Content for all kinds: Creating content that works for on- and off-site visitors

By Sandy Goldberg

Through all the seismic shifts in handheld technology in the past few years, the mantra I hear over and over again is: “Content is King.”  As a mobile content provider, it seems that I should be thrilled every time I see the primacy of content affirmed in another presentation, another blog, another article, another platform vendor website. But the problem with this mantra is that for mobile app content in particular to be effective it has to support and align with the user’s mobile experience of it. Mobile content is experience design.  What’s the experience?

Some users of mobile apps are downloading them in anticipation of a visit, to sample ahead of time what they want to see on-site. Others download to use when they get there; and then, in some cases, to use the content to explore more deeply afterwards. Of course many users pick up pre-loaded devices on site. And then there is the huge group who use mobile apps to visit museums virtually that they cannot get to in person. The word ‘visitor’ describes all of these people. How can mobile content be truly impactful for all these scenarios and contexts?

Just because we don’t know when or where the user interaction will happen doesn’t mean that content has to be completely neutral on the one hand, or completely compartmentalized on the other.

There are some widely accepted ‘best practices’ for creating audio and multimedia tours that assume an on-site experience.[i] Those best practices still apply, and I won’t go into detail about them here, but I will use some of them as jumping off points to getting to great mobile app content that works for on- and off-site museum visitors through three key guidelines, and three common pitfalls. I will also suggest some new approaches to navigation and content sharing among institutions that can radically extend the usefulness and budgets of mobile content projects.

Top Tips for Great Mobile Content Design
The most important rule for mobile content design is:

1. Start from the end, and work back to the beginning.

The ‘end’ is what actually happens between the content and the user: a.k.a. ‘user experience’ – and multiple kinds of experiences.  But first things first:

What do we mean by ‘good content’?

In 2010, as Session Chair of an online conference about mobile content for museums[ii] I polled 1,200 international participants,[iii] all museum professionals, about what they thought made good content. I presented choices that have all been longtime, accepted goals of museum interpretation. As such, I expected to find a fairly straight-line distribution of responses, and I thought that even distribution would be a way to begin discussion about balancing these goals. But I was wrong. The results were a rather dramatic bell-curve. Here’s a screen shot of the results of this live poll:


It’s particularly interesting that the two least popular choices – “it offers a lot of information” and “it’s clear and concise” – described how much information was offered. I interpret this as a growing consensus against information overload on the one hand, and on the other hand a rejection of content which feels too concisely didactic, without a sense of openness or wonder about it.

You don’t know who your user is, or where your user is, but you know one thing for certain: your user is human.

On second thought it should not have been so surprising that ‘emotionally resonant’ won out in a poll in which participants voted quickly – from their gut reactions. Emotional resonance has been demonstrated to be one of the most important ways that human brains create memory. Many scientific studies have investigated the precise mechanistic link between the amygdala – the part of the brain which registers strong emotion – and the creation of memory. [iv] Indeed, one of the roles of the amygdala is now understood to be regulating memory consolidation in other brain regions.  So if we consider one of the goals of mobile content to be, on some level, to make the museum experience and interpretation memorable, then it’s self-evident that the content needs to resonate emotionally to be considered effective.

This is especially true for mobile content because the vast majority of mobile app devices are personal devices, either belonging to the users themselves, or a similar type of handheld device loaned by a museum.  The content is therefore being carried and delivered in the same way that a user gets and stores very personal information indeed. If content is downloaded onto the user’s own device, as in the case of most apps, this is particularly true. So if the content that’s accessed through a personal device is impersonal in tone, it feels off-kilter. It undermines the user experience as it is happening.

Keeping this in mind, here’s a simple litmus test when beginning to think about how to approach content about an object/display/place. The jumping-off point should not be ‘what is this?’  It should be ‘why should someone care about this?’

In other words, the second rule of thumb is:

2. Just because it’s true doesn’t mean it’s interesting.

Creating experiences: avoiding content fragmentation

Yes, you want to be able to use content on different platforms and in different configurations, and have the content work for on-and off-site visitors. But even as you are creating for ‘platform agnostic’ content, beware of producing completely isolated ‘bites’.  Fragmented blocks of content that don’t refer to each other create a disjointed, emotionally unsatisfying experience. There won’t be strong memories of the content, and there won’t be a connection felt to your exhibition or museum. To avoid this, use large ideas and themes as threads that can tie your content together no matter what the user’s path through it. Think about ideas that are seminal to your museum’s mission or collection. Take another step outwards and think about how those ideas can resonate in the larger intellectual and cultural spheres. Using large ideas will mean that no matter how your content is being encountered now or reconfigured later, the individual pieces of content will actually add up to something. This is what creates a meaningful user experience; one that resonates and is remembered.

There’s a growing consensus from the very top of the museum field that, alongside collecting and preservation, ‘experience’ is now one of the highest priority, and that mobile content is an important part of to that experience. In an interview in February 2012, Dan Monroe, President of the Association of Art Museum Directors, said “The art museum experience occurs now inside the museum, outside, online, on smart phones….  there’s more and more recognition, I think, that we’re in the business of creating experiences.”[v]

Creating content around ideas and themes can be helpful in thinking and planning ahead with your budget: in interviews, as audio or video shoots for temporary exhibitions or other time-specific uses, you can incorporate those ideas and then bank them for use in other ways. This can provide content that can live on through ideas and themes related to your permanent collection content. Through these idea threads you’ll also be creating alternate ways of navigating through your content; more on this below.

3. Use mobile content to restore what’s been lost in the museum context

Restoring authenticity

Mobile products – audio and multimedia tours, apps, games, etc. – are sometimes criticized for taking away, or distracting, from the authenticity of an onsite experience, or of a collection.  But when designed well, mobile content can restore what’s lost when objects are presented in a museum in the first place. Here are some examples of how mobile content can be used to restore lost context and authenticity:

  • Show views or details of objects that aren’t visible in the museum setting. Include the back, interior views, etc.
  • Show the context an object was made for. How would it have been originally experienced or used?
  • Describe what it feels like to hold an object. How heavy is it? What does it feel like? Show it being handled or operated.
  • Use virtual reality to bring an object’s original location or setting zooming into the present.
  • Ask for user memories associated with imagery in a work, historical objects, or displays; for example via links to social media.  This type of crowdsourcing not only provides important information; it can also help restore the collective context that inspired the maker in the first place. It also involves your audience in the creation of interpretive content, which can be hugely rewarding for visitors and the museum alike. For many users, contributing can be a truly memorable part of their experience. It creates a connection.

Common Pitfalls of Mobile Content – and How to Avoid Them 

The first of the most common pitfalls in mobile content design is perhaps also the easiest to avoid:

1. Institutional narcissism

By “institutional narcissism” I mean content about an institution’s own history, stories and staff to an extent that’s really only interesting to the people involved. It’s often found in “About the Museum” type of features, as well as content that focuses on donors and museum leadership. Other times this kind of content involves discussing objects in a way that traces the museum’s collecting history and the meaning of the objects themselves.  (See above: “Just because it’s true…”)  It’s a little bit like expecting strangers to be captivated by your family photos and mementos. This can be a particularly easy trap to fall into if you are producing your content entirely in-house.  Make sure to take a giant step backwards; include outsiders to get feedback on this sort of content at the very least.

2. Not thinking about object images

In on-site mobile contexts, many museum worry that having an image of an object on screen with audio about it tempts the viewer, in particular, younger viewers, to keep their eyes glued to their screens instead of looking at objects or displays. As a result, museums sometimes opt to put images on a separate track from audio interpretation in a mobile app or similar product. But for the off-site user, this means there’s no way to see something and hear about it at the same time. This simple mistake limits the app’s potential audience and use. One easy solution is to include an image of the object as a small, but zoomable, thumbnail.  For on-site visitors, the small image won’t be enough to distract. The first time such an image comes up, GPS detection or a popup could ask if the users are at the museum – and if they’re not, they’re told they can zoom in on the onscreen image. Other possible solutions are below, in the section on new approaches to content navigation.

3. Inappropriate use of video 

In mobile, video represents a valuable part of the ‘real estate,’ in terms of how heavy it makes the app or other audio-visual product, how much streaming is involved, and how much user attention it captures. Choose carefully what kind of content is useful for video, and, in terms of the on-site visitor, when the use of video is really called for. The most common misuse of video is a simple talking-head video, with nothing to see beyond the person sitting there and talking. Use a talking-head only if the person is inherently interesting to see (the artist of an exhibition in an interesting place, a performer in make-up etc.).  If you have a talking-head video make sure to intercut it with other images or b-roll that illuminate what the person is saying. The small screen means that the video is experienced in a one-on-one, intimate way, making extraneous commentary especially ineffective.

Also, make sure videos are the correct length if your content is ever meant to be used on-site, or in an ambulatory context. The secret to effective video (and audio) is very tight editing. Keep the length of videos to a minute or a minute and a half, maximum.  If there’s a lot to cover, edit the material into shorter videos and label them clearly with the topic in the content menu. 

Looking Forward: New Approaches to Content Navigation

In mobile, content can be what is accessed through the navigation interface, and content can also be the navigation interface.  In mobile content for a specific exhibition or building, there’s a natural tendency to create the navigation interface in a way that mirrors the physical space. That can work well for on-site visitors, whose experience will be enriched by the interaction of the content with what surrounds them.  But content navigation can also be designed from the social experience of the people using it.  If they are on-site, they could choose navigation by “I’m with someone else” from an opening menu of experiences, and this would call up content with points to suggest conversation or other social activities.

Including alternate ways to navigate the same content can also be the key to making mobile content a richer experience for pre- and post-visits, and for someone who can’t visit the museum in person.  Think about alternate navigation paths in terms of theme, according to what the user wants, or context, according to where s/he is. For example, a user could navigate the content by point of view. Do they want to investigate by the point of view of an artist, an archaeologist, or a curator for example? Content from that point of view can be tagged and grouped for easy access via a search box, menu, visual icon, or similar.  An activity tag, such as “I want to contribute” can lead to content that includes social media for activities such as crowdsourcing related to certain objects/displays, or includes museum activities or events.  This can be important for both on- and off-site visitors.

Note that these suggestions do not mean that separate content is created specifically for such alternate navigations. Instead, as you are building the content you’re thinking of these kinds of alternate uses and incorporating language/activities/etc that will work when tagged for whatever alternate navigation paths you’re including.  Thinking about this from the beginning means that alternate navigation paths through the content will feel rich and well integrated into the overall experience – and it means that they don’t necessitate extra production costs.

Another rather straightforward approach could be to use location as a determiner for streaming content.  Upon opening the app, the user is asked permission to use their location – or simply asked if they are in the museum. If the location is determined to be in/around the museum, one set of content is streamed. If the user is not in/around the museum, an alternate set of content is streamed. In some cases the content may be differentiated only slightly; for example, whether featuring fewer on-screen images of an object/display for an onsite visit, and more on-screen images, and detail views, for an off-site visit.

Looking Forward: Better Content Through Sharing

There’s been important and inspiring work done in recent years towards establishing technical standards for mobile content, spearheaded by the IMA Lab at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. In his chapter in the previous edition of this publication [vi] Robert Stein, then the leader of the IMA Lab team, describes how using technologically standardized “building blocks” of content will allow for future-proofing and sharing of platform architecture.   A further step in this discussion is the potential for sharing what goes into those building blocks.

There have been a number of digital initiatives and platforms to encourage museums to share content, ranging from image banks like AMICA[vii], founded in the early days of the internet, to contemporary video websites, notably ArtBabble[viii], and SmartHistory[ix] (now offered under the umbrella of the Khan Academy).  These are well-organized and rich repositories of art museum content, but the content on them is not generally appropriate to mobile apps.  Content that is optimized for, and appropriate to mobile apps, as we’ve seen, has distinct characteristics of length, tone, and visual readability.  A next step that could be a huge boon would be a standardized site for mobile content licensing from and among museums.

Mobile content sharing would be a way to maximize the value of the most wonderful interviews, often about subjects that are covered again and again in museum collections. This is particularly true for contemporary artists, and for themes associated with certain categories of objects that are most commonly on view in museums. We also know that a great educational tool is the compare/contrast. We can use this premise to include content about comparable types of objects in a number of museum collections – a sort of ‘conversation’ across objects. To see that an object is not the only one of its type – comparing the same type of object across collections – restores a sense of its cultural context. It also encourages closer looking.

Such sharing could be in the form of licensing mobile content, and also by producing content in a shared mode across museums.[x]  Collaboratively created content could offer a richer experience, potentially less didactic in tone in that it includes more than one point of view. Cross-institutional content makes connections and encourages visits to other museums that the user may not have known about, or thought to visit. This is also a way that museums without large production budgets can get more, and richer, production for less – since the production costs are shared across the institutions.

Content sharing brings us back, in a way, to user experience, because the jumping-off point for the user’s interaction with it is navigated through an object, or the ideas or themes it embodies. If the ‘visitor’ is not on site, then the point of departure should not necessarily be the institution. Including cross-institutional content reflects that experience – and reinforces the notion that, as museums, we are all in this together.  Better content helps us all.

Note on these last sections, titled “Looking Forward”:

I’d very much like input on these ideas from the museum community. Upon the suggestion of the volume editor, I’d like to take advantage of the initial release of this volume in digital form to collect comments to be folded into the print edition, scheduled for later in 2012. I’d love to hear about any projects that might involve some level of content production sharing, licensing between museums, and experiments with navigation according to user. It’s possible that with the number of museum apps being released that there may be some endeavors along these lines that I’m not aware of. What do you think of these ideas? Please share your experiences and opinions, and begin a conversation.  Many thanks.

[i] For the purposes of this chapter, I’m leaving aside discussion of apps built specifically for tablet devices.

[ii][ii] Museums and Mobile 2010 online conference:

[iii] While there were 1,200 registered participants, many participants were in groups logged in via a single account; so in many cases one response represented the group’s response rather than each individual in that group.

[iv] Examples: Science Daily: How Brain Gives Special Resonance to Emotional Memories, June 10 2004:

And Vivid memories of emotional events: The accuracy of remembered minutiae. Friderike Heurer and Daniel Reisberg, Memory & Cogintion, 1990, 18 (5), 496-506.

[v] Kenneth Baker, San Francisco Chronicle “Dan Monroe examines future of art museums”, Feb 19, 2012:

[vi] Proctor, Nancy, ed. Mobile Apps for Museums, The AAM Press 2011, Stein, Robert, “Mobile Content Strategies for Content Sharing and Long-Term Sustainability” pp 56-63.

[x] There are some notable endeavors towards sharing of app platforms: namely, The Balboa Park Collaborative, and the Smithsonian Mobile app now under development. These apps include different institutions under their respective umbrellas, but the content for each of those museums is not generally shared or cross-tagged.

4 responses to “Content for all kinds: Creating content that works for on- and off-site visitors

  1. Hi Sandy,
    Thank you for presenting inspiring and practical content for all to use in this article. Your recommendations also help us fellow producers of content make persuasive arguments to the museums we’re working with.

    Your idea for optimizing for mobile platforms the videos shared on ArtBabble or Smart History through the Kahn Academy is new to me and seems like a great idea. I’ll definitely encourage our museum collaborators to make the videos we create for mobile tours available on ArtBabble.

    I’m also interested in the idea of presenting content from multiple points of view, as we’re about to start working on a series of mobile tours for a historic house, each presenting the content from a different perspective. I’ll keep you posted!

    Excellent article. Thanks again.

  2. Thank so much, Robin for the wonderful response: I am particularly happy to see you describe it as ‘practical.’ That’s my goal. Definitely keep me posted about how you’re using multiple points of view. Tailored content that dovetails within a given experience can enhance a social museum environment.

  3. Content is *not* king. It’s usability that matters. If you have great content, but it’s hard for people to access it, you’re wasting it.

  4. I agree, Rob! They can’t be separated – and in mobile that’s particularly true. In this article I used the term ‘content’ to encompass the interface – as in the first paragraph: “Mobile content is experience design.”

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