Nartwhal: your local art exhibit guide

Irina Hallinan
5 min readJul 16, 2020

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The story of Nartwhal app creation for the Interaction Design Specialization offered by the University of California San Diego.

Thinking like a designer

Nartwhal was born from my desire to explore more museums in my area. Before Nartwhal, when I felt like going to an art show, I, like many people I know, went to a few museums I was familiar with already. I started by looking at the museum website, then decided if a show sounded interesting to me, sometimes with little success. At times, I checked for a future show I would be interested in going to and made a note to see it later when tickets became available. However, it was easy to forget. While traveling, I would have liked to go to more art shows in the area, but it was hard to know the best museums when I was not familiar with the city. It would be nice to have an app that suggested art exhibits based on my location and art preferences.

Nartwhal is a mobile app centered on art show suggestions, which are based on unique user interests

Finding user needs

To realize the idea and to understand what users need, I observed real people looking for art exhibits. What I observed was similar to my own experience of finding an art show. Users generally looked at art museums on Google, then went to a museum site or several sites for comparison. Some users said they wanted museums that have activities for kids, others were budget-conscious and wanted to know the cost of tickets, while others wanted to know more information about the artist before picking a show.

Google Places
One size does not fit all when looking for an art show — every person I interviewed had a slightly different idea of what they needed in order to find an art show they would enjoy.

Getting inspired and finding solutions

Taking my insights from user interviews, I brainstormed many ideas of what problem my future app would solve.

The idea I came up with was - let’s make a platform where:

Art lovers can:

  • Search for art shows
  • Find artist information
  • Get tailored art show suggestions
  • Set customizable notifications about upcoming and ending shows
  • Discover new artists they like

Artists can:

  • Connect with supporters
  • Find potential art exhibits to display their art
  • Apply for art residencies

Art hobbyists and students can:

  • Get rapid feedback from art professionals

Having this broad idea in mind, I looked at websites and apps that inspired me, including museum and non-museum websites. I knew that nothing certain would be decided at this stage, and that the most important stage of design would come next.

Stanford Cantor Arts Center
Stanford University Cantor Arts Center website impressed me with the clear layout and presentation of information of the current art shows. I liked that each current exhibit was a link to a more detailed page and that there was a photograph of what the exhibit was about, as well as dates the show was on display. What lacked were the artist information, a brief description of what the exhibit was about, and a way to sort or filter the long list.

Testing & more testing

My motto for this project was iterative design, which meant that no matter how good I thought my design idea was, I could not settle on one thing without user testing. User testing is the crucial step that decides whether design decisions are good or not. The hard part for me was not to get too attached to one design and to listen to user comments, to take their suggestions and concerns to heart, and to redesign based on feedback I received.

The idea that Nartwhal became was:

The app will be centered around user preferences that will drive the app to alert users that there are shows that fit into one or more of their preferences, and how big of a match it is (%). The users will get tailored alerts. Instead of going on Google or checking familiar museum websites, the app will attempt to change what shows users go to and what type of art they might be interested in. My hope is that this app will help users find more diverse shows and widen their art interests.

Finalizing the app

User testing Nartwhal prototype on UserTesting.com

To get to the final prototype, I created several storyboards, paper prototypes, and multiple digital prototypes. Every step of the way, I tested my storyboards and prototypes with users, and made changes before the next test. That way, my design improved incrementally rather than drastically, and every change was driven by user feedback. Quantifying changes based on real user testing improved the design bit by bit. It felt good to hear positive comments about changes made in previous iterations and it was easy to backtrack when comments were negative.

Paper prototypes (first and second), first digital prototype (third) and final digital prototype (right-most)

In 10 weeks, my idea became a tangible digital prototype you could interact with.

In 10 words:

Nartwhal helps people find art shows based on their preferences

You can see it here.

In the future, I want to take Nartwhal from its infant prototype stage into adulthood by developing it into a real app.

My 10-week journey was both challenging and fun. I learned to think like a designer in a more concrete step-by-step fashion. First, I took an idea, which was based on my experience, and observed real users to find what needs they had. Then, I researched existing applications and drew inspiration from physical and digital world. Third, I came up with multiple ways to address user needs but did not settle on one solution before testing my ideas. After that, I tested my prototypes and redesigned them based on user feedback, listening to why something worked or didn’t work. Last, I finished by adding polishing touches and designing the app logo.

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Irina Hallinan

Aspiring Product Manager | UC Berkeley, MEng, EECS ('23)