Creating Wall-Sized Interaction at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum

Sep 30, 2016

As any experienced retailer will tell you, the customer experience begins at the store entrance. Note the friendly Walmart greeter, the approachable minimalism of an Apple Store, and the calculated whimsy of Anthropologie. Store designers understand that a customer’s decision to make a purchase is often made within seconds of entering.

The same holds true for visitors entering a museum. And while most museums are not expert peddlers of merchandise (though some museum stores certainly are), the savvy ones value the entrance experience and work to iterate and improve.

Interactive wall at Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (NASM) entrance.

The Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum faced challenges orienting visitors to its expansive building and impressive array of exhibitions. According to a 2013 visitor study (

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PDF, 191 kb, 19 pages), “two in five visitors found the entrance inviting, but one in five did not know which way to go next; one in five thought it looked too empty; one in ten couldn’t see if there was an information desk; and one in ten found it confusing.”

This finding revealed a potential pain-point in a visitor’s experience. It also spotlighted a huge opportunity: tackling the problem would improve the overall impression of roughly 6 million annual visitors. The museum proceeded with plans to revamp, and on July 1st of this year, reopened a transformed introductory space, the Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall. The new installation features a streamlined look, a more open and spacious floor plan, and a new Welcome Center. It is designed to grab visitors’ attention with iconic objects like Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis and the Apollo Lunar Module, and entice them to explore the rest of the museum and its collection.

To help orient and excite visitors, the museum went big – a 12 by 16 ft. interactive wall to be exact. The wall is made up of 21 panels, with the lower (and reachable) portion being touchscreen. Plainly visible from the Jefferson Drive entrance, the wall draws visitors through the Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall and provides an illuminated canvas to touch, move, and learn about items from the museum’s collection.

The wall is a surprisingly kinetic experience. Museum objects like the 1903 Wright Flyer and Amelia Earhart’s flight goggles are framed inside bubble-like circles, waiting to be tapped and explored. Visitors, especially children, love to swirl and “throw” the bubbles in various directions. Powered by a virtual physics engine, the bubbles bounce off each other and interact in a life-like manner.

Close up on Space module on interactive wall at Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (NASM).

Taking more time with the wall reveals thoughtful information architecture and a simple interface. Visitors can tap museum objects already floating on the screen, or they can drill into major themes like People, Aviation, and Space. Tapping “Space,” for example, reveals space-related objects and sub-themes that can be further explored like Exploration, Spacecraft, and Human Spaceflight. Each object has a short description and a floor map showing its location in the museum. Objects can be added to a personal favorites list on the museum’s new GO FLIGHT app via a unique PIN number.

The interactive wall was built after many months of ideation, prototyping, and user testing. At the outset, the team established core objectives, namely:

  • give an overall impression of the museum and its underlying curatorial theme (“aviation and human spaceflight transform the world”);
  • orient visitors to the collection and help them find items on display;
  • promote and connect to the GO FLIGHT app;
  • and be a short experience that keeps people moving and doesn’t impede traffic flow.

Prototyping a wall-sized interactive proved challenging. While the overall process was no different from prototyping for desktop or mobile, the outsized scale was sometimes unwieldy. The team drafted full-length paper prototypes, hung them with masking tape at the same height the real interactive would be, and tested them with museum visitors. To model interaction, the prototypes were composed of multiple sheets of paper. Every time a user tapped the “screen” two staff members would hang a new sheet, simulating a user’s journey through the interface.

Paper prototyping and user testing for the interactive wall at Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (NASM).

The team conducted three rounds of paper prototyping, testing with five or six visitors each time. Every round provided valuable insights and swayed the design direction. Staff debated the merits of including a search box to help people find museum objects, but prototype testing quickly showed the feature was of little interest to visitors. The original interface of slide-out menus and in-depth filters was abandoned after observing people getting lost and confused. After prototyping with paper, the full-sized wall was created by Bluecadet, an interactive design firm in Philadelphia. Testing the live touchscreen experience with school groups and adults resulted in multiple iterations and finer design improvements.

The project was further informed by a model of museum visitor types by Dr. John Falk, author of Identity and the Museum Experience. Falk’s model identifies five key types of museum visitors: explorers, facilitators, experience seekers, professionals/hobbyists, and rechargers. Each type holds certain behaviors, for example an “experience seeker” prioritizes seeing iconic, must-see objects, and an “explorer” is inclined to follow their curiosity and take a more serendipitous path. Keeping Falk’s visitor types in mind helped the team design for varying user needs and motivations.

The interactive wall has been on display for three months now and the team is closely following its metrics. In fact, one of the first post-launch tweaks was to configure Google Analytics to run more effectively on the wall. Looking at the numbers so far, the team wants to better promote the GO FLIGHT app and increase the number of people who sync with the app from the wall.

Woman using the interactive wall.

Observations and informal conversations with visitors show the wall is accomplishing its main objectives: orienting people and providing an entrée to the museum’s contents. The team plans to conduct formal focus groups for detailed insights, but just a few minutes of watching reveals the wall’s gravitational pull—upon entering the building, eager children and families walk up with their curiosity piqued. Some engage quickly and instinctively, others take their time and dive deeper into the content. And some people stay at a distance, gazing at the wall as if it’s a piece of digital media art. Regardless, visitors leave the wall with a bounce in their step, having experienced something unique and sensory, ready to go off and explore the museum.

(All references to specific brands and/or companies are used only for illustrative purposes and do not imply endorsement by the U.S. federal government or any federal government agency.) Is your agency using innovative technologies to enhance user experience? Let us know in the comments below or send us an email. Interested in more great content like this? Sign up for our daily or weekly DigitalGov newsletter!