Most visitors to museums attend in social groups. This is true for all types of cultural institutions, from historic houses to zoos to art museums. While some places tend to attract families with children, others draw adults in couples or groups. This isn't just about demographics; it's also about desire. People see museums as places for social experiences, and when surveyed about why they visit museums, "to spend time with my friends/family" always shows up near the top of the list.
But most mobile applications (as well as most audio tours) are made for solo experiences. Recommendation engines and tours are built to encourage you to follow your own individual interests around the galleries, finding and saving and commenting on the things YOU like most. This is fine for individuals, but it doesn't make a ton of sense for social groups. Imagine visiting a museum with your family or a friend. You aren't on a personal quest alongside your companion; you want to be WITH them--sometimes breaking apart, coming back together, discussing and sharing what you've seen and negotiating what to do next. Especially when visiting museums with children, the experience is intensely interpersonal, with social groups repeatedly dipping into lengthy shared explorations, punctuated by more individualized browsing.
Only a small percentage of visitors elect to use audio tours while in museums (mostly singly), and I suspect that most technologists developing new mobile experiences in museums are erroneously focusing on this tiny audience rather than the much larger social group audience. Museum technologists are also influenced by the broader world of mobile apps, which are mostly focused on supporting adult individuals with their own phones. But the largest market for mobile phone apps (young adults) is not reflective of the majority of museum visitors, who tend to be families, school groups, and older adults.
If there's a social component to these apps, it tends to invite visitors to connect to a broad and semi-anonymous society of other museum visitors over time. But what about the visitors with whom you've come to the museum? There's a huge untapped market for mobile applications that engage intact groups and enhance their social experiences in the museum. Especially as mobile penetrates more of the market (and more children have their own phones), there are opportunities to actually improve the social visit by helping people stay in touch, share their experiences, and not feel constant pressure to stick together. Imagine for example...
None of these ideas is going to revolutionize the mobile museum landscape. But designing technology that fits with how the majority of people already use museums is going to be more successful than trying to force fit individual applications to social experiences. It's time to abandon the single-user audio tour model (or at least stick it in a smaller corner) and seize the opportunity to create something that will serve a much larger number of museum visitors' interests and needs.
- A scavenger hunt application that many phones could "log in" to, so that a family could split up and everyone could look for examples of spooky artifacts, or their favorite stories, or the most boring object and aggregate them together for discussion later in the cafe. You could even make a museum version of the popular Apples to Apples game, in which visitors would find nearby artifacts they think best illustrate a particular word or idea (and then their companions would vote them up or down).
- A simple application that would help individuals blast out their location or suggest meeting places to stop for a snack. Have you ever watched people on ski mountains texting their buddies to schedule meetups? Imagine a version of this, superimposed over a facility map, to help families and tour groups find each other while onsite. It could help ameliorate the stress some people feel managing the variable amount of time some family members like to spend in particular exhibits (imagine an "I'm waiting in the cafe" button). It could also help family members split up without being nervous about losing each other.
- A recommendation application that helps groups create relative profiles. When I was a kid, we used to play a game called Yum/Yuck. My dad would say the name of a food (i.e. broccoli) and then my sister and I would immediately each say "yum" or "yuck." It was a silly way to point out the differences in our tastes. These kinds of relative personality tests can help families talk about their unique interests in a social context... and could also provide some fun surprises as the system tries to recommend experiences for everyone.
- A social tagging activity that uses one phone, shared across several people, for the group to make a story from the memories they shared onsite. Rather than capturing individual favorites, the group would record short audio snips or photos of themselves at the exhibits they liked most--and then the whole thing would be available to them online as a multi-media story later.
How could you see mobile phones enhancing the social experience for intact groups that visit museums?