Eastern State Penitentiary

Website Redesign and Interactive Exhibits

A woman sitting in front of a computer, displaying the homepage to the Eastern State Penitentiary website.

Eastern State Penitentiary was once the most famous and expensive prison in the world, home to some of America's most notorious criminals, including "Slick Willie" Sutton and "Scarface" Al Capone. But the contemporary Eastern State is a leader in American criminal justice reform. Over the last five years, I've worked with the historic site on all aspects of their approach to digital, from websites to online digital exhibits, as their identity evolved to become a center for discourse about the U.S. criminal justice system.

A Long-Term Partnership

Over the last five years, I've built a strong relationship with Eastern State Penitentiary as we've collaborated on a half dozen digital projects, starting with the digital interactives housed in Prisons Today: Questions in the Age of Mass Incarceration in 2015–16. In 2016–17, we conducted a redesign of the daytime museum and their Halloween attraction, Terror Behind the Walls. After two years of site and exhibit optimizations, we collaborated on a website to supplement The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage funded project, Hidden Lives Illuminated, a series of nightly screenings of animated short films created by currently-incarcerated artists living in Pennsylvania correctional institutions.

A stack of papers with the new Eastern State website sitemap and several markers during a collaborative planning meeting. Coffee included.
We conducted several hands-on workshops with the Eastern State team, including several content and IA planning sessions and design studios to ideate around the structure and layout of the new site.

Designing the Prisons Today Exhibit

The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world with 2.2 million citizens in prison. This has been the result of changes in laws, policing, and sentencing, and have disproportionately impacted poor and disenfranchised communities, mostly communities of color. Prisons Today: Questions in the Age of Mass Incarceration sheds light on these issues through interactive exhibits, both digital and physical, and multimedia. As part of the exhibit design process, we developed two digital interactives displayed throughout the exhibit.

The two experiences aimed to teach people about the rationales for the prison system (retribution, deterrence, rehabilitation, and incapacitation), and to get them to think critically about these reasons through self-reflection. I led the creative and technical production of both digital experiences, including the concept development, user experience and interface design, content strategy, and technical direction. The exhibit was installed and opened in April 2016 to critical acclaim, including several major awards for the exhibit and digital experiences.

Two images, side by side. On the left, a woman filling out her digital postcard on a touch screen. On the right, a young girl and older man work together to learn about the prison system on a touch screen, out of view.
In the exhibit, housed in an old cell block, visitors could interact with the touch screens throughout the space. At the end of the exhibit, you can send yourself a digital postcard reflecting on your experience in the exhibit, and receive postcards via email three months, one year, and three years later. Over 100,000 individuals have signed up for postcards since the exhibit's opening.

An Award-Winning Exhibit

Prisons Today was awarded several awards, including the American Alliance of Museum's Excellence in Exhibits and a Media & Technology MUSE award for one of the digital experiences.

User-Centered Website Redesign

Eastern State Penitentiary’s Historic Site and Terror Behind the Walls are operated by the same staff at the same location, but they have very different audiences. To balance staff needs with audience expectations, we designed the two websites separately but with parallel structures. As the design lead on the project, I provided overall creative direction and user experience and interface design for the new websites, as well as content strategy and front-end development support.

We held a series of meetings with individual departments to more precisely determine goals for both the Historic Site and Terror Behind the Walls. Eastern State Penitentiary was in the midst of a strategic planning process and had big goals for the future of the websites, including a collections database, more content around current corrections, and CRM integration; so we built the websites to accommodate their existing content, and to be flexible enough to add these additional features ongoing. I facilitated hands-on design thinking workshops with Eastern State Penitentiary staff to determine features, functional requirements, and content and structural decisions.

A side-by-side comparison of the style guides for the Eastern State Penitentiary and Terror Behind the Walls websites.
A side-by-side comparison of the style guides for the Eastern State Penitentiary and Terror Behind the Walls websites, showing the contrast between the design systems for structurally similar sites.
A laptop and smartphone showing the Terror Behind the Walls site, including the homepage and ticketing screen.
For the Terror Behind the Walls website, it was important that the experience streamlined conversion—how do we get people to buy their tickets quickly before or at the attraction? We designed, tested, and iterated on this experience across devices to get it right.

We conducted regular user testing at Terror Behind the Walls, immersing our team at multiple experiences in order to get real user feedback from a wide range of audiences. This feedback informed a number of our design recommendations and functional decisions, including enhancements to the ticketing calendar and use of motion and animation throughout the site to promote engagement. At Terror Behind the Walls, mobile ticket sales keep box office lines short, and allow for VIP upgrade options before visitors enter. We designed the mobile experience to prominently feature ticketing options and created navigation that’s easy to use across devices.

We routinely hear from our visitors, staff, and colleagues that the website is beautiful and easy to navigate. It provides a large amount of content in a clean, simplified, organized fashion. Interactive Mechanics did a fantastic job understanding and finding the delicate balance between distinguishing our two dissimilar brands and yet establishing a singular institutional voice across both sites.

Nicole Frankhouser
Director of Marketing & Communications
Eastern State Penitentiary

The website has been an ongoing project since its initial launch, including dozens of releases to push site improvements and optimizations live. This has included refinements to the content management system to improve the administrator experience, user experience optimizations to ticketing on the Terror Behind the Walls site, and the addition of several microsites to support digital learning and grant-funded projects.