Monday, October 10, 2016

What Does a Great Distributed Digital Museum Experience Look Like?

Museum technology nerds: this post is for you.

I've been thinking recently about distributed content experiences--ways for people to interact with museum content (art, history, science, etc.) as they make their way through the world outside the museum. There are a zillion apps for making your own tours, podcasts, maps, or QR code-infested games... but none of them are great.

Distributed mobile content experiences seem to suffer from two basic problems:
  1. Underwhelming entry points. It's extremely hard to get people to download a new app. Where and when does an institution ask you to do so? At the museum? At the historic site? While walking down the street? The impulse to download an app is driven by curiosity or an urgent perceived need. While museums may cultivate curiosity, they rarely offer sufficiently clear, urgent use cases to encourage you to go through the drudgery of downloading an app.  
  2. Unlikely reentry points. Once you download an app, are you really going to remember to (re)open it to find an interesting historical fact tagged to your geolocation? Are you going to use it to scan for public art near you? Most of these apps seem so niche, so useless for anything other than accessing semi-interesting content in a clunky interface, that they end up languishing in the Siberian outback of your phone.
In contrast, successful distributed projects seem to have one of two characteristics:
  1. Compelling and/or versatile mobile experience. What do we use our phones for most? Communicating, playing, exploring. Quality content experiences tend to piggyback on massive social media platforms apps that are already well-used (i.e. facebook) or create very compelling whole worlds unto themselves (i.e. Pokemon Go). 
  2. Prominent real world presence. One of the simplest, effective distributed projects I've seen recently is Walk [Your City]. It's a system for creating signs, zip-tied to existing traffic/lightpoles, that direct people to points of interest, special experiences, and surprising encounters. Some cities use them for straightforward wayfinding, but in many towns, the signs have a whimsical or poetic nature. It's amazing how much impact simple signs can have. I'd choose repeated physical presence over a fancy digital interface any day.
Thinking about these two characteristics, here are some highly speculative ideas and questions:
  • What is the most effective way to have lots of physical presence in the built environment? Working with cities and public property involves a lot of regulation (though if you can push through the red tape, a lot of potential impact). It's often easier to make deals with private property owners than to lobby the government for use of public space/sidewalks/streets. Projects like Little Free Library and the Peace Pole Project work this way; individuals choose to build them on their own land. How can we activate movements for people to participate in producing and sharing content on the land they already control?
  • What's the cheapest advertising money can buy? I generally assume nonprofits can't afford to compete in the advertising world, but there's so much advertising in our visual landscape, some of it in very odd (and affordable) forms. Could you give out free coasters at bars? Make beautiful bike racks? Provide your local coffee shop with thousands of sleeves for paper cups? Is there a distributed layer to life (in the form of advertising) that is hackable for good?
  • How can we creatively hack into mobile apps that lots of people already use? Of course you can create content for podcasts, twitter, instagram, etc. But what about apps where you don't have to build a whole media presence? What about creating geo-fenced Snapchat filters connecting people to art nearby, or making Tindr profiles for historical figures in the area? Are there other ways to piggyback on popular apps for content experiences?
  • Who's going to build the killer app for distributed learning experiences? Part of me feels like learning is just so low on people's priority lists that distributed museum experiences will always be niche... but then I think of the huge success of online learning platforms like Khan's Academy. I wonder if we just need one (or a few) powerhouse app to take the lead on facilitating quality distributed learning/augmented reality experiences. I think it's possible an institution could do this... but only if it was more focused on building an industry-wide solution than building something custom for their own museum or historic site.
I know that there are very smart people working on these problems. Who's tackling them? What are some of the most interesting approaches underway?

If you are reading this via email and would like to share a comment or question, you can join the conversation here

And a note to readers in the Boston area: I'll be participating in a MuseumHive real world / Google hangout on these topics (and others) on October 26. Register today.

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