So Many Devices, So Many Options: An Introduction to Cross-Platform Thinking

By Allegra Burnette

Traditionally we are trained to think that form follows function: first you decide the content and purpose of what you are designing, building or creating, and then you shape the form around that. But in many ways, mobile projects are the reverse — the function of your app is often led by the form factor of the device itself. A tablet, for example, offers a different kind of experience than a smartphone, and that difference can shape the app you develop.

Smartphones are inherently portable, enabling us to slip a vast array of content, activities, and resources into our pockets or bags and take them wherever we go, pulling them out when we need to look up something or find out where we are. They are therefore ideally suited for things like audio tours in the museum, finding out the location of a museum and the next event or film showing, and looking up an art term while standing in front of a work of art. Going beyond the one-way communication of a traditional audio tour, mobile phones enable two-way communication between the museum and its visitors, as well as visitors with other visitors.

Tablets, while also portable, are (at least currently) typically much less about a literal on-the-move experience — even Apple’s ads when the iPad came out last year showed someone with the device propped against his knees, leisurely perusing an app or browsing the Web. People use tablets while traveling on planes, trains, and in automobiles. They use them to read magazines, play games, and watch a movie. A tablet can be viewed by several people at once more easily than a phone can. But at the same time, the tablet format creates a more intimate personal space between user and device than a laptop or desktop computer does: we are interacting directly with the screen rather than through a separate keyboard or mouse, and we are often holding it rather than facing it.

At The Museum of Modern Art we prioritized the iPhone as our first platform for mobile development because iPhone users were the largest mobile audience of our website. (While Android was second largest at the time we set our priorities, the iPad overtook the Android audience shortly after it first came out in the spring of 2010, and remains the second largest at the time of writing.) In order to make the best use of our resources and to streamline development and ongoing maintenance, we developed an app that was a hybrid of a native app and a mobile site. Creating this hybrid app rather than just a mobile site gave us access to broader distribution through the Apple App Store. This also gave us the opportunity to create features like MoMA Snaps, a branded postcard activity, which would not have been possible through a browser version alone. But at the same time, it allowed us to develop a structural base that could be adapted for an Android app and the mobile version of our website, MoMA.org.

The MoMA iPhone app that we developed was meant as both an in-museum and an offsite experience. Like many museums currently developing mobile apps, we wanted to include our audio tour content. But we were not intending to replace or supplement the current in-museum audio devices with iPods loaded with the app (due to the quantity needed, as well as distribution, security, and maintenance issues). Instead, our intention was to offer the app for people who wanted to access the content through their own devices when in the museum. We included the entire calendar of events and exhibitions and access to all of the online collection with the intention that people would also use the app to plan a visit or learn about works of art beyond the walls of the museum.

While the iPhone app (and the later Android and mobile versions) was a more general view of MoMA and its collection, the iPad app we developed for the Abstract Expressionist New York (AB EX NY) exhibition was an exploration in creating an experience specifically for a tablet device around a single exhibition. We chose not to do a tablet version of the mobile phone app immediately because we felt the form factor necessitated a different approach to the content. This initial tablet project gave us a chance to explore focused ideas on how we could present works in our collection, which in turn might later inform broader, tablet-based projects that we may develop in the future.

Several ideas we explored in the tablet format would have been less effective or not possible in a phone-based app including. For example, a split screen layout, which allows textual information to appear adjacent to a work of art. It is very difficult to combine text and art onscreen in a meaningful way on a phone — your focus is either on one or the other (which is in part why video and audio are particularly effective on a smartphone).

The home screen of the iPad app was a scrollable view of the works that were featured in the program, with the images shown loosely in scale with each other. This selection, combined with the “gallery” browse views, creates a different experience than the typical, more list-based phone app.

While these are certainly not all of the different layout considerations between a tablet and a phone app, they do hint at the larger issue at hand: How do we create compelling experiences for the different device form factors with the limited resources available to museums and in the rapidly changing face of technology? The sand is shifting so much right now that there is not currently a clear answer, but being strategic and thoughtful about how you approach the various platforms (tablet versus phone) and formats (app versus Web), while staying true to the content and your own capabilities (or those of a trusted consultant), is at least a start.

While the AB EX NY iPad app was intended to promote the exhibition, its related publication, and MoMA’s collection, we very specifically intended it to be an experience that took place outside of the exhibition, whether that meant people used it before or after a visit, or even if they never came to the museum at all. We even used images inspired by the Apple campaign of someone using the app in a non-museum space to reinforce that idea. Even though the app includes the content from the audio tour, it really didn’t occur to us that people might try to use it within the museum as a mobile app, until we read this in a review:

You may find the experience of lugging an iPad around the exhibit distracting; I certainly did at times, for no other reason than all the attention it attracted. But if you think about this as a piece of software, free to be downloaded onto any iPad anywhere with an Internet connection, then it dawns on you: a kid in Idaho, two time zones and two thousand from the MoMA, can experience this content as easily as a youngster from the Bronx.

This was a valuable lesson: no matter how we design these apps and no matter how carefully we tailor them to a particular platform, the known unknown is how and where people are going to use their mobile devices. Anecdotally, we have noticed that in the museum, people are using both phones and tablets, with phones making more of an appearance in the galleries and tablets used more in the interstitial spaces. But if we offer the same program on both phones and tablets, would visitors switch between devices based on where they are, or are they more device-consistent within the space of the museum? At this point, only more observation and testing will reveal the answer to that.

If we look at the number of mobile phone apps versus tablet apps in the Apple App Store and Android Market, we see far more of the former than the latter. While this is in part due to the fact that tablets are newer to the market and comprise a smaller share of the mobile device landscape in general, it may also be due to the different experience of using a tablet and the different requirements, including interface design, needed to develop those experiences. And while “function follows form” may be in large part the way we’ve started developing mobile museum apps, as tablets start to come out in varying sizes and phones screens get larger, the differences between a phone versus a tablet experience is likely to become blurred. Add to that the various ways that people use mobile devices, and there are more overlaps between smartphones and tablets. Careful planning and evolving development solutions should help clear a path through the morass as we move past our mobile beginnings to a multiplatform future.

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