TECH MODULE 4.2: Mobile Apps

A mobile app (application software) is a computer program designed to run on smartphones, tablet computers and other mobile devices.

Mobile apps can take many forms that may depend on the purpose of the app. Generally, one can distinguish 3 main purposes for a mobile app for cultural heritage:

- Ubiquitous information on specific artefacts/spaces: These apps can be an improved audio guide type; or QR codes that link to websites; or more sophisticated city guides that let you know about monuments in your vicinity. There might be the question coming up: What is more useful: a mobile website or a mobile app? A good analysis of both are given at: mobile web vs. mobile app. A mix of both might be useful, see, for example,  MOMA mobile.
- Access to artefacts usually not visible or not easily accessible: The mobile app can provide views on artefacts not easily shown in an exhibition, e.g. moving objects or automatons. Here again, the question is: Is a YouTube video sufficient - or is an app more attractive? The costs factor will surely play a role (apps being more expensive to develop, maintain and adapt to new generations of handheld devices).
- User engagement through playful knowledge transfer: Here, the mobile apps are clear winners. To engage users, an entertaining, maybe even surprising mobile app can convey messages that a website can never achieve.
In addition to these three main purposes, mobile apps can be enhanced by AR - augmented reality features to "recreate" the past (see Tech Module 4.3 on AR - Augmented Reality). AR comes often together with "digital storytelling" on mobile apps: narrations around an object, given by experts or users or interactively linked.
If you want some insider views, follow the excellent discussion on "Are museum apps boring?"

The use of mobile apps for cultural heritage, museums, collections, exhibitions is continuously increasing. Here are some examples for the different mobile app use case scenarios:
Ubiquitous information: Check out the Malta culture guide and its analysis. Many tourist places provide free apps that allow targeted information once you are near to a monument. More and more cities provide free WIFI access so that no roaming costs occur!
Access to artefacts: Watch the YouTube video of the 16th century musical ship automaton of the Kunstkammer (Vienna) or download the mobile app on Tipu's Tiger from the V&A website.
User engagement: The currently most exciting museum mobile app is probably the Magic Tate Ball: in combining dynamic parameters (geolocation, noise, weather, image) with static content (art from the Tate Gallery), this app proposes a painting that fits your current surrounding. And it really works!

"Maybe we need to take ourselves a bit less seriously to create interesting apps" (

  If you want to provide information on your museum, permanent collection or temporary exhibition, you may want to opt for a mobile website instead of a mobile app. What does that mean? It is a website that is accessible from a handheld mobile device, such as a smartphone or a tablet, connected to a mobile network or other wireless network using browser-based Internet services. For this, the website must be adapted to the small screen of a smartphone, and other features such as navigation or speed. Advantages are obvious: it is cheaper to create and easier to update. The user gets the updated content automatically (through the browser or a QR code that links to the website) while an updated mobile app needs additional downloading to be fully operational. On the other hand, if you plan an app that is based on the mobility of the user (e.g. walking through a site or a city), then a mobile app is the better choice. This way, every user can download the application using WIFI, and avoid the often very high roaming costs. Also, navigation runs more smoothly - as a user of mobile devices will expect it. Mobile websites are not optimised for important features such as social sharing, uploading images and real navigation. BUT: Do not forget: a mobile app is only as good as its interoperability with different generations of smartphones available. New ones appearing need up-dates that can come expensive. If such updates are not done, user frustration is the consequence (as the app won't work!).

Step 1: Find out what is the purpose for a mobile app! Just a "nice to have" is not sufficient. Building an application does not start with technology. Whether it is a tool for marketing, education or visitor services: start by thinking of what both you and your visitors need. Museum visitors: to give them a more personalised tour? City tourists: to give them an interesting package on what to visit? General public: to raise awareness of your artefacts?   Step 2: Once the target group identified, decide on the tool: mobile app or mobile website. Tablet, smartphone or rental device on site. Step 3: Once decided on the tool, give the user something interesting and innovative - and make sure that it meets the users' desire and needs! You want them to come back or to re-use the app! Step 4: Once your design is finished, don't forget about the essentials: If you provide on-line ticketing, make sure the app or site connect to it. Users will want to share the amazing experience you've created: don't forget connecting to Instagram, Facebook, Twitter etc. Step 5: Innovative design is great - but do not forget about professional content. Videos, photos, but also 3D audio, 360 degrees images, will strengthen both, your messages and the experience of the user. Step 6: Once your app or site is published, you do want visitors to download it - so sit down with your marketing team and makes sure people know about it! [Thanks to our ambassador Ilse Rombout for improving the recommendations!]

Most examples are taken from the Internet, inspired by some presenatations at EVA 2014 Florence. The eCult Summer Stage in Slovenia showed a hands-on presentation of our Ambassador Ilse Rombout: Mobile storytelling apps.