What we know about mobile experiences in Museums after 6 years of research

As part of Frankly, Green + Webb, I’ve carried out research and evaluation on mobile experiences for over 20 cultural organisations. Last week, I was contacted by a previous client who 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?

My response was a summary of some of the key insights and patterns we’ve begun to identify from this work.

As these are such fundamentals and consistent throughout our findings, I thought it might have wider use for people either considering creating a new mobile experience or needing inspiration to improve the usage/experience for one.

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.

Awareness

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. Make sure, no matter where people come from, there are 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 then see at least two.

Understand/Value

As organisations used to delivering 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 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?
  • Do you know what audiences 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 definitely aimed at them?
  • Is it compelling and valuable enough to audiences 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 audiences download very few apps and that they can’t imagine using 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.

2) 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 describe the experience and the outcome rather than just the device and the functionality. Sell the sizzle not the sausage.

Access

Questions to answer here:

  • Do they understand how they can access it?
  • Is it easy enough to access without help?
  • 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. 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.

Good on-boarding should be built into the experience

We’ve done a lot of UX design and 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 on-boarding 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 on-boarding should be built into the experience. And great on-boarding takes excellent UX design skills, testing and time.

Share/re-use/connect

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…

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

In light of this, the average app for a cultural organisation was under 1000 downloads and opened less than once.

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