Going Mobile

Mobile Makes the List

The New Media Consortium has just recently published this year’s Horizon Report for Museums. The report has become an important benchmarking tool for museum professionals to gage which technologies are on the cutting edge and which are to make an impact within the next few years.

I was proud to serve on this year’s Advisory Board for the report, which included museum professionals from all over the world, representing museums from all different sizes.

Not surprisingly, one of the important trends identified by the report was the use of mobile technologies. Mobile platforms have become a mainstay in people’s lives. In my community of Hong Kong, people are more likely to access information from a mobile device than a traditional desktop or laptop. Why? It is a combination of low cost for hardware, service plans and the convenience of on-demand content at one’s fingertips.

Mobile Web or Customized Application?

For museums, one of the most important questions is how to utilize the mobile platform into a viable interpretive tool. There are many issues to consider. Content – is an obvious first consideration. For if a mobile program is built upon poor content, then it doesn’t matter how well executed the mobile technology is.

Another important consideration is whether museums should consider a mobile web version or an application. These two choices have more in common than differences. It is like comparing frozen custard and ice cream. The App definitely has the higher percentage of butter fat. Which is to say the App has a better potential to create a dynamic user experience by using more advanced technology features.

Mobile Web: When viewing content on a mobile device it is sometimes difficult to read long articles because the user is constantly finger swiping back and forth. But some web sites are more user friendly. They utilize a type of sniffing technique where the web content management system (WCMS) is capable of detecting that the user is using a mobile browser and thus returns the content in a templated form that fits the mobile device. These templates ensure that all the content is properly sized and that it all fits within the width of device. These sniffers are not iPhone or Android exclusive and it requires no additional content creation by the museum if one’s museum site is being delivered through a WCMS that supports this function.

Applications: Commonly referred to as Apps, applications are specifically programed to a type of platform software. Common platforms include the iPhone, iPad, Android and the Samsung Tablet. One important consideration to remember is that when developing an App is that an application that is created for one of these systems will not work on the other. Even products from the same company such as Apple will not necessary work. Most iPhone Apps will run on the iPad but not the other way around. At best a developer can use the same content in all devices but all the programming is going to be different.

Applications that Work

Although this is not an exhausted list, I have put together some key points to help museums consider whether or not developing an App is worth it or not. Basic Apps can costs up to $20,000 to develop. And museums may need to develop to two Apps in order to satisfy both the iPhone and Android users. If the  proposed App is not utilizing one of these points than more than likely a mobile web version will suit one’s needs.

  • The Device’s Capabilities

In addition to web browsers and cell phones, many mobile devices have a growing number of other functionalities. These include cameras, geo-location detection, gesture based sensors, and tactile navigation.

Apps that take advantage of these other features have the ability to make a much more dynamic experience for a museum visitor. The one common element that all of these features have is that the user is an active participant in making the content change, interact or be manipulated.

Augmented reality and gesture based Apps are on the cutting edge of what museums are doing today. These features can usually only be achieved by building an application specific to a certain mobile platform.

  • Premium Content

Apps cost money. One can browse the App marketplace and find a wide range of prices. Some are free and some can cost up to fifteen dollars. But in addition to providing a little revenue for the museum, Apps that cost money also create a mechanism to allow users to access premium content of the museum’s collections.

One model approach is to provide basic content with a no cost App. Users can get the look and feel of the program before they choose the cost option. Museums may consider this approach for specially designed tours based on the tradition museum audio guide.

  • Exclusive Experience 

Many museums are moving to the BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) approach. This concept is based on the idea that users bring their own mobile, download their own content and are responsible for the maintenance and charging of the device, opposed to the museum. One of the most significant costs associated with mobile tours is the personnel costs associated with renting the devices out.

But museums may want to create an experience for visitors that can only happen on site. This may mean that the museum has an arsenal of mobile devices available to the public. And these devices have been specifically programed to the museum’s site alone.

Apps are also good option for museums that may not have a good Wi-Fi system or if they are located in a broadband blackout area. That is because Apps can have all the content loaded onto the device and they will work regardless of whether or not they are connected to the web. One drawback is that it can make the App quite large in digital bytes.

Pushing Content

Whether a museum chooses to go the mobile web or App route it is important to consider that at a number of basic sections of the web site that should be mobile friendly. This includes the About Us and the Location portions. Visitors to museums that are out and about looking for the next big thing to do on their vacation will appreciate content that is delivered cleanly.

Mobile devices are only getting better. And it is conceivable that will become more and more dynamic making stand alone computers obsolete. Museums regardless of their size should consider how mobile fits into their larger strategy to provide the rich content that their museums hold to the public.

One of the best resources to learn about more Mobile Use and Museums is the Smithsonian’s Mobile Wiki.

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