Tips for creating engaging museum interactives

This post comes on the tail end of designing and developing two touch screen interactives for History SA; one promoting the South Australian Maritime Museum’s new Living in Port app and one for the Migration Museum’s new Freedom exhibit. Since I’ve been living in the world of touchscreens I thought it would be a good opportunity to write a few tips.

As touchscreens and related tech become more accessible and easier to use, more and more museums are opting to include digital displays in exhibits. Whether you are looking for a way to communicate more information while taking up less real estate, or looking to engage younger audiences that get bored quickly, digital interactives can be a great addition to exhibitions …  if done well.

There are a variety of uses for digital interactives in exhibition spaces, including games, full digital exhibitions, or simply providing expanded information. Across the world I’ve seen a wealth of interactive displays, featuring everything from basic information resources to fully fledged games and edutainment. Want an example? Go to the Scienceworks Museum and design your own shoe 🙂

Create your own "Future Sneaker" at the Scienceworks Museum in Melbourne

Create your own “Future Sneaker” at the Scienceworks Museum in Melbourne

Some of these interactives are obviously pretty complex, but the starting point for including digital displays is a lot simpler. If you’re a curator getting started with including digital displays, or maybe a designer trying to create your first one, read on.

Be attention grabbing

There’s no point having an interactive display if it fades into the background. This is why attractions sequences are a must-have for engaging displays.

An attraction sequence is something that most good interactive displays start once they aren’t in use. A nice and aesthetic attraction sequence helps to grab attention, at the same time as indicating ‘hey you, I’m interactive, come play with me!’

  • Make it obvious, but not too tacky. Subtle animation and movement goes a long way.
  • Ensure that the attraction sequence kicks in fairly early once the display isn’t in use.
  • Make sure the attraction sequence doesn’t look like a display in itself. A slideshow or animation is great, but a note to ‘touch to start’ can be useful.
A computer screen with photos laid out in a grid

The interface for the Freedom interactive, for the Migration Museum, uses an uneven grid, smooth animation, and great imagery to grab attention.

Be easy to use

You don’t know who will be using your interactive, how young or old they may be, and most importantly how much experience they have with fancy touchscreens. Make sure that your display is easy to use and simple to understand.

  • It should be clear that visitors can interact with the display. While it may be humorous watching people subtly touch a screen just in case it’s interactive, it’s better to make it obvious so they don’t need to be embarrassed 😛
  • Ensure that all buttons have big enough “hit areas”. A hit area is the area around the button that will still activate the button if pressed, i.e. the user’s aim doesn’t need to be exact. This can help young and old that might have trouble with fine motor skills, and would have difficulty touching the right parts of the screen.
  • Calls to action and instructions help people navigate and (hopefully) avoid confusion.
  • Make sure the interactive is stable and (relatively) unbreakable. There’s nothing more experience shattering than a display bugging out while you’re trying to explore.

In the case of the Living in Port interactive, usability was a real must-have. The interactive featured a photo slider that enabled the user to compare a photo from the past to the same location in the present. Since this isn’t something that people encounter every day, usability was a focus. To help with this the controls for the slider had a massive hit area, meaning that the user didn’t need to be a pro to be able to control it.


With a bit of a learning curve for new players, usability was a real focus for the Living in Port interactive. The red bar on the right shows the area that the user is able to tap to slide the image, rather than needing to tap the small yellow button exactly.


Be beautiful

Of course looks aren’t everything, but if you want to grab attention and be engaging then good design and quality graphics are a must. The great part about designing the Freedom interactive is that the photography, from Melbourne photographer Andy Drewitt, was the focus. The rest of the design happily took a backseat.

Andy's photography brought a touch of beauty to the interactive.

Andy’s photography brought a touch of beauty to the Freedom interactive.

Do what people expect

I’m all for thinking outside the box and breaking boundaries, but not at the risk of frustrating users. Since the rise of the smartphone era there are certain conventions people expect to be in place when using touchscreens. Make use of the standard gestures, like swiping to navigate pages. Not everyone will choose to do this over using the buttons, but those that try will be rewarded with a smooth experience.

Long story short, buttons aren’t the be all and end all of user interfaces. You’re using a touchscreen, make it worthwhile.

Any more tips?

These are just some of the tips that I’ve come up with after developing my recent interactives. Have you had experience creating interactive displays, for museums or otherwise? We’d love to hear some of your tips too. And of course, visit the Migration Museum and the South Australian Maritime Museum to check out their brand new displays 🙂

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