Rousing the Mobile Herd: Apps that Encourage Real Space Engagement

Matthew Fisher, USA, Jennifer Moses, USA


This paper seeks to answer the question: How can mobile apps encourage and support meaningful, face-to-face social interaction in museum spaces? Museums are increasingly focused on creating more engaging visitor experiences, in part by encouraging participation in dialogue and social interaction in the exhibit space. At the same time, we are embracing mobile technologies. At first glance, social interaction and mobile engagement might seem to be antithetical. Many popular museum mobile apps divert visitors from interacting with exhibits, objects, and each other, undermining social interaction and dialogue.

In surveying the top-rated museum apps in the iTunes store, as well as popular social apps outside the industry, we identify how apps both limit and nurture real-space social interaction. We identify key characteristics of mobile-supported social exchange, assessing which app features provide the best opportunities for fostering meaningful social interaction, both between visitors and other visitors, and between visitors and the museum. We explore specific social interactions conducive to the museum environment—game play, team work, polls, affinity-mapping, creating and sharing content, conversation prompts—and align them with mobile app features. We both analyze existing social engagement models with the greatest potential for contributing to mobile-museum projects, and identify opportunities to leverage those successful engagement models to create new types of mobile experiences.

Keywords: Social engagement, mobile, apps, real space, dialog, tour, handheld, visitor experience, exhibit design

1. Introduction

As mobile usage becomes ubiquitous, the authors have noticed how common it is to see people totally engrossed in their mobile devices, even in the midst of an ostensibly social situation. At a recent company retreat where smartphone usage was prohibited, one author observed team members rushed to their mobile devices as soon as lunch arrived, filling a timeslot typically reserved for socializing with device usage. The other recounted a recent family picnic where, on her left, her mother fell into deep conversation with her sister, while on her right, her other sister and her husband sat with their heads bowed over their smart phones. The more we worked on this paper, the more we have noted the degradation of social engagement that occurs when we and others engage with our mobile devices in social contexts.

Have you ever felt like the boy in this Microsoft Phone commercial?

Figure 1) Have you ever felt like the boy in this Microsoft Phone commercial?

Some might argue that our definition of what it means to be social is old-fashioned. They will say that mobile devices afford opportunities for real-time and asynchronous social interaction. We recognize the enormous potential of social media to facilitate dialogue between often distant individuals and groups. We are not questioning that in this paper. We are also not suggesting that people cannot oscillate between real space social interaction and mobile device usage, a behavior commonly seen among the digital natives of the younger generation. In fact, it is this exact blending of the real and the virtual that we are interested in exploring in this paper. Yet the fact remains that while we are using our mobile devices, we are, by and large, not being social in real space. For the purpose of this paper, then, we focus primarily on face-to-face human social dynamics in real space, or what we somewhat whimsically refer to a “real social,” and in that way our definition is purposefully narrow. But within that narrow field we consider the concept of social interaction broadly, as any activity undertaken with a group, from observing others to conversing with them.

Can mobile apps enrich social engagement in the museum exhibit space?

Mobile’s disruptive power comes from its unique ability to offer the individual intimate, immediate and ubiquitous access combined with an unprecedented power to connect people with communities and conversations in global, social networks: mobile is both private and public, personal and political. (Proctor, 2011)

With this paper we explore mobile’s potential, encapsulated in this quote from Nancy Proctor, to engage visitors in social learning experiences in the exhibit space. We evaluate museums’ progress in harnessing mobile to achieve the goal of greater social interaction.

Museum mobile usage is on the rise

Mobile usage has risen precipitously in recent years, crossing barriers of age, socioeconomic class, education level, and geographic location to the point where there are few places in society where mobile devices are off-limits. Many museums are responding to this transformation by creating apps for use in their exhibit spaces. These institutions identify a range of goals for their mobile projects. According to the Museums and Mobile Survey 2012, 75% of museums surveyed planning to develop mobile experiences have as a primary goal “to provide additional interpretive information for visitors.” Almost as many (70%) see the new mobile app “as part of the institution’s experimentation with engaging visitors,” and 62% hope to use their app “to provide a more interactive experience.” Museums that wish to develop apps that foster social engagement in their exhibits confront the fact that, generally speaking, most successful mobile apps are geared toward a solitary experience between user and device and tend to discourage social interaction.

Here, we ask: Can mobile apps encourage real social behaviors? Can museums harness this technology to provide visitors with new ways to engage with other people in the exhibit space? We propose that mobile can be used in museums to create a fluid learning environment, combining real and virtual spaces to provide visitors with a shared context, and to reinforce their shared sense of experience. In short, we believe the museum exhibit setting provides unique and largely unexplored opportunities to use mobile apps in a social way.

Mobile = personal (Square peg, round hole?)

For many people, neither their mobile phones nor their apps are meant to be shared; rather, they use their devices to access information, media, and communications. Similarly, many visitors would surely say that their primary expectation of a museum app is that it should provide more information about the exhibit, or that they simply wish to take the usual audio guided tour on their own mobile device.

But is this what visitors really want? Is it the best museums can offer them? Or is it simply the most obvious, immediate use of this new tool? Research has shown that visitors only read a small percentage of the wall panels and label copy in the museum on any given visit. (Knudson, Cable & Beck, 2003) Is giving them more text to read on their mobile device simply giving them more text that they will not read? We argue that this approach neglects opportunities to use mobile in a way that gives visitors more active, playful, and social opportunities to learn. We suggest that if museums continue to focus their app design on creating on ever-more beautiful and informative media tours, and if visitors continue to settle for this type of mobile experience, the logical end will be a visiting public that is less, rather than more, engaged in the real space of the exhibit.

Museums are social learning environments

While any environment beyond the formal classroom can be thought of as an informal learning environment, we consider certain environments to be particularly conducive to informal learning. These include spaces that provide access to material culture and natural phenomena, such as museums, historical sites, and science and natural centers. For the purposes of this paper we will use the term “museum” to encompass organizations in the aforementioned list, all of which share common characteristics. They are physical spaces managed by real people and exhibiting real stuff. As an informal learning environment, the museum lives on a continuum with its peers, including other physical or “real” spaces (libraries, archives, theaters), social gatherings and communities-of-practices (clubs, associations, conferences), and intellectual or “virtual” spaces, such as the web, books, and other online and offline media.

Museums share the fact that they are social spaces with many online and offline environments. And they share their real world access to material culture and nature with many environments on the other hand.

Real Social Spaces

Figure 2) Real Social Spaces

What makes museums special, in our opinion, is that they occupy a unique locale in the intersection between the real and social. In short, museums are uniquely real AND social, or “real social”. This defining characteristic is the museum’s competitive edge.

To those who emphasize that the “real” aspect is far more significant than the “social” aspect, we would argue the following: As we see both web visitation and Internet use continue to rise and physical museum visitation continue to fall, we must ask ourselves, what do physical museums have that the virtual world and all of its resources does not? The answer is not, as lamentable as some might see it, that museums provide direct physical access to compelling objects, art and artifacts – the “stuff.” If this were enough, then visitation would not be falling. While we cannot and should not diminish the great value and virtue of physical objects, as without them museums would be little more than ideas, we must recognize that museums have another key strength as well: museums are social spaces. Unlike the Web, which is largely anti-social* (in real space), unlike the classroom, unlike books and movies, museums afford a robust range of social experiences, closely tied to a range of informal learning experiences. (* Anti-social is not meant to be pejorative. It simply refers to behaviors that are not social. There are many valuable and effective informal learning activities, such as reading a book or browsing the web, that are basically anti-social in nature.)

So when we examine this continuum of social behaviors, we can map various museum-goer activities into a chart spanning anti-social and social horizontally and virtual and real vertically, as in the figure below. We define the term “social” broadly to contain a wide range of behaviors outlined in the next section.

Social Behavior Continuum

Figure 3) Social Behavior Continuum

Those activities in the lower left quadrant, which are both anti-social and virtual, take least advantage of the museum space. Imagine, for example, a tween playing a videogame on a bench. Those activities in the upper right quadrant, that are both social and real, take the greatest advantage of the museum space. Imagine a family on a walk through the nature center, sharing thoughts and reflections as all five senses come alive with the experience. This quadrant, that of the social and real behaviors, is what we like to think of as the “sweet spot” of social learning, what we are calling “real social”.

Social engagement supports more effective museum experiences

Social interaction has been cited by many scholars as a cornerstone of effective informal learning in the museum. Many museums have moved away from a nineteenth-century object-centered environment to one that combines a twentieth-century focus on visitor experience with a new, twenty-first century social model. (Fisher & Adair, 2011) Even at their most conservative, museums have always been social institutions, places where a society collectively keeps its most definitive artifacts and documents.

Among forward-thinking museum professionals, mobile technology presents a host of exciting opportunities to re-order and re-energize the relationship between visitors and institutions. Mobile apps allow museum staff a new level of communication and collaboration with visitors, giving visitors agency and voice. Some organizations are much further along on this path than others, and some are far more enthusiastic about making the change. This trend is characterized, in part, by a new effort to go beyond transmitting information to eliciting meaningful, personal responses and contributions from visitors. Many museums are enabling participation that transforms the contributor as well as other visitors, and ultimately, shapes the museum itself.

Museums are a part of what John Falk and Lynn Dierking have described as “a subset of a larger, ever-evolving continuum of learning and meaning-making across the life span.” (Falk & Dierking, 2000) There is something fundamentally interactive and social about what they describe. In turn, we believe that visitors learn the most and gain the most personal fulfillment when museum experiences allow and inspire visitors to see themselves as part of a social group anchored in time and space through the exhibit. Research over the last two decades shows that visitors to museums are strongly influenced by the interactions and collaborations they have with individuals within their own social group. (Borun et al., 1997; Crowley & Callanan, 1998; Ellenbogen, 2002; Schaubel et al., 1996; Falk & Storksdieck, 2005) Further, many agree that “conversation is a primary mechanism of knowledge construction and distributed meaning-making.” (Lienhardt & Crowley, 1998) But dialogue and debate are not the only interaction—groups observe each other to learn, to understand exhibit interactions and model behavior. (Falk & Storksdieck, 2005)

In researching this paper we found little scholarly work regarding the theory and practice of using mobile devices in museum exhibit spaces and in other public spaces; however, a handful of recent papers helped us think about different interpretations and frameworks for our app research. One common theme that we found most relevant was a recurring argument in favor of creating interactive, constructivist learning experiences. We heartily agree with a few in particular that called for museums to embrace a ‘social engagement’ model of learning in designing their exhibit spaces and technology components, including mobile apps. As early as 2000, Mike Sharples anticipated the “personal (handheld or wearable) computer systems that support learning from any location throughout a lifetime.” Sharples imagined the personal device to be adaptable and intuitive, “unobtrusive, so that the learner can capture situations and retrieve knowledge without tech interfering.” (Sharples, 2000)

We particularly like the way Wayne LaBar of the Liberty Science Center described his vision of a “gyroscopic museum,” which by maintaining open, responsive “relationships with visitors” remains “capable of being a relevant source in spite of movements and changes in content and the surrounding world.” (Katz, LaBar & Lynch, 2011) Tim Zimmerman wrote in January 2011 about the increase in museums providing “opportunities for visitors to record their reactions to exhibits and share them with subsequent visitors.” Zimmerman claims that employing participatory opportunities will resonate best with young visitors for whom “participatory culture… is integral to how they process their experiences.” He notes that providing the means for visitors to express themselves and record those expressions in the exhibit makes the museum space “more welcoming to young people.” (Zimmerman, 2011)

Learning is supported across the range of social interactions

Humans are complex social actors and engage socially in many ways beyond one-on-one conversations. Robert Nisbet, an American sociologist, defined five useful categories of social interaction: cooperation, conflict, social exchange, coercion, and conformity. (Nisbet, 1970) While some of these terms might seem daunting or inappropriate in our context, consider the following representative social learning experiences that they capture:

  • Cooperation – working together to a common goal
  • Conflict – expressing differences to articulate diversity
  • Exchange – discussion and dialogue to understand peers
  • Coercion – convincing arguments to reach consensus
  • Conformity – shared experiences to reinforce social bonds

Learning opportunities are afforded across the entire spectrum of social interactions. To provide the most effective and comprehensive informal learning experiences we must engage museum-goers across this range. If not, it is likely that we as museum interpreters will utilize the more traditional models of formal learning environments that our space affords. The coercion of wall panels and the conformity of silent spectators will typically prevail over a more blended and balanced approach that stimulates the entire range of social interactions. Coercive and conformist methods are a mainstay of museum interpretive practice and are reflected most every aspect of what we do, not least of which in our mobile interpretation.

Conventional mobile app features are not “real social”

If we revisit our continuum of social behaviors to map the typical activities of a mobile app user, we reveal a stark picture of anti-social behaviors in real space. We spend most of our time in the lower, virtual quadrants. In addition, many of them are in the virtual, anti-social quadrant, concentrating a critical mass of activities in what we refer to as the “sour spot” of anti-social AND virtual. This is particularly an issue when we recognize that, to the rest of our social group, when a person is engaging in anti-social, virtual behaviors, that person is simultaneously engaging in anti-social, real behaviors. That is, to the rest of us, that person is detached.

Mobile Social Behavior Continuum

Figure 4) Mobile Social Behavior Continuum

As mobile usage continues to grow among visitors, fewer and fewer opportunities for “real social” engagement will likely follow, unless we as interpretive designers make a conscious and concerted effort to encourage it. Many museums attempt to do so by simply providing opportunities for real space engagement and discouraging the use of technology in their museums. But this strategy will not keep visitors from using their own devices; it will just ensure that when they do they will be less likely to engage in activities that enhance their visit than ones that distract from it. And the use of their mobile devices will largely be anti-social within the real space. We believe that unless museums provide unconventional mobile experiences that actively support and facilitate social behavior in the real space, visitor engagement will continue to trend in the opposite direction. What remains more problematic is that the more engaging and effective our apps are in conventional ways, the more anti-social they will be in the real space. So if we a) want to be social in the museum, and b) want to make apps, we need to c) think radically differently about app design.

2. So how are museums using mobile?

It seems unfair for us to suggest radical shifts in the direction of museum mobile design without carefully considering the current environment of museum mobile app design. To this end, we conducted a non-scientific survey of what is available on the market currently to better understand the social and anti-social activities that these apps afford.

Grounding our investigation in a review of theoretical and practical writings we could find on the topic of using mobile devices in museum exhibits, we used both scholarly tools and free-form internet searching methods to find and download more than 80 of the top museum apps in the iTunes store, identified by looking at the quantity and quality of user reviews and comments. We enumerated their features, assessed and categorized their social and anti-social features, and mapped them in our grid according to their social potential. (A complete listing of the apps we reviewed is available at

So far, museums as an aggregate have not effectively harnessed the full social learning potential of mobile apps, in part because they have not aimed their mobile projects at capitalizing on the museum space as uniquely social. For the most part, museums have adopted relatively anti-social strategies—although there are examples that break the mold that we’ll get to a bit later.

Museum Social Behavior Continuum

Figure 5) Museum Social Behavior Continuum

We found that the vast majority of the museum apps we reviewed supported activities in our “sour spot” of anti-social and virtual. We also found that many supported activities in the social and virtual quadrant, what we like to call the “savory spot”. Although whimsical, this term hints at the recognition that social learning opportunities can and do occur in this quadrant. But if we agree that the most effective and unique opportunities for informal learning in the museum occur in the real space, we must also admit that most activities in the virtual quadrants translate to anti-social behavior in the museum space. No matter how socially engaged someone who is tweeting about their museum experience might be, for that moment in time, they are just another museum-goer looking at their mobile device, distracted from the world around them. That said, we recognize that limited and targeted virtual social engagement in the interpretive space can be an excellent tool in effective informal learning – hence the “savory” moniker.

Some current museum apps ARE “real social”

As alluded to earlier, some museum apps are designed to provide opportunities for social engagement.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art unveiled a new app entitled “Murder at the Met” at a live gala event targeting teenagers. The app’s narrative is set in late nineteenth century high society, in the American wing of the museum.  A famous work of art becomes the victim of a murder. The murderer, weapon and location of the crime are all to be found within the American wing, and players must examine the galleries closely to discern the clues, guided by the mobile app. According to the museum’s curators, the app premiere attracted hundreds of teenagers who worked in teams to solve the mystery. Although the authors have not yet played, this app seems to be quite successful at engaging visitors both deeply and playfully with the American wing of the Met. More importantly for the purposes of this paper, the game inspired lots of social interaction as teams worked together to examine clues and solve the mystery. When the Met polled event attendees on their favorite aspects of the experience, 29% answered “examining works of art;” 28% answered “using clues to problem-solve”; and 27% answered “working in teams.” Only 14% said playing the mobile game was their favorite aspect of the experience. 99% said they would come back to the Met. The curators shared some of the lessons they learned in their presentation at Museums and Mobile in October; two stood out to us as instructive for building apps that create social engagement. First, give users opportunities to showcase their strengths, so provide a range of activities. Second, embrace time limits. We feel this second one relates closely to what Amy Heibel called “fruitful limitations.”

Another app is one we at Night Kitchen Interactive collaborated on with the SFMOMA and Sandbox Studios, designed for families visiting the museum. This “gallery game” is designed to encourage close-looking and to evoke personal responses to the artwork. The model is simple: Players of SFMOMA’s Country Dog Gentlemen app are each in turn given an association exercise. They are prompted with a randomly selected mood, concept or sound, and invited to select the artwork in the room that they believe best associates with their prompt. Other players then view or listen to the same prompt and attempt to guess what the first player chose. By encouraging players in free association and in reflecting on each other’s point of view, this app provides many potential departure points for discussion. It also models close looking and visual literacy exchanges for both parents and children alike. The app constantly encourages visitors to engage in the gallery space and not the mobile device. The app also invites visitors to physically play in the museum space. It gives explicit directives for visitors to “crab walk into the next gallery” and “waddle like a penguin.” By inspiring visitors to engage in creative and playful ways, the app attempts to place then in a more open, receptive state of mind.

Getting social: app features

While it is helpful to review what museum app designers are doing to encourage social interaction, it is worthwhile exploring the range of opportunities afforded by the intersection of social and real in the museum space. We will start by revisiting our list of such activities from our “sweet spot” (discussing the exhibit, playing a game in the space, engaging in facilitated discussions, participating in multi-person interactives, and photographing or observing others), keeping in mind our broad definition of “social” that goes beyond social exchange and includes cooperation, conflict, coercion and conformity. Let us now identify app features that afford opportunities for visitors to engage in these activities in the interpretive space. These activities include sharing text on the screen, listening to audio with others, watching video with others, photographing/recording others, and talking about something on the screen.

Likewise, let us take a moment to identify app features that distract or detract from being social in the interpretive space, and thus could be considered anti-social in real space. These are the features we want to avoid, or at least employ sparingly. In addition to minimizing the obvious features and content, such as tours, media and text, that visitors experience in conventional museum apps, it is important to note that some of the very features that we tend to think of as “social” are not social in “real space”. We are referring to social media, most notably the commenting and posting features. In general, enticing visitors to engage in the exhibit’s real space social media activities while in the museum undermines their ability to engage in real space social and educational activities. We recognize that many visitors will want to use social media and that there are some valuable ways to integrate social sharing and features that do enhance contextual engagement and offer social learning opportunities. We simply recommend moderation.

In our survey, few apps (10%) provided an opportunity for users to comment. Some museums have used commenting to engage visitors in exhibit materials and to elicit personal reflection and feedback. The Hermitage, Pompidou, and many other new museum apps enable the user to comment on exhibit apps in ways that are publicly visible to other users. AMNH Dinosaur app and The Jewish Museum’s Radical Camera app are good examples of this feature. In both cases, the user may comment on an image from the real-space exhibit. Others users may in turn comment on each other’s postings.

As with many other social media forums, our review revealed that comments in museum apps tended to be short and simplistic. The High Museum’s Art Clix and the Cleveland Museum of Art’s Gallery One exhibit allow visitors to comment on artworks, and on other visitors’ comments. Curators had hoped that commenting would spur longer exchanges between visitors. They discovered that one of the biggest obstacles to their goal was that although visitors were sometimes willing to comment on artworks, they did not display an interest in commenting on others’ comments. This is a useful cautionary tale regarding visitor’s comfort levels or interest in engaging with strangers in the exhibit and should guide us toward providing means for visitors to engage with each other in comfortable yet meaningful ways.

In short, visitors are not likely to have sustained and thoughtful online conversations while they are in the museum, nor should we ask them to.

3. App features for real social engagement

Looking at the social behaviors that apps can encourage, we have identified a variety of app features that provide opportunities in this regard:

Location awareness

One app feature that we found in 31% of the museum apps we surveyed was location awareness—the app can determine the location of the user and tailor the experience to that location. The Tate Gallery’s Magic Tate Ball makes an innovative use of this technology and is one of the most popular in the iTunes store. This app senses the user’s GPS location and analyses the ambient sound of their environment to display a suitable Tate artwork.

The American Museum of Natural History’s Explorer app uses indoor location-based technology to locate visitors, and lets them create custom tours and track galleries they have visited. MOMA and London Museum’s Streetmuseum also integrate location awareness. Museums so far have used location-based technology for the purposes of wayfinding and tracking progress through the exhibits, key springboards for effectively supporting visitor engagement in their environment.

Not surprisingly, commercial social apps use location awareness expressly for fostering social interaction. LoKast detects other app users within 600 feet. Users can join virtual “spaces” for specific types of conversation. FriendRadar, Skout, Grindr, Kismet all use location awareness and affinity-mapping based on profile preferences to help users connect in real space. While we recognize that privacy and safety concerns are paramount to museums and their visitors, we believe that museums could take a hint from the social apps and start capitalizing on the social potential of location aware technologies like GPS, Bluetooth, and bumping.

Another related approach to location awareness is the High Museum’s Art Clix, which uses visual recognition software to identify artwork in the camera frame. Unfortunately this technology is labor and cost-prohibitive for most museums at this stage, but it provides a tantalizing window into the future of environmental recognition.


Gaming is a feature that can be either anti-social or social. Most app games are either single player or asynchronous multiplayer, neither of which is designed to be social in real space. But the gaming model is highly effective in facilitating collaboration and competition, behaviors that are otherwise rare in conventional museum-going experience. Apps that act as a host or game master for a group of users provide the greatest social opportunities. We will explore two apps that do this in greater detail below.

One time-honored game construct is the scavenger hunt. Although perhaps limited in its implicit didactic educational value, there are valuable social learning opportunities of a well-designed scavenger hunt, particularly those that compel the players to navigate the museum space and ask compelling questions requiring analysis and discussion among the team. We did not find any museum apps that use an explicit scavenger hunt model, but there are some compelling scavenger hunt social apps available: Scavenger Hunt Classic offers a few twists on the traditional model, allowing users to join existing hunts, create custom hunts, and bump devices to coordinate rules and lists among competing teams. Some museum game apps use elements of the scavenger hunt. The British Museum’s Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead is a game that presents the user with quiz questions whose answers must be found by searching the museums’ Journey through the Afterlife: Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead exhibit.


Crowdsourcing allows visitors or users the chance to contribute their own content to a museum exhibit. This area of interaction has grown in recent years, and we encountered two museum mobile apps that provide users a chance to both have an immediate effect on exhibit content and interact with other contributors. With the Access American Stories app at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, visitors can use their devices to record their own oral interpretations of objects within the NMAH exhibits. This was originally designed to provide greater accessibility for the visually-impaired, but has also resulted in new content, available for any user.

Another exciting new crowdsourcing app also comes from the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, Museum on Main Street exhibit. Stories from Main Street aims to bring new exposure to rural museums, historic and cultural sites by allowing users to upload narrative stories, images, or oral history interviews to the Stories from Main Street website, either online or with the mobile app.

We see crowdsourcing as a promising new area of mobile development. Keep in mind that in order for these participatory activities to most effectively stimulate social engagement on site, participants’ contributions must be accessible within the space in some way, either through an app or within the exhibition.


We looked closely at two social apps that use polling to elicit users’ responses to a variety of statements and questions. Amen lets users compose and vote on polls within a predetermined range of topics by voting “amen” or “hell no” in response to short statements about a variety of topics. Show of Hands similarly asks users to vote on a range of mostly political or ethical statements or questions. Although none of the museum apps we looked at used polling, we believe this feature lends itself to fostering social exchange in the exhibit space. Polls could be designed to spur conversation among visitors and encourage them to think critically about exhibit content. Providing latest poll results, in-app or on exhibit walls, not only motivates visitors to vote, it places visitors within the larger social context of their community.

Personalization and preferences

Several museum apps include features that allow the user to personalize their mobile museum experience in various ways. The Hermitage Museum and several others offer users the ability to tick favorites on the app to customize their own tour of the exhibits, and to share their lists on Twitter and Facebook. Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum’s PHM Walks app lets users choose from a list of tours based on their subject matter, like a “heritage pub crawl”. The American Museum of Natural History’s Explorer allows users to choose guidance for either quick or lengthy tours of the exhibits. While not inherently social, personalization concentrates visitor interactions with personally relevant content, a more comfortable area for visitor conversation and reflection.

Affinity Mapping

Affinity mapping utilizes a user’s preferences or choices to identify affinities to virtually anything, including people, places and objects. It is most often used in online retail and social networks, providing “you might also like”, related products and social matches.

A number of museum websites provide visitors with related objects from their collection based on their browsing choices, tags or controlled vocabularies. Some of these might be optimized for mobile devices, making them mobile-accessible in the gallery. If this is tied to a location or object-aware technology (such as QR codes), museums have a compelling means to provide unexpected connections across their institutions. While also not inherently social, the unexpected often invites further discussion. Presumably there are museums apps out there that do this as well, but we didn’t find any in our search.

We found a few examples of affinity mapping among commercially available social apps. Some of these are listed in the location aware section above, as many social apps integrate both functions to provide the user with a sense of affinity and proximity, key ingredients to finding like minds for face-to-face socializing.

One of the most entertaining we encountered was called Boink, which enables users to find others with similar sexual proclivities by using a suite of interactive app functions. First, the user is polled with a series of questions about their sexual likes, dislikes, and fetishes. Next, the user bumps devices with a fellow Boink user to receive a message saying whether or not the two are compatible to “boink.” The app automatically tracks the number of bumps—or “boinks”—a user manages to share, proudly displaying that number for other users to see.

We know what you’re thinking:  Eww. That’s what we thought, too, but we also recognized that if you take away the seedy aspects of the app, its primary features have wholesome social potential. The comparison of like and dislikes could spur visitors to be more aware of their fellow visitors and how they fit into that transient “community.” And while we recognize that museums will be much more likely to utilize affinity mapping features for personalization and providing new connections, there are certainly some instances in which facilitating social connections based on affinities could be a powerful feature for social learning within the exhibition space.

NOTE: While not deserving of its own section, we think that the physicality of device “bumping” could be selectively harnessed to encourage visitors to interact with other people in the physical museum space, especially children, who have fewer inhibitions and might enjoy its kinetic aspects.

4. A model for “real social” museum apps

A list of features is a useful resource when designing an app that is social in real space. But what is potentially more valuable is an overarching metaphor or model that provides a framework for engagement and acts as a scaffold into which we will integrate our features. Here we agree with Nina Simon (2010) that the best model is a host, rather than a guide. So let’s start with the prevailing guide model that represents the majority of apps in use and will act as our blueprint of what NOT to do.

What an app SHOULD NOT do: Be a guide.

  • Be too engaging: If visitors are saying: “This is super cool! I just want to play with my mobile device!” then something is wrong.
  • Provide too much text: By providing all the copy that didn’t fit on the label, we are not acknowledging that visitors don’t read much of what is already on the walls.
  • Play audio: A narrative story requires headphones and ensures that visitors will be disconnected from their peers and unlikely to engage in dialogue.
  • Play video: Visuals that demand undivided attention also distract from the real world. When audio requires headphones, visitors are doubly removed.
  • Require too much interaction: Lots of buttons and filters and facets ensure visitors are spending too much time interacting with the device, not their environment.
  • Require writing: If visitors are invited to Facebook it, tweet it, email it, and provide meaningful and nuanced comments, we ensure their rapt focus on their device.

What an app SHOULD do: Be a host!

  • Engage you in your environment: Encourage and facilitate engagement with the material culture, objects, architecture and natural phenomena of the interpretive space.
  • Provide prompts for thought and discussion: Offer brief insights or pointed topics that invite reflection and discussion.
  • Engage you with your cohort: Provide opportunities for interacting with your friends/family/visiting group on a variety of levels.
  • Engage you with other visitors (comfortably, safely, optionally): Give you ways to engage with other visitors in meaningful, non-threatening ways.
  • Provide insights into your community: Display information and statistics about the thoughts, perceptions and beliefs of your fellow visitors.
  • Reflect back what’s important to you: Serve up small doses of information and content based on your interests and preferences (but not too much!)
  • Make unexpected connections: Utilize curatorial expertise, rich institutional resources and the wisdom of the crowd to provide new connections and insights.

5. Conclusion

In this paper we argue that museums are unique in the continuum of informal learning environments as public spaces that offer both social engagement and access to material culture and/or natural phenomena. In short, museums encompass a unique intersection of the real and the social in a single place. This distinctive position is a defining advantage for museums and provides compelling opportunities for informal learning.

Our survey of current practice in museum mobile app design, however, reveals that the vast majority of the most successful commercial apps in the iTunes store do not attempt to take advantage of the museum as a uniquely social informal learning environment. On the contrary, by and large these existing apps promote what can be considered anti-social behavior in the museum. There are some exceptions, however, and it is to these that we turn to identify some key opportunities to engage visitors in the “sweet spot”—within the “real social” space. Our recommended model of mobile device as host rather than guide, and our corresponding list of app features for social engagement, are but a few steps toward a more effective mobile strategy within the museum.

In closing, the answer to our principle question, whether or not museums can use mobile apps to enrich social engagement in the exhibit space, is a resounding “yes.” The primary challenge to doing so lies in museums’ current commitment to creating apps that largely fail to promote social engagement. What is more problematic, current practice in museum mobile app design tends in large part to promote anti-social behavior in the museum. So the deeper question to examine is this: What constitutes effective interpretive practice and appropriate social behavior within museum spaces in general? Agreeing on that, we can then realign our mobile strategies accordingly.


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Cite as:
M. Fisher and J. Moses, Rousing the Mobile Herd: Apps that Encourage Real Space Engagement. In Museums and the Web 2013, N. Proctor & R. Cherry (eds). Silver Spring, MD: Museums and the Web. Published January 31, 2013. Consulted .

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