Designing an Immersive Environment for Public Use

by Toni Robertson, Tim Mansfield and Lian Loke

University of Technology, Sydney

Original Article 



Bystander is a multi-user, immersive, interactive environment intended for public display in a museum or art gallery. It is designed to make available heritage collections in novel and culturally responsible ways. We use its development as a case study to examine the role played in that process by a range of tools and techniques from participatory design traditions. We describe how different tools were used within the design process, specifically: the ways in which the potential audience members were both included and represented; the prototypes that have been constructed as a way of envisioning how the final work might be experienced; and how these tools have been brought together in ongoing designing and evaluation. We close the paper with some reflections on the extension of participatory commitments into still-emerging areas of technology design that prioritise the design of spaces for human experience and reflective interaction.

Author Keywords

Design case study, museum displays, interactive art, design processes, multi-disciplinary design teams, scenarios, personas, prototyping, script enactment



The shift away from the constraints of technology design for traditional work environments is an exciting and often confusing development for those committed to participatory approaches; we find ourselves building very different kinds of technology within very different kinds of design environments to those that initially defined both participatory design tradition and our commitments to it. Yet the boundaries of any discourse are shaped, over time, by what it produces. If participatory design is to remain relevant to novel and emerging technologies then answers to basic questions about participation must be sought within the context in which those technologies are designed, built and used. These include, for example: what participation can mean in practice; what kinds of design practices can be participated in, and in what ways; who should, can and will participate, and when; and who determines the conditions for involvement and decision making.

In this paper we seek to contribute to efforts to extend understandings and practices of participatory design into changed design contexts. We use the development of
Bystander, a multi-user, immersive museum environment as a design case study where familiar participative methods and approaches were used in exploratory ways in a novel and complex project. The authors of this paper, as researchers and designers with backgrounds in participatory design approaches and methods, were invited to join an established collaboration of artists to develop and build Bystander. Our motivation was to investigate how the methods, tools and techniques, developed to support participative approaches within traditional computing design environments, might be made both useful and relevant in designing the potential interaction and experiential opportunities within a multi-user, immersive, interactive environment. As users of these kinds of public applications, we had frequently been underwhelmed by our experiences, remembering examples from a range of museum and gallery visits that included broken systems, experiences and content that did not match the rhetoric that surrounded them and environments that were often more disappointing, more confusing, than they were engaging and rewarding. As designers, committed to the participatory design perspective that technology should provide people with the opportunity to influence their own lives (Greenbaum and Madsen, 1993), it seemed to us that ‘the public’ deserved something better!

It was intended that a careful use of participatory and other human-centred methods, developed and used in more traditional technology design environments, might reduce
the risk of a chaotic and otherwise unsatisfactory user experience of Bystander. Exploiting these design methods might foster conditions for more meaningful, reflective and satisfying engagements with both the semantic and aesthetic content of the environment. It was also hoped that we might contribute to the process of designing such a complex environment. This included enabling the project team to maximise their focus on designing and developing Bystander itself while minimising the distractions, blockages or diversions imposed by the complexity and non-routine design challenges of the project.

We begin by providing some background to Bystander, describing the system, its various users and the design context. From there we describe how different tools and techniques from participatory approaches were used during the 30-month long process of conceptualisation and design. By presenting this process in some detail, we hope to convey something of the scale and nuances of the design process and the myriad decisions and negotiations, over time, where our participatory commitments were active. We close with some reflections on the role that participatory approaches can play in still-emerging areas of technology design that prioritise the design of public spaces for human experience and reflective interaction.


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