I wanted to give a quick report on the Mobile Fair and Meetup held on August 4th at the Newseum. I’m sure others who were there will have more to add! This was the first opportunity for an SI wide conversation about mobile apps and how they can serve the many SI museums. It was organized by Paul Sparrow at the Newseum and Nancy Proctor, Director of Mobile at SI.
There was lots of buzz about Explorer, the new GPS enabled app from AMNH, done by Accenture, one of the vendors at the Fair, and Spotlight Mobile. Everyone wanted to know how well that works but not even us New Yorkers had had the chance to try it out yet.
AUGMENTED REALITY was a high priority issue. Many people pointed out the wonderful way it brings historical archives and research of all kinds out of the dark and musty file cabinets and into the daylight of everyday lives. When you can point your phone at an empty field in Gettysburg and bring up images of Civil War soldiers on that very field after a battle, and hear a soldier’s letter being read, you’re blending past and present for an enhanced experience.
USER GENERATED CONTENT was another topic that generated lots of discussion, dispite the fact that most apps (that I’m aware of) don’t encourage users to contribute “useful” content, though many allow links to Twitter, Facebook or Flickr to share, or “like” something.
Nancy Proctor, Director of Mobile, SI raised the data asset management issues involved with handling the two types of UGC:
1) comments, favorites, likes > user reviews
2) users contributing specific factual info about names, dates, places, makers etc.
One thing’s for certain, museums have to be clear about what they want from UGC. If you want your app users to provide information about collection items, rather than just favoriting something, you need to design the app for that purpose. I don’t think anyone’s done that yet, have they?
AUDIENCE RESEARCH is critical and there aren’t many stats out there about who uses their phones in museums, and whether that’s even an indicator of whether they’ll use their phones to interact with exhibits through apps. Results from a recent study done for one museum indicate that there are no clear use patterns based on gender, age or prior visits. How do you figure out what to do? Today I noticed on Twitter that a white paper has been published that sheds some light on mobile measurement, but I haven’t read it yet so can’t say if it’s relevant.
Obviously it’s very important to know which audiences are using their phones in museums so you can know what content phone users are interested in. App development must start with audience research, so a lot more needs to be done in this area, at individual museums and collectively.
This topic again brought up the issue of providing social media features on apps. These links are already used to provide ways to share content with others and promote the app itself. What hasn’t happened yet but would really add a new dimension to museum apps is providing features that allow small groups of people to interact with the content together in the museum. Then the app becomes a way to enhance the social experience of attending an exhibition.
TO CHARGE OR NOT TO CHARGE is almost as big an issue as whether to develop a MOBILE WEBSITE OR A MOBILE APP.
Paul Sparrow, from the Newseum, proposed one argument for charging: apps are a great way to provide niche content for niche audiences, and museums that specialize should be thinking of developing apps to promote to people interested in that special content, who will pay for the information, especially if it’s from a trusted source like a museum.
Free apps are way more popular than paid ones, but if you’re not developing for a mass audience that may not be an issue. However the evidence from the National Gallery of Art indicates that if you start with a free app and then begin to charge for it, download numbers drop precipitously.
The debate about MOBILE APPS VS MOBILE WEB makes people passionate! Cost, ease of use, audience reach are all big issues. I recently read a very thorough analysis from Mobileactive. Org that came down soundly on the side of the mobile web. You can read it here. And yet both the Powerhouse Museum and the Brooklyn Museum have recently produced iPhone and Android apps because their visitors greatly preferred to use an app than to navigate the mobile web on their phones, even inside the museum. There are very valid arguments for going either way.
There were 12 vendors at the Mobile Fair, each offering a different solution, with closed, customized platforms, for a wide range of costs, either one time or monthly. It can cost anywhere from $10,000 to $60,000 depending on what you want an app to provide. While people in the audience were shaking their heads at that top number, others pointed out that museums think nothing of dropping six figures on interactives within exhibitions, so it shouldn’t be out of the question to pay real money for an interactive experience people can take with them, no matter where they are.
One other thing that museums are concerned about is the lack of standards. Once you sign up with one company you’re locked into their system which doesn’t interface with anything else out there.
At the beginning of the meet up people were asked how many of their museums had apps. Almost none; how many were in process – almost none; how many of them were thinking about it – more hands, but this group is clearly not at the forefront of what’s going on. Probably because they are gov’t institutions. Many don’t even have wi-fi enabled buildings.
One objective of the meeting was to consider whether it makes sense to build some kind of collaborative app for all SI content that could then have other, tourist info wrapped around it. Alternatively it would certainly be easier to develop a standard for all the SI museums so their information can then be picked up in each other’s apps and DC tourist apps etc.