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This is part of a series of posts looking at how cultural institutions are using apps and other mobile web technologies to engage their audiences. In a previous post, I sketched out the broader challenges and opportunities of the ‘mobile revolution’. Here, I’ll be looking specifically at apps.

13 October, 2012

Choosing to create an app must – in the end – be informed by the available budget. At the time of writing, based on personal experience and conversations with software developers and museum practitioners and taking internal staff costs into consideration, apps can cost anything from around £8,000 to £40,000. For smaller cultural institutions, this may appear prohibitive. But by their very nature, apps cut across the traditional functions of curatorial-interpretation on the one hand and marketing-outreach on the other; so they might draw on funding from across those departments. Institutions might consider whether an app could achieve the same amount of publicity as a city poster campaign, bring in a larger audience than a re-design of the website, or be used to deliver the handheld interpretation at a temporary exhibition.

But what can apps actually do? In broad terms, based on the nature of their content, apps can be divided into three categories:

1. Immersive Experiences
Apps are an efficient and elegant way to package rich media and detailed interpretation. Many museum apps, including the Van Gogh Museum’s Yours Vincent and the American Museum of Natural History Explorer, both for iPhone, fall into this category, as do more atmospheric offers, such as Tate’s How It Is App, based on the work of Polish artist Miroslaw Balka.

The challenge is to create something that plays to the full strengths of the platform and yet is also grounded in great storytelling.

2. Gadgets
Looking beyond museum apps, practically all of the most popular, regularly-used apps are tools of some sort. Some simply provide access to an existing service, such as eBay, or Facebook, others provide up-to-date information on things like transport, or the weather. The challenge for cultural institutions is to create something truly useful. We might consider an app that blends basic, static, information from a website – such as location, opening hours, etc – with changing information streams – such as exhibition diaries or access to products from the shop. Such an app, bundled together with the cost of membership, could be a powerful way to keep in touch with core audience. Some institutions have already had success in creating apps that deliver an existing service, or even re-package elements of a website; the MoMa App combines information about changing exhibitions and events with tour-based content to great effect.

3. Games
Huge numbers of apps are dedicated to gaming and games are almost always represented in the Apple Store Top 10. This may not seem immediately relevant, but as Jason da Ponte, the Managing Editor for the BBC’s Mobile Platforms, has noted, within the mobile space, the difference between games and utilities is starting to blur. This is certainly true for apparently ‘simple’ apps such as Smithsonian’s Meanderthal, that let’s you picture yourself as an early human, Tate Trumps, that allows you to play top trumps with the collection, or even the Muybridgizer, where you can create your own motion capture sequence, just like Eadward Muybridge’s icons. But it’s equally true for more ‘complex’ apps with greater interpretational content, such as StreetMuseum. The challenge here is for developers to build an element of playfulness into the user experience.

So much for content. But what sort of a return can an institution expect from investing in an app?

Because they are downloaded as a single file in a relatively protected format, apps can be sold easily and are less liable to be copied than, say, a series of podcast files. But whether apps can provide a profit, or even cover their development costs, is still up for grabs. While it is possible to charge users, given the typically low prices for most apps in the Apple Store, it is self-evident that only the most widely-used apps will be able to generate significant revenue, and the decision to charge may negatively affect download numbers. Another model was put forward by speakers at the 2010 Tate Handheld Conference; ‘freemium’ apps could offer a basic level of information and services for free, supplemented with optional paid content.

The intangible benefits are even harder to quantify. With StreetMuseum, we’ve already seen that timely or unusual apps can generate publicity. Apps may also bring collections to a broader, international audience. Such was part of the motivation behind the National Gallery London’s Love Art app, which combines searchable, high-resolution image galleries with interpretation of 250 of the gallery’s best-loved paintings.

Apps are also an effective way to deliver enhanced learning. The Quilts App was produced by the author for Antenna International, to provide the audio-visual interpretation at the V&A’s 2010 exhibition: Quilts: 1700-2010. Developed for the iPhone, it used the built-in zoom function to reveal privileged, highly detailed, stitch-by-stitch views of the objects, many of which were difficult to see, as they had to be displayed behind glass and under low lighting for conservation reasons. At the time of release, Quilts was also the only app to be simultaneously provided in-gallery as well as online. This was not only economically efficient, but ensured that all user experiences – whether in-gallery or beyond – were identical. There’s more on the interpretational goals and production process here.

For institutions considering whether to develop an app, the following recommendations might be useful:

Content is king
This old media adage has never been more relevant. It is crucial to give the audience something of value that they actually want. This may seem self-evident, but it is worth considering that as the number of apps on the market continues to skyrocket, gimmicks alone will not be enough to ensure popularity.

Keep them coming back for more
The most successful apps are those that can be re-used time and again, either because of their depth of content, which encourages multiple use, or through their provision of an updated, continually evolving, information stream or service. If depth of content is not relevant, perhaps there are existing services for digital users that could also be delivered through an app?

Market your app
Never has the old saying “build it and they will come” been more untrue. Simply releasing an app into the Apple Store and posting it on a website is not enough to guarantee audience, apart from in the most exceptional circumstances. Institutions should figure marketing strategy and costs into the development process.

Be platform agnostic
While the iPhone, together with its dedicated shop-front the Apple Store, might appear to offer the best aesthetic experience, devices running the Apple operating system only account for 23% of the global smartphone market. The market leader, Android, has over double that share, with 56%. And it’s a fickle market too. Symbian, which powers a range of Nokia and Sony Ericsson devices was the market leader in 2010. They’ve since seen their share fall to less than 9%. I think it’s fair to say that the availability of rich content has an impact on consumer choice. So while it’s often whispered in museum circles that most visitors prefer the iPhone, it’s vital not to alienate potential audience by neglecting other platforms.

Be supplier agnostic
The speed with which digital technology is evolving means that traditional providers of handheld interpretation may no longer be able to provide the technical skills, solutions or price points that an app demands. In order to ensure that they benefit from the most creative, flexible and competitive bids, organisations should create open-ended briefs that leave plenty of scope for innovation. There are also significant developments being made in the field of open-source tour generation software, such as the Indianapolis Museum of Art’s TAP project. This may enable in-house staff to author an app, saving on capital costs and putting the institution back in control of the creative process. It will also ensure maximum flexibility for future revisions to content.

Consider all funding options
In addition to paid or ‘freemium’ models, it is also worth considering corporate sponsorship. The increased branding opportunities afforded by apps, in comparison with other forms of digital content, such as podcasts, lend themselves to sponsorship particularly well. It’s also worth noting that most successful apps have benefited from the involvement of marketing staff at all stages of the process.

Ultimately, the decision to develop an app must result from a clear-sighted view of the target audience, the potential of the story to be told, the suitability of the chosen platform and, of course, the budget. But even app developers agree that there are other ways to achieve your aims than by app alone. The mobile web has plenty more to offer.

In the next, final post I’ll take a look at what happens when institutions decide “not to app”, reviewing podcasts, QR, APIs and more.

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  1. Digital Culture: Introduction (1/4) | Nightjar
  2. Digital Culture: “…Or not to app” (4/4) | Nightjar

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