How can museums make memorable apps?

July 18, 2013

Old-ish Content Warning!

You are viewing a post that’s more than three years old. There’s a good chance that a lot of the following is seriously out-of-date (or at least not reflective of my current thinking on this topic). Proceed with caution.

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.

A paucity of memorable apps

That said, I think a good case could be made that despite years of toiling, our sector has produced very few memorable mobile experiences. Maybe this is at the root of the complaint, and if so, that’s totally fair. The museum sector still has yet to produce its Angry Birds or Words With Friends , despite it seeming at first glance like a fertile ecosystem that sort of thing. And I think this lack of memorability has its roots in how we continue to think about mobile development in museums.

I think it’s illustrative, when thinking about what makes a memorable or exceptional app, to look at Instagram . What I love about Instagram is that it took something that people were already doing in kluged-together ways on the margins (taking photos, and sharing them via text and whatnot) and made it easy to do. It gave people the tools to make an emerging behavior pattern a normative one. Very few museum apps are designed from this perspective, and partially this is because we still tend to view our apps exclusively as content delivery systems.

Emerging behavior patterns, and “curious rituals”

This “content delivery” mindset causes us to think about mobile app development as a design problem rather than a _behavioral _one. In effect, we tend to work from an assumption that behavior patterns are constant, and that a mobile experience should augment those static patterns with lots of delicious content. This is certainly a use for mobile devices in museums, but the jury’s still out for me as to whether it’s the best use.

Today’s mobile devices expose all sorts of experiential possibilities in the physical gallery space that we haven’t even begun to explore, identify, or understand. (As an aside, if you haven’t yet read Curious Rituals: Gestural Interaction In the Digital Everyday , go there now. It will completely open your eyes to exactly the kinds of emerging behavior patterns I’m talking about here.) For me, an exceptional app is one that would cause me to act in a different way than I normally would in a museum, in much the same way that Instagram caused me to think about taking pictures in a totally different way.


At the same time, museums have identity issues that apps like Instagram do not have. Instagram’s brand identity (which is expressed almost entirely through its app) and its corporate identity are practically one in the same. Its corporate identity is tied explicitly to its brand identity, meaning that changes in one affect the other. This is not really true for us in museums. While (some) museums may have significant flexibility in their brand identities, visitors do not typically see that flexibility manifested inside those museums themselves.

For example, Tate has gone a long way towards figuring out how to create really memorable mobile experiences (the Magic Tate Ball being my personal favorite) that are associated with the Tate brand, but not necessarily with the Tate museum. And those are two very different entities. The museum brand is fairly flexible and accommodating, but the museum experience comes with all sorts of preconceptions and conventions that can be extremely difficult to overcome when creating a mobile experience.


The problem is that we’re grappling with an existing identity (that is relatively fixed) at the same time that we’re trying to produce work on a platform that works best when our identity can be relatively fluid. So, I dunno. I feel like there’s  got to be a way to produce an interesting (and memorable) app within the constraints of the museum’s brick-and-mortar identity, but I don’t yet know how. I think there’s something in designing backwards from behavior rather than from demographic or psychographic characteristics, but I’m not sure yet exactly what that would look like. I think this app can be built, but it’s not going to be built by examining the problem from 10,000 feet, as the Guardian article does. We understand the nuances of this space, we just now need to bring that understanding to the apps we build.

Of possible further interest: