Development Recommendations

Based on our survey of current mobile usage in museums and the available information about programs that are in development, we are making several recommendations that we believe will make mobile development more efficient and will advance the state of the field. Some of these recommendations are relatively simple and will help to insure that museums reach the greatest audience possible to extend the reach of a museum’s current efforts. Our other aim is to push museums to think in new ways about the kinds of interactions they want to have with visitors that mobiles may help to facilitate.

Nancy Proctor reminds us constantly, “it’s not about the technology,” so focusing on the types of experiences you can give to or foster with visitors with mobile technology is a key point to remember. Mobile hardware is not designed to last longer than a few years. Understanding this reality, we agree with Koven Smith and advocate moving quickly to test and implement new mobile work. Not all development must follow traditional development and implementation calendars, which can be as long as two years per project. The rapidly changing environment of mobile hardware and user interface expectations demands that we try to implement new mobile work quickly, using flexible web development and publishing platforms. This might mean building discreet web applications that can run on multiple platforms. Or, it might mean making better use of existing social networking platforms or applications. Either way, museums need to push into the stream of innovation to reach users in new ways. [ ((1. Koven J. Smith, “The Future of Mobile Interpretation,” in Museums and the Web 2009: Proceedings (Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics, 2009), http://www.archimuse.com
/mw2009/papers/smith/smith.html
. Doug Aamoth, “MIT students build mobile applications in 13 weeks,” blog, CrunchGear, December 12, 2008, http://www.crunchgear.com/2008/12/12/mit-students-build-mobile-applications-in-13-weeks/. You can find Nancy Proctor discussing her main point in many of her presentations and in various blog posts collectively found at MuseumMobile: http://museummobile.info/.))] Given these concerns, we move forward with our development recommendations on two fronts: Infrastructure and Technology, and Content and Implementation.

A. Infrastructure and Technology

§ Cross-Platform Development

Current development is myopically focused on the iPhone application platform. While Apple holds a major share of the smartphone market, the iPhone is far from being the only device carried by museum visitors and members of the interested public. The Android phone and the Palm Pre have joined the Blackberry in sharing a percentage of the smartphone market. Unlike the dominance of the iPod in the music player market, the iPhone will continue to face innovation and competition from other device makers.[ ((2. Alana Semuels, “Smartphones now have one-third of market share globally, report says,” Los Angeles Times Technology blog (March 24, 2009) http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/technology/2009/03/android-smartph.html.))] Thus, we advocate for solutions that allow for cross-platform delivery of content through either mobile browsers or development of specific smartphone applications.

One solution to the ever-changing landscape of mobile devices is to circumvent the question of platform by designing for mobile web browsers rather than operating systems. A museum with an existing website can create a special mobile Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) that makes that museum’s website easily accessible by a variety of devices. Respected web designer, Cameron Moll argues in his book Mobile Web Design, that the use of a mobile style sheet with an existing site and the notion of narrowly conceived mobile-only design approach will dominate mobile content delivery “for the next couple years as new devices and browsers enter the market offering great content zooming experiences but also leveraging mobile-exclusive technology such as location awareness and camera/video capabilities.” In addition to Moll’s text, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and web design blogs, including A List Apart have published best practices when designing for mobiles to ensure for broadest accessibility. The advantage to this approach is that it does not require users to download anything ahead of time, such as applications, podcasts, or barcode readers.

Museums can use this technique to make their existing web content available to users on the move, but they may also want to create a site specifically-designed for mobile devices that contains few graphics and simple navigation. Both of these solutions allow museums to deliver mobile content by building on a dynamic web publishing platform or content management system. Using CSS and XHTML to draw content out of standards-based databases provides museums with a level of flexibility that is key to our other recommendations. [ ((3. Cameron Moll, Mobile Web Design (Cameron Moll: 2008) 42, available at http://mobilewebbook.com/; Best Practices Working Group, W3C, “Mobile Web Best Practices 1.0,” July 29, 2008, http://www.w3.org/TR/mobile-bp/; two examples of such articles from A List Apart are: Elika Etemad and Jorunn Newth, “A List Apart: Articles: Pocket-Sized Design: Taking Your Website to the Small Screen,” A, August 31, 2004, http://www.alistapart.com/articles/pocket/; Dominique Hazael-Massieux, “A List Apart: Articles: Return of the Mobile Style Sheet,” blog, A List Apart, January 6, 2009, http://www.alistapart.com/articles/returnofthemobilestylesheet.))]

Certainly, mobile browsers have limitations. Users are frequently unable to experience multimedia content because mobile browsers do not allow for the Flash or Quicktime plug-ins necessary to access those files within the confines of the browser. Thus, if institutions want to offer multimedia content or opportunities that reach beyond a mobile web browser’s capabilities, there are frameworks that allow designers to build an application to work across platforms. A few services, such as Zirada, Hot Lava, and MobiOde, create cross-platform content including quizzes and surveys. Even some programs allow you to develop iPhone and Android-specific application based on MySql databases that you build without needing programming experience, such as Widget Press’s Model Baker. While these programs provide an easy entry into the mobile application design world, those do not appear to deal well with art museum content, particularly images, audio, or video. Phone Gap, on the other hand, is an open-source tool for building mobile applications that uses JavaScript language that can more easily deal with dynamic content. [ ((4. “PhoneGap | Cross platform mobile framework,” http://phonegap.com/; “GotZapp,” http://gotzapp.com/; “Hot Lava Software Mobile Learning,” http://www.hotlavasoftware.com/index.php; “iWriter – Create study tools for iPod in minutes,” http://talkingpanda.com/iwriter/; “MobiOde | Mobile surveys,” http://www.mobiode.com/; “Widget Press - ModelBaker,” http://www.widgetpress.com/modelbaker.))]

§ Reuse or Aggregation of Content

Many museum professionals working on mobile project development seem to be developing unique content materials for mobile delivery only. This leaves engaging content-rich materials isolated in one platform that is sometimes tied to a particular handheld device. Given the scarcity of resources and staff in today’s museums, we recommend that content be developed so that it can be repurposed and accessed for the maximum number of venues.There are a variety of stable open source content management and web publishing systems (Omeka, Joomla, Drupal, etc.) that can reduce a museum’s software investment while at the same time increasing their flexibility. These database driven systems provide content through an number of outputs, including full collection listings, narrative exhibits, and a variety of feeds. Thus, museum IT staff can create a central repository of digital content that curators, museum educators and other staff members can select, combine, and recombine in a multiple ways. In the long run, this approach to content delivery extends the reach of an institution’s digital resources.

Content from the main museum website can then be made available to a mobile application through feeds (RSS, JSON, XML) or through an API such as the one released by the Brooklyn Museum. These streams of information can take content to where the users are in a dynamic way that responds to their interests and needs. Thus, regardless whether an institution has chosen to provide access through the browser or by way of a particular application, we recommend that mobile content be drawn from a content management system that allows museum to more easily repurpose, update, and serve visitors a variety of information.

B. Content and Implementation

§ Beyond the Gallery

Overall, we have found that a majority of museum mobile projects concentrate on in-gallery experiences. There is significant and innovative work going on in this area such as the Brooklyn Museum of Art’s new customizable gallery tours for smart phones. But, this focus leads to work on projects that resemble audio tours with additional multimedia, with some notable exceptions. And, many projects require users to prepare for their visit by downloading content prior to arriving at the museum. We believe that this narrow perspective fails to fully exploit the possibility for mobile technology to facilitate user experience and interaction with collections beyond the walls of the museum.

We do not want to discourage the efforts of museum curators and technologists who are working on in gallery applications, but rather we encourage staff to think beyond the gallery experience to realize the full potential of mobile projects to reach audiences outside the gallery as well. We have seen the successful results of the Flickr Commons project to push users interested in photograpy from the Flickr site back to the institutional home of the contributed content. Capitalizing on an increasingly high number of mobiles offering GPS, wifi, or 3G service, museums can use geolocation data to connect their collections with other institutions or mobile sites. Providing users with access to collections as they move around the landscape has the potential to draw them into the brick and mortar museum and to capture the attention of users who might not think of themselves as typical art museum patrons. On this principle, we suggest that museums consider thinking about the the world outside of the traditional museum gallery as a staging ground for introducing mobile users to museum content. Mobile applications and browsing can provide tourists, new visitors, and dedicated patrons with new ways to experience museum content by capitalizing on place, artist, theme, and time as organizing principles for content delivery.

With this recommendation in mind, we have developed a sample project called Art in the City, that suggests some of potential ways for museums to move beyond their gallery walls with mobile computing.

§ Meaningful Engagement

Museums desire to engage visitors in meaningful ways and continue to struggle how best to achieve those goals. Until recently, mobile developers within museums primarily conceived of the mobile device as a one-way path for content delivery. Concentrating only on content delivery forecloses the tremendous possibilities to capitalize on user interaction and user-generated content. We encourage museums to invest in ways for their visitors to communicate about the materials in their collections. There are a variety of methods for doing this. For example, users could be invited to leave a comment about a particular item, or use a simple rate and review system that can facilitate visitors helping each other to view art based on similar likes or dislikes. For museums seeking to connect strangers within the museum’s walls, mobiles can facilitate this type of interaction. Sharing bookmarks or links to particular object through a text messages or email, or via personal social networks allows visitors to personalize content and use it in ways that they find useful to them once they leave the museum. Tracking this visitor traffic and comments will feed into the museum’s understanding of how visitors experience their content. Additionally, museums can set up local phone numbers using internet phone services, such as Skype, and ask visitors to call in and share their opinions or experiences related to an exhibition or their gallery experiences. If a museum wishes to establish a digital archive of user-contributed content to commemorate a particular event, creating a mobile-friendly site that receives textual, visual, and audio materials will greatly increase the chances for the archive to grow and thrive.

By experimenting with mobile projects, we believe that museums can not only establish better relationships with their visitors that foster a sense of stewardship for the brick and mortar museum, but also help both the museum’s staff and visitors build meaning around art and objects that matter to their community.