Family Learning Forum

A Project of the USS Constitution Museum

Blog: Ship's Bell Prototype

by Family Learning Interns at the USS Constitution Museum

First Time Around

Date prototyped: 7/7/2011
Date written: 7/27/2011
Author: Sarah Budlong

Ship's bell interactive

Ship's bell interactive

Julia and I spent Thursday afternoon prototyping the ship’s bell interactive that the Exhibits Department recently installed in the All Hands on Deck gallery. The interactive is called The Sands of Time and its goal is to teach visitors how time was kept on board the USS Constitution. On a United States naval vessel, every twenty-four hour day was divided into two and four hour blocks called watches. Sailors used the ship’s bell to regulate the watches, striking it once half an hour after the watch began and adding an additional strike every half hour to indicate how much time had passed. When a four hour watch ended, the sailor rang the bell eight times and then started the cycle again.

Ship's bell prototype label

Ship's bell prototype label

To convey this concept to visitors, the Exhibits Department used a real ship’s bell, taken from the HMS Guerriere, and created a label with a built in clock that had movable hour and minute hands. The label included a short first-person narrative from the crew member responsible for managing the half hour glass and notifying a sailor to striking the bell once all of the sand had passed through the timepiece. The narrative provided the content information about the bell and gave the visitor a role to play while using the interactive. The label also had directions for how the visitors should turn the clock hands to ring the bell. When the visitor stopped the hands on an hour or half hour (2:00, 3:30, etc.), a sensor within the clock activated a recording of a bell that rang between 1 and 8 times, depending on where the visitor stopped the clock.

Visitor using the Ship's Time interactive

Visitor using the Ship's Time interactive

Julia and I needed to figure out if visitors understood the instructions for the bell and if they gained a better understanding of ship’s time by doing the interactive. Because the interactive was already installed in the gallery, we decided to quietly observe visitors and watch what they did with the bell before we actively recruited them to help us prototype. We observed from a corner of the gallery for a few hours and discovered that roughly 10% of visitors went up to the bell on their own and tried it. As we watched the visitors turn the knob to move the clock’s hands, we were puzzled because the bell usually did not ring, which meant that many of the visitors did not stop the clock on an hour or half hour. From a distance, we could not figure out the nature of the problem.

After two hours, we pulled out our clipboards and moved closer to the bell, hoping to recruit families to try the activity and then answer a few questions for us. I watched over the shoulder of the first man to try the activity and immediately understood why visitors did not understand where to stop the clock. The first instruction simply said, “Turn the clock to ring the bell,” but did not indicate where to stop it in order to activate the ring. Our poor visitors continuously turned the handle and passively waited for something to happen that would only happen if they stopped the hands on the correct spot. As soon as we realized this, we knew that we needed to revise the label before we prototyped any further. If visitors did not understand the directions, there was no way they could learn about ship’s time from the interactive. Julia and I headed back to our offices with a better understanding of what we needed to change in order to make the bell an effective interactive.

 

Stop here!

Date prototyped: 7/14/2011
Date written: 7/27/2011

Author: Sarah Budlong

New instructions

New instructions

This afternoon Julia and I headed upstairs to replace the label on the ship’s bell interactive and do another round of prototyping. The new label instructed visitors to, “turn the knob to move the clock hands and stop on any hour or half hour mark to ring the bell.”  We hoped that changing the label would remedy some of the visitors’ confusion about how to work the interactive.

Clock on wrong time

Clock on wrong time

Unfortunately, our hopes were soon dashed. The instructions still confused younger visitors, who did not understand what the phrase, “any hour or half hour mark,” meant. I asked several kids how they would explain the concept and they gave me a few good ideas. Everyone agreed that the use of the word “mark” was confusing and said that we should not use it. One child suggested putting a “Stop here!” sticker on the top and bottom of the clock (at 12:00 and 6:00) to help children figure out where to stop the hands to activate the bell. I thought that was a very good idea and will likely add that to the next label we try.

Clock on correct time

Clock on correct time

The new label also did not clear up visitor confusion about the concept of ship’s time. One teenage girl understood the instructions, stopped the clock at 2:00, and listened to the bell ring the pre-programmed four times, but did not understand what the four rings represented. Because the narrative explaining the concepts of watches and ship’s time is separate from the instructions for the interactive, many visitors do not read both. It is difficult for them to understand the bigger picture and realize why we are asking them to turn a clock and ring a bell. One family suggested using different colors to break down the watches (12:00 - 4:00, 4:00 - 8:00, and 8:00 -12:00) on the face of the clock. If we did that, it would be easier for visitors to understand that 2:00 was in the middle of the watch, 4:00 was the end of a watch, etc. We are probably going to try this idea the next time we prototype the ship’s bell.

After testing the ship’s bell with only five families, Julia and I understood the issues that we needed to address. Although the new instructions made it a little easier to understand how to work the ship’s bell, we still need to insert visual clues to help people figure out how to turn the handle and operate it. On a positive note, the activity helped some families understand the concept of ship’s time and those families thought the interactive was very cool. Despite this, we hope that redesigning the clock face will be a step towards helping more families grasp the content of the interactive. We will prototype again once we have made those changes.