SEGD Xlab Interview: Hayley Walsh and Dan Cooper

In anticipation of Xlab 2021 starting today, SEGD talks with the event’s first presenters, Hayley Walsh and Dan Cooper of the Manchester-based design firm Centre Screen. In their presentation “Inclusive Experimentation,” sponsored by Stark RFID, Walsh and Cooper explore how “inclusive design” is a central consideration in the development of media elements for the new U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Museum in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Join Hayley and Dan at 11:00am EST 1/27/21.

Billed as “one of the most accessible and interactive museums in the world,” the United States Olympic & Paralympic Museum (USOPM) opened to acclaim this past summer in Colorado Springs, Colorado—a.k.a “Olympic City”—home to many US Olympic and Paralympic organizations, including the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center.

The building, designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, presents a stunning new addition to the Colorado Springs skyline. But the museum’s interior is just as remarkable, if not more so, than its impressive modern facade. Inside, it houses 12 interactive galleries which visitors can access along a “ramped path” that winds through the building from the top floor to the ground level, accessible via elevator (and not stairs).

The architects at DS+R designed the building to allow as many people of as many different abilities to move through the spaces without impediments. This inclusive approach was carried throughout the interactive exhibits, collaboratively designed by Gallagher & Associates (exhibition design and content development) and Centre Screen (media design). The RFID systems were developed by Stark RFID and the fabrication of exhibits by CREO.

In the midst of the design process, two of Centre Screen’s key players—Hayley Walsh, Projects and Company Director, and Dan Cooper, Head of Interactives—found themselves pushing the limits of how to make digital and media technologies more accessible to museum visitors. Walsh and Cooper share their experiences in the 2021 Xlab presentation “Inclusive Experimentation.”

The process of shaping the visitor experience and conceiving the USOPM’s interactive displays began with consultants, subject experts, and team designers meeting together to discuss how to present the museum’s content in fun, engaging—and inclusive—ways.

“There were a number of large sessions, and we’d talk about ten things at a time when we’d all get together,” said Hayley. “We’d sit together and go through each area—and each element within that area—in great detail to make sure, first of all, that we’re all in-line with what we needed to achieve.”

These sessions gradually transformed initial concepts into the designs for actual digital interactives. But designing and creating those interactives—and making them as inclusive as possible—often required pushing the limits of existing technology through a process of experimentation.

“We found, in general, that the digital design community and the museum exhibition design community are very open to sharing best practices,” says Cooper. “And there were lots of technologies and lots of ambitious experimentation to do in those spaces … to make things accessible for everybody … in many cases you’re trying to do things that people hadn’t done before.”

Centre Screen incorporated a variety of digital components within the many interactive displays—some tried and tested and others more cutting edge—including open captions, audio-description tracks, assisted listening, universal keypads, and RFID-triggered customizations. But trying to use some of these technologies in novel ways often pushed the limits.

“There were risks in implementing the RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) technology and some of the interactive equipment in new ways, so there was an element of the unknown in experimentation and versioning,” says Walsh about the process of designing and testing the digital interactives installed throughout the museum. “I think there were points throughout the project where we realized we’d better stop reassessing and do things in a different way.”

The team tested these “different ways” with the help of user groups spanning different ability levels—and they found most of their expert testers right in Colorado Springs!

“We worked very closely with the Olympic and Paralympic teams who are based in Colorado Springs,” says Cooper about the testing groups. “So, of course, the Paralympic teams have a lot of people and have a lot of physical difference in terms of accessibility.”

“We were very lucky being able to work with these user testing groups,” adds Walsh. “And we were able to keep going up right up until the very last post-production stage of the project.”

One outcome of this experimentation, testing and push to make the digital interactives as inclusive as possible was a new set of design standards.

“The museum, from the outset, had this great ambition of creating the gold standard of accessible experience, but there was no real definition of what that meant,” says Cooper. “We took the ADA standards and guidelines as the minimum bar. Our job was to work with consultants and experts and use the testing to look at where we can raise the bar.”

In their Xlab presentation, Walsh and Cooper detail their “two-pronged strategy” in raising that bar. The first prong looks at inclusivity in design and the second at accessibility. To illustrate this approach, they feature three specific content areas inside the USOPM: “Training,” “Labs” and “Conversations with Athletes.” Sign up now to learn more!