The Whitney’s Mobile Guide

Over the last year the Whitney’s digital team has worked towards making the Museum’s interpretative content more easily accessible, particularly onsite. We are now proud to share our roll-out of the Whitney’s first Mobile Guide, a progressive web app, which launched in the Fall of 2018, and to share some of our early successes.

Our three main goals are;

  • To create a web app that improves the in-gallery experience of our visitors with frictionless access to content.
  • To provide a solution that is fully integrated with our digital systems; not a new standalone product that needs additional support.
  • Alongside the product development, to roll out a holistic communications strategy ensuring visitors know about the product and content across touch points.

Why not a native app?

Most of the Whitney’s exhibition audio content is already available for free on whitney.org, including programming for kids, individuals with disabilities, and translations in Spanish. People love audio, so it’s natural to assume that an app would be a good solve to giving easy access. But museums have struggled with this problem; research across museums has shown that most visitors don’t download their apps and so making another app (however good) seemed futile. We knew we needed a fully accessible in-gallery product for BYOD (bring your own device), so no need to rent a device or search for the right audio track via whitney.org.

IR? AR? Location triggering?

We looked at some of the latest enticing tech to see if it could help, from WiFi location-based triggering, to offering iPads and Project Tango devices, to Image Recognition and Augmented Reality. And there have indeed been some amazing results; SFMOMA’s Detour app and audio tours were groundbreaking and the Hirshhorn’s Eye has created a successful use of Image Recognition. But the needle has definitely begun to move to a more scaled-back, audio-only tech. The reasons are often related to the complexity of the tech and expense (and resources needed) for upkeep after the initial launch. MoMA’s app is now audio only and the Met has gone to a keypad-only device onsite.

So even we came up with the coolest app, we were not convinced people would use it.

A frictionless user-journey

Our choice of a progressive web app is intended to help users get content quickly and when they need it most: the moment of encounter with an artwork. This is often far from the ticket sales desk or audio device rentals. A progressive app also means there’s no more waiting to download an app or a large amount of content.

The web app can be accessed via a QR code or URL and launches right in your phone’s browser, no downloads or passwords needed (and for anyone not wanting to use their own, it is also available on-site via a limited number of rental devices). The product is a just web app: but that’s only part of the solution.

Ticket Stub with the Mobile Guide QR code

Multi touchpoint communications

Our aim is to reach visitors who might be at the Museum for the first time or who are not naturally inclined to pick up a traditional audio guide. Our communication strategy was developed in lock step with product development. Working together with our colleagues in Education, Marketing and Visitor Services we’ve added messaging at multiple touch points: ticket desks, lobby gallery signage, exhibition floors — and on object labels in the galleries — and our biggest success is on the ticket stubs.

So visitors can be anywhere —they can follow from the link to the QR code or URL from your Museum ticket while waiting in line (or once inside), or scan the code from the signage or the Museum’s printed guide. They then hop on to the Whitney’s free public Wi-Fi to stream content uninterrupted, regardless of data plans — a big plus for international visitors.

An added bonus of QR codes is that we can track exact access points and start to optimize those locations and test messaging going forward.

BYOD audio accessories

There were also practical considerations with supporting a BYOD strategy. We now lend headphones to people who may have forgotten theirs and there’s audio-related gear in the Whitney Shop for those looking for a souvenir, so visitors can grab earbuds or charging sticks if they’re worried about battery life.

Whitney earbuds & headphone jack adapter

Universal Access and UX

One of the key advantages of the web app is that the product stems from building an in-house CMS, so everything we’re already doing on whitney.org benefits the Mobile Guide and vice versa.

Accessibility, for example, was a key goal with our new CMS ensuring whitney.org works with screen readers and other native phone functions. Therefore the web app also works with most screen-readers and strives to meets WCAG 2.0 AA guidelines. With the Mobile Guide we’ve finally been able to match the high standards of Museum content for access audiences to a comparable product experience. As we’ve learnt from experts in the field, an important part of building products for Access audiences is having this goal at the outset of any development process. We’ve continued to stress test our ideas and products for both whitney.org and the Mobile Guide with visually impaired and Deaf visitors throughout the product development.

The design of the Mobile Guide also gives more visibility to transcripts and sound descriptions aimed at visitors who are blind or partially sighted. They are no longer hidden behind a button, so more likely to be read by anyone interested in reading the text. There’s also a nice bonus feature — Night Mode — where you can toggle the app to a white-on-black interface which we learnt some of our users prefer. All of this means our audio transcripts, sound descriptions, American Sign Language and new verbal description tours are part of an accessible product.

We’ve also upgraded our audio equipment. Our new Android devices from Orpheo have bigger, better screens to help our visitors locate the content easily, which is especially important for older visitors.

User interface design

Landing page for the Mobile Guide

One the hardest thing to get right is UX — no one wants to have to relearn how to do things every museum visit.

We learnt from visitor surveys and front of house staff feedback that most first time visitors don’t know exactly what they want to do, or where they should go. They also don’t want to spend a lot of time getting started.

The app aims to get you to the content right away. From the landing page you can toggle between the language and tour options. The same options are available throughout, so you can wander to your heart’s content and easily change course. You can chose between English and Spanish language options or targeted tours for kids aged 7–12, American Sign Language videos and verbal descriptions, as well as more general content. It’s ultimately a one-Whitney experience; as you move throughout building the app’s information architecture and design matches the floor structure and our graphic communications.

Using art to navigate

Our main navigation tool is the exhibition floors. From there you chose an image or find the numbers as usual. As mentioned above, we experimented with location aware triggering with WiFi-based positioning, but for a variety of reasons (technical complexity/upkeep) opted for a simple image-led solution with nice big thumbnails to help people find the artworks they want. This works alongside traditional audio stop numbers on the labels.

Event notifications

Much of what we’ve done on the app intentionally reuses our existing systems architecture and content (more on that below). But one feature is new. Earlier this year we launched a ‘Today at the Whitney’ feature on whitney.org (see our blog post), and a related feature showing a list of daily events when you log into the Museum’s WiFi. Using this same content, we created a new live events notifications feature which alerts you when guided tour is about to start. We’ll be launching this in the Spring.

Featuring existing content

For our MVP, the audio guide content intentionally remained the same to allow us to focus on an improved overall product experience. We also learned from our front of house staff and user testing that visitors love the existing audio content featuring interviews with artists and our focus on giving a heads up experience of the art: it seems that the audio matches their expectations of a museum that challenges them and doesn’t tell them what to think.

Understanding when users listen to audio

Along with the product development and onsite testing (more on this below), it’s been important to address the full user journey for audio. We’ve carried out one-question surveys on whitney.org targeted to audio guide use and looked at the data for our audio usage.

It turns out that users mostly listen to audio on whitney.org after seeing a show in person and many who do so are artists. With the new app, we’re excited to learn more about the user experience and usage patterns with our custom analytics dashboard. Our ability to make nimble updates gives us lots of room to experiment around content and UX: we’re already planning expanded welcome messaging and other types of tours potentially on the Museum’s architecture and neighborhood.

Our process: under the hood

For anyone interested this is a little more on the technical side of the app. At its core, the new guide is a progressive web app that takes the approach of streaming content, with some caching to help offset WiFi drop-out spots. It is powered by our custom CMS (content management system): a flexible, in-house system that gives us the flexibility to spin off app-like products from one central bank of content. This means we are streaming content to the app seamlessly from a consolidated, centralized content system, avoid splitting work over multiple systems which is not only labor intensive but often introduces error. It also means going forward we can respond to evolving institutional needs and take an increasingly audience-led approach.

The Whitney’s Senior Developer, Colin Brooks, led the technical product and UX development working alongside our designers and our digital producer, Aliza Sena, who also designed our user testing program. After our initial prototype was in place, the team worked with four graduate students from Elena Villaspeca’s Pratt Institute Usability Theory and Practice course. They worked closely with us to design a user testing plan for the MVP (a related Pratt blog post goes into more detail on our these efforts), alongside our own focus groups with visitors with disabilities and kids.

Evaluation and early success

So far the new app has shown incredible usage growth in the number of people using the guide overall and listening to audio, and we are already considering it a successful strategy for improving visitor use of Whitney content.

A few takeaways;

  • In 2018 we hit 17,000 users of the in-building guide. We’ve doubled our monthly users, going from a peak of 3,000 monthly users of our old multimedia guide to closing the year at 6,000 users of our Mobile Guide. We also know that people listen for an average of 35 minutes in-building and over 21 minutes online (compared with our average two minutes spent on whitney.org).
  • Our overall audience for audio guides as part of Mobile Guide and on whitney.org has increased to 49,000 users over the year. That’s a 4.3x increase from the 2,200 users a month using this content at the start of the year, to closing at 9,400 monthly users.
  • Compared to a historical baseline of around 20,000 device rentals a year, we are now primarily a BYOD/online rental-free audio using experience.

What’s next?

The Mobile Guide has been in development for almost a year and released fully to the public since the fall, but it’s really an MVP in the wild. We’ve seen that a holistic online product strategy combined with a consistent communications approach has been successful. We’ve made some strides learning about user behavior and will continue to move towards the goal of creating a great first time visitor experience.

The aim is to maintain the rigor of this product development process — not to add too many bells and whistles that could overcomplicate the experience (or that feels like creating a separate app form ofwhitney.org). We keep in mind that for Museum visitors it is the art, the building, and the social experience that are the primary reasons for a visit. Our job with technology is to engage them in a frictionless encounter with content.

With thanks for contributions to this post from Colin Brooks and Aliza Sena.