Monday, April 26, 2010

Where's the Mobile Museum Project for Intact Social Groups?

When a technologist calls me to talk about their brilliant idea for a museum-related business, it's always a mobile application. There are lots of wonderful (and probably not very high margin) experiments going on in museums with mobile devices. But the vast majority of these companies and tinkerers make the same mistake: they focus on individual users.

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...
  • 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.
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.

How could you see mobile phones enhancing the social experience for intact groups that visit museums?

26 comments, add yours!:

Art Wolf said...

Great ideas for family groups, Nina. But, my family functions a little differently depending on what kind of museum we are visiting and what kind of crowds there are. The apps you envision would be fine for exploring some of the smaller, gem-like (and usually quiet) museums. For swimming through the noisy gut of a blockbuster, though, my siblings and I all prefer to do the audio tour in part to create a mental if not physical distance from the crush of other visitors

Anonymous said...

Well said, Nina. There's also a nice connection between this line of thought and the platform factor that visitors' mobile experience need not be solely phone-based, as Seb Chan muses in his blog post ( today on the iPad: a device well-positioned to support collective experience by groups of museum visitors together via social use of a single piece of mobile hardware.

Mike said...

Nice post, Nina.

I think the isolation element has been a recognised factor in audiotour development for a while, and I'm surprised that more museum mobile experiences aren't focusing on the kinds of ideas you've outlined. Gameplay in this environment seems to me to be pretty key. It is so key I forgot to mention it in my blog post about museum mobile experiences :-) ( I'm personally really unconvinced that the "put our collections into a mobile site" thing has any mileage per se. Couple it with gaming, collection, collaboration, location - now you're talking.

I'm working on a simple idea which I hope to unveil pretty soon which takes the collaborative element and exposes it in interesting ways. I'll drop you a line when I manage to get things public. Probably in about 2025...

Shalmanese said...

Nina, one thing that always has to be taken into account with group mobile apps is uneven access to technology.

In any group of people, it's highly unlikely that they'll all have smartphones and you can't design for that. In any given group, some people will have & be proficient with smartphones, some will have dumbphones and some will lack access to phones (kids & foreigners mainly).

I think any thinking on designing for mobile has to inherently take this into account. Perhaps a better direction to go with this thinking is "good for individuals, better for groups".

Tour guides, quizzes etc. can all be performed by a single user but they can also be enhanced with ad hoc group participation.

Sassa said...

Wow, you've left me inspired now!

I had a fantastic experience in 2007 playing a basic ARG (augmented reality game) in my city, where I was introduced to many areas of historical and social interest I'd never investigated before through the ARG's Easter Egg Hunt approach to gaming.

What made it truly enjoyable was that I had two friends with me who kept my enthusiasm for the game running high. Only one of us had a mobile phone that could link to the game, and we all craned over her phone to read each clue as it arrived. It became an incredibly enjoyable social experience, we played for three hours straight and only stopped because it got so late!

If I had tried that game on my own, I would have played it for 30 minutes, max. So your comments on making mobile experiences that allow for known-social-group participation really ring true for me.

Anonymous said...

What about the people that can't travel to the 5 museums that have the "special" exhibit? They are always left out, alone or as a family unit. But they may have a computer at home or at their local library. Mobile is just another connection to the world wide web.

Nothing is like experiencing the exhibit environment, but if you build it for mobile has your audience expanded?

In general though, well constructed thoughts of how to engage those lucky visitors which could potentially engage visitors in deeper learning.

NickH said...

Ha ha… you rock Nina! And for anyone who doesn’t know she can throw a mean disc as well.

Xianhang – there are already platforms that play across multiple devices via apps and through SMS to accommodate any type of phone. The beauty of these systems is that A) It’s ubiquitous B) You don’t need to waste time teaching a visitor how to use a new platform during their visit – they can literally take the phone out of their pocket and play. I will agree with Xianhang though that many institutions are caught up in an iPhone fever and often forget the majority of their population in the process.

Museums looking to adapt mobile technologies into the visitor experience face a couple challenges in the way they think of the museum experience; they must create truly interactive experiences and oftentimes be willing to make it fun. The typical museum experience is a passive one with visitors choosing to buy into content whether by reading a sign, watching a video (no just because the pictures moving doesn’t mean it’s interactive!), taking an audio guide or absorbing content from an app. In each of these the visitor still needs to “buy” into the experience and be willing to stay engaged throughout. Mobile technology provides an interpretative layer that can be used to prompt visitors and groups to engage in the ways that Nina describes.

Honestly, I think the fun part presents a much larger challenge (thanks for the heads up Nina). If the fun is lost as museums adapt mobile technologies into social experiences, much of the incentive to engage erodes [said from the perspective of a mobile gaming company that works with a number of verticals including museums: universities, cities, conferences and regional promotions.] Fun is often more easily digestible in markets outside of museums allowing them to maximize it’s power for engagement. I’m encouraged by the many great projects out there using fun to generate interaction -- hats off McDonigal, Goodlander and others!

I’m excited to see the future of mobile applications in the museum space and hope this new technology helps institutions overcome the hurdle of the passive experience.

kavabuggy said...

I agree with Wendy's comment about ARGs. At the Texas Association of Museums conference last month, I attended a session presented by Vu Le and Robert Bell of Enspire Learning, about ARGs, and we played an interesting one that dealt with learning about historical objects found on the La Belle shipwreck.

While the ARG takes some tinkering and A LOT of pre-planning (blogs, availability of internet resources, props, etc.), I envision the actual rendering of an ARG as needing a staff member to be the "man behind the curtain" to send text messages to a pay as you go phone that can be rented out by the museum, or even done as a social media experiment when a family leaves.

I suggest that anyone interested in ARGs check out the company ( for more information about ARGs, because they appear to be quite inexpensive to carry out. It's just the foundation/set up for the alternate reality that is time consuming. And, of course, some museums are more conducive to ARGs than others.

LeslieG said...

This reminded me of the MANY times I've got an art exhibition with my mother. We both love audio tours for the depth of the information, but we also want to share the experience. So we spend half the time with fingers poised over the pause buttons, "OK ready, now PLAY." "Now STOP." "Are you stopped?" "Is yours on?" "What picture are you at?" What we wanted was a lecture-type experience, but we wanted to experience the lecture together.

Joe Hoover said...

There seems to be a contradiction in some of the arguments here. First there is a discussion that museums should go beyond the audio tour and be creative and do more with mobile devices, specifically use it to expand the social experience. but then there seems to be the argument inferring that smartphones - specifically the iPhone, is a minor part of a larger mobile market and we need to design for even-access to technology and make sure dumbphones, which make up the largest part of the mobile market, are included.

A museum can attempt a "one size fits all approach but I suspect it will severely tie it's hands when it comes to solutions for the user and social experience. Taking a scavenger hunt and moving it from paper to mobile without adapting it to use the power of the technology is not much better than using mobile for audio tours. You might as well just keep the scavenger hunt on paper and the audio tours on tape recorders.

One interesting thing is that iPhones account for 50% of all mobile browser traffic for U.S. based smartphones, and 33% of global smartphone site visits. That number is being challenged by Android but still both Android and the iPhone ofter a rich user experience with an intuitive interface not to mention the legions of developers working on apps, something not available for most mobile devices.

Not only can a museum can have iTouch/iPad (or Android equivalent) devices to loan or rent out with the app preinstalled, but users with their own devices can download the app or maybe even a lite version of the app and they can play out the game by themselves or join others.

By interacting with objects and people in the exhibit through 2-D barcodes or through RFID tags you can not only find and harvest objects you could trade them with others, cash them in for points or use them to build a spaceship/train/boat at a common interactive terminal and move on to a higher goal.

The important point here is game development, particularly if you want your mobile to "go social". I suspect that exhibit developers are great at telling stories but telling stories is a much different skill set than writing/creating games. To create a game you have to understand about game parameters such as scalability, complexity and setting as well as game archetypes such as treasure hunts, survival games and economy games. I suspect the lack of the social mobile experience at museums could reflect a lack of game development experience itself.

Lindsey said...

You might enjoy looking at this audio tour for the National Gallery, London called Teach Your Grown Ups.

It encourage families to share their experience and knowledge.

Families listen to the tour together and then kids get to listen to some extra content which they can then use to teach their adults a little bit more.

franz said...

you actually couldn't make me more happy on such an exhausting day with your post…

I've always been very supportive of "group strategy" when thinking about the future of mobile application for museums (and others) and multimedia guide devices.

But… not always supported! I actually remember Handled conference in London... when I suggested synchronized devices to avoid what I call the Versailles effect (thousands and thousands of visitors, each one listening to is own audioguide, all following the same path like zombies but not speaking to each others during the visit or sharing anything!), I was told that "audioguide is not a group experience, there are other places in the museum for that". Sure, there are indeed other places and activities, but does it mean that multimedia guides could not become part of them?

ps @ leslie : damn you're so right, been throug that also so many times !

gih said...

Hmm, I wonder why they used that kinda project, just to entertain people and raising a fund?

Juan Sanabria said...

Really hot topic...thanks for bringing it up and for pushing the envelope with what you "wish" was available.

Gaming and social interaction might be great for some people in some institutions but it's not necessarily the holy grail of the museum experience. Nothing has ever stopped me from putting down the wand or ipod to pass an interesting factoid onto my group. I think that as we get more and more used to the devices we learn that well designed experiences are fully flexible and that we don't suffer when we put the device down for a few to talk about something.

That being said, mobile tours can certainly do a better job of building in features that encourage social engagement. We'll see what develops.

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that one simple way to communicate with visitors throughout the day would to send text messages to them during their visit. Visitors can voluntary add their phone numbers to receive messages including reminders about discussions or demonstrations, specials at the gift shop or cafe, or interesting tidbits about what they were seeing that day. If done with an informational and/or interesting tone (rather than with an advertising slant), it could add something different to the experience. The visitor would always have the option to end the texting and/or automatically at the end of the day.

I think it could really work with those elusive preteen/teen audiences. Maybe they have a separate set of texts that ask questions or ask for their opinions.

Obviously, the simple part of it is that most cell phones come with texting ability, so there wouldn't need to be specialized phones or apps.

kellian said...

For social/mobile projects in museums (or zoos, in this case) check out the FONZ game at the Smithsonian National Zoo. Groups of students are assigned identities, have to work together, find items, talk to docents, call numbers, send emails, search buildings and eventually design an exhibit. The central technology is the cell phone (any phone- smart or dumb) because the game itself is mobile and needs to move with the visitors- but the concept is much wider. It's a social experience that happens to be driven by a handheld rather than the other way around. I think it illustrates how creative new ideas are the best way to drive new technology- any technology!

Jonathan Marks said...

Had a decision to make on the audioguide for a media exhibit in the Netherlands. We threw out all the suggestions on the grounds that they were all isolating the audience from the conversations around them. Solitary confinement is one of the worst forms of punishment, so don't go there.

Instead we opted for a quest involving between 2 and 4 participants to solve a mystery with a reasonable deadline. The prize was the chance to have lunch with a famous author (role model for the target group). I am also working on the using the Microsoft surface tables, so that people have the option of sending info to their email address, taking the experience beyond the museum.

Francis said...

Hi Nina,

Many thanks for the thought-provoking post.

I am doing a design course with the Open University, and have chosen to work on an "interactive social museum guide" for my project.

At this stage I'm doing market research and analysing requirements, and I wonder if you would be willing to discuss this further by email, or if you could recommend a forum where I could find more of this thinking?

Nina Simon said...

Hi Francis,
I recommend you check out MuseumMobile and talk to some of those folks - they are much more knowledgeable and "in the trenches" than I am!
Good luck with your research.

Amy Billstrom said...

Hey, thanks for the post, Nina. Timely! I agree with "Joe" regarding the importance of game development before launching into mobile/tech options for visitor social interaction. We are experimenting with basic game strategies aimed at school-aged (8 - 12 yrs) groups in our Art and History Galleries as a new way to explore the collections - at the Oakland Museum of CA. We are at the paper stage but I'm looking forward to possible applications like you've referred to and expanding to families and adults. The game strategy definitely promotes more discussion about individual art pieces as well as broader art concept (tested so far with staff and 3rd grade.)

I think that in developing these tools for social interaction we can view the tech application as a means to an end and use it for what it can do best. Deciding when it's best is the difficult part. I'm looking forward to seeing what can work!

Unknown said...

Nina, we're so glad you are discussing this. We also touch upon some of these opportunities in a past article.

Sayre, S. & Wetterlund, K. (2008) The Social Life of Technology for Museum Visitors, Visual Art Research Journal, Pennsylvania State University (34),67 p.85


gelo said...

We should be careful about include that advanced functions within a multimedia guide. Most visitors expect to just access the artworks and the explanations of the guide, and not to individual interfaces, much less collaborative, that go beyond the mere selection of artworks.

These functions should be included so that the main interface remains extremely simple. To create shared experiences in guided groups through multimedia devices is not required connectivity between devices. For many cases it is enough to build different narrations that follow the same route, but applying different treatments tailored to each user profile, for example parents choose the same route in the guides of all the family, but select children mode for their childrens, wich use less data, simple texts and appropiate music.

On the use of the mobile phone of the visitor as the main guidance device. It seems implausible to think that a visitor will be due to receive short SMS with little information to learn in a museum. In this case as a visitor I'd require the availability of audioguides because I would be at a disadvantage with other visitors who have the money to buy a third-generation phone and access services to which I can not.

I think still has not been mentioned here a profile that plays a vital role. The human guide. Beside offering collaborative technologies directly to visitors, we should think in how multimedia guides can help this specialists, offering them new ways to interact with groups.

Janeal said...

This is a great post and proposition. I have fears of younger students getting side-tracked from the learning by the technology, but that is where the degree of entertainment and interest in the activity would be applicable. Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

I find too often that every time we try to bring people together we are just further alienating each other. Frohberg, Goth, and Schwabe (2009) make mention that mobile devices can be used as a solitary learning tool or as a collaborative learning tool. However, if we go to a museum as a group, what would be the point in splitting apart? You mention that groups come, but different people have different interests. I don’t think groups should be breaking apart. One reason to learn in a group is to learn about the likes and dislikes of others. Why should there be an app that further separates people? Shouldn’t we be learning about what people around us are interested in? That is why I think group apps are a great idea, as long as it helps people stay together. I really like your scavenger hunt idea! That would be great for use with schools on field trips. As long as everyone gets to see everything! Reference: Frohberg, D., Göth, C., & Schwabe, G. (2009). Mobile Learning projects – A critical analysis of the state of the art. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 25(4), 307–331.

Unknown said...

Nice work Nina. I love the engaging ideas you have, especially the scavenger hunt. As a deaf person, I want to bring up one caveat. Hopefully the mobile communication won't be all auditory. Anonymous mentioned receiving text messages for activities and I liked that idea. It is so disappointing to go to museums and see displays with all audio or push a button and see a video of a talking head with no captions. Your ideas to expand possibilities using mobile phones is great but please keep the needs of visual learners, deaf/hard of hearing, and second language learners in mind. Let us see the text. Thanks! Susan

Unknown said...

Nice work Nina. I love the engaging ideas you have, especially the scavenger hunt. As a deaf person, I want to bring up one caveat. Hopefully the mobile communication won't be all auditory. Anonymous mentioned receiving text messages for activities and I liked that idea. It is so disappointing to go to museums and see displays with all audio or push a button and see a video of a talking head with no captions. Your ideas to expand possibilities using mobile phones is great but please keep the needs of visual learners, deaf/hard of hearing, and second language learners in mind. Let us see the text. Thanks! Susan