Today’s Museums & Mobile event (the sixth in a series of online conferences) featured case studies from museums around the globe and some excellent food for thought. Here are my 6 key takeaways.
1. Keep it simple. No, seriously. Even simpler.
Think Angry Birds. Pinterest. Don’t overwhelm people with too many options. For example, the Museum Explorer app from National Museums Scotland features 9 objects. Nine; not nine thousand. It is based on a simple challenge: find the smelliest, oldest, ugliest, etc. objects in the museum. Have fun. Earn prizes. Done. The BMA Go Mobile website (optimized for smartphones) is another example. It is a simple and elegant guide to visiting the museum. As the BMA’s manager of interpretation, Gamynne Guillotte, said: Do one thing really well. Lose the functionality that distracts from that goal.
2. Design for “mobile first.” Or is that “tablet first”?
Here’s some good advice about web design from one smart cookie (Nate Solas of the Walker Art Center): Start with responsive design. Then add native/touch features like pinch+zoom and swipe. When mobile isn’t first, you tend to start chopping features out of your website until the design fits a mobile screen. And that’s no way to design an optimal user experience.
The Rijksmuseum took this philosophy a step further when they redesigned their website with a “tablet first” philosophy. With the goal of creating a “close” and “warm” experience, the museum built an app-style website that fits a tablet like a glove and brings people up-close-and-personal with the large and beautiful images in their collection. How? They designed an interface that makes the image primary and other information secondary. The minimalist navigation takes “keep it simple” to the extreme with only three options: Plan your visit; Collection; and About the museum. The art images are always displayed at full-screen regardless of the device. The result? A breathtakingly immersive experience. In just 3 months, over 32,000 “Rijksstudios” (a way to save, share, and create with works of art) have been created. Even more impressive: the average time spent on site on an iPad is a whopping 19 minutes. (An average of 10 minutes on other devices isn’t too shabby, either).
3. Design sites to be task-responsive, not device-responsive.
Once upon a time, in the early days of museum mobile, we used to place a snippet of code on our websites to “sniff” out details of a user’s viewing device. We’d then feed smartphone users only a small selection of content—hours, location, etc.—based on the assumption that they must close to or inside the museum if they were (desperate enough to be) browsing the web with such a (small-screened/slow connection/etc.) device. Fast forward a few years and now people use all kinds of mobile devices for all kinds of different things.
Peter Gorgels of the Rijksmuseum offered sage advice when he said: design sites to be task-responsive, not device-responsive. Which begs the question: now that people are using their mobile devices for any manner of tasks, how do we best design on-site and site-agnostic mobile experiences that are tailored to user needs? If (device) responsive design isn’t enough, does this mean we need to provide separate experiences for different use cases (tasks)?
First, let’s tackle on-site mobile users who are focused on geolocation functionality, today’s events, and other visit-specific needs. In this case, perhaps the best solution is to make a separate app or mobile website that is optimized for on-site experiences. This doesn’t necessarily mean a slimmed down version of your regular website. A better user experience might take advantage of the kinds of native tools available on the smallest and easiest-to-carry devices: cameras, GPS, social sharing tools, etc. The result? A highly specific feature set that scaffolds the visit without distracting the visitor from the reason they came: to see what your museum has to offer in person.
You might be wondering: to app or not to app? MCA Australia reports 15 times more usage of their mobile website than their MCA Insight app. Further, they found that the “What’s On” option was 20 times (!) more popular on their mobile website than on their app. Why? Here’s my guess: as a user, I don’t want to go through the hassle of downloading an app just to find out what events and exhibitions are happening today. I typically only download an app if it is something I’ll use again. An app gives you (the designer) the ability to hyper-control the interface: if an app is going to be worth the effort for you or your users you had better design it to do the one thing it is meant to do (make a museum visit easier/better) amazingly well.
Now, let’s move beyond that small slice of your mobile audience to the rest of the people using tablets and smartphones to navigate the web outside of your museum. For this group, you should build a website that is optimized for browsing, searching, sharing, saving, manipulating—all of the actions someone who isn’t busy running around a museum might have the time and inclination to do. I’m impressed by the immersive ethos of the Rijksmuseum site and look forward to seeing how other cultural institutions pull users into another world through their tablets.
But your mobile experience for off-site users doesn’t have to be all-encompassing, uber feature rich, or incredibly deep. You might serve this audience well by building something that brings wonder into their lives in ways that make them want to use it again and again. The Magic Tate Ball app is one of the most clever examples of this that I’ve ever come across. It is a simple concept (shake your phone and get a personalized “answer” in the form of an artwork) and doesn’t take much time per use. After today’s conference, I can’t wait to get my hands on another Tate app, Race Against Time. With 30 achievements to unlock, this game will give me plenty of time to get to know Tate’s collections while I’m having fun saving the world from Dr. Greyscale.
Video: Race Against Time app, Tate
4. “Success comes more from visibility than from quality.”
The intended meaning of the statement abvoe (by Agnes Alfandari of the Louvre) might have gotten a bit lost in translation. In fact, my jaw dropped a bit when I read the slide. We all know that high quality is a fundamental value of most museums. Quality is also quite critical if we want to encourage repeat use of a product. But Agnes had just given us a lot of insightful information about the people the Louvre is trying to serve with their Nintendo DS audio guide: first-time (and likely one-time) visitors. To get someone to use something for the first time requires awareness . . . and, therefore, significant promotional resources. The Louvre/Nintendo partnership was marketing genius and garnered a lot of press for both organizations. I think Agnes’s point was less that quality is not important and more that activities designed to increase visibility (read: marketing, advertising, PR) often don’t get the respect or the budgets that they deserve in museums. I have a marketing communications background and am a firm believer that we could spend all of our resources building the best mousetrap in the world—and it would be entirely useless if no one knows it exists.
Even with a small project budget, at least some percentage should be allocated to outreach. Hugh Wallace of National Museums Scotland offered a very valuable piece of promotional advice: spend some money on Facebook’s mobile app install ad format. He saw Museum Explorer app downloads double in just one month with a smaller budget than was put towards more traditional digital banner ads (which produced no measurable increase).
Speaking of publicity, I’m so sad that I didn’t hear about Open Air Philly until today. What a massively cool project. My favorite parts? First: The Association for Public Art was really smart in their incorporation of Philadelphia’s diverse voices—from inviting different community groups (e.g., advocates against domestic violence, teen poets, etc.) to kick off each evening with their own audio messages to partnering with public radio to record influential “Voices of Philly.” What impressed me even more was the fact that public submissions were completely uncensored (though there was a way for users to flag inappropriate content). A poll of today’s conference attendees asked if we had done a project with community submissions that were uncensored. 28% said yes, 25% said no but would be open to it, and 47% said no way. (One of these days I’ll write a post about museums’ persistent fear of inappropriate responses despite consistently and staggeringly few such submissions ever received. I’d also like to link radical trust with increased outreach and visibility. But these are topics for another day.)
5. Know who your audience really is and what they really want.
The National Museums Scotland tech team takes an interesting approach to designing for audiences: things like age and demographics are taken out of the discussion entirely during the planning phase. Audiences are defined as people already familiar with apps, people looking for a certain kind of experience, etc. These behaviors and preferences, as Hugh points out, could potentially belong to someone of any age.
During her keynote, Agnes Alfandari described the young, overwhelmed, first-time, and often foreign visitors that make up the majority of visits to the Louvre; this is the audience the Nintendo DS audio guide was designed to serve. The Louvre routinely designs quite different mobile experiences for visitors to special exhibitions; these visitors tend to be repeat users, French-speaking, and relatively non-technical. In their quest to meet the needs of the first group, the Louvre bounced around a few ideas which were subsequently rejected. One such idea was the ability to personalize a tour. In the end, this feature seemed too much at odds with the experience of first-time visitors, who are often anxious to get started after a long wait to enter the building. These visitors are also not typically familiar enough with the collection or facility to be in a good position to make selections for a custom tour. The bottom line? A good idea is only as good as its fit for your specific circumstances and the audience you are trying to serve.
Despite similar content, in comparing audio guides to the mobile apps the Louvre offers for download, Agnes identified two distinct audiences. People looking for audio tours, she says, will just use what you give them when they arrive at the museum. People who purchase or download apps, on the other hand, are much more demanding. They are comparison shopping, are not necessarily time constrained, and are therefore in a position to be more choosy.
6. Stick to measuring what matters.
One of the most useful things I learned in graduate school was during a Visitor Studies course in which we were admonished not to bother asking a question or collecting data (e.g., on a survey or in an interview) on a subject unless we planned to take action based on the answers. Otherwise, collection and analysis could easily turn into a colossal waste of time. (Hat tip to Jessica Luke for that gem!) As I dug more deeply into web analytics later in my career, I became a convert to Avinash Kaushik‘s philosophy of focusing on “the critical few” and avoiding “paralysis by analysis.” And so I was prepared to filter as I gaped at the array of app analytics presented by the Tate’s Elena Villaespesa. The good news is that there are many tools to empower you to make data-driven decisions (see: App Annie and App Figures for store/download metrics, Flurry for tracking actions and engagement, and Distimo for what seems like everything you could possibly want to know). The trick will be to streamline your analysis using only those tools and numbers that will help you reach your goals.
One of the basic tenants of good evaluation is that you need to know what you are trying to achieve before you can know how to measure it. Let’s look at two different app examples to get a sense of how to map goals to metrics. The Magic Tate Ball app is, at heart, about marketing. Brand recognition and retention are key goals. In this case, downloads and frequency of use would be appropriate metrics. Tate’s exhibition apps, on the other hand, are about enhancing the on-site visit and not necessarily about getting the visitor to use it more than once. In this case, metrics like dwell time, popular stops, and click events would be appropriate data to track.
Just as fans and followers as metrics don’t offer much in the way of actionable insights for social media initiatives, neither are downloads the only metric you should be tracking for apps. You will need to dig in deeper if you really want to know what is engaging people most, what features are being used, and what people are sharing (or not). The MCA Australia analyzed app user behavior and found that the “Show only artwork around me” feature of MCA Insight was twice as popular as the keypad (in which a visitor types in a number associated with a work). However, the people who used the keypad used it like crazy. So that feature stayed. MCA also used analytics to investigate whether the app’s built-in social sharing features were being used. Answer: not really. But what MCA did find was that people were taking photos—plenty of them—and posting them to Instagram. In response, the museum begin promoting the hashtag #MCANow. Visitors quickly contributed hundreds of photos via Twitter and Instagram. The MCA even built a display system in the galleries to show a live feed of the latest visitor-contributed photos as well as a website to showcase contributions.
The moral of the story: find out what’s going on and do something meaningful with the data.
These are just a few of the many fantastic insights shared during this short but oh-so-useful conference. Kudos to the conference organizers for another excellent event. If you’re yearning to learn more about this topic, check out the newly released 2013 Museums & Mobile Survey data that identifies and tracks key trends for mobile strategy within the cultural sector.