CASE: Bringing the city archive into the streets of Utrecht

Key to Utrecht

I developed a mobile tour to explore the city of Utrecht with a small group of friends in my Master’s thesis project. The GPS tour linked content from the Utrecht Archive to the streets of Utrecht.

The tour was based on the premise that local tourists in their 20s-30s want to explore a city with friends without being tied to a determined route or story. The tour was built to be flexible for “swerving” to leave room for chance encounters, and to reward interest in specific topics by revealing additional or secret, insider information.

Tour information was activated by visitors’ physical proximity to objects of interest, and their interest in particular topics such as architecture or religious history. The storyboard of the final concept below shows the types of interactions. Walking close by to a statue would trigger it a greeting, and walking closer would trigger a story or further information.

Storyboard of final concept
  • Clients: Kiss the Frog (interactive exhibits company) for the Utrecht Archive, the Netherlands
  • Date: April 2008-October 2008
  • Roles: qualitative researcher, designer

Project brief

Utrecht is a picturesque Dutch city full of canals, cobblestone streets, and was the starting point of the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella. In 2010, the Utrecht Archive was opening up an public museum showcasing  old city maps, photographs, and other historical gems through interactive exhibits. Northernlight (exhibition design company) and Kiss the Frog (interactive exhibits company), developed many of the interactive exhibits in the archive.

We identified an opportunity to create a high-tech link between the city of Utrecht and it’s archive.




Market and literature research: I conducted a web and literature search reviewing innovations in museum experiences, city tours, and gaming domains.

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Interviews: I conducted several interviews with Dutch tour guides in Utrecht and Delft. The interviews gave insight into how guides structured and adapted their tours, and provided tour information on the city of Utrecht. The interviews revealed that about 80% of tours were provided to Dutch tourists, and that only about 20% of tour audiences were younger than 35 years.

The interviews showed that there was an opportunity to reach younger, local audiences.

Contextmapping: Following up on the findings of the interviews, I organized a contextmapping session with six participants in the age range of 18-35. Contextmapping is a co-design method that allows research participants to make explicit implicit thinking through making and sharing, e.g. collages, mappings, etc.

I designed a sensitization booklet to get participants thinking about topics we wanted to discuss. They were asked to fill out one exercise in the book each day for one week leading up to the session. They were prompted to for example, explain how they would design a 1 day tour for a visiting, close friend.

On the day of the session, I led a workshop that I had designed to uncover participants’ desires through 2 collaging exercises:

  • collaging the “museum experience” (1 hr)
  • collaging the “exploration of a city” (1 hr)

They used evocative images that I had prepared to make their collages. Following each collage session, participants shared and responded on their collages. After the session, I videotaped and transcribed the words of the participants, drawing out key insights.

A key insight was that serendipity is highly valued; for example, stumbling on a secret bar is one of the most rewarding and memorable experiences and cannot be planned.

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Expert walk-through of the city: To follow-up on the results of the contextmapping session, three friends and I took a day trip to Utrecht. During the day, I observed our behavior and took note of critical interaction moments such as moments of decision making, sharing, making connections, and frustration. The user test supported and deepened the findings of the contextmapping session. Our priorities shifted throughout the day based on levels of interest, hunger, and energy, chance encounters, external factors such as weather. These influenced perceived opportunity costs and expectations.

The research culminated in the development of a design vision:

Design vision: develop a heads-up tour tool to support people’s natural way of city exploration and interpretation, leave room for chance encounters, and support social interaction between 1-3 visitors.

Concept development, prototyping, and testing

Several concepts were developed and evaluated based on the design vision and a morphological chart that synthesized findings from the research phase.

morpho chart
Concept evaluation based on morphological chart

The concept selected was one where proximity and effort/interest activate tour information. There was also an emphasis on revealing disappeared things through traces.

A small scale prototype was mocked up and tested in three areas of the city. To test the prototype, I shadowed and interviewed three groups of users using the prototype in Utrecht. Interactions supported were:

  • Revealing disappeared things, e.g. disappeared church
  • View changes through time – stand at a corner and walk back through the centuries
  • Interrogate traces, objects – statues beckon and introduce themselves

User test: the user test checked whether or not the experience felt unscripted and social. The tests also revealed when the technology added to or detracted from the city exploration experience.

User test
How much heads-up vs. heads-down time: video analysis results of walkthroughs