Designing mobile experiences for accessibility … and organizational sustainability

Lynda Kelly, Australia

How do you design and develop mobile experiences that are accessible for a wide range of visitors and in a way that is organizationally sustainable?

Museums operate across both their physical sites (exhibitions and programs) and the online world (via websites and social media). Coupled with this is the reality that audiences are constantly shifting and changing. Access to deep information and rich experiences are now available on most people’s mobile devices – on-demand and 24/7. It is well-accepted that use of mobile devices is exploding. Surveys conducted at the Australian Museum since May 2011 have continually demonstrated that Smartphone ownership among visitors is high, yet more recently the types of smartphone ownership is diversifying  (Kelly, in press). It has also been identified that visitors and staff now expect a seamless experience across devices (Johnson, et al 2011).

However, what is less understood is the notion that, due to inherent constraints of mobile devices, designing for mobile forces an institution to re-focus on the type of content that needs to be developed, as well as thinking about how to extend their capabilities for providing rich content in a sustainable way (Wroblewski, 2009). As well developing mobile experiences does not come without costs (Burnette, et al, 2011). During 2011-2012 the Australian Museum developed two mobile apps: DangerOz, using Sencha Touch technology, and the Frogs Field Guide, using native iOS technology. We found that the costs of these were considerable in terms of staff time and contractor fees, resulting in apps that, while generally well-received, were constrained by available platforms and difficulties in maintenance and updates, including assigning responsibility for content management (Kelly, 2011).

Integrating mobile with a museum’s physical offer comes with several challenges including development and production; internal promotion and labeling; and hardware provision (Burnette, et al, 2011). What types of apps are the best ways to deliver mobile content to extend visitors’ experiences? How does an institution keep staff trained and up-to-date in skills and requirements for these systems beyond the online or digital team? How easy are these to update/change in accordance with visitor response and use? How can we make our mobile development organizationally sustainable?

To meet thee challenges, the Australian Museum is developing infrastructure and templates for delivering future non-native apps as well as NFC and QR readers, and aligning these with our physical offer. At the same time we are encouraging exhibition project managers, designers and learning/program staff to “think mobile first” to better integrate the physical and online spheres via mobile-content developed and delivered through systems that can be used by staff across the Museum. Through a series of case studies this paper will outline these processes and, coupled with evaluation findings, will discuss the potential of mobile to transform how Museum staff think about delivering content across physical exhibitions and programs while offering a seamless experience for visitors across platforms.