Looking Around vs. Looking Down: Incorporating Mobility into Your Experience Design

By Ed Rodley

Getting Beyond the Tour: The First Questions
Historically, the first mobile museum experiences were tours. From the Stedelijk Museum’s radio tours in the 1950s, through the eras of the audiocassette tour, CD tour, PDA tour, and now mobile phone-based tour, the form has remained relatively unchanged. The content has gone from analog to digital, and pictures and video have been added to the narration, but they follow the same model: the visitor goes from location to location and receives content at “stops.” Sixty years later, tours are still the dominant type of mobile experience created by museums, according to Pocket-Proof and Learning Times’ 2011 Museums and Mobiles Survey. Tours will be offered in some form by 36% of the museums responding to AAM’s 2011 Mobile Technology Survey.

However, in the age of the smartphone and the tablet, a mobile museum app doesn’t need to be a tour. It can be an interactive book, map, or catalogue. It can be a game, or something entirely different—some new format that takes advantage of the combination of inputs, connectivity and computing power that mobile devices contain. There are some terrific examples of non-tour apps out there: the user-generated soundscapes of Scapes, the augmented reality views of historic London in Streetmuseum, and the art collecting card games in Tate Trumps, among others. All of these apps rise to the challenge of using the capabilities of a mobile device, and don’t just treat it like a portable computer for tiny websites or a multimedia playback device. These kinds of experiences hold great potential to deliver compelling content in a manner that connects with audiences, both within and beyond the museum’s walls. And reaching a broader audience using these devices is one of the most important reasons to seriously consider developing mobile experiences. Mobile experiences hold the promise of giving museum visitors a new way to deepen their engagement with the institution, while bringing in and (hopefully) retaining new audiences by making the museum more immediate, accessible and relevant.

Why Mobility?
AAM’s mobile technology survey projects that a third of all museums in the United States will introduce new mobile technology platforms in 2011, and that smartphone apps will experience the fastest growth. That’s a pretty big bandwagon, and the urge to do something because “everybody’s doing it!” can be hard to resist. But before you jump on board, you need to be able to answer the fundamental question of “Why make a mobile experience?” In an era of austerity, investing in an emerging platform at the expense of any of the other platforms and projects that might serve your visitors’ needs is a big deal and should warrant a carefully considered response.

Heads Up or Down?
In the museum context, most mobile apps offer two kinds of experiences: immersive, introspective ones that draws the user’s attention to the device—“looking down” experiences; and contextualizing ones that direct visitors’ attention out into the world—“looking around” experiences. Many combine elements of both.

Mobile games are a great example of looking down experiences. Good ones grab a user’s attention and hold it for the duration of the game. Trying playing Angry Birds and doing anything else and you’ll understand. Traditional audio tours are classic “looking around” experiences. Ideally, their content is designed to direct your attention outwards, towards the exhibits or sometime towards interaction with your visiting companions. SCVNGR is a great example of an app that combines elements of both: you focus on the device to navigate from location to location, but at the challenge locations you are directed to perform actions that require interaction in the physical space.

In contexts where close observation of an exhibit is the aim of the experience, screens and other “heads-down” experiences have sometimes been considered anathema. But good content and design choices, e.g., showing the detail on the screen and using audio to help visitors find it in the object in front of them, can make the interpretation a scaffold for deeper engagement rather than a distraction from the object. Social and gaming experiences have similarly been held suspect for drawing attention away from the exhibit, but often an exchange or interaction with other visitors can have a more profound learning impact than hours of silent, solitary looking.

The aim should be for the technology to become as invisible a support for the experience as possible. The mobile tours I have tried actually fare worse than their audiocassette and CD ancestors in terms of getting out of the way of the users. They require much more fiddling and time spent looking at the screen to get the next “stop” or interpretive message to play. This rest of this essay seeks to give you ways to avoid these new technology pitfalls and answer these questions for yourself, so you can create compelling, platform-appropriate mobile experiences that go beyond the tour.

Some Hallmarks of Good Mobile Experiences
The “right” answer to the looking down-looking around question will depend on the design constraints of your project. The most successful mobile apps I’ve seen to date share many of the following hallmarks.

They’re appropriate for the medium
Whether you’re designing a mobile app as part of a larger project, adding a layer of mobile content to an existing experience, or doing something completely mobile, you need to acknowledge and build on how people already use smartphones. People do all kinds of interesting things with these devices. They use them to:

  • communicate with other people (voice, text, email)
  • listen to audio and watch videos
  • access digital information (onboard and streamed)
  • play games
  • navigate the real world (GPS, AR)
  • take and share pictures and video

Chances are, they’re doing all these things right now in your museum. When I look at the mobile experiences I’ve enjoyed the most and gotten the most out of, they are uniformly ones that take advantage of the capabilities of the platform and make it self-evident why someone should use it. They are not just porting an existing experience from one platform onto the new mobile one—like Web 1.0 brochureware websites: they are doing something that can only be done (or can best be done) with this technology. The American Museum of Natural History’s Natural History Explorer app has a mapping feature, but it’s not just a map. It shows you where you are in real time, something you can’t do with a paper map.

They are relevant first to visitors, not the institution
Be relevant to visitors, and go from there to connect to your own institutional priorities, not the other way around. This means you need to collect data about visitors and not rely just on anecdotal evidence. One of my favorite features of the Scapes app was that it relied exclusively on visitors’ recorded comments on the artworks and the environment to create the audio interpretation of the DeCordova Museum’s sculpture park. This is a radical approach to guaranteeing the relevance of the mobile app to the visitors by completely eschewing the traditional curatorial interpretive view and voice. Perhaps it was only possible because it was installed as an artwork, not as an audio tour. But perhaps not.

When the American Museum of Natural History launched their Natural History Explorer app, the fanfare was not over the world-class content AMNH provided, but the real-time navigation feature that allowed visitors to navigate the Museum’s 46 exhibition halls with some confidence that they would get where they wanted to go. Solving the navigational problem may be less glamorous than an exclusively content-driven app, but in terms of making visitors feel comfortable, I can’t think of a better app for AMNH to have launched.

They encourage authentic visitor feedback.
Mobiles are primarily communication platforms, and ignoring that is a terrible oversight. Dialogue is a term that gets used quite a bit in discussions on how museums have to change in order to survive in the modern world. Encouraging participation, designing explicitly participatory experiences, and providing opportunities for visitors to “connect” with museums are popular museum conference session topics. An important step that often seems to get overlooked or taken for granted is “Why do you want visitors to talk to your institution’s staff?” It is very hard to have a meaningful conversation of any kind without a shared desire to exchange information, opinions and insights. Museum comment-card boxes the world over are full of feedback that isn’t very useful: from “Cool! Loved it!” to “This museum is dumb,” many visitor comments are not really actionable items. “Like” buttons can be the same. They’re flattering, but don’t necessarily lead anywhere. Just as you wouldn’t start up a conversation with a stranger without some kind of topic or reason in mind, you shouldn’t expect visitors to respond meaningfully unless you provide them a context.

You want a killer app? Invite visitors to take pictures of broken things and send them to your facilities maintenance staff, or tag labels that have typos or out-of-date information. Recruiting visitors to be collaborators, and not just passive consumers of the museum’s knowledge and content, will transform your relationship with your visitors faster than any tour.

They possess a narrative
It’s difficult to overstate the importance of narrative. We are a species of storytellers. It seems to be how we make sense of the world. One of the chief mantras at Pixar is “Story is King!” For all of their technological sophistication, they are ruthless about protecting the narrative from being overwhelmed by whatever new technical effect they can create. Everything they do serves the story, because the story is what the audience remembers. Creating a story to tell with your artifacts and experiences is worthwhile because a good narrative can carry so-so content. Good content has a much harder time carrying a so-so narrative. Walking Cinema’s Murder on Beacon Hill is a good example. The app focuses on a gruesome high-society murder in 1840s Boston. Even though virtually none of the sites associated with the crime still exist, the story is engrossing enough to motivate users to explore the sites picked by the developers. Museums are already repositories of great content, and great narratives. It is a matter of uniting one with the other.

It is important to remember that “story” doesn’t necessarily mean a linear narrative of the “Once upon a time … And they lived happily ever after” variety. There are many different kinds of narrative structures a museum developer could incorporate in a mobile experience. Non-linear and hypermedia storytelling has become part and parcel of computer game development. Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) like World Without Oil, or in the museum sector, Smithsonian’s Ghosts of a Chance and Pheon, have used narrative structures to connect people with each other. Check them out.

They don’t skimp on quality
“Quality” is important in both media format and content design. Good pictures, stereo sound and quality production can make a huge difference in how people react to your app. Part of that is being mindful about how you produce what you put on that tiny screen. Repurposing video meant to be seen on a computer screen or TV can often be problematic, since mobile screens are so much smaller. If you’re looking at an iPhone or Android phone, even the latest, greatest models, you’re not going to be able to resolve details that you’d be able to see on a larger screen. Watch Lawrence of Arabia on a mobile and you’ll see what I mean. Picking a content design approach that works on a small screen, like a close-up of an interview subject’s head as opposed to a full body shot of the same person, will make your app that much more useable.

They’re free, in some form
One of my favorite things about the current media landscape is that much content has become cheap, or free. I’ve always hated the “separate fee” model that many audio tours in the past have followed. Doing all that work to build a mobile program, knowing that at best 30% of the potential audience is going pay for it, is a real frustration. That said, development—and especially quality content—costs money. Particularly in an emerging market, where the value of the experience is still unknown, being able at least to recoup some costs may mean the difference between starting a project or not. The more you can lower the price bar to initial entry to the experience, the more likely that people will try it.

Giving the mobile program away in some form is the best way, particularly in the smartphone arena where free apps are so prevalent. The madness of people balking at paying 99¢ for an app on a phone they spent $300 to buy and $50+ per month to use is a topic for another day, but it’s the reality of the present smartphone landscape and needs to be acknowledged. Getting people to take the time to download and launch your app is the biggest hurdle you’re likely to face. If you get that far and face the problem of how to get them to use it twice, you’re already ahead of the game.

Getting Started
Probably the best thing you can do before you start planning your own mobile app is to find and use as many compelling mobile apps as you can. Think about why you like the ones you like, as a user, not as a developer. Be shameless in building on the work that others have done. The web is full of great repositories of museum mobile experience. Do some real research on your intended audience. And most importantly, don’t wait for “the market to stabilize” and resolve the uncertainties that swarm around the mobile sector. iOS or Android? Native app or web app? HTML5? One of the most reassuring projections I took away from the 2010 Tate Handheld Conference was the consensus that the idea that we were heading to a promised land where the technology would no longer be in flux was unrealistic. It will always be changing; there will always be some new paradigm-upsetting product or service in the wings. Ted Forbes, multimedia producer at the Dallas Museum of Art, summed up his mobile strategy at DMA better than any I’ve heard, so I’ll steal it: “Do it now. Do what you can. Do it better tomorrow.”

Good luck!

Ed Rodley, senior exhibit developer ,  Museum of Science, Boston.

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One response to “Looking Around vs. Looking Down: Incorporating Mobility into Your Experience Design

  1. Pingback: Embracing Mobile | Museum Minute

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