Tag Archives: mobile

How can museums make memorable apps?

Like many people in the museum community, I was both amused and angered by the recent(ish) article from the Guardian with the bull-to-a-red-flag title “Dear Museums, the Time Is Right To Embrace Mobile.” Amused because the central premise of the article is almost objectively wrong, and angered by the condescending tone the article strikes. Part of my issue with the article was that for all its criticism, it offered precisely no prescriptive instructions for how to deal with this supposed “problem”–it didn’t even bother to knock down the straw man it had set up. And there’s a reason for that–the museum space is an extremely difficult one for mobile. It’s easy for anyone to say “museums should have mobile stuff going on!” It’s much, much harder to articulate exactly what that mobile “stuff” should be.

Look, I’m glad that people outside the museum space are finally recognizing the value of mobile (probably because it’s a kajillion-dollar-a-year industry, I suppose; it used to just be about the music, man). But it was hard for me to not read this article and see a bunch of Johnny-come-latelies mashing up the giant abstractions of “museums” and “mobile” and finding nothing more than a new market to exploit. As Nancy Proctor points out in her thoughtful response to the article, we’ve been working in this space for a loooooong time, and that experience has (hopefully) taught us that introducing mobile devices into museums doesn’t always equal automatic win. What I hope we have come out of the last few years with, though, is a far more nuanced understanding of what success with mobile applications in museums might look like. Continue reading How can museums make memorable apps?

It IS about the technology

“It’s not about the technology.”

I hear this meme invoked all the time at “museum tech” conferences nowadays. Indeed, I myself have said this a bunch of times when developing (or at least contemplating) a new content-based technology project at the Museum. A big drive in my work at the Met has always been to get constituents talking about the content first and foremost, and worrying about the technology platform(s) later. (Aside: Nancy Proctor makes this point better than I do in her recent Museums and the Web paper The Museum Is Mobile.) This hasn’t always been an easy task, as often it’s excitement about the technology that has caused the constituent to contact me in the first place, but I have nevertheless always endeavored to put content first and tech second in any discussions about a possible project.


This approach only goes so far, and we need to be careful about where and when we apply it, lest our thinking become too prejudiced. My concern is that thinking this way causes us to act as if content is always inherently platform agnostic, which is rarely true.

I think the issue here really is context, which is unique for each technology platform, even when the content is similar. A kiosk has the context of a museum around it, a mobile device has the context of location, the web has the context of (possibly) no context at all. Each of these situations demand different approaches to developing, filtering, and presenting content.

I don’t mean to say that the “it’s not about the technology” idea has no value–it’s still a bad idea to jump into a project with no reason for being other than exciting technology. However, we do need to be cautious about understanding the nuances of each platform, and adapting our content strategies accordingly.


Serendipitous and Disposable

I’m becoming more and more interested, lately, in exploring the implications of interacting with museum content outside of the museum building itself. Nancy Proctor, the head of mobile strategy for the Smithsonian, led a great unconference session on the topic at this year’s MW conference, and Chris Ubik recently postulated how the location-based app Gowalla might facilitate interesting tours outside of the museum. We’re starting to see some interesting real-world examples of this kind of thing, whether it’s home-grown stuff like Richard McCoy’s tour of public art in Indianapolis or some of the cool stuff the dudes over at Scvngr are doing. As much as I’m excited about these ideas, they are essentially using location-based services to expand the traditional museum tour model (albeit over a larger geographic area) rather than upend it. These experiences assume that the user has made a deliberate decision to interact with a museum and/or its content, and there’s an assumption that the user will follow through with that decision. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but what excites me about location-based services like Foursquare and Gowalla is that they enable us to pursue an entirely different kind of interaction model, one that substitutes serendipitous and disposable experiences for the more immersive, intentional ones that museums are accustomed to. What might this kind of experience look like? A relatively straightforward example is from the History Channel’s Foursquare profile. If you follow The History Channel, and check into a location for which it has supplied a “tip,” an interesting historical factoid will be displayed to you. So, for instance, if you check in at the Met Life building in Manhattan and you follow the History Channel, you will learn that the building was “originally called the Pan Am Building & was the largest commercial office building in the world when it opened on March 7, 1963.” It’s a short leap to imagine museum content being presented this way. A user who follows the Metropolitan Museum of Art, for instance, could check in at the Black Canyon in Colorado and be presented with this photograph and accompanying data from the Museum’s Timeline of Art History:

In essence, this approach takes content that was originally designed to be experienced as part of a museum visit (whether physical or online), and re-purposed it as a contextual/interpretive layer on a user’s experience out in the world.This approach is interesting to me for a few reasons:

  • The decision to interact and actually interacting are disconnected events. In a traditional museum experience, the visit itself follows directly from the decision to visit. Not anymore. The decision to visit (read: “follow”) a museum is now separate from the experience of interacting with that museum’s content. The interaction now only occurs when it’s most relevant.
  • The object itself is used primarily as a means of delivering information. Most online collections essentially attempt to replicate the experience of viewing an object, with a digital image as a stand-in for the real thing. In this experience, however, the experience of viewing the object is downplayed in favor of its relevance as a means of connecting one information node (location) with another (whatever information you wish to provide to the user).
  • The user has not made a deliberate choice to access museum content. This is the critical difference between this approach and a more tour-based model. The user isn’t going on a museum-curated tour of “famous painted landscape vistas” or whatever, but is instead only encountering that content serendipitously. (ed note: I might have made that word up.)
  • The actual interaction with museum content is short-lived. Once the content is viewed, the user moves on with his or her life.

All of these factors contribute significantly to a completely different type of “visit,” and an entirely different value proposition for museums (or at least art museums, in any case). In this scenario, the museum is now less an enabler of visits and more of a provider of information. The centerpiece of the museum experience–interaction with objects–is almost nonexistent, and factors that barely warrant mention on an object’s label–the location in which it was produced–are critically important. —————– And P.S., to the five of you who read this blog regularly (hi, mom!), sorry for the long gap in not posting. A lot going on these days that has prevented me from posting as (ir)regularly as I might like. Hopefully I’ll be back on a more regular schedule from here on out. As always, thanks so much for stopping by and reading!

The iPod tour at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum

Milton Glaser’s 1966 Bob Dylan poster, on display at the Cooper-Hewitt. Image from the Museum of Modern Art.

I just came back from seeing the “Design USA: Contemporary Innovation” show at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design museum, and taking some time to check out its much-ballyhooed iPod Touch tour, which was designed by New York design house 2×4. I was curious to see the device in action, after first hearing about it through the #museummobile Twitter stream and then via the positive review of the tour in the New York Times. I arrived with somewhat high expectations. Would this finally be the mobile handheld implementation that I and others have been dreaming about?

Well, yes and no. I found myself somewhat frustrated by the experience–the tour does so many things right, that it makes the things it does poorly just that much more glaring.

I’ll start with the good stuff first (for a change). First, the amount of content available on the device is absolutely staggering. For each of the 78 designers with work represented in the show, there was some kind of multimedia content available. At minimum, a slide show of the designer’s work was presented, but more often than not this slide show would be accompanied by an audio interview or artist statement. Many of the profiles featured YouTube videos illustrating aspects of the designer’s work. In some cases, there were multiple videos, multiple interviews, and multiple slideshows. The devices were light on text content (there was virtually none at all, as I recall), but this didn’t feel like a critical omission, given the inherently visual nature of much of the work on display. Given that my call has always been for more, more, and more content, the amount of stuff to get into here was fantastic.

I was also excited that much of the content on the devices was not (as far as I can tell) created expressly for the exhibition. Some of the most interesting content on the devices was delivered via YouTube videos, most of which I think were not created for the exhibition or even posted by the Museum itself. I would love to see more museums start to do this–taking content that’s freely available from other sources, and incorporating it into an in-gallery interpretation strategy.

The devices also handle comments quite well. Visitors are given the ability to comment directly on a given designer’s profile, or on the exhibition generally. These comments show up on the exhibition’s Web site, on a series of iMacs on display at the end of the exhibition itself, and, apparently, on Twitter (though it’s unclear to me how this is done). Comments received from the gallery are merged with comments received from the Web site pretty seamlessly, which is a nice feature. My only real dissatisfaction with the comments feature was the inability to respond directly to previous users’ comments. I guess I’ve become so used to the idea of an @ reply that I expect a little more asynchronous conversation than was really possible here. That’s a pretty minor point, though.

And generally speaking, the interface works nicely. After a moment or two of playing with it, it was pretty clear how to get around, how to search, and how to comment. I’d be curious to test this with someone who is less familiar with the iPhone model; I wonder if to an iPhone newbie, the navigation would have been a little daunting.

And now on to the not-so-good stuff…

Something I had not really considered before is how having to pick up a device from a museum, versus bringing in your own and downloading an app, changes how much and what kind of content one might be willing to tolerate. Many of the videos linked from the device were longer than three minutes, with some clocking in at eight minutes or more. I would guess that while I was in the exhibition, I never watched any more than perhaps a minute-and-a-half of any one video, mostly because I felt a need to move on to the next designer’s display. Had this been an application on my own device, however, I could have saved any of those videos for later viewing, or shared them with friends immediately. I wouldn’t have been frustrated by not being able to watch entire videos, because the app would have essentially been leveraging the arrangement of a physical exhibition to point me to a sea of content I could explore later. Instead, I watched pieces of a few videos, most of which I’ll never get around to finding and re-watching on my own.

This problem could possibly have been mitigated by the “send my visit” feature, in which one can e-mail a summary of his or her visit to someone else. I e-mailed my visit to myself, in the hopes that maybe there would be URLs for the videos I had viewed in the e-mail. No such luck. All that appeared in the e-mail was a statistical breakdown of what I saw (number of designers’ profiles viewed, number of videos watched, number of images viewed, and number of comments added). I’ve never been a big believer in the “e-mail me this object” features that were ubiquitous on museum kiosks for a while, but here was a situation where e-mailing this information to myself actually could have been helpful.

I think my biggest beef with the iPod Touch tour, though, and the one that the reviewer touched upon in the NYT article, is that it doesn’t seem that well-integrated into the exhibition. And here I don’t mean well-integrated in a design sense; the physical exhibition design and the app design on the iPod were well-coordinated. What I mean is that it seems that the exhibition experience and the iPod experience were separate, parallel types of engagement, in which one had to stop doing one in order to experience the other.

I found myself either focusing entirely on the device, to the exclusion of all else, or focusing on the work on display, without any of the additional interpretive content from the device. Fundamentally, the experience I had on the device seemed like it would have been more fulfilling almost anywhere other than in the gallery. Both the exhibition itself (exclusive of the device) and the iPod tour each felt like complete experiences on their own–they didn’t really appear to need each other.

This issue was probably best exemplified by the thumbnail images used in the main navigation. Each designer’s profile, when shown in the primary list-style navigation, is associated with a thumbnail image of a representative work. However, this representative work was often not the work that was on display in the gallery. There was thus no visual shorthand one could use to assist with finding the appropriate profile. This seems like such an obvious integration point between the physical exhibition and the iPod tour, that its absence was striking.

Aaaaaanyway, there you go. On the whole, the handheld tour was a good effort, probably the best of its kind I’ve yet seen, but not quite ideal. I’d be really curious to hear others’ thoughts about this, particularly if you’ve seen the show and had a different reaction to the handheld tour.

The future of mobile interpretation redux

Eh, just because I can’t get enough of this particular subject, I thought I’d do another quick post ’bout mobile interpretation in museums. As I was gearing up to write the Future of Mobile Interpretation paper for this year’s Museums and the Web conference, I did a few informal surveys via both Twitter and Yammer to see if my gut feelings on multimedia/audio tours were even close to correct. The interesting side effect of this “flash survey” was that I found that microblogging platforms were a really interesting means of acquiring quick survey results, if you’re not interested in being particularly scientific (perhaps I’ll post more on that subject in the future). Primarily, though, I was pleasantly surprised at the thoughtfulness (and pithiness, given the format) of the responses. I thought I’d post them here, since some of my Twitter peeps have expressed some desire to see the results of my survey. So basically, I asked the question, “To those of you who don’t pick up audio guides in museums, why is that?” A random sampling of the responses follows:

Most people and especially younger ones carry in their pockets much more powerful appliances (i.e. cellphones)… I can do much more about getting intersting information with a blackberry, palm or iphone by typing in name of the artist or work or genre in wikipedia.

With audio guides if you are wearing headphones, then you are disconnected for a time from the person you came in with, while you otherwise would be possibly discussing the artwork. I think there is something to audio guides being exclusively one way interaction device, apart from entering numbers.

audio guides make a museum experience feel too solitary.

Talking too slow for saying too little.

Cause I like to do things at my own pace, choose which info to absorb (I rarely read entire labels), and hear the surroundings.

Not usually for the main collection, yes for special exhibits, if it’s free and the crowd isn’t nuts. Probably because of where the guides are handed out – at the controlled entrance to the special exhibit. generally, special exhibits have a single path, so i’m thinking linearly & the guide can build a narrative, whereas in the main [galleries] I like to wander and anything gleaned from the guide will be a one-off. That said, if the guide was, already in my pocket in the shape of my mobile phone, I’d be more likely to call up info on a particular piece in the main [galleries].

I’m not usually at a museum by myself, and I want to have a shared experience with whomever I’m with. Headphones disrupt that.

Because I don’t like things in my ears.

I think we can glean a few things, even from a small sample like this one. The first (and I point this out in my paper) is that museums really don’t know much about this new audience. What studies have been done (in particular Peter Samis’s excellent survey of visitor response to the Matthew Barney: Drawing Restraint interpretive devices) are largely analyses of visitor preference between given devices, and don’t therefore tell us much about the majority of our audience that never picks up a device in the first place.

The follow-on from this, then, is of course that museums don’t yet know whether the approaches they currently employ in the development of interpretive technology strategies in galleries will produce results that satisfy this new audience. Given that most multimedia handheld devices in museums still employ what is basically an audio tour model adapted to a new device, my assumption (particularly in light of the kinds of responses like the ones above) is that this will not be the case. It’s time to figure out a new way.

Before I leave this post to go catch up on some Battlestar Galactica, I thought I’d point towards a few interesting resources. The first is a post from New Curator with a discussion about iPhone apps that might be useful for museums. Another is the Museums and Mobile Adoption Survey by the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. Of particular interest to me were the responses to the “Are you evaluating visitor usage of the device?” question. And lastly, but never leastly, the Mattress Factory dudes have made excellence happen again in the form of an aggregated MF Twitter feed viewable in the MF’s gallery space. Aside from this just being a great idea, I point to it because I mentioned making something similar to this available via handheld devices in the MW paper, and it’s nice to see this already happening. Word.

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The future of mobile interpretation

Image representing iPhone as depicted in Crunc...
Image via CrunchBase

Well, it’s been an exhausting few weeks here at kovenjsmith HQ. In addition to reading through scores of accolades over my recent interview with Paul Miller (thanks to all two of you that wrote in–your copy of the Koven J. Smith home game should arrive via parcel post in six to eight weeks), I’ve also been working on a new score for the great NYC choreographer Daniel Charon, which will be premiered in April at Joyce SoHo. I hope to have some mp3s of the music up here as soon as I can excerpt everything into palatable chunks.

While all o’ that has been going on, I’ve also been working on a paper for the upcoming Museums and the Web conference about the use of multimedia handheld devices in museums. The seeds for many of the concepts in this paper were planted during the two-day “From Audiotours to iPhones” symposium on handhelds at Tate Modern last September. The symposium, organized by Jane Burton of Tate Modern and Nancy Proctor from SAAM, assembled some of the leading minds in mobile interpretation, including Peter Samis from SFMOMA, Chris Alexander from SJAM, Allegra Burnette from MoMA, and Daniel Incandela from the IMA for two days of spirited debate.

While the paper I just completed for MW is in some ways a reaction to rather than a distillation of the symposium’s content, the symposium was incredibly helpful in bringing focus to the idea as a whole. My overwhelming feeling, coming out of the symposium, is that museums still have yet to make the big leap necessary for these kinds of technologies to really take hold, and the paper pretty much expands on that. From the introduction:

The last several years have seen museums carefully moving away from outmoded audio technology towards richer multimedia devices. However, while there have been a handful of successful museum installations of multimedia guides, these devices still have yet to take hold in museums in the same way that audio guides have. The failure of the majority of handheld projects to date has been blamed on their trying to do too much, using technology that is too complex, too expensive, or “not ready for prime time.” The resulting best practices, as witnessed in the recent symposium on handheld devices at Tate Modern, have emphasized simplifying handheld applications and devices, in effect bringing them into line with traditional audio tours but adding a few visuals. Although a few of these devices may have individually failed as a result of poorly executed complexity, simplification as a broad solution is not the answer. If anything, the failure of these devices to find a voice in museums is because museums are, by and large, not taking full advantage of the capabilities of this new generation of multimedia devices.

Multimedia devices represent a break, a sea change, in both content and platform, from audio guides. That is to say, if one thinks of the evolution of mobile interpretive devices as a straight line from AM/FM devices through personal cassette players to the now-ubiquitous random-access mp3 players, multimedia guides do not represent the logical endpoint of that evolution, but rather a parallel and altogether different development. Multimedia guides bring with them a suite of opportunities and difficulties that only occasionally overlap with the opportunities and difficulties associated with audio guides. Although the technology has changed, the mindset that produces content for the technology has not.

UPDATE: The final version of the paper can be found at the Archives and Museum Informatics site.

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