Communicating Art, Virtually! Psychological Effects of Technological Affordances in a Virtual Museum



Eun Go (graduate student)
Hyang-Sook Kim (graduate student)
Bo Zhang (graduate student)


Dr. S. Shyam Sundar


Museums all over the world are incorporating interactive technologies to engage both physical visitors and virtual visitors. While exhibits in physical museums are becoming increasingly interactive, those in virtual museums use a variety of communication technologies to afford an authentic museum experience to online visitors. In this study, we examine whether three specific affordances of communication technology—customization, interactivity, and navigability—can provide the personal, social, and physical contexts, respectively, that are necessary for ensuring an enjoyable museum experience.


In a virtual, online museum, users could be provided the freedom to control their actions and the process of art appreciation as they are in real, offline museum settings, by leveraging the various technological features available these days. Users are able to not only choose the way they navigate the website, but also create their own collection by gathering their favorite artworks, as well as adding their own comments about the artworks to the collection. Thus, we proposed the following hypotheses and research questions:

H1: The presence of customization in a virtual museum website will lead to greater levels of a) sense of agency, b) perceived control, c) user engagement with content, d) positive attitudes toward the website, and e) satisfaction with experience on the site.

H2: The presence of live chat in a virtual museum website will lead to greater levels of a) perceived reciprocity b) perceived synchronicity, c) perceived social presence, d) positive attitudes toward the website, and e) satisfaction with the site.

H3: The presence of a 3D navigation tool in a virtual museum will lead to greater levels of a) spatial presence b) perceived reality, d) positive attitudes toward website, and e) satisfaction with the site.

H4: The technological affordances of customization, live chatting and navigability in a virtual museum site will lead to more positive psychological outcomes among power users than non-power users.

RQ1: How does the presence of 3D navigation tool affect the perceived usability of a virtual museum website?

RQ2: Are there interaction effects among three different technology affordances on psychological outcomes related to user experience of a virtual museum website?


We employed a 2 (presence vs. absence of customizable gallery) x 2 (presence vs. absence of live-chat with others) x 2 (presence vs. absence of 3-D navigational tool) fully-crossed factorial between-participants controlled laboratory experiment, with participants‘ level of power usage as a moderating variable. All participants (N=126) at a large U.S. university were randomly assigned to one of eight versions of a virtual version of New York City‘s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), available through Google Art Project ( After the instruction, they explored the stimulus museum website to complete the assigned tasks, After the completion of the recommendation task, they were asked to fill out a questionnaire containing questions regarding their absorption, attitudes and satisfaction toward the interface.


The results showed that each affordance is associated with distinct psychological benefits (customization with sense of agency and control, interactivity with reciprocity, and navigability with perceived reality). Specifically, Interactivity promotes perceived reciprocity and reality of user experience, navigability (3-D navigational tool) decreases users’ sense of control, and interactivity hinders navigability’s positive effect on perceived reality. Combining all three affordances in one interface undermines their respective benefits. In addition, power usage moderates the effectiveness of each affordance on the interface.


The effect of our operationalizations of the three affordances on user experience is anything but straightforward. While live-chatting contributed to perceived reciprocity and social presence, the 3-D navigational tool seemed to undermine users‘ sense of control over the interface. On the other hand, the enhancement in perceived reality of the museum experience caused by the 3D tool was hindered by the inclusion of live-chat in the study protocol although live chat, by itself, promoted the greatest level of the perceived reality. In sum, there appears to be a conflict between the navigability and interactivity tools on specific aspects of user experience. From a design standpoint, these findings argue against the common tendency among site developers to keeping adding more features. The deployment of affordances has to be strategic, keeping in mind the specific objectives of the site.

For more details regarding the study contact

Dr. S. Shyam Sundar by e-mail at or by telephone at (814) 865-2173

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Media Effects Research Lab at College of Communications, Penn State University