What could Museums learn from the Scrabble app?

On May 5th, 2011, posted in: different perspective, learning by

I don’t know about you but every now and then I have one of those little moments when I’m using an app where I suddenly spot the difference between the translation of a service onto mobile and a truly mobile service – you know that moment when you see just how smart someone is, how they really get the medium. One of those moments came this week when I realised that my partner and I have completely given up on the Scrabble app – one of my first purchases on acquiring my iphone – and are now devotees of Words with Friends. It wasn’t a conscious decision. It just happened and looking at the latest Distimo report it seems we’re not alone – Words with Friends is now in the top ten for free and paid apps for iphone and the top ten free apps for Android in the US.

But what is it that makes the difference? How did this upstart app beat the tried and trusted brand that is ‘Scrabble’?

Well my Scrabble app is a faithful, well-branded and nicely designed rendering of the classic game onto a smartphone format by EA. It allows you to play alone – against the app that is – or via wifi with a friend. Words with Friends on the other hand allows you to play with friends wherever they may be (and is fully integrated with facebook) and over extended periods of time, to play against strangers and to have multiple games on the go. In other words (excuse the pun) it doesn’t assume the old paradigm of two or more people gathered together to play a game but starts from an understanding that mobile is anywhere you are and anytime you have a spare moment to ponder a move. I believe that it is this subtle but powerful distinction that has ousted Scrabble from my affections and left me thinking about how I can bring what I think of as truly ‘native mobile’ thinking into my projects.

But why should this matter to the cultural sector? Well, museums – to use the term in its broadest sense – have over the years built up great and trusted brands, often with global recognition. Research shows that audiences trust and value museums. This brand is a powerful tool that can help museums connect with their audiences in a crowded mobile world. But I would suggest that my little story is a sign that we can’t rely on brand alone or even previously successful formats. We need to think ‘native’ and break free from our old paradigms. If we don’t we may find ourselves playing catch up just like Scrabble who have just issued a new version of their app in the US that incorporates the Words with Friends functionality.

PS. To be fair I absolutely love the iphone/ipad combination apps from EA that allow you to use your phone as the tile holder and ‘pass’ them seamlessly onto the ipad ‘board’. Very cool!

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