Observing Interaction at the Museum of Natural History

This weekend I took a trip with some classmates to the excellent American Museum of Natural History here in New York. There were plenty of interactive components to exhibits, mostly in the (rather disappointing) Creatures of Light exhibit. One particular setup had users press a button to flash a light, mimicking a firefly’s bioluminescence, which when done in the correct pattern would cause a group of LEDs to flash in response. The goal was to simulate how males use certain patterns of flashing to attract females.

Though the interaction itself was simple, the instructions and lack of feedback caused confusion for most users. A placard next to the light switch prominently displayed four light flashing patters in morse code style notation, two for male and two for female. Further down on the placard, beyond where I would imagine most people stopped reading, it was stated confusingly that in this scenario the user plays the role of the male. This left the users I observed (and myself) unsure over what to do next.

The next issue was feedback. The only feedback received was of success: when a user flashed the correct pattern, the “females” flashed back. If the user didn’t flash the right pattern, they received no notification as to what they did wrong. Flashing at the wrong speed, flashing to wrong pattern and not holding down the button for long enough were three problems I could imagine users having, but because there was no feedback I am unsure if any of those things even mattered.

This is something one sees often in websites: if the nonfunctioning of the product is the user’s fault but they receive no indication of that fact, they will mistake nonfunctioning for malfunctioning and blame the product. That is what happened in this case.