Here’s how to change that.
If you didn’t grow up with a smartphone in hand, you can clock the creep of tech and “the digital” as it has become ever-more pervasive, for better or worse. A central feature of our digital present is the smartphone app, a fact of our digital present because of how our technology functions: they offer us a portal into to whatever service — text, news, social — we want to access at a particular time.
When apps first became reasonably economical to build, companies of all kinds began cranking them out, to varying degrees of success and adoption. The simple fact of having an app was enough to demonstrate a degree of digital acumen that, it was hoped, could provide competitive differentiation. But as we began look to apps for a greater proportion of core functions in our daily lives, we came to understand the power of apps and their role as essential tools.
Today, digital non-natives have an especially high bar for what we need to believe we’ll get from an app before we’re willing to download it. The name of the game is no longer making an app, but rather how to change the game with one; to add value while remaining true to your holistic strategy. This is a lofty goal even in the best cases (ride sharing, retail banking), but that difficulty is compounded for cultural institutions that aren’t an integral part of users’ daily lives, and perhaps hardest for ones that are free to the public.
If your organization already has an app, chances are that it was built a while ago, when you may have been ahead of the digital curve. If that hasn’t already proven itself to be false, it soon will — and having that older piece of technology lurking in the App Store can make you seem more antiquated than you really are.
There are infinite variables to any institutional project, so undertaking the fabrication of a new app — or the consolidation of several, older generation apps — can seem like a Herculean task your team has no time for. But by approaching this task with some key best-practices in mind, leadership teams can not only achieve a great app, but also grab the big prize: creating Recurring Active Users (RAUs) for both your institution, and your app.
Make the app user friendly.
This concept should permeate every aspect of your experience. But from a user interface standpoint, keep it simple. How many times have you found yourself on a well-known or super popular app, searching for a vital feature you simply can’t find? Since you’re probably not Air BnB or the New York Times, your constituents are only going to give you one shot to get it right…so really get it right. A user-friendly app should have an elegant but uncrowded design where users are given as few options per screen as possible, and as few steps to go through as possible before actually getting to the content. Getting either one of these wrong can be fatal. An online-only bank client had an impressive ratio of click-throughs from their ads to the inception of their sign-up process, but kept losing people before they actually opened an account. Though their app — the tool people use to sign up and then bank — had a clean, beautiful design, there were too many steps to get into it. Put in the time to streamline the entry process, and have a real designer — not your catch-all intern — package it in a way that users will find intuitive. The lower the barriers to entry, the higher your chances of turning that person into a RAU.
Beware of Camels.
A camel is a project to which people can add endless smaller components that are only tangentially related to the overarching goal & which detract from overall functionality. Sometimes it’s because there is the wiggle room to get funding for something that might not otherwise get attention. Other times it’s harder to make decisions about what to leave out than it is to just let everything stay in. In a 2018 talk at Museum Next: Tech in Amsterdam, Shannon Darrough, the director of digital for MoMA, gave a keynote about how easy it is to go wrong when “doing” digital. He argued that most institutions, when building tech, will go the “more is less” route because, technically speaking, you can cram a whole lot of crap into an app, and because it can be relatively easy for an institution that wants to seem innovative to find the funding to cover it all. But when it comes to apps, Darrough argues, less is more. Help your viewers get the most out of what you have to offer by giving them clearly defined options for how to use your app. It will help them better understand the value add, because they will know where to come to find precisely those resources.
Team size & composition are equally important.
Once your institution gets moving on a conversation about building and app and what to include, the list of stakeholders can balloon out of control. In a recent article by McKinsey, what falls within the scope of the or digital transformation can mean wildly different things to different people — even within the same department. If you fail to secure buy-in, or get alignment on goals, the process won’t just fail to achieve its goals, it can waste valuable institutional resources and be bad for morale. Hold meetings with your staff, as a whole in small groups, to understand what they want to, or think should, be included, and keep them informed of progress. But when it comes to making decisions about what key features are vital to the success of tech in your institution, choose wisely. Though there is no magic number for the size of a team, 5 to 7 is usually a good range to aim for. But just as, if not more important, is the composition. You don’t have to have a representative from every silo of your organization there; precisely who is best suited to this task will vary between projects and institution. But make sure the team is selected with an eye towards both securing buy-in, and achieving the project goals.
Offer Something Unique.
Apps can do many things we’re accustomed to doing in a visitor context, like replacing human or audio guides, and enabling users to buy tickets and skip the line. But these are simply digital versions of, or improvements on, existing analog experiences. Physical spaces have constraints — from the amount of information you can get your visitors without creating bottlenecks, to the layout of a building — that digital can enrich or circumvent. An app can provide access to primary source material — an image of an article, or a handwritten letter — or an in-depth video that wouldn’t otherwise be able to be displayed at a particular point of interest (whether that’s inside an art gallery our outdoors, in the middle of a park). It can allow your visitor to access information and services wherever they are in your space, without retracing their steps, making their experience more efficient, and giving them greater power to engage with your offerings at their own speed. It can also make your experience accessible to people who cannot experience it in person, enabling you to have a broader reach. Whatever unique, in-depth component you choose to offer should ultimately reflect your institutional competencies and goals, allow your audience to more easily access what you have to offer, and distinguish yourself from others in your field.
Find the right partner to work with.
There are a ton of developers out there who can build apps, but the proportion of developers out there who are really good at what they do and are not already employed by a major tech company is microscopic. You can cut out some of the inefficiencies of selecting a good developer by getting a referral from a competitor who likes the software they have, and ensuring that your developer is also working with a designer you trust, who can follow your branding and provide a good user interface. An app should provide a competitively attractive & functional user interface (both for institutional clients and for their visitors), offer the support you need to handle content (whether that means going through content you have, or producing new content), and should be able to be turned into data-driven insights to improve your offerings across all channels.
Get the word out.
When it’s time to introduce your visitors to your app, don’t be shy about it. You and your team have put time and effort into crafting something cutting edge and making sure that the content on it is compelling, so go ahead and let people know about it. Send them screenshots for what to expect. Give them a few highlights about the app-only content they can expect to find. Prepare them for their first visit with the app by inviting them to download it “now,” buying tickets in advance of their arrival through the app, and reminding them to bring their own headphones. And don’t limit these announcements to the roll out of the app itself. Changed up the content on the app? Let your Instagram or email list audience know there’s fresh content. You can even tease that content, or tease bloopers or outtakes from making the content. Whatever you do, remember to have fun with it, and that your audience is a moving target with oscillating attention, so make sure to bring it up repeatedly. Everyone needs a reminder now and then.
Finally, think holistically.
Tech should support — and be integrated into — strategy. Your new app should draw on, and refer back to, your other offerings. It should be features in social, and feature content that encourages people to explore your space or event in greater depth. And it should be developed and deployed within the core of your company, alongside or just like any other initiative.
The technologies behind this are lighter weight and cheaper than ever — both for institutional clients, and for their visitors. Don’t fall prey to the “if it ain’t broke” mindset just because you already have an app, or are just wrapping up a website overhaul. Old tech can do as much damage as having no tech, and beginning an app project on the heels of a website redesign will result in a more efficient process & a lighter lift than if there is time in between the two projects. Wherever you are in your digital journey, now is the time to step into a leadership role; if you don’t, your competitors will.