Design Critique: Metropolitan Museum of Art Website (Programs for Patrons with Learning Disabilities)

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The Metropolitan Museum of Art is one of the most popular museums in New York City, spanning a large collection of various pieces of art from around the world and from every age of history.  Three years ago, I wrote a memorandum regarding their web page, specifically in reference to people on the autistic spectrum and the programs provided for them.  Revisiting the website now, a lot has changed for the better, but some aspects still need a lot of work.

The first issue that I had while exploring the website is one that I brought up in my memorandum: The layout.  In order to find the programs for people with learning disabilities, one must click on the Learn tab and summon a dropdown menu.  Now, knowing what I know now, this was easy for me to navigate.  But for some people on the spectrum, this might not be readily apparent.  The word “Learn” can be unintuitive if the person viewing the website is not a student or a teacher.  What’s more, when you click on the events provided for autistic patrons, the category shifts from Learn to Events, as highlighted by the dropdown menus above.  Without the logical constriction of autism friendly programs being in a logical category, it would be confusing and frustrating for a person with autism to navigate the website blind.  In essence, they would feel that the mapping is all over the place.

Now, of course, there is going to be overlap between these categories in the dropdown menu.  That is why the link redirect users to one category or another, depending on what they click.  But to avoid confusion, especially when dealing with autistic patrons, there needs to be clearer indications of where to find certain information.  Looking at it now, I believe the best solution would be to utilize a tagging system.  Folksonomies are starting to be the most widely-used method of cataloguing on the internet, and categorizing things is something autistic people enjoy.  The dropdown menus can still be there, but an option to search out specific tags might be helpful in finding the right information.

Another aspect of the website is that special social narrative is provided for autistic people who like the idea of a plan or routine.  The narrative can be viewed here, and I must say, this is one of the bigger improvements they made.  A previous problem I came across was that the narrative for children and the narrative for adults were, if not verbatim, too strikingly similar.  This in turn would dampen the user experience for high-functioning autistic people who do not like being patronized.  This problem was fixed, as reading over it now, it’s not nearly as patronizing.  However, both versions still feel too similar, almost as though it’s a copy/paste job.  That still doesn’t send a good message to patrons, as people of all ages don’t have the same needs.  In fact, different people with autism have different needs.

Sadly, there isn’t an easy fix for this particular problem.  The saying goes that if you’ve met someone with autism, you’ve met someone with autism.  There are some behaviors that can be categorized as autistic, but these rules are very loose and flexible.  As the name implies, autism exists on a spectrum.  As such, it’s practically impossible to design a narrative for every degree on that spectrum.  As such, the Met did the best thing they could in regards to this.  By modifying the language of the narrative, they made it so that it can address the needs of as many people as possible without feeling like an insult to their intelligence.  This in turn improves the user experience and usability of the website’s services.

But one thing that hasn’t improved are the broken links.  Several parts of the narrative and the website itself redirect to 404 pages, as though the interface hasn’t been updated in quite some time.  While some links have been fixed since my original memorandum, some continue to remain broken, throwing the usability of the website into question.  This is probably the simplest problem to fix: Update the links and provide the information users would need.

I’m not sure if the memorandum was sent to the Met itself, as I created it specifically for Autism Friendly Spaces: A non-profit organization seeking to make it easier for people with autism to experience museums, plays, and movies.  Though if they did, I’d say that while they didn’t take all of my suggestions to heart, they made some marked improvements on how to navigate their website.  Nevertheless, there is still work to be done, although the fixes are relatively simple.