Category Archives: Content

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.


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.


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