Challenges and Goals
Accessibility and User Experience
Accessibility in the online environment can be complex and confusing for many Web designers and developers. Mobile accessibility is uncharted territory for most. Our goal is to simplify the process of designing for inclusion, enabling rich experiences that work for a wide variety of visitors.
Continuity of Experience
When creating experiences for the Web or mobile, there's often a lack of continuity across the spaces. Engage's goal is to bridge the gap between web, mobile, and physical spaces, providing connected experience for visitors.
Creating content for Web and mobile often requires starting from scratch, an expensive and time-consuming prospect. Engage will help ease the transition across media, enabling the transformation, re-purposing, and re-design of existing museum content.
Compelling visitor experiences draw from a variety of information sources. Currently, museums often face the challenge of poor integration between collections management systems, exhibit planning tools, and Web content management systems. Engage will help tie together otherwise these otherwise diverse systems into a unified presentation.
Lastly, the mobile space today is chaotic, with a wide range of competing platforms and choices. Engage leverages the Open Web to lower the cost of designing for and supporting a diversity of devices.
Many familiar Web authoring tools don't provide the flexibility and creativity that museums desired when designing visitor experiences. Engage provides adaptable and configurable design tools that enable museum Web teams to build compelling solutions with whatever Web authoring tool they prefer. Fluid components are built to be used and adapted in new and unexpected ways.
Engage, as a product, consists of a toolkit of components, templates, and modules that are compatible and can be used in conjunction with any Web authoring environment.
- helps us be more responsive to different sizes of institutions
- better support for diversity of content and styles
- greater extensibility
- greater applicability across domains and sectors
Engage's technology is, at heart, open and reusable... anyone can do this. We use open Web technologies to create highly interoperable tools that can blend seamlessly with existing Web content.
The Shape of Engage
Engage's architecture can be broken down into a handful of key elements:
- A services layer for connecting data and content
- Cross-platform mobile applications
- Mapping and visualization tools
Interoperability is huge for Engage. When systems don't talk to each other, the result is redundant content creation and repetitive data entry. The Engage services layer aims to weave together the various resources and sources of information required to create a compelling and interactive exhibit experience. We'll talk to content and collections management systems, image stores and asset systems, as well as social networking services on the Web such as YouTube, Wikipedia, and Twitter. Engage will share these resources back out throughout the system ensuring that it's easy to create great user interfaces for both the Web and mobile devices using these services.
Engage takes a slightly different approach to data. We recognize that every collection is unique, and there are lots of different schemas and formats for representing them. It's really hard to get everyone to standardize on one schema, and the result is often unsatisfying for everyone. To avoid this, Engage treats data as structured documents, storing them in a schema-less database designed to allow for a flexible representation of exhibit information.
The Engage Services layer is entirely Web-based, providing a standard and highly interoperable way to find, store, and do things with exhibit content online. Rather than coming up with our own proprietary APIs or creating one monolithic application, the Engage services layer embraces the open Web. This makes the system more extensible, future-proof, and usable within a variety of authoring tools and programming languages.
Services in this layer include:
- Data import from collections and content management systems
- Database and RESTful data feed for sharing exhibit data
- Free-text search
- Tagging, comments, discussion, social networking
- Context awareness and maps
More about Engage services and interoperability...
Today, the mobile space is incredibly diverse, with new devices appearing on the market constantly. At the same time, the newest generation of smart phones such as the iPhone, Google's Android phones, and modern Nokia handsets provide an exciting opportunity to provide rich and interconnected mobile experiences to museum visitors. For the first time, ordinary cell phones and music players are powerful and ubiquitous enough to deliver meaningful content inside and outside of the museum.
Engage's goal is to let visitors use their own mobile devices to access the online exhibit. As a result, we'll support a variety of mobile platforms. In the past, the work of targeting each of these platforms was typically complex and time consuming, requiring development in different programming languages and toolkits.
To provide deeply interactive experiences, mobile exhibits may require access to the native features of the mobile device, such as the camera, audio recording, or location aware services. Engage's mobile application architecture uses a hybrid approach, providing a thin native application that allows us to access the multimedia features of the device, while shielding exhibit designers/developers from having to deal with the complexity of divergent languages and toolkits. This hybrid approach gives us the best of both worlds: target multiple devices at once using familiar Web technologies, and still get the interactivity of native features like the camera and location awareness.
More about Engage mobile...
As a product, Engage consists of a toolkit of user interface components, templates, and data feeds that can be used in conjunction with any Web authoring environment. Our goal is to avoid imposing a substantial new learning curve or change in the existing exhibit authoring workflow, instead providing tools that fit naturally within a museum's preferred way of working. For example, Engage can complement an existing content management system such as Drupal, and can be used with standard off-the-shelf authoring tools such as Adobe Dreamweaver.
User interfaces in Engage are delivered as components, providing them with all the robust and accessible features of Infusion. Engage components are designed specifically for reuse, making them easy to adapt for the mobile, desktop Web, and kiosk environments.
User interface components are designed for each of the primary activities supported by Engage, including components for:
- Browsing and searching objects
- Learning more about specific objects
- Image galleries
- Audio tours
- Interactive maps
- Visitor-created content (comments, discussion, stories)
- My Museum and visitor-created collections
These user interface components are connected up to the appropriate data feeds and services within the Engage services layer, ensuring that they provide dynamic and interactive exhibit experience.
Taking advantage of the Fluid Skinning System (FSS), Engage user interfaces can be easily styled and customized to fit the needs of a particular museum or collection. Users themselves can even personalize Engage to meet their own particular needs, such as high-contrast display or larger tap targets.
Specific mobile themes for the Fluid Skinning System provide a natural look and feel for each supported mobile devices. This theme-based approach significantly lowers the cost of delivering exhibit experiences to different mobile platforms, ensuring that designers don't have to recreate all their content for each device.
Engage includes a service called the Device Presenter, which ensures that the most suitable experience is delivered to a particular device, ensuring that the online exhibit content matches with the desktop Web, mobile, or kiosk environment. Device Presenter will recognize requests from different devices, delivering the best themes, HTML templates, and UI components for the context.
Mapping and Visualization
Maps play a key role in Engage, and they are one of the ways we can best bridge the gap between the physical and online spaces. At the same time, Engage takes a very broad interpretation of mapping, extending to it include both spatial maps and concept maps that connect and visualize relationships between objects in an exhibit.
The Engage Map Authoring Tool allows museums to import existing map illustrations and layer them with tags, images, and other resources to help orient and inform the visitor. This authoring tool is Web-based, and will enable the authoring of maps suitable for both the online and small-screen environments.
Once again, we're taking advantage of open Web technologies to create interactive visualizations. Traditionally, vector drawing and animation has been done using Flash. As the Web matures, new technologies have emerged that provide an alternative to the proprietary and largely inaccessible Flash products. In order to support the best range of platforms—including mobile devices that aren't Flash enabled, such as the iPhone—Engage uses HTML 5's new Canvas feature to draw all visualizations and maps.
More about mapping and visualization...
Location and Context Awareness
Spatial mapping is often associated with wayfinding technologies. Engage has a keen interest in location awareness and wayfinding, but we're also acutely aware of the challenges these pose to implementation in many museums. Location aware technologies are changing rapidly, and few have proven themselves in production over the long term.
Engage's approach to wayfinding is to start simple. Non-location aware mapping is our first goal, providing visitors with useful tools for understanding the layout of an exhibit and the relationships between objects. Using a layered style, Engage's map components will provide context to visitors as they are exploring the physical space, as well as connecting the map with key features such as Search.
Following on this, the community is actively exploring effective and user-friendly tools for location awareness. This includes 2D barcodes and the mobile device's camera, Bluetooth or WiFi-based position location, or even scene recognition. The community is also eager to use low-cost alternatives to mobile devices, such as RFID, which is particularly well-suited to environments with children and school groups. We'll continue to follow the location aware space until we can identify a reasonable and easy-to-implement solution, focusing in the meantime on provide rich context without the added complexity of location awareness.
More about context awareness...
Accessibility is deeply woven into the architecture and technology of Fluid Engage. Rather than apply accessibility solutions as an afterthought, Fluid bakes accessibility in from the start. This not only results in designs that meet the needs of a broad range of users; it also ensures that designs can be genuinely reused and adapted for different contexts and types of exhibits.
The Web-oriented approach of Engage allows us to use emerging rich internet application accessibility standards such as
ARIA (Accessibility for Rich Internet Applications) to create online exhibits that are compatible with assistive technologies. With new mobile devices supporting screen readers and other accessibility tools, this is a significant benefit.
More about accessibility...
The Role of Fluid Infusion
Infusion plays a foundational role in the Engage architecture. Built by the Fluid community, Infusion is a unique toolkit for creating rich and accessible user interfaces on the Web. Infusion provides all the tools and building blocks required to design user interface components that are reusable and can be easily adapted for different environments. Infusion was built from the ground up with accessibility in mind, and it can be used within any Web application or content management system.
Infusion includes a framework, a library of useful components, and a skinning system—all of which are being used to create great user interfaces for Engage. New mobile themes for the Fluid Skinning System (FSS) provide the basis for delivering Web-based content that fits seamless on a mobile device such as the iPhone. Exhibit-specific UI components, such as those for mapping, audio tours, navigating exhibit content, are built using Infusion's time-saving framework features.
Infusion and Engage also share an underlying architectural philosophy, namely:
- Provide tools that are flexible and foster great user experience design
- Make tools that are approachable by a wide range of designers and developers
- Embrace open Web standards to ensure longevity and interoperability