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Mobile web vs smartphone apps for museums

You have all see the graph of desktop vs mobile internet use. It’s the one where the global number of mobile internet users overtakes tethered internet users in the middle of the decade. The mobile web is not just the future, it’s the present. In a country like Australia, mobile and desktop internet use is very high, as is smart phone penetration, at around 40% last I checked. This commonality means that there is a growing expectation that museums, galleries, libraries and even parks, will not only have a strong web presence, but a dedicated smartphone app as well.

During the Museums Australia conference last year and at a Museum and Galleries NSW event in May, I spoke to many people from smaller  and regional institutions who had come to the sessions because they’d been told by their employers “we need an app”. In some cases neither the people being tasked with building the app or those who requesting it actually understood what a smartphone app is. Nor have they investigated whether or not a native app is appropriate for their institution, or their audience.

I’m not going to dig into the semantics of hybrids, platforms, apps, etc, that has been done here and here or you can see a list of vendors. For the purposes of this discussion I’m going to call the Mobile Web: mobile friendly website that is either designed specifically for smartphones, or a website that reconfigures it’s content, style and navigation when being viewed by a smartphone’s web browser. And I’m going to call Smartphone App: a smartphone application that must to be downloaded from a store or marketplace to work on a device.

In 2011/12 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA) there were two projects that were considered to be possible app making opportunities.

Primavera 2011

During the 2011 Primavera the MCA was closed for renovations, so the exhibition moved into the streets of the Rocks area of Sydney. The works were placed in multiple locations around the Rocks and wayfinding was a real issue. We chose to go with a mobile website as it allowed us to build and deploy quickly and  to change and add to the content easily, in response to changes to the installation plan brought about by the challenging installation spaces. Mostly importantly, we could support the key way-finding (or artwork finding) experience in a way that was quick and easy to load for visitors.

We took an agile approach such that if someone navigated to from a smart phone we supported (iPhones, most Androids) they had an app like experience, with information about where works could be found, who created them and when performances where on. If they navigated to from a smart phone we didn’t support (Blackberry, some Android) they see a simple list of works and locations. And if you navigate from your desktop, you end up on the Primavera blog, with artist interviews, profiles, competitions and other more contemplative content.

The MCA Collection

The MCA has 3 floors of galleries, the entire middle floor is devoted to the MCA’s collection of contemporary Australian art. The 1st and 3rd floors are used for temporary exhibitions. We built a native iOS and Android app called MCA Insight for visitors to the museum. Under the tag line “hold contemporary art in the palm of your hand” we created an app that is chock full of contextualising snippets of text, curator interviews, artist interviews, images from artists’ studios, conservation images and videos of artwork installation. It also information about what’s on at the Museum, upcoming highlights and visitor info.

One of the key technologies that supports MCA Insight is a location awareness system that gives the visitor access to information on the artworks around them, wherever they are in the MCA, and an interactive map of the Museum. This experience is made possible thanks to some custom software we’ve written that integrates with the building’s WiFi service. This would only be possible using a native application, a mobile website could not support this sort of interaction.

Visitors can also collect works during their visit to create an online gallery complete with details about artists and artworks. The app sends them a follow-up email after they’ve left the gallery with the link to their online collection.

Mobile web vs Native app

My advice, as always, is to think about the experience that you want to provide for your visitors, and choose the technology that best supports that experience. Unless you require something specific the the mobile web cannot provide, the mobile web will probably be your best option. Don’t get caught up in the “app” buzz, keep the visitor at the centre of your experience design.

Unless, of course, you’re planning on doing both, but that’s a post for another day.