Interface Critique, Foundling Voices
Foundling Voices is an online exhibition of oral histories created in 2008 and run by The Foundling Museum. The oral histories record the lives of children sent to the Foundling Hospital, the oldest children’s home in the United Kingdom. A total of 74 participants, mostly former children in the care of the Foundling Hospital, were interviewed for the project. This online exhibition poses questions about the ability of online projects, specifically those using archival material, to effectively convey the emotional weight of a subject matter while also making the subject “digestible” for users. The interface of Foundling Voices allows the user to interact with the carefully curated narrative of individuals and simultaneously allows the user to feel in control of his or her experience.
Narratives are organized around key life experiences and are ordered chronologically: life events range from “Early Life,” as individuals recount how they came to Foundling Hospital, “Into the World,” which recounts their lives after leaving and follows the arc of their life as they look back on the Hospital’s impact on them in “Reflections.” For the purposes of this project, organizing information in this manner is both intuitive and appropriate. The site assumes that users who come to the site are using it primarily as a tool for discovery and exploration, rather than seeking data on a specific individual. This assumption also accounts for the use of only the first name of participants, instead of full names, and helps the user to feel on more intimate terms with participants. When explaining the full life story of someone, it is natural to chunk information in chronological periods starting from birth to death, and Foundling Voices takes advantage of this common organization but adjusts the life story to reflect the Hospital’s impact on the storytellers.
However, when a user is listening to a specific story, having either bypassed the home page or dived into a specific life theme, the content also becomes grouped by the specific individual. For example, once a user decides to listen to one of “John’s memories,” a user will see other stories about John on the right hand side. The original theme menu of life events remains prominent. In this way, the interface gives users control over how information is viewed with multiple methods of navigation: users can either explore themes chronologically or focus on a specific individual’s story.
These stories are obviously very personal; the Hospital is a home for children without parents, and consequently, narratives carry both elements of tragedy as well as inspiration. In order to convey a more intimate feel to the site to convey these elements, individuals are listed on a first name basis, stories are titled with direct quotes from the narrative itself instead of generic titles, and photographs complement the stories without overpowering the audio narrative. The interface does an excellent job in limiting the length of stories to create an enticing glimpse into the world of the storyteller without overwhelming the user or losing their attention. Content is curated into “digestible,” engaging pieces for the user who is lured in by catchy narrative titles and is able to immediately assess the length of a piece by the block of transcription text or the length of the audio file.
Aesthetically, the site uses a minimum color palette, focusing on red, white and various shades of black. Although color is minimal, it is used effectively to demarcate different sections. The monochromatic coloring complements many of the older black and white photos donated by participants as well as making color photos “pop” on the screen. The font is both legible and visible and consistently white, the contrasting red effectively highlights where the user is within the site, and shading keeps the site from looking too flat. As a personal observation, this monochromatic visual design reminds me of the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) website which lends the Foundling Voices site an air of authority, authenticity and maturity that would not be appropriate, for example, on a children’s site.
The interface does an excellent job in curating the narratives of former Foundling Hospital residents using archival material. However, the link to the original material is weak. Users are directed to the website of the London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) to view the full transcripts and audio, however the link only takes the user to the home page of LMA instead of to the specific audio file. This creates extra steps for those interested in getting more information about the Hospital or an individual. Therefore, the online exhibition serves as an exemplary portal for users who wish to browse and explore, but is not for researching specific information on an individual. There are instructions for how to do so, but it is not prominent.
Despite a weak link to the archival material itself, as part of a museum exhibition, I believe the objective of enticing as wide of an audience as possible is appropriate. The interface of Foundling Voices does not have many “bells and whistles,” but its minimal aesthetic design and intuitive organization of information lets the user connect with the storyteller on a personal level and draws them into their stories.