Producing Mobile Content

By Alyson Webb

As a number of the contributors have highlighted, mobile is no longer constrained to a single type of experience – the audio or multimedia guide. These days it can just as easily be a game, a creative activity, a conversation. New technologies and platforms have opened up the creative potential in exciting ways and many of us are in the midst of an ongoing exploration to discover how we can get the best out of these new technologies and offer our audiences the best possible experiences.

But in our haste to get to grips with the ‘new’ it is all too easy to set aside what we already knew – to treat content as a series of functionalities or features – and lose sight of what remains unchanged: mobility. So the focus of this essay is to go back to basics and explore, through three very brief and personal case studies, what being mobile means for our content and how this understanding can help us produce great results regardless of the particular type of mobile experience. All the examples are guides but I hope to show how these experiences can inform the many new ways to use and produce for mobile platforms in our museums, galleries and historic sites and share a few basic tips and tricks along the way

A Field Somewhere in Southern England…

Some years ago as part of a script development process I as lucky enough to visit the site of the Battle of Hastings with the site’s historian.  For those of you who aren’t familiar with English history, this is perhaps the most famous battle ever fought in –England: the moment when William of Normandy defeated the Anglo Saxon King Harold.

 

As we walked the site, the historian talked me through each stage of the fighting as it unfolded over the course of a long day in October 1066.  He pointed out where the armies gathered and, as we walked on, I saw through his eyes, the various attacks, retreats and feints, the moments of crisis and the shifting balance of power, finally reaching the spot where, as legend has it, King Harold was struck in the eye by an arrow and died.

This is a story that, in its rudimentary form, every child in England learns and I too knew the basic facts. But nothing prepared me for the impact of hearing the story unfold on the spot where it happened and the jolt of recognition as I realised how my world and my identity had been shaped in those moments and how much had hung in the balance in that close fought battle. My government, class, language had all been transformed as a result of William’s victory. The historian had shown me why I should give a damn about this far distant moment in time and I confess I was a little overwhelmed.

The alert amongst you will have spotted that this experience was in reality just a very good live guide. No technology was involved at this stage. But it was part of a mobile production process and I think it’s worth unpacking some of the details to understand why:

Designing Content For A Locative Experience – Focusing On What Is Important In The Moment

The historian chose what he told me very carefully – he selected from a huge reserve of knowledge and told me only what would make that moment on site meaningful. He focussed on the story of the battle itself and how it unfolded because the physical and visual evidence was there in front of us. He did not give lengthy descriptions of the political context, he didn’t worry about lots of names and dates and he didn’t use jargon unnecessarily. This approach enabled me to focus on and retain a few key facts without overwhelming me, and it inspired me to learn more later on.

Considering what experience you can offer the visitor in that location that they can’t get anywhere else is a great way of identifying the focus for the content and avoiding overwhelming the user with data.

Designing Content For A Locative Experience – Using Language Choices To Acknowledge The Audience’s Experience

My guide located me in the story. How did he do this? His language was direct, personal and located: “William was stood here”, “on this spot”, “look to your left by the oak tree and we can see.” He played with time, sometimes slipping into the present tense, “The Saxons are exhausted”. He physically moved me and placed me in the heart of the action, showing me what the events looked like from the perspectives of each of the different players. His language gave the story immediacy and impact but it also acknowledged that he was there with me on the spot.

This is important for mobile content. Our devices are with us on the spot too and offer a very direct, personal experience akin to a phone conversation if it is audio content. The content needs to be created with this in mind. In other words, when a book might say “William reached the battle site…”, mobile content needs to say “William arrived here.”

Designing Content For A Locative Experience – Keeping It Visual And Sensory

The Historian not only moved me through the site but also showed me various physical features of the landscape and told me how these had played their part in the battle – how particular positions in the landscape might give an army an advantage, for example.

Looking at physical evidence – paintings, buildings, documents, landscapes – and interpreting that evidence is a core skill for historians, conservators and archaeologists. It’s not a skill that is widespread in our audiences. Helping visitors see and interpret visual (or other sensory) evidence in this way is something that mobile does exceptionally well. It should form a central part of any audio or multimedia mobile interpretation and certainly be considered as an element in other forms of mobile experience.

This isn’t just because mobile gives us an opportunity to do this – though it certainly does – but because it is a tried and tested method of helping visitors process and retain the information in a mobile context. It works best when we begin with the visual experience – “look at,” “can you see” – and then builds information, activity and meaning around that visual experience.

Start as You Mean to Go on: The Benefits of Building Mobility into the Production Process

Because many of the content formats for mobile are formats we use in other situations – video, text, images, audio, games – it is tempting to use familiar processes to create and/or select content for mobile. The problem with this approach is that it becomes all too easy to focus simply on what works on a mobile device in the literal functional sense or what we think is good for a mobile device, rather than what actually creates or supports a great mobile experience for the user.

By building mobility into your production process – e.g. trying out your content as you walk through the environments where it will be consumed – you will, naturally, consider and shape the content you create or select to enhance the mobile experience. In doing so we not only get better results but we can also reduce costs and ease processes. For example, a “walkthrough” test of a script by reading it aloud and in situ is great for those who aren’t gifted at writing for the ear or writing dialogue and don’t have access to a good writer. An edited recording of the walkthrough can even be used as the content or, if you need to bring in other voices or shape the content further, a transcript of the walkthrough can form the basis of your script.

A Modern Art Gallery in London…

I start this tale with a confession: I had not heard of the artist Nikki de St Phalle until I found myself standing in front of one of her ‘shooting’ pictures while the writer I was collaborating with talked me through the draft content. The project was one of the first ever multimedia tours and the gallery was Tate Modern. We were busy trying to design not only the content but what a multimedia experience might be. The writer had dug out video, photos, audio clips of the artist and plenty of other material. We were excited at the prospect of bringing new types of content to the visitor in the gallery and we were trying to wrangle it into a coherent experience. 

Empathy: Are You and Your Audience on the Same Wavelength?

Very quickly, I realised I couldn’t absorb a thing my colleague said. The problem was my brain was completely distracted by a very noisy dialogue. “It’s a mess.” “Are they serious? This is just what gives modern art a bad name”. The other part of my brain said, “There must be something to this. This kind of art always makes me feel so stupid: I stand in front of it and I just don’t know what to think”. With all that going on there wasn’t much room for interpretation and particularly not interpretation that started from the perspective that this was a great and interesting piece of work that I should care about.

Resonate with Your Audience

Understanding that if this was happening to me, it was probably happening to other visitors too enabled us to transform the content we produced. We created a poll and – before they experienced any interpretation – asked the multimedia tour’s users to tell us what they thought of the work. Giving them the option in the poll to privately and anonymously say what they really thought enabled us to defuse that noisy conversation in their heads. Following the poll, visitors had the opportunity to experience a range of content including videos of the artist creating a shooting picture and interpretation that put it into context. Finally we asked the visitors what they thought of the picture now having learned more about it.

Don’t Just Test The Functionality, Test The Content Design Too

The research we conducted with visitors following the launch of the project showed that they loved the poll. It gave them a sense of reassurance that their first reaction was valid, but it didn’t cut them off from shifting their view. In fact visitors wanted more: they wanted to see where they fitted within the universe of visitors – how others had responded to the poll, and what percentage agreed or disagreed with their assessment – and so we were able to develop the content and experience design further as a result.

Interactions May Change but Having Empathy with the Audience Will Always Be Necessary

A decade on, our audiences are used to having their opinions polled, and conversations via social media are a firm fixture in our lives. However, for me the point in this scenario is less about the use of interaction and more about the ways in which this empathy for the visitor can inform content design and help us find ways into a subject that take visitors with us. Because mobiles are such personal devices, content is at its most powerful and compelling at those moments when it is in tune with and responsive to the user’s experience and needs. Creating magical content is about responding to the audience and taking them on a journey.

In this particular instance it was all about starting from what the visitor might be thinking and feeling about a particular object. Equally it can be about the visual and physical impact of the environment on the visitor: that moment when they walk into a spectacular space and are blown away by it, or more practical challenges such as wayfinding. Your content – no matter what the nature of the experience – needs to take that impact and that moment and use it as part of the experience and content design.

A Street Somewhere in Soho, London…

I have worked with the National Gallery London over the course of nearly 20 years on dozens of projects and many different mobile technologies inside the gallery and beyond. It has proved an extraordinary opportunity to really think about and tease out some of the factors driving the production of good content.

Back in 2007 I was fortunate enough to work with them and the branding agency, The Partners, on a project called The Grand Tour. For this project the gallery hung full size, high quality framed reproductions of their most famous works outdoors on the walls of buildings throughout central London. Passers-by encountered such works as Caravaggio’s “Salome receiving the Head of John the Baptist” next to a sex shop in Soho, and Ingres’ “Madame de Moitessier” alongside a Covent Garden clothing store.

The museum wanted to provide engaging content that would speak to people who might not think of visiting the gallery normally. Delivering content in the street at that time meant providing content on their mobile phones via a voice call or as downloads on personal devices. It was a high profile, high impact project and we had just 4 weeks and very little in the way of budget to deliver. 

The Grand Tour is interesting for me in that it brings together some of the most common challenges I see in mobile content production: on the one hand delivering high quality content within very tight parameters (timescale, budget, platform constraints), and on the other, creating content that retains a sense of organizational identity and authenticity while being appropriate to the audience and context. Let’s look at these challenges in a little more detail.

Budget vs Quality: Cutting Your Cloth

Short deadlines and tight budgets are a pretty standard part of working life for most of us. And, in most instances where timeline or budget is just a little bit less than we would like, we get away with shaving a day off here, a little bit less spent on this or that. There reaches a point, however, when this approach begins to seriously impact quality or effectiveness. This is where we felt we were with the Grand Tour but we had one great advantage: our goal was defined in terms of effect and impact not production style.

It’s Not What You Do, It’s The Way That You Do It…

A tiny budget and little time is only a constraint if you have already defined what you are going to produce and how. Focussing on the impact you want to create and taking the broadest possible view of the resources you have to hand can be hugely liberating, particularly with mobile where there is a plethora of free or virtually free platforms at our disposal and content can take so many forms. 

For the Grand Tour project, listening to content via voice call and in the busy streets of central London meant that music and sound effects were never going to work well and licencing costs would be high. The typical approach to scripting and editing involving a writer, editor, audio engineer, multiple script drafts and sign-offs by museum staff, followed by narrators in the studio would be too time-consuming and costly. This was after all a very high profile, sensitive project and script reviews would be time consuming.

However, we had one great asset: we knew that the gallery had a community of the most extraordinarily passionate and articulate curators, conservators, educators and supporters, often artists themselves. We chose to dump the script, the music, the sound effects and almost all narration and simply focus on getting great interviews from them. We decided to review content almost completely in audio, not text, thereby saving on transcription costs. These choices around content style and production process enabled us to work fast and very cheaply saving in the region of 30% on a typical budget.

Review Resources Realistically

When designing your content be very clear about what you want to achieve, what resources you have available to you and feel free to design a style and process that fits. You’ll also need to be very tough in reviewing your resources: identifying someone who can write a script is not the same as identifying someone who can write a great script. If you don’t have access to a great writer in-house, consider hiring one or using a completely different approach, like interviews or vox pops. In other words don’t start with less than the best if you can possibly help it.

The Power of Authenticity

The Grand Tour project presented an interesting challenge: how to engage with unknown individuals who had not chosen to go to the gallery and who would be viewing the paintings completely out of their usual context. In addition, while we needed to appeal to them then and there in the street, the goal was to encourage them to come see the real thing: to transform non-gallery visitors to visitors. 

In these circumstances it is all too easy to stretch to develop an approach we think will appeal to the audience and in doing so let go of what is valuable in our own organisation. We think of this as the moment when Grandpa hits the dance floor at the wedding: t can be excruciating! The key lies in understanding what you have that is absolutely authentic to you and your organisation that will connect with the audience: where is the cross-over and relevance. It may be small but it gives you a starting point.

One of the keys for us was identifying that the shift in context – seeing the pictures in the streets, not the gallery – was a real opportunity for both interviewees and audience to look afresh at the paintings. Working with the interviewees to consider what thoughts and responses it might trigger to see, for example, a tranquil rural landscape in the heart of the city, or a scene of extreme violence beside a café – digging into the underlying value and power of the images helped us capture content that was absolutely authentic and completely fresh in tone.

Getting the Best out of your Interviewees

We then structured questions to elicit responses that would help the audience slow down and really look at and read the paintings. The interviewees would give the audience an insight into how and why the paintings affected them so deeply.

Being interviewed can be a horribly intimidating and immobilising experience. There are some real pros who can remain fluent and interesting despite the pressure of the interview situation but is not uncommon for interviewees to freeze. People who only moments before have talked in a lively and engaging fashion start to ramble incoherently. We used a few tricks to get the best out of our contributors:

All our interviews took place in front of the paintings and not in a studio – this enables most interviewees to forget the interview itself and focus on a personal conversation about an object they love. If they really struggle, feel free to lie: tell them you’ve stopped recording and encourage a chat about what they would like to cover in the interview – often they’ll relax and you’ll get a great recording (though do ‘fess up at the end!).

Unlock the passion: to become an expert you really have to work at something and you typically do that because you care, you think something is important. If you can capture their passion and opinion, your interview will come to life.

The results with the National Gallery team were extraordinary: passionate, moving, funny and irreverent, scholarly but accessible – absolutely and authentically the National Gallery at its best.

Conclusion

Having spent more than 20 years producing mobile content, I can honestly say there has never been a more exciting and challenging time to work in this medium. There are so many new types of mobile experience we can create. But sometimes, to move forward we also need to look back and understand what there is of value in the past that we can take with us into the future. By engaging with the nature of mobile and the reality of our audiences’ expectations and experiences I believe we can produce new experiences that really ‘sing’: that are pleasurable, moving and transformative. This approach will support you whether you are creating content from scratch or selecting content to re-purpose, whether you are creating a guide, a game, crowdsourcing content or conversing.

The guidelines I have offered here are just that and, as with any other creative endeavour, there is rich potential in knowingly and playfully breaking them. But here, for what its worth is a quick recap, my top ten tips for mobile content:

  • Seize the moment
  • Acknowledge your audience’s experiences
  • Acknowledge and respond to the location, visual and sensory
  • For a mobile experience make sure your content production process is mobile
  • Interactions may change but always empathize with the audience
  • Test the content: test, test, test – on the go and with actual visitors
  • Focus on the purpose of the content and design the process around this 
  • Review resources realistically
  • Ensure your tone is authentic to your organization
  • Get the best interviews you can: help your interviewees be passionate and comfortable 
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