Cole

A browser extension that facilitates passive discovery of extraordinary things.

Project:  Chrome browser extension
Role:  Co-creator, experimental design, product development

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The problem with digital archives

The V&A museum covers 12.5 acres, has 145 galleries, and a collection that spans 5,000 years of art across Europe, North America, Asia and North Africa. There's a potentially overwhelming amount of objects to see, yet it's relatively easy to explore and discover items in the physical space, simply by wandering around, following signs or gravitating towards places where other people have clustered.

The same is not true of the digital space however — with such a huge archive to explore, where do you start? If you don't have a specific search term or topic in mind, how do you discover new items, the most uncommon, and the most unexpected?

Discovery as a digital experience

In collaboration with fellow designer Gala Jover, a concept was developed for a tab-based Chrome extension which would retrieve an object from the V&A collection at random and display a new item, each time you open a new tab. No need for searching, nor even to depart from your usual desktop routine — objects would be placed in front of you without any input at all.

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The standard Chrome view in a new tab

How a new tab looks with Cole installed. A different object and associated information is presented each time you open a tab

From clunky code to MV[L]P

To prove the concept, we built a basic prototype using HTML and Javascript. It connected to the V&A museum’s Application Programming Interface (API), sent a request to the database and pulled out an image and a title that we could then display on the screen.

With a few tweaks and some reading of the API docs, we were soon able to bring back an artist name and date too.

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Our first API-connected prototype. We ran this clunky version on our own desktops for a few weeks.

Learning and iterating

Seeing a new image with each new tab was exciting, yet not intrusive, because it didn't interrupt the regular flow of using the browser– it didn't slow the opening of a tab and whatever came up was dismissed as soon as we entered a URL into the address bar, as per usual. Most importantly, as we’d hoped, we were consistently discovering new and unexpected items from the collection. There were a few things lacking though—

  • We wanted to know more about the objects that came up
  • Often we'd see the same object repeatedly, and wanted a way to refine results
  • We realised it was important to be able share the really interesting ones, and to save them for later

Designing the interface

In our second version we addressed these issues through code, and at the same time began to develop the visual design—

  • We introduced a user-setting for search terms, giving people the option to focus the search parameters
  • A flexible layout would allow for different title lengths and varying types of image
  • A full object description and item details should be available on-demand
  • A Pinterest button would provide a way to share and save objects for later
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An early iteration of the UI design

How version 1 looked in reality. The enlarged title helped bring attention to objects that might be less visually appealing, though later we received feedback that the interface was too busy.

[Update] Launching version 2 🚀

Cole has been live on the Chrome Webstore for nearly 2 years and in this time we gathered lots of feedback. Where version 1 was delivering everything we’d hoped for our MVP —

  • A huge range of surprising and curious objects got brought back by the extension.
  • It frequently returned objects that were in storage at the V&A, therefore going beyond the public collection and uncovering things that wouldn't otherwise be seen.

Version 1 also provided us with feedback from users, suggesting some clear improvement opportunities for Version 2, among which —

  • We could create more ways to save and share, e.g. via Twitter and Pinterest
  • Being too quick to load a new site in a tab meant that sometimes a really special object would flicker up and be gone before it could be enjoyed. We felt we needed a history feature.
  • The interface was cluttered with too many interactive elements.

These key points formed the basis of our approach to the re-design...

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The new interface is much cleaner with non-essential info moved off-screen.
Regular visitors to the actual V&A museum will be familiar with Tippoo's Tiger, a life-sized model living in the South Asia section, complete with semi-automated movement and sound effects!

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Scrolling reveals more info, and the object's location in the museum.

Objects can also be saved on Pinterest, or shared via Twitter.

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The history view allows the most recent objects to be re-visited and viewed on the V&A Collections page. It helps deal with the problem of being too quick to dismiss a tab and losing something interesting by mistake!

Cole in the community

From early in its life, the development of Cole has been very kindly supported by the digital team at the V&A, who have provided us with feedback and tips on using the API, as well as blogging about the extension.

This exposure has helped build attention on social media and extend reach beyond our immediate circle to art curators and historians. We've also been approached by other arts institutes to talk about developing similar ideas to help discovery within their own collections.

Some of our favourite finds!

Cole is still helping us discover great objects every day, especially as the V&A actively updates the collections online, with exciting initiatives such as the museum's Rapid Response collection adding modern and politically-relevant items into the selection.

Try it!

If you're using Chrome desktop browser, you can download the extension from the Chrome Webstore.