Story Board: Hardly the Jank-Fest It Could Have Been
Erica Gangsei, USA , Andrew Delaney, USA
What if a museum’s digital storytelling tool were modeled after something like Pinterest, blending internally produced content with links out to the web at large? And what if that tool, instead of being the product of a long-term, well-funded, museum-wide initiative, were built by just a few staff, in a short time, with a modest budget, using whatever tools we already have? What if the work done on a “quick and dirty” project like this could be leveraged toward future, and perhaps larger, initiatives aimed at braiding together multimedia, texts, social media, and related external resources? SFMOMA recently set out to explore these what-ifs with a prototypical publishing experiment called Story Board.
Story Board is a digital hub that blends SFMOMA-produced content with a constellation of outside links, and encourages intuitive browsing. It is the first major collaborative effort of SFMOMA’s newly formed Content Strategy and Digital Engagement division, which brings together Interpretive Media (formerly in Education), Community Engagement, Graphic Design, Web, and Publications. The project is intended to function as a platform for dialogue and the exchange of ideas by way of SFMOMA’s social media channels and blog. The digital hub is designed to be modular, flexible, and easy to update quickly as new stories are surfaced.
In this paper, we describe in depth the process of envisioning, creating and updating Story Board, from the content and production sides. We will also reflect on lessons learned from this experiment and how we have already applied them going forward.
Keywords: Website, prototype, storytelling, project management
1. Setting ourselves up to fail
Jankfest n. (jāynk-fĕst) – a whole lot of jank going down at one time.
Jank adj. (jāynk) – bootleg or of questionable quality.
How do you know when to say no to a project? We’ve all been there. There’s not enough time, money, or staff bandwidth. It’s summer so your whole project team is on vacation. You don’t have the appropriate tools in your arsenal—in fact, the proposed project completely defies the existing logic of your CMS or website structure. There’s an army of stakeholders with big, diffuse dreams, wishes, and expectations. There’s no way it’s going to be perfect; in fact it might just be a total jankfest. But we can stand to gain a lot by taking on this kind of challenge. When presented with a compelling opportunity to launch a new digital storytelling tool, with only seven weeks from inception to execution, SFMOMA’s Content Strategy and Digital Engagement team jumped on it. This is the story of Story Board, and how its successes and failures have informed our museum’s next generation of digital publishing initiatives.
2. What is Story Board?
Storyboard n. (stôrē-bôrd) – A panel or series of panels of rough sketches outlining the scene sequence and major changes of action or plot in a production to be shot on film or video.
Story Board was just one aspect of a museum-wide collaborative focus on international artwork and artists that included a mixed media group exhibition, Six Lines of Flight, a concurrent photography exhibition, South Africa in Apartheid and After, and a related series of public programs and symposia called Here, There and Elsewhere. Over a period of more than a year leading up to the opening of Six Lines of Flight, a large interdepartmental team, including representatives from Curatorial, Education, Public Programs, and Interpretation, met to discuss key concepts and goals shared by these projects. Many of us also participated in round table discussions and interviews with the artists and a suite of local project collaborators. As the exhibitions and programs took shape, a clear need emerged for a way to surface the broad range of dynamic and interconnected content brought together by this programming. The online platform we eventually decided to build would support the initiatives taking place in real life—in SFMOMA’s galleries, at venues around San Francisco, and in multiple cities around the world—and serve as a destination in itself for those unable to travel to the places featured in the project.
Throughout the extended content-development process around the exhibitions and programs mentioned above, Story Board had no name or defined shape. It was simply known as “the digital component” or “the online presence.” The project first came up in a series of planning meetings around Six Lines of Flight, an exhibition featuring artists, collectives, and artist-run spaces from six cities around the world that are considered “peripheral” in contrast to major international art centers like New York, London, Los Angeles, and Berlin. In conjunction with the exhibition, the museum was also planning an ambitious 10-day-long Education and Public Programs Festival called Here, There, and Elsewhere, and a number of projects on social media and the blog. The “digital component” we desired needed to support multi-vocal storytelling drawn from both exhibition and public program content, related writings in the Six Lines of Flight catalogue, associated initiatives on SFMOMA’s blog and social media channels, and links out to the web at large—to the very places where these peripheral art centers already had a presence.
The current SFMOMA website did not have any functionality that could aggregate all these different content types according to multiple thematic threads; our CMS could only associate content by artwork, artist, or exhibition, and the relations could only be displayed on specific pages. Even though the Six Lines of Flight project had been in the works for over a year, the “digital component” was not enough of an institution-wide initiative to draw the staff time or developer dollars needed to pull something like this off. But instead of saying no, we entered headlong into our “heroic” phase, accepted the challenge and chose to use the short time frame, limited bandwidth, and smallish budget as opportunities. We had a lot of great content, a good number of living artists with vibrant online presences, and a young curator who was game to collaborate. The website didn’t have to be perfect. So we decided to say yes and just see where it would get us. A rapid prototype allowed us to try out some new models for online publishing in a low-stakes environment. Throwing spaghetti at the wall can be a great way to find out what sticks.
True to the origins of its name, Story Board has acted as a bulletin board on which SFMOMA brings together a variety of content to reveal thematically related narratives. It was designed to be modular, flexible, and easy to update as new stories surfaced. The rich collection of stories and links continued to grow and morph through weekly updates over the course of a three-month period. In its final state, the site had grown to contain 160 pieces of content. Through this process, the platform evolved to become a sort of waystation, directing visitors to dialogue and the exchange of ideas by way of the internet, SFMOMA’s social media channels, and our blog, Open Space.
3. Our Process
Not only was this project the first major collaborative initiative of the museum’s newly formed Content Strategy and Digital Engagement department, it was in part born out of that institutional re-organization. The content development process for the exhibitions stretched over a prolonged period of time, but the digital component did not take a defined shape until just after that re-org took effect. Our project team members had always been collaborative partners across a low barrier between departments, but we found ourselves now in working groups under the same umbrella. This new infrastructure empowered us to move forward in a united front, and make first steps toward greater innovation. We stood to learn something from Story Board, about digital storytelling as such but also about working together in this new arrangement. A small budget ($10k for changes to site infrastructure) and relatively low commitment of staff time challenged us to be agile and pushed us to experiment with rapid prototyping of content publishing streams. We often talk of enabling the freedom to try and fail; in this project we allowed ourselves that freedom.
The Six Lines of Flight exhibition, catalogue, artist video interviews, symposia, and associated research strands provided a distinct but broad content set from which the digital aspect of the project emerged. The stories we chose to tell were developed through a series of conversations among the internal stakeholders. The hub ended up being structured thematically around artists and places, and explored multiple connections between various content types. This novel content set pushed us to go beyond bread-and-butter publishing streams, but the built-in time and budget limitations of the project helped determine how far beyond. Frankly, the process was greatly simplified by the compressed development timeline; anything that wasn’t locked down just fell off the trolley.
Catalyzed as they were by our recent institutional re-org, the user-experience (UX) and content management system (CMS) development timelines for this project were significantly more compressed than that for the content. From the moment we got down to brass tacks, we had just seven weeks to design and develop the interface and post the content online. Here’s a weekly breakdown:
Week 1: Define and prioritize features, cull and categorize content into master spreadsheet
Week 2: Create wireframes, kickoff visual design, write up all features into agile UX stories
Week 3: Hand off prioritized feature list to CMS developer for cost and time estimate to implement modifications, continue visual design
Week 4: Finalize visual design, build out multimedia asset pages, review feature priorities based on developer estimate
Week 5: Developer kickoff, core project staff depart on previously-planned summer vacations
Week 6: Content into CMS, content review by Editorial team
Week 7: Final testing, revisions, and publish
The UX and visual design of Story Board were done in-house by the Web team, with some direction from the Graphic Design department. We repurposed as many visual vocabularies from the existing website as possible. We limited ourselves to two rounds of UX design over a period of about two weeks. The visual design process followed the same schedule of two weeks with short bursts of design review. The truncated timeline forced us to make quick decisions and focus on functionality for the overall experience.
Prioritization was key. The CMS development was strictly time-restricted to meet our budgetary needs. We came up with a set of minimum required features for the project to launch successfully and when we completed those features, we were able to add a few more to improve the overall experience of the interface. We met the minimum requirement in about a week of development time and had an additional two days to polish and add a few “nice to haves”. We also structured the development timeline so that CMS modifications took place when other key project staff went on vacation—successfully adopting a “divide and conquer” model.
Although we launched with 100+ pieces of content, populating the site actually took the least amount of time. This is because we had been highly organized throughout the content development process, and had all of the modules listed out in a master spreadsheet in categories that mirrored the site structure. Once we finished the core features that allowed us to start publishing content, we were able to publish to the CMS even before project development was fully complete. This was a benefit of clear communication between the production and content teams.
Weekly updates were coordinated by the core project team (basically the authors of this paper). Erica Gangsei functioned as managing editor, pulling links together from other members of the content team. Andrew handled production and publishing of content. From week to week, we were a two-person task force, with input and feedback from other core content stakeholders such as the main editor on the catalogue. The burden for keeping the website fresh was ours and, for the most part, ours alone.
This actually kept the process of updating the website relatively light and fast. If more stakeholders had been actively involved in the weekly updates, the process would have needed to be much more formalized. Simply put, the higher a project’s profile is, the less agile it becomes. It will be interesting to see how experiments like this scale up to larger contexts, or different instances, moving forward.
4. But Why??
Given the lack of time and the lack of budget, why would we set ourselves up to undertake something with so much potential to be janky? It turned out that there were a number of things we stood to gain from this project. There was a lot of great content available and some wonderful collaborators both at SFMOMA and outside. We saw a clear opportunity to evolve our content development and publishing practices, and to refine our own internal working methods and processes.
Test new ideas for digital storytelling online
SFMOMA has been publishing multimedia for many years, but being early adopters meant that some of our past go-to publishing methods are now somewhat outdated. Story Board allowed us to iterate some initial ideas for new storytelling tools. Digital publishing has moved into a world that democratically blends information from different sources, prioritizes the “story” as a discrete content unit, and allows users to browse intuitively linked modules via recommendation systems. Story Board was a first modest step in the direction of a dream publishing tool combining the best of sites we admire like Pinterest, Pandora, nytimes.com and npr.org.
Provide a democratic presentation of SFMOMA-produced content with social media and links out
Just as publishing tools have changed, so too have the ways in which we access information. Simply put, museums are pushing themselves to be more democratic and incorporate a greater multiplicity of voices than ever before. We wanted to develop a publishing tool that would blend the different content types that SFMOMA routinely produces—such as video and text relating to exhibitions—with links out to the web at large. Our staff discovers so much amazing content in the process of researching exhibitions and artists, Story Board gave us an opportunity to surface this fascinating ancillary information in the heart of our own website. This enabled us to play with our institution’s editorial voice by featuring content produced by others in the same hierarchy as internally produced content. We also embedded blog and social media content right into the Story Board screens. For years, much of the dialogue beyond our formal institutional voice has taken place in parallel channels like Facebook, Twitter and the blog; Story Board folded them into a digital hub on our own website.
Create an intuitive browsing experience of associated content
The current SFMOMA website relates exhibition, event, artwork, artist, and multimedia content by matching each piece through an assigned artist name. This functionality has been great for displaying general top-level content relationships-media about Matisse will always take you to more media about Matisse, and so on, but it has not allowed us to create theme-based or curated content relations. Story Board allowed us to create an interface with browsable content by multiple themes for a more nuanced experience. For example, we created a page for a place called “Everywhere” which featured a selection of artist-run spaces and grassroots initiatives—not just from the cities in Six Lines of Flight but from all over the world.
Story Board also introduced a more visual way to for us to display related content. The majority of the existing related content links on our website are presented through lists of hyperlinked text, with just a few highlighted modules containing an image. The text hyperlinks are visually indistinct, and require users to read the text if they want to know what they are clicking into. We needed new ways for users to browse by image, and preview a variety of media directly on a single page before diving deeper.
Model a prototype for the interim website
Due to our upcoming museum closure for expansion in June 2013, SFMOMA will soon be without a single building for our audiences to visit. During this time, we will rely heavily on the dissemination of information through multifaceted platforms, digital storytelling tools, and rich, tablet-compatible interfaces. Story Board allowed us to test new ways the museum can broadcast, publish information, and interact with our audiences and communities—creating a program destination beyond the bricks and mortar. Our experience with Story Board has directly informed decisions made around new pages for our interim website.
5. Lessons learned
Being agile and developing a project within a short time period with a small budget means that some project features must be left behind as you barrel ahead toward the deadline. There is something freeing about this: you know that there are things you could do more perfectly, but perfection is not the ultimate goal—the goal is to get it done and to learn something from it for next time.
Many of the things we would change about Story Board are things that we simply could not have done differently in the first round given our time and budget constraints. In the end, we did what we could to create an interface that met our immediate needs for the project. Pretty much every feature on the site was a “must have” with a precious few “nice to haves” thrown in to enhance the experience. There are a number of technical hurdles we came up against, lessons we learned, and things we would change next time around.
The content model
Because the kinds of stories we desired to tell in Story Board were so diverse, we could not create a content model that would dynamically support all of the content display types. We ended up creating a generic model that supported diverse content types—which made the content-input side much more complex. Every new module needed to be hand built and placed in each appropriate page throughout the site. Weekly update meetings were like collaborative games of Tetris, with humans solving problems that a more sophisticated back-end could have easily addressed.
Visual hierarchy and design
The visual design of the Story Board modules presented huge challenges regarding development within the CMS. Because of the way that stories were cross-indexed across various themes, we needed to be able to publish identical pieces of content onto multiple pages. But in order to artfully arrange content into the Story Board mosaic, we also needed a logic to determine the size, position, color, and location of each module. Our time and budget restrictions prevented us from resolving these complex content hierarchy and layout issues with flexible modules. Our best option was to create duplicate modules in different sizes and colors that needed to be individually updated from page to page. Keeping module content in more than one location inside the CMS caused some problems. If we needed to update information, we needed to do so in every location the content existed—not optimal, and certainly not a method that would scale up to a project that was larger in scope.
The overall visual design contributed to a too-much-information feel—a grid of images in colored blocks becomes less of an intuitive browsing tool and more of an impenetrable quilt of information.
Integration of social media
Better integration of social media would have been ideal. One of the best ways that dialogue was folded into the website was through Google+ hangouts, which were embedded into the Story Board as video segments only after they occurred. Blog posts and tweets relating to the project functioned as sign posts pointing to and from Story Board, but in spite of our active desire to include community dialogue, it did not feel fully integrated into the interface. The visitors’ voices were not always evenly or prominently featured on the website, nor did the conversation featured on the website update in real time. Lively community engagement took place over Open Space, Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter, but in this first instance the interface did not fulfill its potential to become a platform for dialogue in its own right.
Story Board pages encouraged more click-throughs to rich media than an exhibition page would have; however, overall visitation to each piece of content—be it a video page or a blog post—was no higher than it would have been for any exhibition project. One simple reason was discoverability. Because it was not like any other type of digital presentation that we had made before, Story Board ended up somewhat buried in the Research and Projects section of sfmoma.org. Furthermore, despite our diligence with weekly updates, traffic did not fluctuate outside of two spikes tied to the Six Lines of Flight exhibition opening and the ten days of Here, There and Elsewhere programming in early December. Lack of an RSS feed of Story Board content meant that people who wanted to know when new content was available would not get to find out unless they went back to the Story Board to look for updates.
Too much information is too much information, any way you slice it. The interface housed an overwhelming number of pieces of related information-too much for even die-hard users to digest. On the development side, finding a way for visitors to apply filters to content would have helped. But beyond the tech, there’s simply a philosophical and curatorial issue: there’s such a surfeit of information on the internet, much of dubious value, the TMI (“too much information”) issue once again teaches us the value of filtering ourselves. We must resist the temptation to surface just one more piece of content—which is especially challenging when we don’t know what will strike a chord. Story Board proved to be more an experiment with aggregation than with curation: we threw everything we had at it. This instance of Story Board was overwhelming, but we are currently experimenting with pared-down versions and other iterations that reveal the potential of the project as a storytelling tool.
6. Moving forward
Story Board represented an institutional shift—a first step forward, in a new collaborative form, into a world of blended digital media that we’d talked about for years. There are aspects of the project that we would not repeat, but it also contains key elements that have already informed future publishing initiatives, including some with markedly higher stakes.
This tool or something like it can be used to tell myriad other stories. From the relative ease with which content can be added, updated and changed, to displaying a mix of content types from varied sources, the format opens us up to a large number of possibilities. At the time of this writing, we have just published our next experiment, which explores the connections between two monographic exhibitions concurrently on view—Jasper Johns and Jay DeFeo. This story was already available as a podcast, but reauthoring it as a Story Board surfaced an inspiring constellation of ancillary research and multimedia. This opportunity to mix old and new content has allowed us to explore next steps for our institution’s legacy publishing formats.
Interim SFMOMA website
The ability to mix flexible modules in with our bread-and-butter content has also informed plans for our interim website, set to roll out when the museum building closes on June 3, 2013. Multimedia modules will be added to our existing website architecture, replacing our lists of linear hyperlinks and enabling us to extend our current content model. The interim sfmoma.org will feature a curated blend of related content that combines what we generate in-house with selections from outside sources.
We consider Story Board to be a major gain, warts and all. It propelled us into the new arena of mixed-media digital publishing. It also allowed us to imagine a more democratic online publishing model. There are many ways in which the project could have been better, but the beauty of a prototype is that the shining moments and the pain points have an equal value in teaching something about the road ahead. All told, a little jank goes a long way.