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Museums and the Web

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If mobile is the answer, what was the question?

Hugh Wallace, National Museums Scotland; Loic Tallon, Pocket-Proof; and Dafydd James, Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales, United Kingdom


Despite an ever-increasing urgency within institutions to deliver a mobile project, in the experience of National Museums Scotland and National Museum Wales, significant challenges exist in securing cross-departmental teams for these projects, managing internal expectations, and ensuring that the project is aligned with the institution’s core mission. To overcome these challenges, these two institutions each adopted an approach based on design briefs, cross-departmental collaboration, internal creative workshops, and downplaying the emphasis on technology. The following paper explores the resulting challenges, decisions and outcomes with a view to identifying a framework for planning digital projects more generally.

Keywords: digital strategy, mobile, design processes, organizational systems.

In the closing session of the 2011 Museums & the Web conference, conference co-chair Jennifer Trant declared that, whilst the 2010 conference was the year of social media projects, the 2011 conference was the year of mobile projects. This view of mobile as the preeminent platform to engage visitors in 2011 was one that was shared by many in museums, and not just those working in digital media departments.

Inspired by the increased role of mobile within their everyday lives, museum colleagues from all departments had views on how mobile could be used to enhance the visitor experience at their institution. With the increasing prevalence of smartphones and the variety of new functions and interfaces they offer, mobile technologies were the answer. “We should replace our audio guide with a multimedia guide where visitors no longer have to follow a set trail through the galleries.” “If it was available on visitor’s own mobile phones, more people would use it.” “Young people love apps.” “Augmented Reality is the future.” “If we used QR codes, visitors wouldn’t have to type numbers into their key-pad.” “XYZ have got an app.: why don’t we?”  And so on. It was very much within this context that, led by their respective new media departments, Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales (NMW) and National Museums Scotland (NMS) planned their mobile initiatives.

NMW and NMS share many similarities. They are amongst the foremost cultural institutions in their respective countries, they both operate out of their respective capital cities (Cardiff and Edinburgh) and they are multi-site institutions combining specialist rural and urban-based museums. Overall attendance across their sites is between 1.5 and 2 million visitors annually and both are working on significant projects for the largest of their museums – St Fagans: National History Museum at NMW, and the National Museum of Scotland at NMS – which has been prompting a wider consideration of the visitor experience.

Influenced by regular exchanges between the authors, the approach the two institutions decided to adopt for their mobile projects was also similar. Rather than being motivated by the desire to stay on-trend/ahead of the curve or a perception that developing for mobile was inherently ‘innovative,’ both authors wanted to develop their projects within an agreed methodology and framework, and consider audience need before adopting a specific technology solution. Whilst, neither had a specific mobile strategy at this stage, they both felt that there were clear opportunities at their respective institutions for the use of mobile devices to enhance the visitor experience. Two clear objectives emerged for their projects:

  1. Ensure that any mobile project delivered by their institution was a useful element of the museum’s overall visitor offering (not just a product of the hype surrounding mobile);
  2. To develop capacity and focus internal expectations across their organisations on the ‘real’ values of mobile as a platform for visitor engagement via strategic and practical exercises. The broader ambition was to generate better understanding and support for the resulting mobile experience than had previously been afforded to more traditional audio guides.

The following paper seeks to explain how these objectives were taken on board in the NMW and NMS mobile projects, and highlight process to date. The aim is to demonstrate an evolving approach and put forward a design framework for mobile projects, and perhaps digital projects more generally, with a focus on avoiding drawing technology conclusions too soon.

National Museum Wales

Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales is a family of seven museums and a collections centre. Its largest, St Fagans: National History Museum is an open air museum and Wales's most popular heritage attraction. The museum stands in the grounds of St Fagans Castle and gardens, with over forty original buildings from different historical periods re-erected on site. The Museum also consists of galleries that contain collections based around the social, cultural and domestic history of Wales. An ambitious project to transform the visitor experience at St Fagans is underway, with one of its main aims to place user needs at the core of the Museum’s work. Funding is being sought to deliver the project.

The New Media Department at NMW has experimented with different platforms and software for the development of mobile at the Museum. Because St Fagans is an outdoor site, GPS-based PDA software has been produced externally for testing at St Fagans with mixed results. At National Museum Cardiff audio guides were produced, which are now available for download to visitors’ personal mobile devices. The in-house team also began development of an iOS application to weigh up the technical advantages of native apps vs. mobile web.

There is growing need to produce mobile experiences for our audiences. From the Museum’s web analytics we can see that there has been a significant jump in traffic from people using their mobile phones recently. Using the St Fagans homepage as an example to illustrate the increase in mobile web access, the proportion of visits has gone from .64% (2009-10) to 3.4% (2010-11). We anticipate an increase beyond 10% for 2011-12 in line with comparisons with other museum websites and stats from similar sectors (see: ) .

Starting point

With the democratization of smartphones due to falling hardware prices, we can expect continued growth in the number of users for the devices. Also, the rise of smartphones, as well as tablets, has introduced a natural human interface to computing that provides easier access to individuals for exploring and creating on the Internet.

The new media strategy written in 2008 at Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales does not consider mobile technologies, and the ‘app’, as a product, did not even exist when the strategy was written. However, the digital strategy for St Fagans, released in 2012, will highlight some ideas piloted at the site that will inform future development for other museums, as well as determine elements in the next iterations of broader corporate plans.

First steps

As part of the process of bidding for funding and creating an activity plan, we wanted to draw up designs to show our intent in using new technology, targeting new audiences and consulting internally and externally. Therefore concepts needed to be flexible to change in such a fast-moving field, as implementation was not going to be imminent.

To ensure a balanced approach, a facilitator was employed to run workshops that consisted of a cross-departmental team that were familiar with the ethos of the planned redevelopment. Due to people’s prejudices with choosing consumer technology and their familiarity with certain devices, the approach focused on the experiential and on learning objectives.


Mobile workshops were arranged to inform the planning and integration of mobile interpretation experiences for St Fagans. Two half-day sessions were attended by ten Museum staff from curatorial, exhibitions and learning departments, as well as two members of the Museum’s Youth Visitor Group.

It was stated that the exercise was not a technical one. Concerns were raised about the required technical literacy of individuals, but attendees were assured that the exercise focused on audiences and objectives rather than method of delivery.

Figure 1: Workshop attendees using non-technical approaches to designing mobile experiences

The Draft Learning & Interpretation Brief for the project provided some basis for the exercise. A few main points were highlighted to the group for consideration, including:

  • The target audiences for the project: Non-visitors, families, young people and UK based tourists;
  • Learning through enjoyment as a principle;
  • The need for Passive, Active and Responsive layers of interpretation.

The framework applied gave attendees, as well as representatives from the New Media Department, an opportunity to construct scenarios through defining sub-categories of audiences and objectives for them. Out of three design briefs devised, one concept was identified as fulfilling the needs of the project through a simple and engaging use of collections on site. Further work on the concept formed the following recommendations:

  • The mobile experience should require limited new content production;
  • The experience should integrate with existing social media initiatives, and enable visitors to use social media as a means of sharing their experiences;
  • The experience should be available on visitor’s own hardware;
  • There is an authenticity to the historical content presented in the experience.

This approach has also been applied to creating wireframes for mobile web pages for St Fagans, scheduled for development in spring 2012.

Immediate takeaways

The final concept, titled “If I lived in St Fagans” is very well adapted to mobile phones, as the app would use a camera to capture and share images of people with the collections across the social networks of the user and the Museum. A mobile experience suits the Museum’s expansive site and maintains the integrity of the historic buildings through negating the need for fixed interactivity. However, as it is still only a concept, it will require user testing pre-production as well as investment in the Museum’s site wide IT infrastructure.

The concept met the overall project aims for St Fagans through putting people at the heart of the experience: it creates a social interaction within a group and between networks online; it provides a context through using historical figures and connecting them with collections and buildings; it promotes digital literacy through providing the functionality all in one platform.

Larger/on-going takeaways

What we learned throughout concept development:

  • The approach must be non-technical: Preconceived and prejudiced ideas of platform, device and design will affect the process, as will concerns from some group members that they are not digitally savvy enough.
  • Know your audience and what you want them to do and learn: A clear idea of whom you are targeting can inform the type of experience, as well as give them a reason to interact. This will also relate to the organizational aims.
  • Cross-departmental working is not only important for expertise but for buy-in: Getting a diverse range of staff from the organization and beyond not only advocates your project but gets multiple views and ideas.
  • Learn from the process: Inform future approaches by evaluating.

Figure 2: A number of objectives produced by a workshop sub-group.

National Museums Scotland

National Museums Scotland is Scotland’s national museum service and operates five museum sites across the country, as well as a collections centre. The largest site, the National Museum of Scotland, reopened its doors in July 2011 following a three-year refurbishment. As well as 16 new gallery spaces the museum has implemented a host of new interactive resources, educational experiences and online content. In the same time period, the organization took the strategic decision to create and recruit a Digital Media team with overall responsibility for digital strategy and production.

Starting Point

National Museums Scotland’s mobile journey started just over two years ago. One of the key responsibilities the Digital Media team inherited was the upgrade of audio guides in the National Museum of Scotland.

Although a key part of museum interpretation, these had been installed around a decade previously and had never been properly evaluated, and had been somewhat left to languish. The decision had been taken to deliver multimedia guides in their place and although some budget was available for this it didn’t extend to the replacement of the existing hardware; the plan was to push content to visitors’ own smartphones instead of museum-provided devices.

Rather than proceeding directly with implementing an ‘all-singing, all-dancing’ mobile solution, however, the team have put time and resource in to better understand the needs of visitors, compare other museum initiatives, consider the broader mobile marketplace and deliver a variety of pilot projects to try to understand the potential, and limitations, of available tools.

This twin-track approach of combining research with practical work was seen as vital before committing to a particular technology or style of experience. One-size-fits-all rarely works with digital products and in a landscape moving as fast as mobile it has been important to test, learn and adopt evolving best practice as much as possible.

First steps 

Much of 2010 was spent understanding where digital media fitted into the workings of NMS. As well as an overarching digital strategy, visitor research was commissioned to assess the current usage and uptake of audio guides within the National Museum of Scotland and take a view on the sort of mobile experiences people were looking for. This led to a number of pilot projects and initiatives in 2011 that helped trial different technology and inform our process. On the back of the strategy and research activity, a series of workshops involving stakeholders from across the organization were run to consider in more detail how to move forward with mobile.


Through a mix of qualitative research and user surveys, the results of the visitor research have helped inform subsequent thinking. Some of the key findings include:

  • Respondents’ desire to have an experience based on their available time or their own interests far outweighed specific functionality needs such as multimedia, touch screen devices or social media integration.
  • Younger respondents were more likely to favour a multimedia format; however, a majority of older respondents preferred audio-only. Over quarter of all respondents were open to try new interpretation formats.
  • More people were interested in using their mobile devices to access value-added content or additional information than wanted to ‘check in’ on a social network whilst in the museum.
  • On balance, visitors who used the audio guide were enjoying their overall museum experience less than those who didn’t. This was a surprise finding, and very unusual compared against other similar research, but symptomatic of the guide’s lack of ownership internally  

The research proved to be a valuable resource for progressing specific projects and helped to shape the subsequent workshops, the objectives of which were to provide NMS with:

  • An overview and reference guide to the mobile interpretation and interaction design for museums;
  • Guidelines on the critical criteria of successful mobile interpretation projects;
  • A framework for analyzing and evaluating mobile interpretation tools and experiences;
  • Creative consideration of the types of mobile interpretation projects that might be appropriate for the NMS, and their associated objectives, target audiences and functionality.

Facilitated by an external partner, these sessions brought together a number of relevant staff members from across the organization and started off by challenging some of the assumptions around what was meant by mobile. This allowed detailed exploration around different kinds of experiences, learning objectives and practical considerations, before even considering potential technology solutions. The output was a series of findings and a framework to apply when managing mobile projects.

In parallel a number of mobile projects were delivered in 2011:

  • A joint project with ToTEM, an academic project exploring social memory. This involved a number of objects in the contemporary Scottish gallery within the National Museum of Scotland being labeled with QR codes. By scanning these codes using the Tales of Things mobile app, users were directed to contextual information, archival photography and video related to the object in question. Visitors were also encouraged to tell ‘tales’ and record their own memories of the objects in question.
  • Launch of a version the NMS website optimized for smartphones, and prioritizing content for the mobile browser.
  • Launch of The Concorde Experience, an iPhone, iPad and Android app featuring information, photos and audio of Concorde, one of the highlight objects at the National Museum of Flight.
  • A smartphone-based audio tour, with QR codes directing visitors to the NMS mobile website, to accompany the 26 Treasures temporary exhibition.

The plan now in action is to develop a coherent set of mobile interpretation projects in the National Museum of Scotland.

Figure 3: Workshop attendees presenting their approach to the rest of the group.

Immediate takeaways

A number of practical takeaways have emerged as NMS’s work on mobile has progressed.

There has been a huge benefit in bringing in external facilitators, and working with partners, to allow us to learn from tried-and-tested approaches and to capitalize on innovation developed outside the walls of museum. This has helped build the knowledge of internal teams and leaves us better informed overall.

Figure 4: Ideas illustrated using colored paper and clay.

Building in adequate time for testing is critical on mobile projects. Running projects on multiple mobile platforms – whether app or mobile web based – can mean a lot of variations, particularly as the most common platforms (iOS, Android and Blackberry/RIM) handle the web so differently. Strive for perfection but be willing to accept compromises.

Larger/on-going takeaways

As well as the framework explained in the next section, some of the key strategic takeaways to emerge are:

  • Have clear objectives and target audience: moving away from one-size-fits-all to defined goals and target users
  • Provide tangible value to that audience: e.g. in a way that differs, enhances or supports other museum initiatives
  • Build on internal knowledge and expertise: using the people who have been creating museum experiences for years
  • Be flexible: be prepared to experiment with different tools and technology, but keep a focus on creating meaningful experiences

Proposing a framework for mobile projects

In striving to work to their objectives, NMS and NMW have undoubtedly made headway and evolved their own strategic and tactical approaches to mobile projects. However one of the strongest elements in both of their work-to-date has been the exposure to a framework for delivery, which has helped influence project direction and will continue to be shape activity as it emerges.

What follows is an outline of this framework, and a description of how it was put into practice at the workshop events NMS and NMW both took part in. It is the authors’ belief that – despite their respective projects having different outcomes, decision-making processes and stakeholders – such a framework could have wider benefit across the sector, and beyond mobile projects alone.

The common framework emphasizes the following:

1.  Work cross-departmentally from the day 1

From the outset, establish a group to oversee all the required inputs for the successful project delivery.  These inputs included:

  • The content: all audio, video, text, image, augmented reality or interactive content with which the user would engage;
  • Content management: the requirement to maintain the content so that it remains up-to-date with changes to the galleries, and/or the addition of new content;
  • The interaction design: how the user would access the content and how that process would ensure that the resulting content fulfilled user expectations;
  • In-gallery graphics: the design, production and installation of any graphic materials in the galleries that indicate to the visitor the existence of the mobile experience and how to access it;
  • Hardware and software: the selection of appropriate technology for the delivery of the mobile experience;
  • Hardware and software management: the maintenance of the technology infrastructure on which the mobile experience is based, including the implications of a system software update (such as an update from iOS4 to iOS5);
  • Distribution: how visitors access the mobile experience, whether through download from a third-party app store or through the distribution of specific hardware to visitors when they arrive at the museum;
  • Operational: the impact of having to reset, charge and distribute devices to visitors on front-of-house staff if provided at the museum;
  • Marketing: making the target audience aware that the mobile experience exists, what it does and how to access it;
  • Financial: providing the financial resources to procure the mobile experience at the outset, and support its ongoing operation and maintenance.

2. Require project group members to analyse mobile projects from other institutions

It was quickly understood at each institution that whilst project groups had firm ideas as to what a mobile experience at their institution should and should not do, they had limited practical knowledge of what other institutions were doing with mobile. Very often their ideas were based on an audio tour taken once whilst on holiday a few years back, and upon anecdotal observations on audio guide users. An informal capacity-building exercise was included at the beginning of NMW’s and NMS’s project as a means of ensuring that there existed a common knowledge among all staff regarding the range of different features a mobile experience might include, and to help establish an understanding within the teams of team members’ respective preferences. This involved a presentation of case study projects from other institutions, and an informal discussion on likes and dislikes of each example. At numerous times throughout the following discussions, this common knowledge and understanding was invaluable in enabling and informing the decision-making processes.

3.  Take technology out of the discussion

Through a consideration of mobile projects from other institutions internationally, it was impressed upon all project group members from the outset that it is not the technology that ‘makes’ a project successful. The point was made that any mobile project delivered by their institution should not be judged successful because it was a mobile project using the latest, bleeding-edge technology: it would be judged successful because it delivered an experience that engaged and excited visitors. This led to NMW and NMS applying two rules among their project group:

  • The design brief to which the mobile project would respond must make no mention of technology.
  • The description had to focus on the experience and what the user does, and not on the technology used to achieve that.

4. The design brief is the question

The requirement to specifically define what the mobile experience would do and whom it was for was at the core of both approaches. This was achieved via brainstorming exercises involving all project group members, and the resulting design brief was seen as a shared document representing the needs of all stakeholders. Once finalized, the design brief was the primary design document for the mobile experience, and it would be against this criteria that the resulting mobile experience would be evaluated.

5.  Define the users realistically

At both institutions, it was a requirement that the stakeholders define the target users for the mobile experience in a manner that was realistic. During the case study analysis, group members recognized that a mobile experience could not be all things to all people. It was agreed that any mobile project at NMW or NMS would have a greater chance of success if it was developed to meet the needs of a specific group of users, and the teams were encouraged to define this group in a manner that referred not only to their physical and socioeconomic attributes but also by their visit motivation. Following this principle, it is important to measure the usage of the mobile experience as a percentage of the target audience as opposed to a percentage of total visitors.

6.  K.I.S.S.  (Keep it simple, stupid!)

Often, the simplest concepts provide the best experience. An early decision was made that any mobile project the institutions developed should be as simple as possible, and include only those functionalities necessary to deliver the desired visitor experience. This would enable the teams to focus their resources on perfecting the core interactions in the experience, rendering the technical delivery of the project as simple as possible – an important factor considering that neither institution had experience in delivering a mobile application.

7.  Define, and focus on, the strengths of the platform

Portable. Personal. Digital. These are the three descriptors that make a mobile platform unique. Project groups were encouraged to return to these terms throughout the design process to ensure that the experience that they had designed was one that was best suited to a mobile experience, as opposed to a worksheet, an in-gallery kiosk, a catalogue, website etc. In order to be recognized as a mobile experience, any design developed by the institutions had to harness these three characteristics.

8.  Be creative in-house

Whilst there was an expectation that technical development of the mobile experience would be outsourced, NMS and NMW were determined that both the design brief and the initial concept should be developed by the internal project team. Since the teams would not usually work together in this capacity, NMW and NMS brought in an external facilitator to run the workshops in which the design brief and design concept were developed. The result was a range of creative ideas from which the strongest was developed further. And since these ideas were developed in-house, it resulted in ownership and understanding of the project outcomes by the institution, and hence greater internal investment in the successful delivery of the project.

What next?

Besides the formative structure they delivered to their respective mobile projects, these guidelines continue to appeal to the authors because they need not be specific to mobile projects: they are equally applicable to any digital project. If these guidelines were adopted by stakeholders for all digital projects, it might be possible to initiate projects in a manner that is platform agnostic. Therefore, the focus would first define the objectives and target audience (i.e. the question), before then determining which technology platform is best suited to carry the answer.

If this were the case, mobile would only be part of answer, and not part of the question.


The authors would like to thank Jane Finnis of Culture 24 for kindly allowing us to borrow one of her quotes from the Let’s Get Real: How to evaluate online success research project ( for the title of this paper.