Susan Jones looks at gallery websites, giving her views on what makes sites a joy to use – and where they might be improved.
Across the arts, digital expression now forms an integral part of mainstream art practice and web platforms have largely replaced promotional brochures and adverts. Interaction between publicly-funded galleries and what could be described as their ‘audiences’ extends way beyond physical visits. Where previously galleries just needed to have a nice looking website, today it’s all about being optimised for mobile and being active in social media too. Here, I provide a commentary on the user experience by sampling selected gallery websites, highlighting good examples, providing a short checklist, and at the end suggesting some areas for improvement.
Since this is my personal assessment of a sample of publicly-funded UKbased galleries, I’ve reduced the commonly-used user experience quality criteria. Similarly, given publicly-funded arts websites can’t hope to keep pace with the speed of new technologies adopted by commercial websites, I’ve not focused on whether any site’s design is ‘of the moment’.
1.Are you meeting the needs of the customer, without fuss or bother and with elegance and simplicity of design? Digital products should be a joy to use!
2. Is your site organised or cluttered?
Yorkshire Sculpture Park (YSP) has probably one of the simplest and most effective landing pages – a background shot of the park with the message: “Good morning (or afternoon) from Yorkshire Sculpture Park. What would you like to do today?” Below this are links to seven areas of the site, with the ‘search’ function prominent.
3. Do you have a clear or confusing strapline?
One of the clearest straplines I’ve found is this: “FACT is a Liverpool-based cinema, art gallery and the UK’s leading organisation for the support and exhibition of film, art and new media.” In a similar vein, Firstsite offers: “Contemporary visual arts in Colchester”. But does the enormous sized type currently in favour with many designers help or hinder the website experience?
4. Understandable language and terminology, presented legibly?
Does your site use “clear, straightforward expression, using only as many words as necessary…avoiding obscurity, inflated vocabulary and convoluted sentence construction”?
Good examples of galleries describing what they do in plain English include:
Ikon Gallery: “showing work from around the world [in] a variety of media including sound, film, mixed media, photography painting, sculpture and installation”
John Hansard Gallery: “solo projects, historical surveys, painting, sculpture, film, performance, installation and digital media”.
Arnolfini: “Our galleries are family friendly and we encourage families to investigate our exhibitions together”.
At Ikon there is encouragement to “Try our Family Trail, Art Explorer Bags and enjoy the creative materials in the Resource Room.” For activities outside their building, the FACT and John Hansard sites headline ‘Community’ in contrast to terms such as outreach or off-site that are less familiar to the general public.
5. Friendly or aloof?
Describing an organisation with ‘we’ and ‘our’, keeping sentences short and terminology straightforward all contribute to a friendly feel. Rather than the usual ‘sign up for emails’, the message at Centre for Contemporary Art Derry and Oriel Davies is to “stay in touch”. Being able to ‘like’, ‘share’, blog or comment on a website are known to enhance the user experience and encourage return visiting. Where they exist, the bloggers on gallery sites are generally staffers, although FACT extends an invitation to guest bloggers who – in support of their career development – get a full credit and biography. (As do guest bloggers on the Interpretation Matters site!) It’s always good to ask users for ‘feedback’ – although Ikon’s site which directs you to a separate site and very few comments, dated 2013, is likely to discourage others from joining in.
Although gallery websites state prominently that entry is free, they do want donations, patrons and seek paid-for members and supporters. Many stress their charitable status and general good work in economic or social terms.
At the Centre for Contemporary Art Derry the message is refreshingly simple: to “Invest in the future”.
Do galleries come over as artist-friendly? It’s a pity that most don’t include any statement of policy or intent which could support transparency and common purpose in the professional visual arts. Exceptions include:
Firstsite which: “seeks to position the artist as the centre of its activity” with the gallery’s artist development and support offer clearly articulated.
Open Eye Gallery Liverpool which is: “open to receiving exhibition proposals from artists and curators. We welcome artists from any stage of their career to share their ideas with us; we are always interested to hear about your work and new projects.” This is prominently positioned under their ‘Get involved’ menu item.
6. Easy or hard to navigate and spend time in?
I spent some time on each site, exploring menu structures and trying searches. FACT’s menu item ‘Get involved’ is one of the most inviting. Genuinely warranting the adjective “unique”, the sub-menu comprises:
Community, Learning, Health, Young People, Military veterans, Artists, Research, Write for FACT, Volunteer
Although this might appear convoluted, it does give users a real flavour of this organisation’s specific role in its location, and complements its fundraising approach.
With two thirds of adults going to gallery or museum websites to find out about exhibitions or buy tickets, a ‘What’s on’ calendar format for these activities – such as on the Centre for Contemporary Art Derry and Ikon sites – does enhance the customer experience.
Navigating the sheer quantity of wordage held on some websites can be daunting for users, especially as up to 80% may be doing so on a smart phone, multitasking as they take the tube or grab lunch. Good search functions and content tagging – being aware of the kinds of words or phrases users search on – definitely makes a site more interactive and encourages people to stay longer.
7. Do videos help or not?
We’re used to liking and sharing the videos that continuously pop up on our social media profiles. Digital trends analysis shows that it’s short clips that are the most popular. Are galleries capitalising on this to widen and sustain website visitors?
I looked at sites including Whitechapel, FACT, Arnolfini, and YSP that have portfolios of videos, including interviews, gallery education and interpretation materials – and Baltic have created a separate digital content site to host their materials. But with few exceptions, viewing figures per video are in the low hundreds, raising the question of whether the investment in video production will pay off in the longer term.
8. Is the site’s function clear or ambiguous?
Although widening participation in the arts – getting to the hard-to-reach or socially-disadvantaged sections of society – is an aspiration for arts funders and government, it feels like income generation has become a core function of many galleries.
Balancing a gallery’s international and art market status with its charitable intent and aspirations to support local communities presents a challenge – or perhaps a mismatch – in terms of the website’s function and messages.
Although half of the Whitechapel Gallery’s main menu areas focus on income generation, with the ‘Buy art’ section containing works from £115 to nearly £7,000, searching on ‘community’ reveals it also has a further function and role of:
“Connecting with people living and working in East London to explore notions of community, place and identity.”
A donate button or call is included on the majority of sites I visited. But what are donations used for?
YSP’s lists supporter options priced for individuals, corporations and businesses: “The support we receive plays a vital part in ensuring that the Park continues to grow and thrive”.
FACT’s is a nicely-framed and more down-to-earth pitch: “Donations support our community work with people from across Merseyside and beyond. Just a small donation can have massive benefits: £10 helps us to keep our galleries open for after-school visits; £50 gives one young person access to 12 weeks of film and media training, supporting the next generation of talent and £100 delivers six months of workshops to a recently returned veteran, giving them new skills, confidence and social connections.”
What Gallery Websites Should Avoid
I’m concluding with some suggestions for how gallery websites might be improved. Based on the selection I’ve looked at, things I’d most like to see removed – as soon as possible – are:
- Slider images zipping past at the top of a site’s homepage
Not only do these auto-changing banner images do a disservice to the artists whose images are sometimes not credited, market research shows that website visitors tend to see them as adverts and quickly learn to ignore them. Few actually notice the messages they are intending to convey.
Marketing speak and art jargon
You’ve got one chance to impress a web visitor so take advice from the writing professionals – leave out jargon and boastful subjective claims like ‘best ever’. Web users are busy. They want to get the facts, fast.
I’d edit out terms that are commonplace at present on gallery sites such as: “world-class”, “mould-breaking”, and “internationally-acclaimed”. Many institutions also claim to be “leading” in the sector – sometimes in Britain or Europe or the region. Practically everything is described as “exciting” or “innovative”. Get rid also of the art jargon terms such as “emerging and international artists”, “curatorial and critical practices” and “site-specific”, and say “painting” rather than “art work”. And in the spirit of ‘keep it simple’ – it’s far better to have ‘eat’ rather than ‘consume’ and ‘drink’ rather than ‘beverage’.
- Putting the wrong message in the wrong place
All public galleries develop ways of handling those visitors who don’t know the protocols – the people who think it’s OK to run around the artworks, use a mobile in the galleries and expect to stay in a warm building on a cold day for as long as they can. Although some galleries tackle this by putting rules and regulations for visitors on the website, wouldn’t it be more effective to communicate direct to this minority of visitors by using some well-placed notices around the building?
But there’s a wider issue. Nowadays, consumers including gallery visitors expect to choose when and how they interact with others. Many of tomorrow’s gallery visitors – today’s ‘children and young people’ – are digital natives, using their technology constantly. Working on the ‘you’ll like this because your peers do’ principle, social media and image sharing sites are increasingly important filters, helping us to decide what we do, buy or campaign for. So I’d argue that in an age when such digital behaviour is commonplace and funded galleries are committed to increasing awareness and participation as part of widening audiences through attracting all sections of society to their programmes, discouraging in particular the use of mobile phones in galleries is counterproductive.
Download this resource: Gallery Websites Resource
Susan Jones is a published writer, researcher and consultant within the contemporary visual arts. Specialising in working with small-scale, practice-led and networked initiatives, she advises on strategic and organisational development and vision planning, communications and digital strategies, and project and organisational evaluation. Follow her on Twitter @SusanJonesArts