Case study: digitally showcasing collections

From our Let’s Get Real action research programme, this case study describes user testing to gauge public reaction to presenting museum and library collections digitally. The authors explain why and how they carried it out and what they and their organisation learned.

About the participants:

Name: Chloe Roberts and Russell Dornan

Organisation: Wellcome Collection and Wellcome Library

Jump to:

What was the research question behind your experiment? | Why was this important to your organisation? | What did you do to implement this? | What happened? | What were the personal challenges you faced when carrying out this experiment? | What did YOU learn? | What did YOUR ORGANISATION learn? | What next?

What was the research question behind your experiment?

We wanted to give people a flavour of what’s in the reading room.

Our experiment looked to answer three questions:

  1. Do people want to look at lots of things?
  2. Do people want to look at things in depth?
  3. Would people want to visit the object?

Why was this important to your organisation?

We were looking for a way for the Library and Collection to work together to digitally showcase our collections in a new and interesting way. Since the Reading Room was set up as a physical space to do just that, we wanted our project to focus on this hybrid space.

As an organisation, Wellcome encourages experimentation and an approach that piques people’s curiosity. We don’t need to focus on income generation or footfall which gives us a bit more creative freedom. With that in mind, we chose an approach based on dating apps, with a view to allow people to explore our collections in a way they haven’t before.

We wanted it to be fun, simple and unexpected.

What did you do to implement this?

We met with our in-house user experience experts who advised us on how to approach our prototype, urging us to start simple and scale back some of our initial ideas. We created our paper prototype and tested it on staff and visitors.

This involved writing a set of stories based on a variety of objects we chose in the Reading Room accompanied by photographs. Based on user feedback, we iterated and re-tested the paper prototype before feeding all of that knowledge into a digital prototype. This allowed us to test our idea on people in person and remotely, and was closer to how we envisaged the final product.

What happened?

The response to the prototype was very positive. We received really useful feedback, both positive and negative, which allowed us to refine our stories. The constructive nature of the comments flagged aspects of the prototype that we hadn’t fully considered and could then incorporate into the next iteration. It was interesting that some points were widely agreed upon among those tested, whereas others were divisive; all were valuable.

What were the personal challenges you faced when carrying out this experiment?

Our initial apprehension at accosting the public to test our prototype, although this did get easier. Once we developed our digital prototype that could be tested remotely, we hoped more people could test it with the added advantage that we wouldn’t be standing over their shoulder (passively) influencing their behaviour. However, the uptake wasn’t as great as we’d hoped.

What did YOU learn?

We learned how to conduct user testing. Starting simple, and knowing what you want to find out, were critical and made the process much easier and more focussed. People will say anything, even if it’s not exactly relevant to what you’re testing for, but it’s usually still useful. We quickly learned not to take things personally.

Although everyone is different, there were some common themes. When it came to the stories we wrote, we found that people generally like a narrative they can follow, especially ones about people. We learned that images are vital, but need to be of high quality and varied.


If the idea is fun and different, it captures people’s imaginations and leads to greater involvement. When the Collection and Library work together and learn from each other, each benefits from being exposed to a different viewpoint, ethos and range of expertise.

What next? 

We’re still collecting quantitative and qualitative data and hope to present our results to internal stakeholders to see how feasible it would be to make our idea a reality.