Elena Villaespesa, Digital Analyst, and Emily Fildes, Digital Producer, explain how understanding digital users’ searching and browsing behaviour can help make art and archive collections more findable.

As part of the Archives and Access project, a huge team here at Tate is involved in cataloguing and digitising 52,000 items in our archive. We’ll then be presenting these objects alongside digital records of our collection artworks in the Art & artists section of our website. It will be a great opportunity to see preparatory drawings and maquettes alongside the finished artworks, as well as to find out more about particular artists through their scrapbooks and letters.

This cataloguing has given us lots of new data and images which we need to be able to present online. However, adding all those records into existing database of over 74,000 artworks records also adds a challenge – how can we make all of this findable and understandable to our users without overwhelming them with information? How can we make this, as much as possible, an intuitive experience that doesn’t just feel like you are searching a database? How can we do this across two different set of museum collections – artworks and archives – which have different data attached to them?

Venn diagram of the Tate online collection and archives data
A venn diagram showing top level data overlaps between our artwork and archive collections


Our first port of call was to find out how people were finding our existing artwork collection records. For this purpose we used analytics tools, heatmaps and surveys to understand why people are coming to Art & artists and also their behaviour using this section, so that we can match the current offer with their needs and expectations and also enhance their experience.

Online collection visits motivation wordcloud
Wordcloud of the motivations to visit Art & artists

We have then used this research to rationalise our thinking about how users could access our artwork and archive records from October. Firstly we looked at the difference between those users who have a focused visit, whether for a school project or a university paper they are searching for something specific in the collection, and those users who are browsing within our collection to explore and discover something.

Focussed vs unfocussed visit
Scale rating showing user motivations for visiting the Art & artists section of the website

From this, we can see that it is important to keep the search box nice and prominent, so users who know what they are looking for can search for it directly. We already have a great tool for prompting searches, which we’ll be keeping (type in three letters into our search box here and you’ll get a prompt for what we’ve got that starts to match your search).

The research has also allowed us to look at some of our browse functionalities and filters, which now have to cater across two different data sets for artwork and archive records. From the search we can see that users are coming to Art & artists to find what’s on display. It is already one of browse features, under gallery, but we’re going to call it ‘on display’ to make it a more obvious feature. Unlike lots of other organisations, we don’t have a date filter as yet. In October we hope we will have – it might not be quite as great as this one from the Digital Public Library of America – but it should allow people to browse our collection by date across both artworks and archive objects.

A wireframe drawing showing a date filter: a range of years with a scroller to set the date
A working wireframe for a webpage showing how you could filer by date in the Art & artists section of the Tate website

Secondly, the research also revealed a third type of user beyond searchers and browsers, and they are those coming for inspiration. One way to help users be inspired by our collection could be by colour, for example to see everything that is royal blue – much like the kind of tools the Rijksmuseum and the Cooper-Hewitt have.

A webpage design showing on display and colour filters
Some working designs for the new browse features for Art & artists on the Tate website: it shows an on display and a colour filter

Although the percentage of users coming to get some inspiration is lower than the percentage of those who come for research purposes, this is actually an area for growth where an emotional experience may impact positively on the user and made the site a source of inspiration and generate returning visitors in the future. A curious data fact, the heatmap on the Art & artist landing page shows that the most clicked button on this page is ‘Show me another’ which inspires people by showing a different artwork from the collection. In the future, we also have other plans to show those coming for inspiration something at random, so they can stumble across unexpected results.

Heatmap art and artists landing page
Heatmap of the Art & artists landing page

This project means we can also have a good old nosey around the web to see how others are using both our data (released on our GitHub) and also their own to create interesting journeys within their collections. There are lots of great examples and we’d love to hear about yours, so if you have any you love (or hate), let us know in the comments below.

And in October you can come back to hopefully search, browse and be inspired by the artwork and archive objects in our collection. While we’ll be continuing to use our evaluation to come up with more ways to present our collection online.