has been trusted and allowed to experiment and develop this personality for the museum. The personality is now clearly articulated and understood internally at the MERL and as an institution they understand the risks that that entails. However this culture of experimentation and creativity is what has lead to some of the most successful things they’ve done.

It was also clear that Adam had gained this trust by really knowing the organisation, and its collection. He has a background in curation and it seemed that was a really important aspect in his colleagues trusting that what he was doing was trying to get people interested in, and excited by, the stuff that the whole museum really cared about. Rather than just ‘messing around on Twitter’.

Adam’s basic principles are:

  • If we don’t talk to people, why would they talk to us?
  • Assume people find everything boring and we need to make it interesting
  • Social media should be achieving a museum’s mission, not just marketing its offer

It was also interesting to hear Adam talk frankly about the challenges around the sustainability of this approach. He is soon moving to a new position at the RA and this has thrown up the issue of how you maintain things when they have developed so organically, driven by one person’s personality and sense of humour.

Download Adam’s presentation here.

The final session of the day was delivered by Miki Govedarica from Shakespeare’s Globe. There were a number of parallels between aspects of the Globe’s success and the insights that Adam had shared about the MERL.

Namely, the willingness to experiment, the commitment to proper engagement, the ability to tell stories and being unafraid to play (and deal with the criticisms that might come in reaction to this approach).

It was interesting to hear about the different ‘types’ of stories that the Globe looked to draw from which broadly split into three categories: evergreen/timeless, reactive/timely, campaign/event-specific.

Similarly to the MERL, the Globe’s personality, tone of voice and success has been built over a long period of time (almost a decade) and the team behind the accounts have been allowed to experiment to develop something that works for all the different aspects of what the Globe is, and does.

Another seemingly important similarity was related to Miki’s background in Shakespeare academia. Much like Adam’s background in curation this seemed to be an important element in colleagues across the organisation trusting what the social media team were doing.

Whilst it might be upsetting and depressing to admit there does still sometimes seem to be a tension between the artistic and marketing sides of an organisation, people who can bridge that gap seem to be very important in getting proper buy-in to projects that come with an element of risk.

That buy-in is also key in getting access to the most interesting and timely stories. If you’re not hearing about something until two weeks after it has happened, you probably aren’t going to record and tell people about that in the most compelling way.

Download Miki’s presentation here.

Digital Works #9 will take place in late September 2019, date and venue TBC.

If you would like to attend, speak at or host a future Digital Works event, please drop us a line at