STEPS, Science Theater Education Programming System, is a software program comprised of three main elements: 1) an editor, called the Show Planner, for authoring museum theater shows with multimedia, interchangeable time lines, and multiple cue points; 2) an asset library, accessible through the Show Planner, for managing and importing high definition videos, audio, and images; and 3) a Show Presenter which plays back the show for an audience in any type of theater environment.

This project was perhaps the most complex in terms of understanding and managing client goals. This project was funded by the National Science Foundation, led by researchers at the Space Science Institute, with a collaboration of eight science museums, two service organizations, and series of scientific advisers from SETI, NASA, and other high-profile organizations. The project had as its first goal the professional development of a group of science educators, and as its second goal, the development of the software system. The greatest challenge therefore was developing the software in parallel with the story-lines that the project collaborative was creating. This led to an interesting collection of functionality and features not collectively available in any other software tool currently on the market, including forking time-lines and a live feed camera.

Del Padre’s goals were to create a product based on the absolute latest and emerging technologies in order to increase the product’s shelf-life and future applicability within the museum field. We also implemented a double-buffering system to alleviate some of the lag caused by disc access speeds between show scenes. STEPS was built on Adobe AIR to run on Mac or PC, enabling museums to use whatever platform they were most comfortable with or capable of supporting internally.

Usability was particularly important for this project, and we where able to work directly with a professional evaluator for the first time to test early mockups and functionality using Google Wave as both a synchronous and asynchronous collaboration tool. The most important usability function, especially for novice users, was a built-in feedback mechanism by which the interface changes itself to match what the user is doing, and only presents settings and options that are relevant or usable to the particular task. This approach is critical to reducing user errors from the outset, rather than relying on a series of error messages that a user would need to interpret and trouble shoot on his/her own.