Ideum Designs Exhibits for Accessibility with the Visitor Center at Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge

The new Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center was designed with a variety of accessibility factors included.

Ideum Designs Exhibits for Accessibility with the Visitor Center at Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge
Visitors exploring digital touch screen at Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge.

by Natalie Pace, Content Development Coordinator February 17th, 2022

Maximizing accessibility for all visitors is a core goal of every project Ideum takes on, from single touch table exhibits to multi-experience galleries. While creating exhibits and experiences for the Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge’s new visitor center, Ideum and the refuge team devoted a lot of thought to making sure everybody could enjoy the new space and all it has to offer. With this in mind, the teams collaborated to research best practices for accessibility.

One of the most significant steps Ideum and the refuge team took was to consult with the New Mexico Commission for the Blind. Insights from these conversations helped guide the group to steps that could be taken to make the visitor center experience as friendly and accessible as possible. Through discussion with them, several important points came into light that were woven into the exhibits and the visitor center.

One of the key considerations included keeping a singular voice in audio recordings to maintain consistency within that aspect of the visitor experience. Another consideration was how to handle ambient sound: no ambient audio was included in recordings or built into the space itself so as not to cause distraction. A third consideration was to avoid the assumption that every low-sighted or blind visitor reads Braille. (Braille was included in certain spaces to help guide visitors who do use it.)

The visitor center features specialized audio accessibility devices, which come equipped with audio recordings of content such as that found on the signs around the center and descriptions of the space. Different locations around the visitor center have associated numbers that can be entered into audio devices in order for the user to quickly hear the audio for that area. These devices are available for visitors to pick up at the front desk to take with them through the visitor center. The audio devices resemble a compact phone and are small enough to hold in the hand or be carried around in a pocket.

However, these audio accessibility devices do not include audio recordings for the digital interactives. All instances of digital interactives with screens feature their own accessibility layer within the application. Visitors can access this feature at any time during their experience by touching three fingers on any open portion of the screen. A series of further instructions is then read out by the application, helping visitors navigate through the rest of the interactive with the accessibility layer enabled.

Ideum also made sure to include the standard UI/UX considerations we implement in all of our work to maximize accessibility and ease of use. Examples of this accessibility prioritization include locating active elements in easy-to-reach locations, making touchpoints as large as possible, making sure there is enough separation between hot spots, paying attention to contrast and font size, providing immediate feedback for user actions, and placing instructions near the active elements to which they refer.

One of the major exhibits in the visitor center is in itself a fun and different way of creating an accessible interactive experience. The Life Zones exhibit gives an in-depth look at ecosystems in the Albuquerque area. This exhibit provides visitors with a different way to interact with the concepts presented, with less traditional options for visitors with different learning styles and preferences. Visitors can interact with images and text, but they can also view detailed sculptures that show the ecosystems.

Additionally, visitors can use flip panels that ask thought-provoking questions, with clues available in the space below the panel. Frequently, these clues are provided in fun ways that engage multiple senses. Some of the panels flip up to reveal small diorama scenes presenting the sometimes hidden world of small creatures, such as underwater insect larvae. Others feature touchable relief sculptures, encouraging visitors to experience the feel of things like a lacy leaf or a snail’s shell. Including multiple methods for interaction is meant to foster connections for as many visitors as possible.

Taken together, these accessibility efforts, from audio tours, to UI/UX design, to multisensory experiences, were designed to provide a fuller and more rewarding visit for everyone who visits the visitor center at Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge. We’re very glad to have had a chance to work with them to create this exciting new resource for our state.