What you need to know if you decide to create a museum app – developers’ opinion

Sunny morning in Vienna. I take my bicycle and ride into the 5th district of Vienna – famous for Naschmarkt and its eye-catching Jugendstil architecture. Ahead of me – a meeting with the founders of vienom, an Austrian company which specialises in the development of new media tools for museums and cultural institutions. Vienom’s recent projects – KHM Stories and Weltmuseum App – are among the best museum applications in Europe.
One and a half hour I spend discussing the topic of museum applications with Thomas Plank, Sebastian Resl and Marek Krzemien, while – as is customary in Vienna – drinking a lot of coffee. Our meeting revolves around three pressing questions for museums:

What are the most important trends in applications for museums?

Museums are generally lagging behind in terms of technological development. Marek argues that, on average, it takes ten years before a new technology is integrated into the museum world. Today we see that virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) are becoming more popular in the cultural field. However, there are certain challenges using these technologies.
In order to create a memorable experience, a significant budget has to be set aside. 95% of museums worldwide cannot afford the integration of VR and AR.
It is important not to lose the focus on artworks. Using AR/VR, visitors might get fixed on their gadgets and risk not to pay proper attention to the artwork itself. However, a clever combination can make certain elements more accessible. In Weltmuseum App, for instance, it is possible to try on an ancient Mexican headdress – augmenting it on your head.
Another challenge is that technology which does not work properly adds frustration to a museum visit. But, as technology advances, there will be less technical bugs. Thomas, Marek and Sebastian agree that gadgets for AR and VR have significantly improved in the last two years and this trend will likely continue in the near future.
As a starting point, vienom recommends that museum managers shall think about what they have in terms of content and what they want to highlight, without focusing on technological aspects. Museums shall think about their target groups and try to create personalised experiences. In short, a user-centred design is of utmost importance.

What aspects should museums consider before creating an application?

First of all, museums have to think about what they want to highlight in their institution, as a modern art museum cannot be compared to a natural science museum. They have to check what content is already existing (e.g. audio files, images) and what can be used in the app. The secret of creating a great application with guided tours is very simple: museums have to know the medium. The audio and video files must be short and images attractive. There should be an exciting story behind, and a professional actor/speaker who records it. Thus, traditional curatorial texts are mostly not suitable for guides in an application and museums have to write texts from scratch.
The story has to be told in a different way for a tourist, a cultural enthusiast or a child. While creating an application, museums have to reflect on who their target audience is. KHM Stories, for instance, was created for cultural enthusiasts with a goal to sell annual passes. Appealing multimedia tour titles like “Magic” or “Love kills” invite visitors to discover selected artworks in museums’ collections from a different angle.
Ideally, visitors shall not “be lost” in their devices, but should be encouraged to communicate more because of them. As an example, two separate tours for adults and children could be created, with different content and questions – allowing a child to ask its parents and vice versa.
Integration of social media is an important aspect. Adding a simple “like & share” buttons, will enable visitors to share favourite artworks in their social media profiles. 
If a museum has enough content, a certain level of personalisation can be achieved. Based on a list of visitor’s preferences, a museum app could suggest adapted tours – similar to Netflix. However, too personalised experiences entail the risk to leave people in their own bubble – while the goal of a museum is to broaden a visitor’s horizon.
Museums also have to take into consideration technical peculiarities of their building, as it might pose certain challenges. The old and sprawling building of Kunsthistorisches Museum made it difficult to install IBeacons or WLAN repeaters. The vienom team, therefore, used image navigation – a clever and simple solution.

Which are the forward-thinking technologies for a museum app?

The evolution of museum narratives moved from texts, photography, audio guides, multimedia tablets to smartphones. What is next?
For museums, wearable devices could offer many advantages. The vienom team expects Google Glasses (and similar devices) to be the next big thing. Augmenting information about artworks, switching on audio files while approaching a specific artwork or even X-raying an artwork to see its various layers – all these can be very well done with Google Glasses. X-raying, by the way, is an entertaining feature in one of the tours of KHM Stories.
Live navigation is also something that can be imagined. Avoiding or reducing traffic jams in a museum, as far as possible (difficult at the Louvre, where everybody wants to see Mona Lisa) or joining a guided tour which is currently taking place would also contribute to a museum visit.  
From right to left: Thomas Plank, Sebastian Resl and Marek Krzemien
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