Mobile bouleversement

Jessica Suess, Oxford University Museums, UK


In summer 2014, the Oxford University Museums were fortunate to be granted funding to install public Wi-Fi infrastructure across their four museums. This represented a challenge: not only did we have less than six months to install over one hundred new access points in our Grade 1 listed buildings, but in that time we also needed to develop engaging mobile content for our on-site visitors—with no dedicated budget. In this paper, I review the process we have been through to develop that content, starting with our quick and dirty research, to begin to get an idea of what was needed. I talk about our decision to approach the problem collectively, which adds a new layer of complexity as each museum has its own brand identity and type and style of content. I explain how we are adapting existing content to produce a "minimum required offer" for launch day. I explain our decision to create an aggregating framework that links out to discrete content—like our mobile-accessible audio guides—so that our content is not tied down in a format we may wish to change within less than a year as usage provides a greater understanding of visitor needs. I talk about some of the innovative experiments we are currently undertaking to see what else it will be possible to deliver in gallery as we seek to move from a "minimum" to an "ideal" offer. Experiments include using iBeacons to link natural history collections to tell the story of evolution; three-dimensional scanning to create architectural tours; geolocation to drive visitors between the museums and to the other cultural hotspots of the city; and user-collecting facilities to enable audiences to form their own collections.

Keywords: Mobile, Audiences, Content, prototyping

1. Introduction

In summer 2014, Oxford University Museums received significant funding to enable the installation of free public Wi-Fi across their four museums. This represented a challenge: not only did we have less than six months to install over one hundred new access points in our Grade I listed buildings, but we also had this short window to develop engaging mobile content for our on-site visitors.

This paper reviews the process that we undertook to develop that content, what we have learned, and plans for future content development.

2. Oxford University Museums

Oxford University Museums not only hold collections of historic significance, but are themselves important to the history of museology. The Ashmolean Museum opened in 1683 and is Britain’s, and arguably the world’s, first public museum. The Museum of the History of Science is today housed in the old Ashmolean—the world’s oldest-surviving purpose-built museum building. The Museum of Natural History opened in 1860 in a Gothic, steel-and-glass-vaulted roofed building designed by the Pre-Raphaelites and was the setting for the great debate between Thomas Huxley and Bishop Wilberforce following the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species. The Pitt Rivers Museum was established to hold the collections of Victorian collector General Pitt Rivers, and while the museum’s anthropological collections have expanded significantly, they are still displayed as Pitt Rivers initially requested, by type or function rather than culture or region, illustrating the diversity of cultural solutions to the same basic problems that we all face as human beings.

Pitt Rivers Museum

Figure 1: Pitt Rivers Museum

While this rich history gives Oxford’s museums a special atmosphere and character, it presents several challenges. The architecture prohibits mobile network coverage and significantly hinders the efficiency of Wi-Fi Access Points (WAPs); a substantial number are required to enable basic access.

3. Opportunity

In summer 2014, the museums gratefully received a significant grant from Oxford City Council as part of their Superconnected Oxford project that aims to provide free public Wi-Fi in all of the city’s public buildings. Timelines were tight, with the funding being released in mid-August 2014 and a completion deadline of the end of March 2015. The project required installing over one hundred WAPs in the public spaces in our Grade I listed buildings, significant upgrades to our wired network to manage the additional traffic caused by two million annual visitors, and finding a suitable Wi-Fi provider.

Alongside this resource-intensive activity, we were faced with the challenge of developing from scratch mobile-optimised content tailored to the needs of on-site visitors, with at least some content required to be available for the public Wi-Fi launch in April 2015. This gave us approximately six months to the first release; we needed to hit the ground running.

4. Approach

From early summer 2014, when we thought that the public Wi-Fi infrastructure project would come to fruition, we started to think about what we would do about content. We knew we had minimal time to initiate the project, so we started with some quick and dirty desk and visitor research to inform our decisions (section 4.1), decided on an overall approach (4.2), and carved out some resource to deliver the activity (4.3).

4.1 Research

Fortunately in summer 2014, we had a dedicated audience-research intern scheduled to join us for six weeks as part of a university-based summer intern programme. We immediately put our excellent intern to work interviewing visitors to gain insight into the kinds of devices they were likely to bring with them to the museum, how they envisaged themselves using the Wi-Fi while in the museum (whether related to their visit or not), and how they would like to engage with collections-related content on their mobile devices.

While this research process revealed several key insights, we knew this needed to be taken with a grain of salt, as experience shows that users are not good at predicting their own behaviour.

Useful findings from the surveying process included:

  • 95 percent of visitors bring a mobile device with them to the museum, and 85 percent an iOS or Android phone, split about 50/50, reassuring us that we should design for phone screens (rather than tablets) first and that apps would need to be developed for both iOS and Android where possible.
  • 58 percent of respondents suggested that if they were looking for further information about the collections, they would search for the information using a search engine like Google, with less than 10 percent responding that they would go to the museum’s website, and about 30 percent suggesting that they would look for an app to download or scan QR codes or similar markers. This iterated the importance of search engine optimisation, and of ensuring that users are directed to relevant content when they log onto the Wi-Fi, catching them before they move on to a search engine.
  • 60 percent preferred to use their own device over one provided by the museum, and this device preference was significantly higher among young people.
  • 65 percent said that they would prefer information on overall displays and themes, against 35 percent who would be interested in more information about individual objects.
  • While the most popular form of content was audio (50 percent), followed by video and text (40 percent each), only 25 percent of respondents said that they always carried headphones, highlighting a potential issue for delivery.
Figure 2: Visitors in the Museum of Natural History

Figure 2: visitors in the Museum of Natural History

4.2 Approach

At the start of the process we gathered a steering group with a composition that represented each of the museums and relevant departmental expertise that was empowered by the museum directors to make high-level decisions about mobile content on behalf of all the museums.

One of the key decisions that this group took was whether we should move forward building content and its delivery mechanisms as four individual museums, or collectively as Oxford University Museums. The museums are all distinct departments of the University of Oxford, with distinctive brands, management structures, and audience offer, both physical and digital. While the museums have a history of cooperating in terms of infrastructure—and thus have a shared network and will have a shared public Wi-Fi service—there is currently very little cooperation in terms of digital content, with each museum using different collections and digital asset management systems, different website formats and platforms, and different approaches to content generation and delivery. The disparate nature of each museum’s digital content infrastructure has often hindered collaborative working.

Nevertheless, the group decided that we would benefit from a collaborative approach, both ensuring that our limited investment could go as far as possible and enabling us to pool the limited mobile-specific expertise within the individual museums for the benefit of all.

The steering group appointed a smaller project implementation team of six to function as an agile delivery group. I took on the role of project manager in my capacity as the joint museums project officer with responsibility for digital. I was joined by four colleagues to represent the individual museums, all of whom had specialist knowledge of mobile technology or digital communications and interpretation that would be valuable to the project: Anjanesh Babu (Ashmolean), Sarah Casey (Ashmolean), Scott Billings (Museum of the History of Science/Museum of Natural History); and Haas Ezzet (Pitt Rivers Museum).

Following an abbreviated tender process, we decided that we would work with Oxford University IT Services for the technical build. This was not only because we could get developers time at a significantly discounted rate, which would allow us to do more, but we had already worked with the IT Services development team on a number of projects, which has given them a good understanding of the museums and our audiences and aims. To this end, we wanted IT Services fully integrated into the project team and invited Ted Koterwas, senior project developer, to be part of the core project team.

4.3 Resource

We managed to secure £5,000 of funding to support mobile content development, but were very conscious that while these funds were available we were time-poor both in terms of staff time to develop content (none of our staff were back-filled for this project) and the length of time we had to start delivering.

Consequently, the group decided on a three-pronged approach:

  1. Development of a “minimum requirement” for launch date to ensure that when the Wi-Fi goes live, we are able to meet the most basic visitor expectations (section 5).
  2. Enable innovation so that we can begin to move towards more experimental and original approaches (section 6).
  3. Extensive evaluation of both the “minimum requirement” and “experimental approaches,” seeing both as a “phase one” that would provide us with significantly more information about how visitors use their mobile device as part of a museum visit, supporting the development and resourcing of a “phase two” (section 7).

5. Minimum requirement

For our minimum requirement approach, we decided to build a mobile website. We thought that the need to download an app could be a barrier to certain users and would be unnecessary for delivering the content with free Wi-Fi available. In 2012, the museums did develop an app that offered a trail of highlight objects for each of the museums that was deliberately developed as an app so that it could be downloaded prior to the museum visit and used inside, where there was no Wi-Fi or network coverage.

Considering the user research, which suggested that most users would instinctively use a search engine to discover more information about the collection rather than visit the museum’s website, we were conscious of the imperative to direct visitors towards this website upon signing into the Wi-Fi, before they navigated away to other things.

The steering group decided on a list of information and services that are core and should be offered via this website:

  1. “Your Visit,” a catchall to provide practical information about visiting the museums, including opening hours, access information, parking, details about the cafes and shops, etc. Lower ranked within this section could be included relevant but less immediately important information, such as photography and filming policies.
  2. A live feed of the events and activities in the museums on that day, fed from our existing events feed on our main website, with the ability to feature particular activities or exhibitions.
  3. Most of our museums have offered audio guides for a number of years, and they have consistently been well received by visitors as a means of deepening engagement and acquiring further interpretation on the collections. The challenge with audio guides has always been in the provision of devices, both in managing the logistics of loaning and charging and in cost maintenance and replacement. We decided to make some of our audio guides free, placing them on the mobile website, with users navigating to the correct file using the same number system that they used with the bespoke audio-guide device.
  4. A list of highlight objects with further information and their locations in the building.
  5. Floor plans, which required significant development in order to be accessible on a phone-sized screen. The floor plans currently do not locate the user within the museum, though this is a feature that our research suggests visitors would find useful, and we would like to consider for the future.
  6. Links to apps and other available mobile content.
  7. General information about the museum, history, type of collections, etc.
  8. A Web form to leave feedback, sign up to e-news, etc.

We decided to have a single website design with parallel sites for each museum; users will be automatically redirected to the homepage of whatever museum they are in based on which access points their device is linked to, and there is a catchall page for those trying to access the site outside the museums or via mobile network.

For our design, we have taken a mobile- (phone rather than tablet) first approach based on the type of devices we know our visitors bring with them to the museum. Following significant time testing mobile sites built by other museum services, we decided to use an approach with a pared-back, minimalist menu. To ensure that each section of the site reflects the individual identity of the individual museum, we have used iconic objects from each of the museums as backgrounds.

Particular elements of the site that we will focus on when it comes to user testing will be the audio-guide interface and how users find triggering the audio through number selection, as well as the floor plans: how easy they are to engage with on a small screen, and what level of detail—gallery, floor, or full museum—is useful.

Figure 3: Mobile Website Wireframe

Figure 3: mobile website wireframe

6. Enabling innovation

While we hope that the development of this basic content will enable us to provide our visitors with necessary services and give us a baseline from which to conduct testing and further development, we also aim to be innovative and explore new and inventive ways of utilising mobile to engage with our visitors. To enable this, in the first instance, we took advantage of one of our established programmes: the Innovation Fund.

6.1 Innovation Fund

We created the Innovation Fund in 2013–14 from our Arts Council England (ACE), Major Partner Museum grant by top-slicing a number of our activity budgets to create an uncommitted pot of funding. We invited colleagues working across Oxford University Museums to apply to this fund to support projects beyond the scope of their core budgets, asking them to consider innovative ways of engaging target audiences or explore new ways of working. Applications were considered as a gathered field with the key criteria being both innovation and contribution towards our agreed goals with Arts Council around access, engagement, and excellence.

We considered the first round of the Innovation Fund a success, with many of our key activity highlights for the year emerging from the process. It also proved an excellent opportunity for staff development, with some of the best ideas coming from junior members of staff who were given the opportunity to lead on projects and manage project budgets and delivery schedule. Further, we found that digital played a significant role in many of the projects, and that collectively these projects contributed effectively to our digital goals.

With the first round deemed a success, we decided to re-run the Innovation Fund in 2014-15, and with the public Wi-Fi project on the horizon we added as a priority area of activity delivering engaging digital interpretation to on-site visitors via their mobile devices. As a result, we are currently supporting half a dozen mobile interpretation projects through the Innovation Fund, all of which are expected to be completed before summer 2015. Below are brief summaries of three projects currently underway.

6.2 Animate It!

The Museum of the History of Science in Oxford is home to one of the world’s most significant collections of scientific instruments from medieval times to the modern day, including extensive collections from Europe and the East and Islamic world. Astrolabes and sundials, x-ray apparatus, and early engines, these dynamic instruments can be difficult to engage with when locked up motionless behind glass.

For years, the Museum of the History of Science has had a relationship with the computer graphics department at the Hochschule fur Technik und Wirtschaft Dresden, supplying computer animation students with access to the collections to inspire their projects, and accumulating a small collection of animations of their objects in action. While the museum can provide this content online, ideally it would like to provide access to these animations in situ to on-site visitors as they engage with the collections; it is not possible to do this on screens in the museum, as there is simply insufficient space.

Animate It! is a project to bring these animations to on-site visitors, optimising them for mobile and enabling users to access them over the Wi-Fi.

Figure 4: Animation in Progress

Figure 4: animation in progress

6.3 Sensing Evolution

As part of a series of display upgrades, Oxford’s Museum of Natural History is installing a new specimen touch table designed to tell the story of evolution. The Sensing Evolution app will complement the new displays, linking the table with other objects within the museum that also relate to the story of evolution.

It will be released in the first instance as a prototype and will use iBeacons to detect user location and advise users of nearby objects related to evolutionary themes (e.g., natural selection or genetic inheritance). Selecting one of the evolutionary themes linked to the object will lead the user to other related objects, which will appear on the user’s screen as she moves through the museum. The app will also provide additional interpretative information on the featured objects and overall themes, which users can engage with at their leisure.

As the app is linked to touch tables, which will provide the context for the app experience, we are also attempting to tie into the app the concept of tactile sensation. We are currently experimenting with the phone features that can be utilized to this end; for example, users will be able to clear their selections by shaking their phones, and certain objects may trigger sensations using various vibrate options.

The prototype will be developed as a downloadable app for iPhone and Android in the first instance.

Figure 5: Museum of Natural History Touchtables

Figure 5: Museum of Natural History touch tables

6.4 My Museum

My Museum was initially pitched as an online platform to enable users to curate their own collections from the four different museums online, creating teaching resources or personal collections to keep and share. We decided not to pursue this idea at this time, first because it requires the completion of back-end development to enable the museum collections to be cross-searchable, which is not yet complete; and second, because desk research indicated that similar platforms produced by other collections have to date received relatively low uptake, with most users adding only one object to their “collection.”

As part of our mobile content brainstorming, the question was raised whether this type of collecting activity might appeal to on-site visitors, who might like to collect favourite objects as they discover them while visiting the museums.

We decided to experiment with this possibility by adding to our Explore app, which provides on-site visitors with our highlight objects list for each of the museums, the facility to create their own highlight lists. The app is being upgraded to tie in with the camera and allow users to take pictures of their favourite objects as part of their visit, add text for themselves, and automatically share their images on Twitter or Instagram, which we hope will also have the effect of promoting social-media engagement with the museums.

Figure 6: Explore App

Figure 6: Explore app

7. Evaluation

At the time of writing this paper (January 2015) neither the public Wi-Fi nor our new mobile content had yet gone live, so we had not yet entered the evaluation phase. We will begin evaluation in February and early March after the soft launch of the Wi-Fi and mobile website, giving us a small window for initial upgrades before the full launch in April 2015.

We plan to begin the evaluation process with an intensive research period that will involve both museum staff who worked on the project and a small group of student researchers. In addition to extensive analytics evaluation of how the mobile website and other services are used, staff will conduct a series of interviews with users specifically about their experience engaging with the museums’ mobile content, both in terms of usability and the content available. Meanwhile, a group of four student researchers will be active within the museums for six weeks looking more generally at how visitors use their mobile devices as part of their visits. This will involve both observing spontaneous user behaviour and in some cases following with interviews to gain a deeper insight.

Analysis of this data will hopefully not only grant us some quick wins for immediate improvements, but also reveal key areas of interest to inform phase two of our mobile content-development process. Phase one was very much a matter of building something to a deadline, but these same pressures do not exist for phase two.

We have also secured significantly more funding for phase two, allowing us to take a more user-focused approach to the development process. We will continue to use the agile development group, engaging in a cyclical process of prototype and evaluation. While the results of our intensive research project will inform the start of that process, we will then rely on the lessons we learn from each cycle to inform the next. We hope to explore more dynamic methods of content delivery such as AR, and more dynamic methods of triggering, including Wi-Fi triangulation for automatic triggering.

8. Conclusion

We are at the very start of the process of providing services for and engaging with on-site visitors via their mobile devices, and we are conscious that what we are working on is a basic service. However, we hope that we have established our approach in such a way that we are equipping ourselves with the knowledge and experience to move towards a more subtle understanding of our visitors’ needs, and the potential to develop high-quality products and services that meet those needs and exceed expectations.

Cite as:
. "Mobile bouleversement." MW2015: Museums and the Web 2015. Published January 23, 2015. Consulted .