Coast to Cactus in Southern California

theNatClient: San Diego Natural History Museum
Project: Usability Evaluation
Location: San Diego, CA


The San Diego Natural History Museum was founded in 1874 and is the oldest scientific institution in Southern California. In January 2015, the Museum opened a new, 8,000 square foot permanent exhibition, Coast to Cactus in Southern California, and launched an accompanying website, Explore the Region from Coast to CactusThe website illustrates the biological richness of Southern California through species profiles, habitat descriptions, and stories about the people and places of the region.

The Museum, with funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, engaged Designing Insights to conduct a usability evaluation of the website in order to assess if the site was clear, usable, and intuitive.

Coast to Cactus Report


Our evaluation consisted of a Heuristic Evaluation and Think Aloud user tests. In Heuristic Evaluations, experts engage in methodical inspections of the user interface of a system, with the goal of identifying usability and accessibility problems based on established human factors principles called heuristics. Think Alouds are tests in which a facilitator asks a participant to use a system while sharing his/her thoughts “out loud” as he/she moves through the interface following realistic, use-case scenarios.

We designed the methodology, developed the test script, recruited users, moderated tests, analyzed the results, and provided the Museum with a report outlining findings and recommended changes.

Our evaluation revealed that the primary organizing principle of the website—a map of the physical exhibition space—was problematic for online-only use, and that web users were unclear as to what content they could see in the actual exhibition versus what is only available online. We also found that the legibility of text over imagery was poor, color-coding systems were confusing, and nomenclature and categories were inconsistent and unclear.

Coast to Cacus
The redesigned interface.


After reviewing the findings of our evaluation, the Museum re-engaged the original website developers to redesign the site from top to bottom; the site was overhauled with a new interface, visual aesthetic, content, navigation menus, and browsing mechanisms.

The Museum then contracted with Designing Insights again to conduct a follow-up study of the redesigned site. In addition to conducting Think Aloud tests with users, we evaluated the redesigned site against our findings from the original Heuristic Evaluation. Our follow-up study showed that the majority of the issues from the original site had been addressed, and revealed only minor search and browse issues.