Mobile technologies and cultural institutions: a design perspective

Davide Spallazzo, Italy

Keywords: mobile technology, design, cultural institutions, user experience

1. Introduction

Cultural institutions, and museums in the forefront, are facing a mass phenomenon, that of large-scale cultural visits, and an audience that is no longer the cultural elite museums were traditionally used to host. Contemporary patrons are indeed different from those of the first museums, connoisseurs who didn’t need anything more than to be exposed to artworks or exhibits to fully understand and appreciate them.

A great variety of cultural institutions are indeed opening their doors to a very diversified and broad audience that enters the museum with different aims: some who want to deepen the knowledge in a specific subject, or to find evidence for a theory; some are just curious, inspired by broad cultural interests, and looking for serious content but with a light touch in order to approach not known topics in an interpreted manner (Serio, 2004); others can be interested in social activities and play an active rather than passive role in their visits (Johnson, Witchey, Smith, Levine, & Haywood, 2010) while a part of the audience is expecting to be engaged in discussing, sharing and, eventually, creating content (Simon, 2010).

Despite the fact that the audience is changing, the contemporary visiting model seems to be unable to follow the change and insufficient to achieve the aims set by ICOM for museums, which advocate education together with enjoyment (ICOM, 2010).

Digital technologies and mobile technologies in particular are ever more frequently pointed as a panacea able to solve any possible problem and achieve novel, engaging and inspiring visiting models. The reality is far different and the employment of these tools in museums is still problematic, largely because of a lack of specific capabilities and knowledge of the real potential of these tools.

Despite the very long tradition of mobile interpretation in museums and the new potential offered by smartphones and tablets (Scolari, Aguado, & Feijóo, 2012), the current paradigm of use is not far from that enabled by audio guides, be it a guided tour or free choice tour, or “soundtracks and soundbites” in the definition of Proctor (Proctor, 2010).

If we compare indeed old photos of visitors using the first mobile interpretation tools, such as the reel-to-reel tape recorders, with contemporary images of people wandering in museums with front-end smartphones the differences are hard to be found. Since the introduction in the 50s’ of the first interpretation devices in museums, technologies progressed at a very fast pace and novel tools were continuously implemented in cultural institutions keeping the tour model as a reference.

Very often museum curators and education directors are neither prepared nor equipped technically and culturally (Settis, 2002) to fully understand and productively implement digital technologies, nor to develop autonomously a digital experience or simply direct its development. Consequently, everything concerning technology is very often outsourced (Tallon & Walker, 2008) to providers who employ very advanced devices to create standardized visiting experiences not far from an audio tour. What follows is frequently a poor user experience and the potential of mobile technologies is not fully realized because they are employed in ways similar to those of the first days of mobile interpretation (Katz, LaBar, & Lynch, 2011).

Museums and cultural institutions must cope with changing visitors’ needs, such as connectivity and portability (Tallon & Walker, 2008) and the possibility to connect with social networks. The evolution in the field is therefore no longer related to the technical development in itself, but rather to portability and ubiquitous web access, and the link that happens in the exhibition space with what happens outside, letting visitors connect with objects, ideas, people, places and institutions (Johnson, Witchey, Smith, Levine, & Haywood, 2010).

Mobile devices must be exploited for what they are: tools that can help to create a better relationship with visitors (Crew, 2007), to enhance the learning experience (Klopfer, 2008), to connect users with other users and to provide new opportunities to engage them in novel ways (Gammon & Burch, 2008). The discussion about mobile interpretation is therefore no longer about technologies themselves (Johnson, Witchey, Smith, Levine, & Haywood, 2010) but about the practices they enable (Salgado, 2009) and how these practices could be integrated in the field, to enhance visitors’ experience (Crew, 2007). The discussion must be therefore shifted from technology itself towards the design of the mobile experience as a whole.

This paper looks at this complex ecology from the point of view of a designer, seen both as a director in creating a meaningful visit experience and as a bridge between curators and museum professionals in general on the one hand, and technologists and developers on the other.

The main aim is indeed to point out the main issues to be taken into account while designing a mobile experience for cultural institutions and a process that can be followed to achieve a final product from scratch. The user, the visitor, is the starting point of the design framework here proposed that regards learning something, engaging (also socially) and enjoying the visit as essential for a cultural visit (ICOM, 2010).

2. Design framework

The literature about mobile interpretation is rich of examples of innovative mobile applications for museums and cultural institutions, documenting successful or unsuccessful projects, but what seems to lack is a structured reflection on the mobile experience as a whole and on how to make it working and useful.

An attempt in this direction has been advanced by Nancy Proctor (Proctor, 2010), who lists six guiding questions developers have to ask themselves in order to design a meaningful mobile tour and to reflect on five basic features of a mobile experience: audience, contents, space, narrative model and technology. Proctor goes to the very core of a mobile interpretation project and suggests the essential questions to be answered in order to design a useful mobile experience but does not suggest a process to be followed.

In other words what seems to lacks is a design framework, a meta-design tool, a sequence of steps to be followed in order to optimize the process of decision-making and able to support designers and developers in creating a mobile interpretation project.

The design framework briefly described in the next sections was proposed in 2012 (Spallazzo, 2012a, 2012b) and incorporates Proctor’s questions, framing them into a wider structure that adds features and organizes them in a sequential process. The mobile project is here dealt with as a common design project that goes through four main steps: brief and analysis (analytic phase), concept/design (creative/synthetic phase), implementation and evaluation plus some iteration through a recursive process of corrections and tests.

2.1. Analytic phase

The first step of the design process is named analytic phase because it relies on analytic thinking and aims at retrieving all the information that could be useful for the development of the project and at taking all the necessary decisions in order to structure the experience.

It encompasses the brief and the research of the common design process because it starts with an aim to be achieved as input and supports developers to detail the brief, namely the requirements and needs, and to retrieve all the necessary data for the research.

This phase asks the design team to reflect on five main issues: constraints, relationship, learning approach, sociality and content.

Reflecting on constraints means taking into account those choices partially due to exogenous factors such as the target audience, where and when the experience should take place, and which technological device and platform will be used. These constraints have a great influence on the final shape of the mobile experience: a tool designed for children will be necessarily different from one addressed to middle-aged art connoisseurs; an outdoor experience has different requirements from one designed for an indoor space and an event that takes place during special openings has a different level of freedom with respect to one designed for the daily museum routine.

Relationships, instead, means reflecting on the criteria to be used to match users with content or, eventually, with other users (namely profile, position in the space, random, etc.). Designers are also asked to decide if these relationships will be based upon homophily (similarity) or, on the contrary, on heterophily (diversity), a quality underestimated in the cultural field but widely diffused in those sectors in which customers’ tastes are easily profiled such as music or reading.

A crucial point in the analytic phase regards the content that will be provided to visitors: information indeed can be presented in several ways, at different levels of deepening and can be edited by experts, created by users (UGCs) or be a mix the last two. The quality of content is essential for the overall quality of the mobile experience and a strict collaboration between museum experts and designers is required in order to achieve this goal.

The last two points of the analytic phase, learning approach and sociality, deserve a more detailed description because they are at the core of a museum experience, usually aimed at learning something while spending quality time with familiars and friends.

Mobile cultural learning

Talking about learning in an informal environment such as that of cultural institutions, and in particular about mobile supported learning, is never easy (Kelly, 2007) and involves several areas of expertise. Furthermore matching the worlds of museum learning with that of mobile learning means finding a common ground between pedagogic paradigms whose categories are not distinct and are variable with few design changes (Frohberg, 2006).

If the presence of an education expert in the design team is always advocated, it’s also essential to educate the designer about learning issues and to make them aware of possible paths to be followed. For this reason the design framework proposes three broad and flexible learning approaches, which try to encompass different learning paradigms and describe an attitude and an aim (learning, be engaged and socialize), more than specific behaviors.

The focused approach includes projects aimed at providing visitors with a quantifiable learning experience. The teacher-learner model is dominant in this category and the institution gives visitors focused and precise information. Common to this approach are the drill and feedback activities (Naismith, Lonsdale, Vavoula, & Sharples, 2004), employed to deliver information, test the results of the learning process and give feedback.

The second approach, called immersive, has a stronger focus on the learner, involved in engaging and totalizing experiences. The institution does not provide precise information but an experience that stimulates the construction of a personal meaning. Common to this approach are the participatory simulations, but also games, role-playing experiences and, in general, projects heavily based on a narrative background can be encompassed in this approach.

The last category, collaborative approach, encompasses projects aimed at stimulating socialization among visitors, providing them with experiences, tools and conditions to foster dialogue and collaboration.

The learning process is a social activity in which every participant shares his or her knowledge or skills toward a common goal, as suggested by the collaborative learning theory. Examples of collaborative approach are group mobile games or multimedia tours specifically addressed to families.


If learning is one of the major aims of cultural visits, we shouldn’t forget that the social aspects of a cultural experience are not simply an additional pleasure but a source of satisfaction at the very heart of the experience (McManus, 1994) and people’s behavior in museums is dependent on the social context of the visit and on the nature of the group (McManus, 1987).

The social configuration of people visiting a museum as well as their level of social engagement are indeed defining traits of the visit experience and must be taken into account while designing a mobile interpretation tool.

A useful suggestion about the model of social appropriation of the exhibit space is advanced by Debenedetti who proposes a dynamic between the two polarities of affiliation and anonymity, creating four different modes of social appropriation of museum space (Debenedetti, 2003). To the two traditional and static models of personal vs. shared visit, Debenedetti adds two dynamic ones, which presuppose a movement from one condition to another. The separated visit, for example, describes the typical condition of accompanied visitors who decide to move from a social to a personal experience and vice versa, using verbal or physical barriers to social interaction when needed. On the contrary the not-alone model describes the pursuit of social interaction by a single visitor who seeks to overcome his or her anonymity.

Such a fluid and changing social configuration implies a challenging design activity, that should take into account also the levels of visitors’ social engagement. A valuable support in this direction is offered by the me-to-we process proposed by Nina Simon, who describes the level of social engagement through five steps (Simon, 2010) that start with the interaction of visitors with content and ends with indirect and direct social relations between visitors, also with unknown ones.

2.2. Mechanics of interaction

The choices taken in the analytic phase regarding the constraints, the relationship, the learning approaches and sociality issues can inform the choice of some mechanics of interaction enabled by mobile technology. They can be considered as a singular unit of interaction between users and cultural content or among users themselves, basic bricks to be used in order to build the mobile experience.

The passive consumption of content, for example, can be considered the basic mechanic of interaction, which presumes a visitor receiving passively information from a mobile device in a traditional audio/multimedia-guide model.

To stimulate more active involvement, questions can be asked in real time by visitors of other visitors, of online curators or of the web, activating wiki and crowdsourcing dynamics. A poll system can instead be used to know visitors’ opinions and to make them aware of the opinions of those who preceded them.

Other dynamics can stimulate a higher level of social engagement such as serendipity, which employs mobile devices to alert users of possible buddies (content/users) nearby or a mechanical “smart mob”, which collects people at the same time and the same place in order to provide them with learning activities.

There’s not a defined list of mechanics of interaction but they can be taken from already existing projects or can be created from scratch and must be intended as a stimulus to focus on interaction and to generate novel visiting models.

2.3. Creative phase

The creative phase must combine the data deriving form the analytic phase as well as the chosen mechanics of interaction into a feasible scenario for the mobile experience. This activity, in contrast with the analytic phase, is based upon creative and synthetic thinking: design thinking (Brown, 2009) is here employed to synthesize a visit scenario coherent with the assumptions, an interesting story, mechanics of interaction (both with content and users), cultural content and the user.

This activity can be defined creative because it’s grounded in a detailed and coherent analysis of the aims, needs, constraints but it creatively interprets them in order to generate a new mobile experience. If the results of the analytic phase could be somehow considered quite independent from who conducts the analysis, the creative phase relies on the personal choices of developers and requires skills and sensibilities that are typical of designers.

In this phase indeed the design team has the duty to give a shape to the experience, firstly defining the rules that will govern it: in particular designers have to decide if the experience will be based on a tour model, be it free or guided, or on a game model, choosing among the existing game genres or creating a new one, or to propose a new model.

A decision should also be taken on how people will be configured socially during the experience, if it will be a social or personal activity and, moreover, in a group all the teammates can do the same things or have different roles.

The access to cultural contents can be provided to visitors without any effort on their side, preferring collaboration between patrons and institution or, on the contrary, visitors can be engaged in a game-like artificial conflict with the institution, which asks for the solution of clues or questions in order to get information. In this second case a conflict can be enacted also between visitors or between groups of them, choosing a game as visiting model.

The creative phase implies also the definition of a “story” that will govern the experience, be it a simple sequence of units of information set in a defined order (soundtrack) or randomly accessible (soundbites) or a structured story referring for example to existing genres.

An expected result of this phase is a feasible scenario, a mock-up of the experience, which describes it in order to get feedback and inform the implementation of the system. Scenario is here intended in the meaning proposed by Carroll (1999), a story which envisions and documents typical and significant user activities. Scenario building is the last activity of the creative phase, whose result, the story/storyboard, feeds the following phases which translate it into a prototype and, through an iterative process of testing and correction, into a working mobile application. As in every design activity, indeed, a recursive phase back and forth between test and correction is needed in order to solve the issues that could emerge and to get feedback from users.

3. Applying the framework

As already stated, the design framework briefly described in the previous sections has been shaped since 2011 and presented in 2012 (Spallazzo, 2012a, 2012b): since then it has been applied several times to support the creation of mobile experiences, both multimedia tours and games, and as a teaching tool in the School of Design of the Politecnico di Milano.

The first project realized with the support of this meta-design tool is the urban mobile tour Looking for Achille Castiglioni (Spallazzo, Ceconello, & Lenz, 2011), developed in collaboration with Studio Museo Achille Castiglioni, an institution which conserves a vast amount of documentation about the famed Italian architect and designer and promotes knowledge of his work.

LfAC (Looking for Achille Castiglioni) is a mobile location-aware display of content, which guides users to discover the works of Castiglioni in downtown Milan, providing them with digitized archival materials and descriptions, in the exact place where the work is or was.

Another project created with the support of the design framework is PoliMiWalks, an app (available on the app stores since the end of 2013) that celebrates the 150 year long history of the Politecnico di Milano. PoliMiWalks tells the story of more than 250 buildings designed and built in Milan by architects that graduated from the Politecnico di Milano since its foundation in 1863. The bilingual app (Italian and English) offers four guided walking tours for the discovery of famous or less known architectures across the city and four ‘free exploration’ (random access) tours that allow the user to wander the city as a modern flâneur and to discover the points of interest serendipitously. Furthermore, the collaboration with the architecture journal Domus has enriched the app with the digitized version of the original articles that reviewed each building just after its completion.

The framework has also been employed to create mobile games: examples are the two games D.Hunt. Caccia al design and D.Learn. Design adventure developed to introduce students in the last years of the high school and freshmen in college to the world of design ( D.Hunt is a mobile treasure hunt which involves players in a chase of the missing Zizì monkey, a renowned toy designed by Bruno Munari in 1953 and winner of the first Compasso d’oro prize. Players are taken across several design related points of interest in the city and asked to answer questions and riddles in order to advance in the game till its final solution. D.Learn is a role-play game that involves four teams (Product designers, Interior designers, Communication designers, Fashion designers) competing to win the Compasso d’oro design prize. Each team of three players, using respectively a smartphone, a card deck and a map, must compete by answering questions and earning points.

The design of the projects described above and of others not listed here together with their evaluation with users has shown that the design framework is actually useful in supporting the development of a mobile cultural experience. It has proven to be indeed helpful in making the development teams aware of the main issues to be considered while designing such experiences and their interrelations, and providing them with an ordered and optimized sequence of steps to be followed.

A particularly valuable aspect is that all the choices made in the analytic and, partially, in the creative phases, are very useful in framing the project, structuring the story and assisting the teams to design a feasible scenario well suited to its aims. Furthermore the framework turned out to be quite flexible in supporting the design of very different mobile experiences, despite suffering a certain stiffness that is naturally connected to highly systematized processes.

At its core, the framework discussed here is a structured attempt to foster chemistry among cultural heritage, mobile technology, cultural learning and social engagement through a design approach, supporting designers in the development of mobile cultural experiences.

4. Insights and conclusions

The projects created following the steps proposed by the framework demonstrated its usefulness and efficacy but there’s always something beyond control, that is the appreciation of the users, the pleasure they derive by taking part in the designed mobile experiences. Every time a new mobile project is ready to be proposed to the audience we can be sure of the accuracy of the cultural content, of the quality of images, videos and sounds, of the smooth interaction but we cannot know if the project will be really enjoyed or not.

A risk always inherent in using a structured framework indeed is that of losing sight of the overall quality of the project, focusing on details and on the efficacy of the designed solutions and forgetting those immaterial but absolutely relevant aspects of an experience such as pleasure, enjoyment, and satisfaction. Of course we take the same chance also if we do not use a framework.

The contemporary answer to the evolution of cultural audiences, mentioned at the beginning of the paper, is trending towards developing tools rich with highly customizable content, always connected to the web, able to provide orientation and somehow linked to social networks. These kind of interpretive tools can surely enhance the cultural experience for really interested visitors but are we really sure that this model is suitable for everyone?

The success of apps such as the Magic Tate Ball or Tate Trumps at theTate Modern ( shows clearly that an interpretive tool can also offer cultural contents with very light interpretation, and that not all visitors are interested in detailed and rich information.

In a few words, the risk is losing the real visitors, or at least part of them, while taking care of all the issues we consider really relevant such as the learning outcomes, the time spent in front of an artwork, providing orientation and so on.

The challenge is to find the right balance between the need of the institution to get its core message to the visitors and that of patrons that need to be really engaged – a challenge not dissimilar from that a designer faces every time he must cope with a new project, for example with the design of a new orange juicer. S/he can indeed create a new robot-like electric juicer able to get the juice of several oranges into a minute or a slim manual juicer such as the well-known Juicy designed by Philippe Starck for Alessi. The first one is obviously much more articulated and efficient but the designer can only decide what kind of functions and features it will have and shape the shell; the second wastes some juice and probably dirties the top of the kitchen but it’s easy, enjoyable, evocative and has a strong idea behind it. They both perform the function for which they are designed but the second one has an added value: that of design.

It’s up to the institutions to decide what kind of juicer they want for their visitors.


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Cite as:
D. Spallazzo, Mobile technologies and cultural institutions: a design perspective. In Museums and the Web 2013, N. Proctor & R. Cherry (eds). Silver Spring, MD: Museums and the Web. Published May 30, 2014. Consulted .

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