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26 Jan 2015

Review of the Van Gogh Museum website

The Van Gogh Museum’s website has been garnering a lot of critical acclaim since it launched late last year (Oct/ Nov 2014). The site has been brought to life by the same folk who produced the award-winning website for Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, so the acclaim is understandable.

The Van Gogh Museum’s website has been garnering a lot of critical acclaim since it launched late last year (Oct/ Nov 2014). The site has been brought to life by the same folk who produced the award-winning website for Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, so the acclaim is understandable.

There's a nice article in The Guardian from the producing team (two agencies: Fabrique and Q42) - it's well worth reading (not least as it's short at less than 2 pages).

Both sites are impressive - an artistic narrative, succinct navigation and a paired down design combine to achieve an extremely engaging, impactful and rich user experience. In short they both 'work' - they feel like an experience, a journey, and even if the UX feels 'new' it invites you to try it - to me that feels like the definition of being intuitive and easy to learn.

Interestingly a minimal amount of page or design templates seem to be in use throughout both sites, both managing to bring the content to the fore without complicating the display of the offer or needing to have dozens of 'themes'.

The key section from the producing team for me is this one:

We opted for a design approach that proved itself in our award-winning website for Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum. Essentially, determine what’s most important (the "top tasks") and make it big and good. In this case, those "important" things were twofold: on one hand, we had to ensure it was easy for visitors to plan their visit, but also tempt them with inspiring stories about the artist.

Don’t wait until you reach the museum to meet Vincent, was the opinion – start online.

These 'top tasks' - plan a visit, get a ticket; and get to know the man before you visit - are critical and crucially, self-evident. They feel like a combination of CTAs and Red Routes (some of the info we try and get out of the persona workshops we run) as well as the overarching site propositions we try and establish early on in projects.

So far, so normal - the majority of well presented, organised and successful sites follow the same approach in one way or another. The key difference here is that for Van Gogh (and Rijksmuseum) they've put those things front and foremost, without concession or distraction.

This complete focus on and committment to 'top tasks' is carried through to content. On both sites the collection (several thousand strong in each case) is offered via a variety of extremely engaging stories purposefully written for the site. These stories bring content and function together to become the central rooms and corridors for users to either navigate (as an expert you'll know the story and so be able to go straight to where you want to go) or (if you're a more casual visitor, researching or looking for a taste of the man and his art) to take a more circuitous or playful route.

It's true both organisations have extremely engaging and impactful resources to play with (e.g. striking, high quality images as well as a meaningful body of work to storify) but to argue that these sites (only) work because of that would be naive and glib in the extreme. 

What is more important is that the Van Gogh museum has clearly taken an open approach to their content (and their collection) by making it digitally available - this goes as far as making large file size versions available to view, share and crucially download (with appropriate terms and conditions noted).

The Van Gogh and Rijksmuseum sites work because they have a design approach that is not just in harmony - the visual, UX and structural design work together to put content at the heart of the site - but moreover this harmony is totally focussed and committed to the agreed top tasks, without concession or distraction. Yes, they benefit from extensive availability of rich content but that in itself is crucial - both the Van Gogh and Rijksmuseum have taken the forward looking decision to make their core product fully, publicly and freely available. Furthermore they've created digitally specific content (the various site stories) to foster greater user engagement and they've clearly done a tremendous job in digitising and curating the core of the collection (e.g. taking and editing high quality images).

All in all it's extremely impressive and something to be admired. It's not an approach that can be applied to every site, but where it can it's certainly an approach that can be learned from and perhaps even extended.

Looking a little beyond the top tasks, the Van Gogh site also has a online store (powered by SEO Shop) where amongst the calendars, mugs and candle holders you can also get yourself a wooden 'sandwich' bicycle - it might not be a snip at €1499 (£1,175) but like its parent site, it's certainly eye-catching!

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