Failure to communicate: The importance of User Experience at Expo Milano 2015


5 minute read
Calvium Team

Calvium Team

Digital Placemaking

Our Phd Candidate researcher Cristina has been looking into UX design and its importance. Having recently visited Expo Milano, a world fair held to discuss food and nutrition in Milan, she has written her experiences from the day, commenting on how consideration of UX could have dramatically improved the overall effect of the show…


Whilst back in Italy for a few days last week, I seized the opportunity to visit the Expo Milano 2015, a 6 month Universal Exposition hosted in Milan. Here, more than 140 participating countries and international organisations show the best of their technology that offers a concrete answer to the central theme ‘Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life’.

On the official website, the event is praised for its unique visitor experience, thanks to ‘its innovative approach in which theme, contents and technologies are working together’, while the exhibition site is described as a real “digital smart city”, whose citizens are the visitors. With such promising outlooks in mind, my ultimate goal for the visit was to assess the different installations from the ‘user experience’ design point of view, especially considering the raised expectations following the largely publicized high-tech pervasivity of the site.

Inside the Expo site, several screens and touchpoints are located in strategic points, and fully coverage Wi-Fi offers to visitors constant digital interactions. Plus, using the Expo Milan 2015 official app, visitors can have an immersive experience, thanks to augmented reality, not only inside the Expo site but also in many locations spread all over the city of Milan.

The exhibition site itself is huge and with just a day to spend there, I didn’t have a chance to see all the pavilions I wished to, but I was really pleased to manage to visit at least some of the most visited and discussed installations.

Generally, the trend for all the installations is a multisensorial experience, mostly making a large use of trendy interactive forefront technologies (from 4D movie to 3D 4k projections ending with dedicated apps that interact with the installation) and therefore highly appealing to the audience, in particular for all the high-tech enthusiasts.

The overall theme of food and its global problems is the most important messages of the Expo Milano 2015 but it generally went unnoticed, and whether or not this was intentional, is not to be known. An appropriate example is the pavilion of Kazakhstan that  -as promoted on the website, ‘envelops the visitors in a whirlwind of information, images and emotions, and concluding their experience with a 4D movie’. The ultimate goal of this high-tech abundance appears to be more about sponsoring Astana Expo 2017 rather than explaining to the visitors the food strategies that Kazakhstan intends to accomplish for ‘Feeding the Planet’.

However, assuming that each country’s intentions were sincere and their ultimate goal was to introduce their strategies to a wider audience in a showcase event space, it is easy to detect how some basic user experience design rules have been disregarded. One of the most common mistakes that project managers make is forgetting about the need for clear background information and on site effective storytelling to help visitors make sense of what they are seeing. This is even more important when an exhibition relies on eye-catching high tech solutions that can easily detract visitors attention from the final message. A great deal has been said by museum curators and interpretation consultants about the controversial tendency of such interactive installations to be regarded by the audience as mere entertainment tools rather than effective informative instruments.

And ultimately, what it is an actual shame is that the Expo organisers themselves were conscious of the failure to communicate the message. On the website, they alert the visitors that ‘it isn’t always so easy to grasp its significance or relevance during a physical visit’ and so they recommend to use the Virtual Tour prior the visit to gather information about how to interpret the different things they are going to see. Unfortunately, such an useful tip does not appear on the homepage of the official website, but moreover the Virtual Tour itself does not actually add any valuable information other than directional instructions and brief general indications about the pavilions.

Overall, looking beyond the (moot) ‘wow-factor’ of the eclectic architectural and futuristic installations, every time I left a pavilion, I found myself puzzled with a big question buzzing in my head: What have I actually learned about food and all the world contradictions that it creates? After hours of wandering and queuing, I saw tons of images of exotic food, watched short documentaries celebrating several glorious pasts and laborious industries, had a virtual bird fly over a land that I haven’t visited before. But no one said a word about their own future strategies.

Wasn’t the whole Expo event about the efforts of each country to ‘find a balance between availability and consumption of resources through the use of advanced technologies’? This is actually the most regrettable aspect of Expo Milano 2015, the failure of communication. In fact, from the experience design point of view, the glamorous use of the latest technologies creates a fun-fair style immersiveness, fully retaining the audience attention and so, ultimately, failing to deliver the main message of the event.  

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