Mobile Experience Design: What’s Your Roll-Out Strategy?

By Koven Smith

Rapid advancements in smartphone technology of the last few years have changed the nature of mobile experiences in museums utterly. Where tour-based audio guides were once the only type of mobile experience available to museum visitors, we are currently witnessing an explosion in the types of experiences from which visitors might choose. Augmented reality games, crowd-sourced content creation, or even experiences not designed to occur inside the museum at all are just a few of the new ways that museums are beginning to explore to enhance either a physical or virtual visit.

These new opportunities mean that museums must now take a more nuanced approach to how their mobile experiences are introduced to the public. In the past, the expense of providing mobile experiences to visitors (typically via audio) meant that those experiences needed to appeal to the broadest possible audience in order to make them cost-effective. This broad appeal was reflected in the brute-force marketing strategies employed by museums to encourage uptake: handing out mobile guides to visitors, advertising the guides with large signs at the entrance, and often providing mobile guides as a premium benefit of membership.

However, development of mobile applications and mobile web sites as replacement for dedicated devices as the primary means of delivering mobile experiences — and the concomitant reduction in production costs — means that mobile experiences in museums no longer need to be designed for a museum’s entire audience in order to be cost-effective. Many of these new types of mobile experiences are often aimed at a particular niche audience, whether scholars, gamers, children, or social butterflies. Each of these niche audiences requires its own type of solicitation, both via the design of the mobile application itself as well as the marketing campaign used to introduce it. Museums must therefore design the strategy by which a mobile experience is “rolled out” to the public as carefully as it designs the mobile experience itself. The goal of a successful mobile roll-out strategy should not be to reach more users, but rather to reach more of the right users.

Reaching the right users involves reflecting the needs of a given target group in the design of the application, but also in the ways the target group is approached to participate. Mobile applications designed for a small subset of a museum’s public shouldn’t be marketed to every single person who walks in the door, any more than an application designed for use by the “average” visitor should be marketed exclusively to the gaming community. A museum’s roll-out and marketing strategy should act as a signal to visitors indicating what type of experience they should expect; visitors should then be able to better self-select the kinds of experiences that are right for them. What follows is a discussion of three typical roll-out strategies for mobile experiences in museums, with a discussion of how the target audience, application design, and marketing strategy affect one another. These strategies should serve as solid starting points for any museum contemplating how to introduce its visitors to a new mobile experience.

Scenario 1: Broad Appeal

Target Audience: In a “broad appeal” scenario, the museum is marketing its mobile experience to every single visitor who enters the building. A mass-market roll-out scenario is designed to reach the largest number of potential users, typically from a wide array of demographic backgrounds. In this scenario, the visit to the museum drives use of the mobile application; the average user has probably not arrived at the museum already aware that a mobile experience is available to him or her, necessitating a wider-reaching information/marketing campaign. The typical result of this kind of campaign is a relatively passive type of engagement from a large number of users.

Design: If a mobile application is to be marketed to the masses in this way, it must be truly usable by those masses. The application should be highly fault-tolerant and forgiving of mistakes on the part of the visitor, not dependent on the user’s familiarity with other technologies or services in order to participate in the experience (“sign in with your Twitter account” would be a poor way to kick off the experience, for example), and not contingent on the user’s familiarity with specialized language or jargon. Because the user engagement in this type of scenario is likely to be low, the threshold to content consumption should also be low.

Strategy: Because this type of experience is designed for most (if not all) visitors to the museum, the roll-out of the experience should reflect this more “populist” nature. It should be impossible for any visitor to exit the building without knowing that there is a mobile experience available to him or her. The most straightforward way to encourage adoption is simply to rent or loan the visitor a device with the application pre-loaded on it. Prominent signage and other kinds of promotional materials (e.g., bookmarks reminding visitors to rent a tour, or offering a discount) at the entrances and in dwell spaces will also help to saturate the physical space with the awareness that the mobile experience is available.

In instances where giving a device to the visitor may not be possible, the museum must make the application available for download to users’ own devices. Making an application available in this way is not as straightforward as it might seem. First, signage must be available — at every location that the visitor might use the application — directing the visitor how to download the application to his or her personal device. Many users may not download the application at the front door, so it is important to have additional signs prompting download throughout the building, in locations where content is available. The nature of this signage should also reflect the nature of the application design. If the application is primarily aimed at researchers, scholars, or students, for instance, a broad appeal campaign may not be appropriate: the museum cannot create a broadly targeted information campaign for an application that will be difficult for all but a small minority of its visitors to use. A large sign saying “Download our mobile app!” is a not-so-subtle message to the user that the app will be easy to use, and will not require much from the visitor.

Scenario 2: Stealth

Target Audience: A “stealth” roll-out means that the museum has decided to market its mobile experience to a niche group without an overt information campaign. The expectation is that this group will be a subset of the museum’s total visitor profile, but that this smaller group will be far more actively engaged with the mobile experience than the “average” visitor. With a stealth campaign, users of the mobile application should already be aware of the application before a visit is made, if the application itself did not in fact prompt a visit.

Design: A “stealth” campaign is an appropriate means of marketing when discovery, exploration, and mystery are primary components of the application design. While the application shouldn’t necessarily be difficult to use, the act of figuring out how the application works should be a key part of its appeal. Because a stealth campaign is targeted at a smaller audience, the application should have an appeal tailored to the audience being targeted. An application designed to be a broad introduction to the museum’s collection, for instance, wouldn’t necessarily benefit from being rolled out in this manner.

Strategy: In a stealth campaign, the marketing of the mobile application is itself part of the total experience. The primary goal is a highly engaged user community, so the roll-out campaign should be designed to promote a high level of curiosity at the outset. There are a number of strategies a museum might employ in pursuit of this goal. A straightforward strategy might be to identify potential “influencers” in the museum’s community, and give those influencers a personal introduction to the application, with the expectation that these users will provoke others to use the application as well.

Another possibility would be to take a cue from alternate reality campaigns, and attempt to promote a sense of mystery around the application. In this scenario, the museum might use signage, but in a more oblique way than in a broad appeal campaign. The museum might embed “clues” that would prompt a visitor to download the application to his or her phone or to take additional actions. Clues could even be embedded in materials designed to be consumed outside of the museum, such as print materials or the museum’s web site. An effective stealth campaign should guarantee user interest and engagement long before the application itself is actually downloaded.

Scenario 3: Third-Party

The recent explosion in the number of museums making collections content available via APIs (“application programming interface”) has created a third viable scenario for museums: an application designed by a third party, completely outside the museum’s purview and control. Strategizing for both design and marketing of a mobile experience developed in this way is challenging, but not impossible. A museum in fact has the ability to influence both the design and introduction of a mobile experience, even when developed largely without that museum’s input. The target audience of this type of experience is variable, depending on the museum’s goals.

Design: Again, in this scenario the museum is looking for means by which it can influence the development of a mobile experience more than overtly control that development. Here, a museum might look at multiple types of content to make publicly available. A museum making its information available via an API might create a separate “mobile-ready” API that prioritizes the types of information the museum would like to see in a mobile device. Delivering data in this way helps to ensure that the mobile application developed by an outside developer will still focus on the kind of information that is important to the museum. A museum might also publish a list of locations within the building, with particular content attached to each, or a database of artists within the collection, or a geotagged list of artist birth/work locations. Museums might make any number of content types available that would encourage developers to create applications that travel outside of the normal “tour” format.

Strategy: A third-party mobile experience represents a unique challenge for museums from a roll-out and marketing standpoint. Because the museum may not know that an application is being developed until it is already publicly available, it is difficult to schedule its roll-out into a broader marketing strategy or schedule. In this scenario, what the museum should be looking to do is to provide incentives to potential mobile developers to work within the museum’s ideal framework. There are a number of ways a museum might do this. It might simply indicate a willingness to promote an application in its galleries or on its website if the application is developed according to certain standards. It might also be willing to provide physical infrastructure for certain types of applications (AR or gaming applications, for example). While doing this, it is critical that the museum keep in mind how to create brand differentiation between its own “official” applications and those developed by the community, inserting appropriate language into “terms of service” agreements and the like.


A diversity of mobile experience types demands a parallel diversity of marketing approaches. It is clear that museums need to begin making far more deliberate choices about how their mobile experiences are rolled out to the public. Making the right choice will help to ensure that the right visitors are paired with the right types of experiences. Whether the museum wishes to reach its visitors outside the building, via a game-style approach, or inside with a mobile tour, the roll-out strategy should be carefully considered at each and every stage of development.


2 responses to “Mobile Experience Design: What’s Your Roll-Out Strategy?

  1. Wow! Thank you for this post – and for this blog! I’m putting together a proposal for creating a simple tour app for a historical site, which is beyond my field of reference as an ad agency account manager. This site has been invaluable in putting together my proposal and giving me insights into the finer points of the industry!

  2. Fantastic article there – alot to digest but food for thought!

    – Jessamy, how did you go about taking all the info here and building your app?

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