My presentation at Webstock, Friday 26 May 2006 - "Let go and allow users to control their own experience" is now available:

The presentation is available in:

Let go and allow users to control their own experience

A forgotten past

Five years ago I was an internet criminal - hunted by the police.

"Australian web designer steals Australian Senator's children!"

The game

The email

"This is to formally let you know that I am instituting proceedings against you for defamation in the Supreme Court of Queensland . The Federal Police will be involved to track this website if I do not receive a response within 24 hours."

John Herron Minister for A.T.S.I.Affairs

About Lisa Miller

A journey

This presentation describes a journey that Lisa Miller and I embarked on - using the Australian Museum website to:

"Explore ways that we could let go and allow users to control their own experience"


Some of these ideas may be relevant to you and others not.

You may have seen some of these ideas before.

This is not a complete solution.

This is simply a discussion about a range of ideas and about the journey itself.

Withholding judgement

Lisa and I made this journey in small steps.

We took our time.

But more importantly, we explored ideas without judgement.


The Australian Museum website comprises of:

Existing problems

Funnily enough, these points make the word "horid"

Time to change

Late last year, the Australian Museum web team decided it was time to rebuild the Museum's site.

Initial aims

The web team's aim was to:

"Create a series of intuitive portals that would allow users to get to content quickly and easily".

Initial directions

We began a range of processes that included:

The results

Out of this process we came up with 13 portals

  1. Animals
  2. Fossils and dinosaurs
  3. Rocks and minerals
  4. Indigenous Australia
  5. Online science
  6. Online features
  7. Kids stuff
  8. Teachers and students resources
  9. Visiting the Museum
  10. About the Museum
  11. Behind the scenes
  12. Collections
  13. Research

Legacies and agendas

How did we end up with so many portals?

Portal overload

At this point, Lisa Miller and I become very concerned with the 'portal' direction.

Path concerns

However, our primary concerns were about user pathways. We wanted to avoid:

Exhibition floor plans

Forced paths don't work.

Given the choice, people will always follow their own paths.

When there is no choices available, people will often be resentful.

A fresh approach

We decided to scrap the portals idea and start afresh.

The question was:

"How would you organize and structure a large site if you had a totally blank slate".

Objective 1

Allow users to control and determine their own pathways?

A stripped-back approach

Imagine if a site could be stripped back to just three levels of pages:

Sample front page

Sample results page

Sample content page


This three-step process could be controlled by tagging.

Bird behavior example

A "bird behavior" page may have related information like "animal behavior" or "frog behavior".

Using a traditional navigation system, users would only get bird related links.

"Related pages" provide users with a more flexible and organic navigation system

Allowing users control

Imagine if users could control their experience more fully by adding their own tags to pages.

They could be given a list of current keywords associated with any page, then allowed to add keywords that they felt appropriate.

Tagging any media

Theoretically, any media could be tagged by content creators and users.

Extending search results

This would mean search results would provide users with keyword-based results across a variety of media.

Searching results

A different 'pages'

Tags move away from the concept of pages as single entities. Pages would become containers for keyword-based data

Sample tag-based page

Entities as pages

The use of tags allows images, podcasts, audio files, and movies to become entities in their own right - related but not specifically tied to content pages.

Image page

Objective 2

Allow users to communicate with content providers as well as each other.

Comment on anything

Images, podcasts, audio files, and movies could be set up to allow comments.

A single website could then host thousands of individual comments and discussions.

Extended collections

One interesting benefit is that Museum collections would cease to be static photo galleries. Users could comment on, post images to, and write about individual items within collections.

The collections could come alive!

Content creation

Another benefit of this single page vs full section approach is that content is easier to create and publish.

In the past, the Museum would research and then create a wide range of pages on a particular topic. The entire project is only published when all pages are ready.

Objective 3

Encouraging membership to increase community involvement and ownership.

Flickr-like membership

With a system based on tags and comments, a members section could be created to allow users to track:


Numerous downsides

There are numerous downsides to this approach including:

Interestingly, many of these revolve around the concept of "letting go".

Letting go

A famous Buddhist monk once said:

"The hardest word for Westerners to say is 'let'. Let it happen… let it be…"

What does this mean?

Westerners are uptight control freaks!

Expert voice

Many museums and institutions are currently concerned about allowing users to have a voice as it is perceived to dilute expert opinion.

Two examples of this concern in action are the Sea Slug Forum and WSG list.

Flagging voices

One of the quickest ways to deal with this problem is to visually flag and identify comments from experts so that they stand out and are recognised in amongst community discussion.

Site mourning

Some people really want an entire sites or section to explore.

This is entirely valid.

Ironically, these concerns have often come from content creators rather than users.

Wrap up

We've discussed:

As before, these are ideas, not a solution

Thank you