Online Musings of a Public Historian

“There’s an app for that!”

How many times have we heard that phrase?

The now-common saying originated as the catchphrase for a 2009 commercial advertising Apple’s iPhone 3G:

Five years and several iPhone generations later, the concept of a mobile application for “just about anything” is more than just a snappy advertising gimmick.  As of October 2013, at least one million applications are available for download in Apple’s App Store while competitor Google Play reached its own million app mark earlier that year. Through mobile applications, smartphone users need only swipe their touchscreens for a plethora of possibilities ranging from social media and gaming to online banking or food delivery.

With public dependence on smartphones and mobile media only growing as we progress further into the 21st century,  museums and other cultural institutions are working to establish an increased presence in the digital realm. Whereas social media pages, official websites, and online access to collections allow such institutions to connect with outside audiences, mobile applications bring the digital inside museum walls.

So what goes into the development of mobile applications for cultural institutions?

Reading through the Smithsonian Institution’s Office of Policy and Analysis’ “Smartphone Services for Smithsonian Visitors” report one element in the app development process stands out more than others — and it’s not the technology. As reinforced in Nancy Proctor’s podcast, “Evaluation-led Mobile Experiences,” the audience — and their experience –matters most.

In developing the Smithsonian Mobile App, its creators relied heavily on audience feedback.  Through on-site interviews, social media surveys, and visitor testing of application prototypes, project members assessed audience needs and adapted the product’s content accordingly. Similarly, Proctor’s podcast emphasizes the importance of audience evaluation in the research process, discussing methodologies for conducting such studies digitally.

The idea of encouraging smartphone use within a museum setting certainly raises several questions.  At the forefront lies the issue of whether or not such applications pose a risk of distracting or eclipsing from the physical resources.

While this notion poses a valid concern, the heavy reliance of app development on audience feedback proves a poignant reminder of the important role audience evaluation plays in the research process.  Regardless of project format — whether the end product is digital or more traditional — the end goal of a positive audience experience remains the same.

After all, you can’t do public history without – you know – the public.

 

Comments on: "Mobile Media and Museums: What’s App With That?" (3)

  1. I’m curious if Nancy Proctor’s talk in class changed your mind about the validity of having mobile apps in exhibit spaces? Do you still think it would be distracting to be engaging with an app while also walking around a physical museum space?

  2. Great post! I like the playful language mixed with the close reading of the material. I also wonder if her presentation impacted your concerns?

  3. Hi Alex. Good point about us needing the public. It’s true, and I think that sometimes we forget that. We want to do these amazing things with social media and our collections but we also expect the public to do exactly what we want with them. We can freak out as much as we want about the public getting distracted with their mobile media in our exhibits (and they will) but that is why we should focus on creating apps and other mobile websites that the public actually wants. The Smithsonian has taken a huge step in asking the public what it is that they want. I think it’s time we started adjusting!

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