Martijn van der Heijden


(with tools from the #MW18 workshop)

Creating catchy content formats, beyond the online collection #MW18

If a room full of art works doesn’t make an exhibition, would bringing a collection online be enough to engage visitors with your stories? Probably not, unless you’re the Louvre and people know what you offer. And even then, content formats will make visitors scroll, click and share your collection more. But how to choose and create them?

This blog outlines the steps you can take and shares some tools I created with Kate Huckle and Louise Cohen of the RA for a workshop at Museums and the Web 2018 in Vancouver. These steps are generally part of the discovery and concept phases, alongside technical discovery, content analysis, online identity design etc. Depending on the scope, client and complexity of a project these phases take a few months. But in the workshop, we did it in 3 hours ;-)

Off you go!

Step 1: what makes your museum, collection and audience unique?

On the web, the world’s greatest museums are only a click away. Also YouTube, Facebook and innumerable other sites compete for the user’s attention, who is easily distracted. This makes getting people to actually engage with a collection online quite difficult. We believe that to succeed, a museum needs to offer something uniquely fitted to its brand, collection and audience.

Find the sweet spot where museum focus, collection strengths and audience preferences overlap.

Museum focus

What’s the museum’s focus? Why does it exist and what are its goals if you look at mission, vision and strategy? What brand values does it have? What does it better than others — call them it usp’s.

For example, the Rijksmuseum is the museum of The Netherlands, and wants to be close to all Dutch. This didn’t only make it logical to enable everyone to create its own ‘Rijksstudio’ from the collection, it also influenced the visual, full screen design Fabrique made.

Collection strengths

What is particularly strong about the collection? This could be the types of objects you have or some unique, known pieces. But also what information you have on them, like (meta)data, images, descriptions or user reviews. Be critical: how special are these qualities if you compare the collection not just with your peers nearby, but with other museums in the world?

An example here is the Van Gogh Museum’s website. Fabrique developed a longform storyformat that is used to publish bimonthly stories. In them the museum cannot only use the largest collection of Van Gogh paintings in the world, it can also include letters and drawings to highlight aspects of the artist’s personal and artistic development.

Audience preferences

What does the intended audience want? To answer that question, you first need to choose a specific audience segment to design for. This is crucial: if you try to be everything to everyone, you end up being appealing for nobody. So choose who you want to reach right now. Families with young children? Hard core art buffs?

For your chosen audience, find out who they are and what they like. Do they have a relationship with you on- or offline? How do they live, what channels and sites do they frequent, what are they interested in or put off by? How important is your field, whether it’s contemporary art or natural history to them?

Don’t make assumptions here, but get real insights. Speak with people from this group, interview them about themselves and their life. Showing and discussing examples of your own and other websites in a focus group can be really revealing.

 For example, when we interviewed a group of regular visitors and friends of the Royal Academy and found out that they were quite motivated, interested in not just finished art works, but also the process of making art and the artist as a person. This led to Top picks, which you can think of as podcasts with images. About 10 mins long an artist or other cultural figure talks about hers or his favourite collection items.

The three different content formats Fabrique developed with the RA’s audiences in mind can be seen in this video. A case presentation can be found on Slideshare.

Workshop tool: analysis canvas

canvas for analysing museum, collections and audience.

You can use the canvas below to look at your own museum. collection and audience and chart what makes it unique. For a workshop I prefer to work on paper, so I print empty canvasses on A3 paper in advance.

Analysis canvas for the Royal Academy of Arts online collection

Step 2: sharpen the brief

A clear concise brief leads to stronger concepts than a long list of requirements. It’s like playing a game: lots of rules make boring play whereas a few simple ones invite surprising actions. Similarly, it’s easier to come up with creative solutions when you don’t have to keep a lot of details in mind that can be solved later.

So it’s good to boil down the analysis of museum. collection and audience to a few points each. Like always 3 is a good number, though do vary if you need to. It helps to make these choices with a few others, who can challenge your choices.

Workshop tool: briefing cards

Take the canvas you filled in step 1. For each category pick 3 keywords and write each on A6 cards. To make step 3 easier, use a different color card per category. And again, focus on what’s unique, not on what you’ve got in common with others.

During Museums and the Web the workshop participants did step 1 individually for their own museum. After this they formed groups of four, deciding amongst themselves for which museum to work for. Working in groups helped, as Maya Donkers of the J. Paul Getty Museum commented: “The teamwork was essential to expanding ideas while learning about different online collections.

Step 3: format concept generation

The concept is the central idea of a format. A good concept can be as short as a few words or a small sketch of an interaction principle. For example ‘an interactive documentary about one painting’ is the concept of this site for Bosch’s The Garden of Eartly Delights. As you can see from the description it uses existing concepts (documentary, interactive) to make a new combination — just like the film ‘Brokeback mountain’ could be described as ‘A western bromance movie’.

The concept phase is the fuzzy part of any creative process and designers often have their own favorite ways to come up with ideas. One method that can work well is force-fitting: feeding yourself seemingly dissimilar or unrelated elements to come up with new ideas. The technique stimulates searching for new perspectives or combinations. 

Workshop tool: collection content format concept generator

Using the cards created in step 5, and a set of cards with common and not so common formats, you can create questions to your team with the following structure:

What [content format] tells people who are [audience insight] about your [museum focus] using [collection strength]?

The cards for content formats can be prepared beforehand. Put in a few likely suspects (like long form story) and a few unlikely ones (chatbot). And add a few blanks for new ideas during the workshop. The cards we used for MW18 were these:

Put down the cards randomly. Now read the sentence and brainstorm about it of a minute or two.See if the combination triggers a concept. If not, just randomly change the cards, and try again. If so, write it down and/or make a rough sketch.

Repeat this for about 30 mins to maximum 1 hour, as that’s when generally the creativity dries up. At the end of the generation, choose which (one or a few) you will prototype. A quick way to decide is dot voting.

Workshop participants generating concepts during Museums and the Web 2018

Step 4: paper prototype your concepts

By making a concept tangible you can feel yourself and check with others whether it stands up and where it needs improving. Paper prototyping means creating a low-fidelity example, often simply a sketch by hand on paper.

A few guidelines for creating a prototype:

  • Make it just good enough to communicate what you want to test. In this case, it’s mostly whether people would be interested in this kind of format, the subject and the global interaction. A clear sketch or storyboard, with written or oral explanation does the trick.
  • Make it tangible by prototype a possible actual example of the format — not just a sketch of the structure. Using actual titles like “How art reflects life — 5 responses to the murder of Martin Luther King” and sketching images helps others to value the concept.
  • Give all prototypes the same fidelity if you test multiple concepts. Otherwise the high fidelity formats will be valued best, independent of their quality. If you you’re your concepts alongside screenshots of existing websites, you’ll need a visual designer to ‘pixel’ the concept.
  • If you sketch multiple screens, make the path between them logical. E.g. if you create an overview page and a detail page, make sure they both feature the same object.
  • If you sketch multiple screens, make the path between them logical. E.g. if you create an overview page and a detail page, make sure they both feature the same object.

  • If your format offers a linear experience, like a movie, a storyboard is more useful than full screens.

Workshop tools

Two prototypes of content formats developed during the workshop at Museums and the Web.

Since the form of your prototype greatly depends on the format you choose, the tools also need to be flexible. I usually just have A4 and A3 paper ready as well as black fineliners, and some thicker pens like Sharpies in a multiple colors.

Step 5: Test your formats

There’s multiple ways of testing the formats. A simple one is presenting them to colleagues who may or may not be involved. This generally helps sharpening the concept and your rationale, but is little indication whether your audience will actually appreciate the format. After all it’s not their work, so they have less previous knowledge, less external motivation, and probably less interest, all of which influence appreciation negatively.

We generally test concepts in either a series of 1:1 interviews (3–5 are enough to uncover key issues) or in a focus group with 4–8 users. An experienced interviewer is useful, but do listen in silently to hear what people say. If you are doing your own testing, you best look at a book like Rocket Surgery Made Easy, by Steve Krug.

Workshop tip

Anthea Gunn of the Australian War Memorial presenting a prototype during Museums and the Web 2018.

In a three hour workshop it hard to go out and ask users for their time and feedback. So during Museums and the Web we just had all teams pitch their prototypes to the group, with room for one or two comments afterwards.


Hopefully by now you’ve arrived at a concept that catches your audience’s interest. Great! Now the only thing you need to do is to realize it — which is actually the largest and hardest part of the work you’ll need to do: designing, developing, possibly integrating with collection APIs, testing and launching. If your format requires editorial work, start this as early as possible, so you can develop the content together with the design. And don’t forget to test designs or early results with your audience — feedback always makes things better.

Thanks to Kate Huckle, Senior Product Manager, and Louise Cohen, Head of Digital Content and Channels at the RA in London, for presenting the RA Online Collection case and co-hosting the workshop at MW2018. Thanks for all participants for joining.

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