How We Work With Museums
Copyright © 2006-Present, TechnoFrolics

The Problem –
A need for prototyping, user testing, and flexibility

      Often, clients who come to us for help designing and building their exhibits have a relatively fixed budget.  Because of this, they sometimes feel the need to receive fixed price bids for what may appear, at least at the outset, to be well-defined deliverables.
For the sake of you the client, your visiting public, and ourselves, we do our best to encourage an alternative exhibit development process – quite different than that of specing and pricing an exhibit up front well before adequate prototyping and field-testing has been performing.
Through many years of experience, we have found that in 99% of the cases where a new exhibit is being developed, repeated prototype iterations are required in order to have the final result be the kind of fun, educational, and long-lasting exhibit that all parties desire.  In almost all cases, early stage prototypes, particularly when tested with real museum visitors, highlight issues that require a significant deviation from the original design.  Because of this, fixed-price up-front bids have numerous problems, including:

  • Both the museum and exhibit developer tend to proceed as if the best final form of the exhibit can be determined a-priori without visitor testing.  We believe this to be false virtually 100% of the time, and very destructive to assume.

  • There is a tendency to bid the exhibit design and fabrication work so low that there is no way to perform needed modifications, because these modifications become obvious only after a working unit - all too often the final and only one - is observed in use by actual visitors.

  • Frustration, stress, and disappointment on the part of the client museum, exhibit designer/fabricator, and museum visitors, may all result.


The Solution – Develop the exhibit in stages

      In order to avoid the above problems, we suggest the following four phases.

      Phase I: Brainstorm together about the exhibit goals, along with a wide range of possible methods to achieve those goals.

       Phase II: Choose a minimum of one, and possibly as many as four, simple, quick to make, inexpensive prototypes to test in the museum environment.  Agree on a not-to-exceed figure, typically around 15% of the total exhibit budget, to develop the prototype(s).
Deliver the prototypes for evaluation and field-testing.  Depending on the outcome of the tests, decided either to further develop one of the existing prototypes, or build a new Phase II prototype taking into account what has been learned.

      Phase III: Using the results of visitor testing in Phase II, design and build a more sophisticated prototype, along with an associated not-to-exceed figure, typically around 45% of the total exhibit budget.
Deliver the prototype for evaluation and field-testing.  Make adjustments to the prototype if necessary based upon evaluation.

      Phase IV: Fabricate the exhibit in final form, with crisp graphics, ruggedized parts, elegant finish work, etc.  Typically this takes 40% of the exhibit budget.
The problem with the typical exhibit fabrication process and fixed-price up-front bids, is that entering into such a structure assumes (we believe quite incorrectly) that Phase IV is all that is required, when in fact Phase IV consumes less than half the needed effort and budget.


A Real World example

      The Museum of Science in Boston contracted us to design and develop an interactive exhibit that allows visitors to explore the inner workings of a computer’s magnetic disk drive.

      Phase I: While the museum had a general idea of what they wanted to convey to the visitor, much initial brainstorming, in the form of conversations and iterated written description, was required to come up with an initial plan.

      Phase II: We designed and built (in a not-to-exceed pricing structure) a simple hand-activated unit.  This prototype was composed of eight specially designed bi-stable macroscopic magnetic dipoles, attached to a user-turned disk, with a hand-switched electromagnet to set each dipole to a “1” or “0” state.
The Museum of Science then tested this unit for a number of weeks in the museum, supervised by a staff member, and found it to be very successful – visitors loved it.

      Phase III: Using the results of Phase II, we designed and built a much more sophisticated microcontroller-based unit, with a motorized disk platter, two independently addressable rings of eight bi-stable dipoles, dual 8 bit binary LED readouts, and more.  At the beginning of this phase, we provided a not-to-exceed cost for both this Phase III prototype, and for taking that prototype to final form.
Upon completion of this prototype, both museum staff and we realized that certain modifications were needed before visitor testing.  Those changes we made under an addition to the budget.
After testing this Phase III prototype for a three month period, in a staff-supervised fashion, the museum of science constructed the final exhibit based upon visitor and museum staff evaluation.

An Added Benefit –
You can evaluate us quickly and with low risk!

      What is the worst thing about hiring a new employee or exhibit design and fabrication firm?   The answer is, that before ever working together, you must make a big commitment, and risk the possibility that the results you get will be less than ideal – a fact you will often discover only after it is too late.
With our multi-stage exhibit design and fabrication method, this problem is completely avoided.  Rather than entering into a contract for an entire exhibit, or set of exhibits, you can work with us completely incrementally, and choose to continue working with us or stopping at any time.  In other words, when you work with us:

  • You can begin design and development work immediately.  Even if you choose eventually to work with another firm, our efforts will have helped define the exhibit, its strengths, and its problem areas.

  • Your up front dollar commitment is very low.  Because our process is to first build a very simple hand-activated staff-supervised prototype, initial costs are very low – and the prototype provides enormously useful information regarding the eventual success of the final exhibit.

  • You can evaluate the quality of our work, and the overall experience of collaborating with us, before making a large long-term commitment!