The history of the V&A and its buildings is a fascinating one, with its origins as the Museum of Manufactures in 1852, to the incredible mix of Victorian and state-of-the-art spaces our visitors encounter today. An array of architects, engineers, designers, artists and craftspeople have worked on the museum’s buildings and galleries over the last 150 years. Some are well-known names, like William Morris, others less so. But all contributed to a pioneering V&A approach that draws on the latest technologies – from the first use of gas lighting in the galleries to AL_A’s engineering feat of suspending the porcelain-tiled Sackler Courtyard above the Sainsbury Gallery, a 1,100-square-metre column-free underground exhibition space in the new V&A Exhibition Road Quarter.
It was this incredible history that we wanted to bring to life for our visitors when, back in 2013, in our funding bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) for the new V&A Exhibition Road Quarter, we proposed to create an app that would allow visitors to discover the history of the V&A building and how it has evolved over time.
What users want
Fast forward four years, our thinking and our visitors’ behaviour and expectations have changed. With insights gleaned from a lot of user and market research, we knew that an app isn’t necessarily what our audiences want. Our research showed visitors don’t really want to consume more V&A content on their phones, and if they do, they don’t want the rigmarole of downloading an app that they may only use once. As we know, visitors are far more likely to use their mobiles to capture memories of their visit and not to discover more wall text. So, we needed to think very carefully before committing HLF funding to an app, which would be costly to build and maintain, without evidence that this was a product with genuine user value.
Finding the value
We also knew that visitors, if they are to use a mobile-assisted – or mobile-enhanced – experience, also want a ‘heads up’ experience. It’s obvious that people come to museums to see incredible objects, galleries, exhibitions and displays, not to ogle their phones (though, there is a bit of that of course).
We also know that the people having the best time in the museum are those that have:
- a personal interest that helps them connect with our collection
- a ‘wow’ moment in seeing some of our more spectacular exhibits and galleries, like the Cast Courts.
We wanted to incorporate these two elements into a mobile product that would help our visitors enjoy their visit and understand the V&A story.
A family affair
Our research identified where there was greatest appetite for mobile experiences as part of the museum visit. That was our family audience. They see mobile as a tool for engaging children, and for giving parents the knowledge they need to answer children’s questions during their visit.
But, as we know, the V&A buildings are large, complicated and often confusing to navigate. Our hunch was that a game, or at least a product with game mechanics, would help get people exploring the buildings, uncovering interesting facts and features through a social experience.
And so, while staying true to our commitment to help visitors uncover the V&A story, we proposed to the HLF that instead of a history of the building app, we instead create a web-based game for families. The HLF were very receptive to this idea given their experience of funding similar mobile products, understanding that the ever-evolving digital landscape had shifted considerably since our proposal back in 2013.
Product must haves
We were looking for an agency who could help identify what mobile product would cater best to our family audience, that could also include content about the history of the building.
In our brief, we said that the product must also be:
- Interactive – an active, social game, that engages children, and that helps parents answer children’s questions.
- Engaging – We want to encourage activity and engagement. We want to see people looking up and moving around the building as well as understanding some of the history and significance of the V&A as they go.
- User-centred – this product needs to be based on our visitors’ needs, interests and behaviours so that it provides genuine value for them.
- Accessible – this product needs to be as accessible as possible, ideally giving all users equal access to its content and functionality.
- Sustainable – the V&A’s digital media team will be responsible for the ongoing hosting, support and development of this product. It therefore needs to fit within existing capabilities of the team.
- Baked into the broader visitor experience – although this is a standalone product, it needs to mesh with other elements of the overall visitor experience of the building and our visitors need to be aware of the game.
- Responsive – This product should work on any device that visitors are likely to own, both for visitors in the building and for those who will only encounter the game online.
- Technology-agnostic – While there are technologies we would like to explore (location-based services, augmented reality for example), we want to start with user needs rather than with technology. The product needs to work within our digital infrastructure.
Nice to haves:
- Scalable – ideally, we would be able to build out from this product so it could be used in other sites like the Museum of Childhood or V&A Dundee.
Designing the product
We appointed Preloaded, who’ve done lots of award winning work in the cultural sector and beyond, creating (in their words) games with purpose. They demonstrated a deep understanding of how to build games that genuinely engage museum visitors and how to reconcile the seemingly contradictory demands of mobile experience – engaging yet ‘heads up’, targeted yet accessible, educational yet social.
And so began a three month project, with an initial design sprint to uncover what this product should be. In this sprint, we agreed our vision: ‘a social game for families and young people, telling the story of the V&A and its building through a cast of curious characters’.
The vision was underpinned by some goals:
- Use the building and historical characters as a lens to explain the V&A story
- Give an influx of new visitors to the Exhibition Road Quarter a playful way to understand why the V&A exists and what it offers
- Build personal connections between visitors, the building and its exhibits.
With Preloaded, we established the following principles:
- Low thresholds – the game is easy to pick up and play.
- The core gameplay follows simple mechanics that expand on existing mental modes of similar games (treasure hunts, multiple choice quizzes, etc.)
- The UI (user interface) is clean, clear and direct to avoid confusion.
- The UX (user experience) and navigation is as simple as possible.
- Wide walls – the game supports different preferences and play styles.
- Gameplay allows exploration (of different locations) and experimentation (of different characters) giving players a choice of how they play.
- High ceilings – the game rewards progress and challenges even the most advanced players.
- Players can go beyond the low-level, simple challenges and tackle the harder ones
- Opportunities for mastery by completing all locations/all characters and aiming for the highest score.
We wanted to build a game that gives players to explore the museum in an exciting new way, to go on a quest of learning and discovery, to meet famous and notable characters from the V&A story and uncover secrets of the V&A they won’t have seen or heard before.
- Character-driven challenges across multiple locations.
- UX designed around ‘heads up’ experience (where digital facilitates physical experience).
- Challenges designed to reveal V&A story content and encourage exploration.
- Social-based play for a range of users on one or more devices.
- Players are rewarded through progression (earning points and completing locations).
The core mechanic was based on tasks -> action -> feedback.
Tasks are set by characters and based on specific locations. Each task challenges the player to answer a question based on the location, and different characters will provide a different challenge at each location.
Action – requires the ‘heads up’ exploration of location. Players must explore locations to find the answer, which they input via multiple choice based on what they find.
Feedback – the device gives feedback to the player based on their action. There is immediate feedback (in which players find out if they are right or wrong, with visual feedback, and points being awarded for correct answers, after which extra learning content is revealed) and long term feedback (where points are accumulated and added to a total score, and locations are ‘ticked off’ as they are completed).
In our design sprint, we created low-fi paper prototypes which we tested with family visitors in the museum. It became clear that characters were an excellent way of driving engagement with the game. And characters were the best way for us to reveal the different facets of the V&A story. We worked with Preloaded’s talented illustrator to create the characters which include (of course) Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, but also Sir Henry Cole, our first director, Jim his dog (a firm favourite with kids), Madame Celeste, the first restaurant manager, Captain Fowke, the Museum’s architect, the designer William Morris and Annie Kemp, one of the Victorian students who helped decorate the first V&A buildings.
We learnt a huge amount on our journey from proposal to product delivery of our new game, V&A Secret Seekers and it changed considerably from paper prototype to MVP. We were lucky to have a funder – the HLF – who understood the need to reframe our brief, and to build a product that was quite different to our original proposal. We have a brilliant interpretation team who worked with curatorial colleagues to build a huge volume of content that appeals to young people and families, that also delivers learning outcomes. And we were fortunate to work with the team at Preloaded who gave their expertise and all the insights from designing and building similar products, to create an exciting new game to help our family visitors uncover some of the secrets of the V&A.
In the next V&A Secret Seekers post, game studio Preloaded will unpick the game design process, tackling thorny issues like social play and wayfinding, and show the concept evolution from paper prototype to final product via a series of onsite user tests. Stay tuned…