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Appy Talking

July 19, 2012

A few weeks ago I gave a talk at the Heritage Impact 2012 conference at Brighton University alongside Peter Pavement of Surface Impression.We were originally going to talk about the Brighton Museums smartphone app, but we made an eleventh hour decision to broaden our talk to include the mobile content in the new World Stories gallery at Brighton Museum, also developed by Surface Impression. You can find the slides here.

Our decision to broaden the focus of the talk was partly due to the fact that the conference was held on the eve of the gallery opening. But it was also in response to a recent feature in Museum Practice about mobile use, including a case study on the Brighton Museums app (with my tatty HTC on modelling duties). One section (unfortunately requiring Museums Association membership to access) debated whether smartphone apps were a better use of technology than mobile optimised web content. Our presentation was a small way of suggesting that both approaches can be validly used by a single organisation working with a single developer.

Since then, I’ve noticed growing scepticism about apps from museum technologists. There was a strong whiff of this at the Engaging Digital Audiences in Museums conference in Manchester last week, and although I did not attend Mobile Culture 2 earlier this week, a certain distaste for apps seemed to hang over many of the tweets using the hashtag. Apps seem to be in danger of becoming the new QR codes: dead end technology for the unenlightened.

I may be exaggerating slightly, but some discussions around technology remind me less of Gartner’s Hype Cycle, and more of a see-saw that flaps furiously until the technology under consideration is thrown off. For instance, I’ve joked in the past that QR codes are the Japanese knotweed of the information age, but I do believe they can be used effectively. Their deployment simply needs to be given more consideration, explained and contextualised, rather than simply slapped onto a poster with the expectation that magic will happen. Earlier this year, Mashable published an hilarious piece on QR code misuse, but we should not assume this is the whole of the story.

Even so, there is one striking difference between apps and QR codes. There is still very little evidence that many people use or even like the idea of QR codes. Yet apps are clearly popular. That’s observable at the macro level, in the conspicuous success of the App Store and Google Play, but the evidence can also be found at the micro level, in individual case studies. They can be hard to directly monetise, but if ways can be found around that, then the take up is good. We need to conduct more evaluation on the Brighton Museums app, which will follow the launch of the next update, but the early evidence indicates a high conversion rate of downloads to site visits and it seems to be doing a good job of promoting our sites on the fringes of Brighton.

What a lot of technologists miss, I suspect, is that the bounded form of apps seems to appeal. It’s an element of definition that is prior to the technology, and therefore easy to overlook, but it can often be found in language. Earlier today, a colleague of mine told me about his new iPad, and remarked that he liked apps because it was nice to have ‘things’. I doubt his instinctive response is unique, and this should hardly surprise us. We all know that the package often makes the product, and part of that process takes place prior to the branding and the look of a product; sometimes it’s simply down to the shape of things. That’s something I often see with my children. Lately, they have a fondness for Yeo Valley yogurts that come in the form of Yeotubes, plastic tubes of yogurt. The yogurt seems to be exactly the same stuff one may otherwise find in a pot, and the supposed convenience of them is largely lost on us all – especially when the tube spurts all over the kids’ chins. My children also seem fairly uninterested in the branding. It simply seems to be the shape and format of the product that appeals. I’ve spotted a similar effect with cheese strings too. People are attracted to things by their form and shape, and if you think that’s something we grow out of as adults, then just think back to when you first saw an iPad…

While I don’t believe apps are a sensible choice of technology for all purposes, I do believe they will be a big part of the museum digital landscape. Developing sustainable business models and creative uses of apps is a challenge. But the basic ‘appyness’ of the app — that fundamental appeal that’s clumsy to articulate but too potent to ignore — provides a foundation to build on.

And if that’s not enough to persuade you, then bear in mind that releasing an app can still generate a surprising amount of press attention. When we launched the Brighton Museums app last October, there was TV interest, and The Argus ran this flattering, if slightly baffling, story about the app. The coverage would have been more fitting if I’d developed a time travel device, but the press was helpful. I certainly don’t think we would have got the same level of interest with a mobile optimised website…

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