Weeknotes 33: What you need to know before making a mobile experience

Last week, I was contacted by someone we worked with a while ago. Her colleague had been approached by a company offering a free guide app that could, they said, help the organisation generate revenue through downloads. But would it?  

We’ve carried out research and evaluation on mobile experiences for over 20 cultural organisations. My response was a summary of some of the key insights and patterns we’ve begun to identify from this work.

I thought I would share it here because it might have wider use for people either considering creating a new mobile experience or needing inspiration to improve the usage/experience for one. If you’re not in either of those groups – then scoot down to the bottom where our normal weekly update including a bit of news about the team.

I’m going to use the customer journey as a model because we find it a good way to make sure you don’t miss what’s important for the visitor. Laura shared this model in a Museums and the Web paper with the Met in 2015.


Service design and the visitor experience


Many people in museums feel mobile is the perfect solution to providing visitors with access to information without cluttering up the space with lots of signs.  Unfortunately, mobile experiences with little signage, no hardware and no staff promoting are also by definition invisible. Not surprisingly, our research shows a direct correlation between awareness and use. 

Getting visitors to use a service means doing a really good job of raising awareness that it exists. To do this, map out what happens to the visitor before they have to make a decision about using the guide. Find at least 5 points in that journey where you have made them aware the service is available. In marketing, online, in a queue, in the entrance, in the space where it will be used. Chances are they will miss three and see two. 


As organisations used to providing meaning over information, it seems ironic that when it comes to delivering services we often resort to providing nothing more than information.


Great but what is an audio guide?

The problem with is by simply announcing the availability of a service, we leave visitors to guess how it might help them and often all they have to draw on is preconceptions.  Which may bear no relation to the reality.

When you look at how you are marketing a mobile experience answer these questions:

  • Can audiences understand what the experience or outcome is that you are offering rather than just the functionality of it? Sell the sizzle not the sausage!
  • Do you know what visitors actually want and value? For visitors this tends to be not only learning but getting the most out of their time and energy
  • Do they know it’s targeted at them?
  • Is it compelling and valuable enough to them to get them to invest the time, effort and/or money to download and use?
  • For an app, do they feel they will use it multiple times? Data suggests we download very few apps and they are ones we will typically use repeatedly

The best way to communicate value is:

1) Make it relate to a particular audience needs. For example, a first time audience may feel they need to see the top 10 objects but they only have an hour.  An expert audience may feel they want to have access to deeper information and almost raw research. So, make sure you communicate who it is for explicitly and why.

b) Make it clear that you recommend they use the mobile experience. Train staff to identify who the experience is aimed at and have them pro-actively recommend and demonstrate it to visitors. Also, make sure all marketing materials show the experience and the value rather than just the device and the functionality.


Questions to answer here:

  1. Do they understand how they can access it?
  2. Is it easy enough to access without help?
  3. Do you provide wifi that is easy to access?

For a downloadable app, the download is often the access barrier: “I can’t remember my password, it might take forever, will they charge me?”, “Will I kill my battery?”, “Will they I enough wifi/data connection?”, are all statements we’ve heard regularly. Andrew Lewis crowdsourced mobile museums signs and wifi screens – very useful.

For a device that you either rent or handout for free – make sure it’s accessible after the point they realise it’s valuable and can make a decision to use it. For a lot of visitors, this is when they are faced with indecipherable objects or paintings and realise they need help.

Use and Support

Without realising it, we invest a lot of time and effort getting to know our phones and other devices and interfaces – time and effort visitors don’t want to spend during a visit.  So simplicity is vital.

Questions to answer here:

  • Is it easy to use and navigate?
  • Do you provide systems and processes to support people having problems?

Good user experience (UX) on screen is a basic standard but for a mobile guide, audiences also have the physical UX – the museum or historic site – to deal with too. Audiences regularly struggle to relate the screen to the physical environment or find the design/content distracts rather than enhances an experience.  

We’ve done a lot of UX testing on guides. If you are doing anything more than providing text in front of an object, you should be thinking carefully about how you get someone started (this is called onboarding in UX terms and there is lots of info out there on it).  All too often this ends up as a video which visitors typically skip.  Good onboarding should be built into the experience.  And great onboarding takes excellent UX design skills, testing and time.


Our data shows that people who use good mobile interpretation report that they enjoy their experience more, learn more, will spend more and will do more after their visit. This is possibly an opportunity that museums aren’t currently making the most of above sticking a “share on Facebook” button in their app (that evidence shows is rarely used).

Questions to answer here:

  • Have you created a compelling thing to say or do if they share their experience?
  • Can they use the experience more than once, for example in other exhibitions?
  • Can you give them a vision of what a return to this museum would look like?
  • Do you explain what someone should expect if they connect with you?

This is an area we are doing more and more work in, because when you look at the visitor journey, it’s currently the least developed.

Making a compromise

That’s quite an overwhelming list. If you can’t look at all of these areas in one go, I don’t think you should write off doing a mobile experience. Our research says that, when done well, they definitely deliver on most organisation’s objectives. However, not addressing the areas above means you need everyone in your organisation to understand that it will compromise usage and/or quality of experience.

A note about free apps…

A couple of bits too if you are considering someone’s offer to create you a free app. The fact that you are not paying the app developer doesn’t mean it’s free. Doing it well means great content, testing and checking, maintenance and, as you see above, promotion and front-of-house time. All of these should be factored in to costs. 

Finally, downloads…

A couple of years ago, we carried out a business case for a heritage site to understand how many app downloads they could expect. Across the board, paid or unpaid, unless the site was:

  1. VERY heavily promoting the mobile experience and/or;
  2. Had a good footfall and/or;
  3. Met a compelling need for audiences

Be aware the average app was under 1000 downloads and opened less than once.

And back to our usual update…

So, what else was happening last week. Alyson and I kicked off the Scottish Ballet project – which included having a special look behind the scenes to look at rehearsals. We were also heads down in the National Gallery project to refine the final presentation and create documentation of all the work that has been going on. Martha was prepping for the “Create” workshop this week at ss Great Britain where we are taking the team from raw data of real interviews to insights. Next week is the follow-up workshop where we go from insights to an action plan.

Speaking of Martha – some bad news for us. Martha will be leaving us as a full-time employee at the end of August. Noooooooo! Martha has only been with us a year but has become such a key part of the team. The good news is that she will remain an associate – so we will be bringing her into projects where only her valuable consultancy skills and creative muscles can deliver. She’ll be sharing news about what’s next for her on her blog, but she’s looking to expand the areas in which she works, hence the move. In the meantime, we honestly can’t recommend Martha highly enough – you should be getting in touch with her immediately to come and work on your project.

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