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Archive for the ‘Museums’ Category

I used to give a talk about how museums should do more games. I would talk about how successful we’d been with this at Wellcome Collection with games like High Tea and Axon, and give other great examples from Tate, the Science Museum, the Smithsonian, and so on. However, I don’t feel that evangelising entirely makes sense any more, because the reality has proven tough.

So I have updated this talk to reflect that reality, to look into why some museums have found it actually very hard to create successful games, and to suggest a solution. Below is a video of me giving it at We Are Museums in Bucharest earlier in the year, including a short example of live game design game Cat On Yer Head in action. Since the slides from that are quite hard to make out, I’ve put them below, along with a summary.

Since the talk, I’ve left Frankly Green + Webb to go solo again, with a view to focus more on the game side of things (along with some general digital consultancy and research, and, er, yoga teaching and other bits and bobs. I do like a portfolio/random sort of career!). One of the things I offer is a game design workshop, which has proven very successful (two comments from the last one I ran: “I was really impressed by the way we managed to create our own games at the end of the session – this was really inspiring.”,”I’d say you learn a lot while having lots of fun. Great if you want to understand more about how games work and become a better commissioner of games.”).

The workshop gives you a chance to try out the principles described in the talk below, and feel confident about what it takes to create a good game. I’m looking for various outlets to run it at the moment for whoever wants to come, so more on that soon, but I have run it for specific organisations in the past, tailoring it to their needs, so if that sounds like something your museum or group would be interested in, let me know (give me a shout via twitter or linkedin). I genuinely love doing this workshop, it involves a lot of play and experimentation, and at the end of it participants have come up with some properly brilliant ideas.

On with the talk:

And the written version:

  1. Games can be a powerful medium for museums. Done well they can be engaging, educational, and reach a large audience. Look at what happened with High Tea. Over 4 million plays, amazing audience feedback/evaluation and engagement with the ideas and themes.
  2. But this turns out to be hard to get right, and too often goes wrong. Why?
    • Lack of digital and games knowhow or dedicated resource
    • Specifically a lack of understanding of the game design process from clients
    • Lengthy crippling sign off processes
    • A lack of flexibility in the game design process linked to funding structures – often decisions are made before games experts have had a chance to feed in and then are locked in.
    • Small budgets or tight schedules that don’t allow for testing and development
    • A poor fit between objectives and outcomes of the game – little learning or engagement
    • Lack of understanding about the audience
    • Failure to market – nobody played it
    • No shared learning or insight passed on.
  3. This is what I’ve heard from both museum insiders and agencies/developers, some of whom have stopped doing this sort of work on commission because it’s so fruitless. And lots of cultural organisations have had budgets cut, so doing a game can seem hard to justify if they haven’t worked in the past.
  4. Bummer. Cat gif for light relief. But, take heart! There are so many encouraging signs. Great things are being done in board games (look at all the lovely examples in slide 11!), in indie games, in physical games. Look how popular and brilliant Now Play This was. The answer is not to stop doing games, the answer is to do the right sort of games, appropriate to your needs and resources. And the answer is to understand what best practice looks like in this area and learn from the mistakes that have been made.
  5. So, how do we make good games? My thoughts. There are many (many) definitions of games. But I find helpful way to understand games is to see them as a system of rules or MECHANICS that produce DYNAMICS (what you actually do in the game) that lead to AESTHETICS or the player experience overall (Robin Hunicke, Marc LeBlanc, Robert Zubek 2001 http://www.cs.northwestern.edu/~hunicke/pubs/MDA.pdf).
  6. As the designer, you control the mechanics, and then look at what this produces in terms of dynamics, and then how the players actually experience that.
  7. Too often, we think in terms of the aesthetics and the trappings of the game (the story, the art design etc), and forget that what you can control and what will make it compelling are good mechanics. And whatever learnings or objectives you have for the game, need to be embedded in the mechanics.
    • (For example, we wanted players to understand that the opium trade that caused the Opium Wars was about the buying and selling of opium, in order to buy tea. So, those are the mechanics of the game – buy opium, sell opium, buy tea. You can’t play the game without picking that up.)
  8. So, the good news is, the process for doing this isn’t really that complicated:
    • Identify your objectives (DO NOT SKIP THIS STEP)
    • Identify mechanics that fit (or try, just start somewhere plausible)
    • Draft a game
    • Prototype and test it. Does it meet the objectives? Is it playable/fun/compelling?
    • Revise based on findings from testing.
    • Test again
    • Revise
    • Test again
    • Revise
    • Test again
    • Revise
    • etc
  9. What are the implications of this?
    • Be clear about objectives, the mechanics will flow from that – these can be the brief
    • Leave room in the development process for the actual development – must be flexible enough for this
    • Test it early – leave budget and time for this
    • Bring in many voices
    • Think about how you are going to distribute and market it
    • Evaluate and share insight – within your institution and outside too
  10. The end. Another cat gif. PS if you want help with thinking about mechanics, why not use these game mechanics cards for inspiration? I’ve updated them a bit since, but you’ll just have to hire me for a workshop to get the latest 🙂

I’ve simplified, and generalised here, of course. Some game designers take different approaches in their work, which is fine. But this post isn’t for experienced game designers, and you can always break these rules once you’re comfortable.

I would also now add: be clear about your limitations e.g. if you don’t have sufficient budget to do a good digital game, don’t do a bad one on a small budget. Would a physical or board game work instead? (And sometimes, of course, a game isn’t the right approach at all, but you have to understand them to make a good decision about that).

I hope this is useful! Go make games 🙂

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This follows Part One of DC/NYC: an epic museum tour which talked about my visits to the National Cryptologic Museum, The Renwick Gallery and the National Museum of Natural History (featuring instagram uses in a museum, a great use of augmented reality and brilliant docents) and Part Two in New York, with visits to the Cooper Hewitt, Met MediaLab and the American Museum of Natural History (robots! games! the Pen!). This is the final post (I promise).

The New York Hall of Science: Connected Worlds, hands on everything

science themed mini golf at the New York Hall of Science

more mini golf in museums pls

On Friday I dragged my family in a post Thanksgiving blow-out haze to the New York Hall of Science at Corona Park in Queens. I don’t think they were pleased about the hour long journey from Brooklyn, but ended up having fun playing with all the hands-on exhibits about various aspects of science. I LOVED their demonstration of cosmic rays zipping through a cloud chamber before your eyes. And I also loved the idea of science themed mini golf. The interactives may not all be the most technologically advanced, but they got you involved, and genuinely helped you understand things.

Learning about Cosmic Rays

Learning about Cosmic Rays

The main reason for going there, though, was to see the Connected Worlds game/installation about keeping an ecosystem in balance. If you are picturing something on a screen, or even a touchtable, think again. This is COLOSSAL. See the picture below. It has two vast screens around a central circular area. Between the screens is a tall screen depicting a waterfall, which then runs as a stream across the floor. Players can interact with what’s happening on the screen by making hand gestures, or moving logs around on the floor which translates into planting seeds to grow plants and move the water to where it needs to be. It appeared to get more advanced as the game, played in half hour sessions, goes on (I didn’t get a go, we didn’t have time to wait).

Getting briefed at Connected Worlds

Getting briefed at Connected Worlds

It is absolutely spectacular, make no mistake. Visitors, nearly all of whom appeared to be family groups with young kids when I was there, seemed to pick it up easily and were clearly absorbed by the interactions. It is like nothing else I have seen in a museum before, I don’t think. It’s really beautiful, and seems to work, technically, very well. The only dampener was my slight suspicion that visitors weren’t necessarily getting the most possible out of the experience. It’s meant to be about keeping the world in balance, yet I didn’t see people outside of family groups working together much.

I also didn’t get the sense that people were getting the nuances of what was happening, or making informed decisions (rather than just playing around), and given the young age of many participants, fair enough perhaps. However, I wondered if more hands on facilitation and scaffolding of the experience might make it even more powerful. For example, pointing out things that were happening to the whole group, or setting shorter term goals, adding drama, turning it into a story, etc. 

Visitors playing with Connected Worlds

Visitors playing with Connected Worlds

To be fair, I was an outside observer, and only watched one round, so maybe that does happen at other times, or maybe I just wasn’t picking up on it. In this BoingBoing article Zack Gage, who consulted on the app , does say “My biggest pushes were for ensuring that the takeaways for children were experiential (to be unpacked later with educators/family members/friends) rather than a set of point-by-point facts or statistics” which I am very much down with in general.

However, it does sometimes feel like museums assume all digital should just stand alone as an experience, when it can actually really benefit from good facilitation and a bit of direction.

The Brooklyn Museum (and Morbid Anatomy, briefly): getting answers to the questions you want to ask in a museum.

I’m almost there! We paid a visit to the fabulous Morbid Anatomy museum, with its current wax work exhibition and nice cafe and shop full of things to covet (taxidermy I wished I could afford, or have a house big enough for). And then, finally, on my last day, we went to the Brooklyn Museum. It’s a great collection, with really good interpretation, I thought. Very accessible, very clear. It’s currently running a lovely show on Coney Island, definitely worth going to see.

The ASK app in action

The ASK app in action

The work related reason for going was the ASK app, which allows you to ask questions of curators in real time. What a great idea, I’d thought, will it work? It did, with the patient Elizabeth answering my questions about the museum, its patrons, things I couldn’t find, and the collections itself. The answers were rapid, and pitched at a useful level, including links out to other resources. My family got in the habit of coming up to me to fire off questions for the app, and definitely benefited from having this helpful resource.

It is super simple to use, fitting the maxim that a good app should do one thing well. I just wish it saved the answers so I could still see them, as it seems to have removed the content now I’m out of the building.

The team have been blogging the development experience on the Brooklyn Museum website, and it’s well worth a read.

So, that was my East Coast USA #musetech experience. If you got this far, thank you for reading, I hope it was useful. Clearly, I still managed to miss many hundreds of other museums in those two cities (including the Tenement Museum in NYC, which people kept telling me about, and the Newseum in DC, which was also recommended for its use of interactives).

I guess I’ll just have to go back.

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This follows Part One of DC/NYC: an epic museum tour which talked about my visits to  the National Cryptologic Museum, The Renwick Gallery and the National Museum of Natural History (featuring instagram uses in a museum, a great use of augmented reality and brilliant docents). (Part Three, the final part, on the New York Hall of Science and Brooklyn Museum, now live).

By Tuesday 24th November I had moved on to New York, staying in Brooklyn with family. Since my Frankly, Green + Webb colleague Laura was staying not far from New York, she and I took the chance to meet and spend the day visiting the Cooper Hewitt (the Smithsonian Design Museum) and trying out their Pen and other interactives, and then on to see the Met’s MediaLab. The next day I went to take a look around the American Museum of Natural History.

Cooper Hewitt: collecting, immersion and serendipitous browsing

So first to the very grand environs of the Cooper Hewitt museum, previously the Carnegie Mansion, to try out the Pen we had heard so much about (and see the collection, of course). In case you’ve missed all the discussion about it, it’s a tool to encourage visitors to be more active in the space, collecting and saving objects to view later. In some ways I guess it formalises the existing visitor habit of collecting objects by photographing them and takes it a few steps further.

picture of the pen being used with the design tool

Using the Pen to design a very impractical table

The pen itself is very nice to use, chunky but comfortable, simple to operate. It works as a large stylus at one end, and has a collecting tool at the other which you can use on object labels (with an RFID chip in them) to add them to your collection. There are large interactive tables throughout the galleries that feature a design tool (make your own chair, building, or thing), ways of browsing the collection (object pictures drift past like sushi on a conveyor belt and you can grab them to get more details, or search via related tags), and ways of pulling up what you have collected so far. After the visit you can also see your collection on the website.

picture of group using full body gestures to browse the collection

Using full body gestures to browse the collection

The staff are there to give some orientation, one of whom gave us an extra steer in using the design tool that was really helpful. I enjoyed playing with this feature (but wasn’t quite sure where to go with it once I’d messed around with it a bit, I wonder how this could be extended?). Laura and I both spend quite some time browsing objects on the big table, it’s a nice way of just seeing what grabs you and following that down a rabbit hole. You can also browse the collection by just drawing a shape, which then searches for something else with the same shape (elsewhere you can also do this on a big screen with gestures – see pic). A nice playful interaction.

It didn’t occur to me whilst there to collect objects in the cases to look up more information on them whilst there. This would probably have been useful at the time to answer questions I had about some objects. I wonder if there are ways to get at more interpretation by doing that, e.g. a glossary of terms or something. It feels like there is potential to do even more with the pen, so am keen to see how that develops.

For me, the standout was the Immersion Room, which was an experience I could have spend hours in, probably. It is linked to the wallpaper collection, something I have a particular interest in anyway, and allows you project designs from the collection up onto the wall, browse around related designs and listen to experts talking about them. Rather brilliantly, you can also design your own, which is then tiled and projected on to the wall. I made a rather slapdash effort, so being immersed in that was possibly a bit of a trial for everyone else in the room, but I bet some visitors have done some really beautiful things for it (and no doubt, some very crude things, but you can’t stop human nature). My post-visit collection from the Cooper Hewitt is here.

The immersion room

Immersed in wallpaper

The Met Media Lab: robots and other fun stuff (envy)

3D printing in the MediaLab

3D printing in the MediaLab

In the afternoon we went to meet Elena Villaespesa, who used to work with me at Tate doing clever things with analytics, and is now Digital Media Analyst at the Met. We also met Marco Castro Cosio, head of the MediaLab, who gave us a tour. They have all the fun toys – a robotic arm, telepresence robot (which has been used at some events, I think they said, so that people can attend at a distance), a 3D printer (which had been used to recreate a museum object in sugar, though no-one had had a nibble yet) and were also doing some nice stuff with projection mapping to show the true colours of an Egyptian tomb. Thank you to Marco and Elena for showing us around!

Will definitely be keeping an eye on the Met MediaLab blog in future. Apparently they are not alone, Labs seem to be quite the thing these days (h/t Lindsey).

The American Museum of Natural History: games, more robots, Opulent Oceans.

The next day I met Barry Joseph, Associate Director for Digital Learning at the American Museum of Natural History (or AMNH). I was particularly keen to hear about their work with games, and loved the fact that they had been working on card games such as this one, Gutsy. Card games and the like could be such a perfect fit for so many museums, and you can sell them in the shop, they make a nice gift. Win/win. Anyway, Barry gave me a tour of their new Microrangers game , an impressive piece of tech that combines AR, minigams and a kind of treasurehunt around the gallery. It just launched officially this week.

He too has a telepresence robot, and kindly gave me a demo. They had used it to bring voices into the gallery, e.g. Canadian First Nation curators based elsewhere being able to interact with visitors. Tate has done the After Dark project with similar robots, but has anyone else in the UK? I like the potential, and the way that both the Met and AMNH were using them. Very interesting, thank you to Barry for taking the time to meet!

Octopus from Opulent Oceans. So lovely

Octopus from Opulent Oceans. So lovely

Also at AMNH was the very shiny and interactive Secret World Inside You, and the utterly gorgeous little Opulent Oceans exhibit of sea life themed artwork. From my twitter page, you might guess that I’m already in love with Ernst Haeckel’s work, so I was very excited to find so many other artists who had done beautiful work in this area. The latter is also collected in this book and ah, it’s Christmas coming up. So, you know…

(Part Three now live, with visits to see Connected Worlds at the New York Hall of Science and Ask at the Brooklyn Museum)

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I came back this week from 10 days in the States where I visiting my brother and sister-in-law, who recently moved to Brooklyn, with my parents for Thanksgiving. By pure coincidence, my Frankly, Green + Webb colleague Laura was also on the East Coast of the US at the same time visiting family. I took the chance to see a ton of museums (ten! in total), meet up with Laura, and also meet some interesting museum folk working in digital. 

Ten is a lot of museums to cover, so I’ve split the posts up. Here are my experiences in Washington DC at the National Cryptologic Museum, The Renwick Gallery and the National Museum of Natural History. It was my first trip to Washington and my goodness, it doesn’t do its museums and monuments by halves (they are all SO BIG, and the Mall? Almost overwhelming).

The National Cryptologic Museum (NSA): the power of a great docent tour

The first museum trip was out of D.C. a bit, to the NSA’s Cryptologic Museum, a quirky history of code-breaking next door to the NSA’s site about 45 minutes drive from the centre of D.C. The museum itself has a few recent additions to bring some of the tech and the story of cryptology up to date a little, but most of it doesn’t appear to have been changed for quite some time. It could have therefore been quite dry, especially with such a complex subject matter, but their greatest assets are their brilliant docents, who bring the objects to life.

A not great picture of our Cryptologic Museum docent next to a code breaking machine

A not great picture of our Cryptologic Museum docent next to a code breaking machine

We first met the docent who would become our guide at the Enigma machine, where he was showing us how to use it (they had one that was available for visitors to play with). It was the first of many experiences at the museum where I was suddenly able to understand the purpose and function of a complex object that I’ve previously struggled to grasp. This is something that digital interactives can sometimes help with, but to be honest, I’m not sure can make up for the human touch and the ability to respond to the audience in person and answer questions. Our group was hooked, and we followed our guide around the rest of the museum as he told us fascinating stories about Pearl Harbor, the Battle of Midway and the Cold War.

I learnt so much, and must admit that by the end of it I was left wondering whether more museums should concentrate their efforts on hiring as many knowledgeable and passionate docents as possible and worry less about text (or digital) interpretation. With the best will in the world, consuming information visually, by reading especially, becomes tiring and difficult before too long in a museum. But when you have an engaging human being telling you stories, well, it somehow becomes very easy to take it in.

The Renwick Gallery: instagram friendliness

Picture of artwork and person taking photo in the Renwick Gallery

Wondering and instagramming in the Renwick Gallery

On to the recently re-opened Renwick Gallery, for their fantastic Wonder exhibition of large scale art installations by nine very different artists. It’s all very photogenic, clearly something recognised by the museum who encourage photography by suggesting a hashtag and featuring a screen with an instagram feed showing visitor’s pictures. This meant that the frequently seen visitor behaviour of photographing objects and artworks was in overdrive. I was unable to stop myself too. It didn’t leave much room for quiet contemplation, but I don’t know if these pieces necessarily lent themselves to that anyway. I think that’s OK, we thoroughly enjoyed it. Thanks to Brian Alpert for recommending this via twitter.

National Museum of Natural History: Skin and Bones and a standout use of AR

Next day, onto the Mall for the National Museum of Natural History (and a flying visit through the National Gallery of Art, a very grand space). The NMNH had been high up on my list to visit. Not just because I am a fan of natural history museums (the dustier and wonkier the better, IMHO) but because I’d heard Diana Marques speak about an upcoming app she was working on for them at EVA in 2013, and was intrigued. The app is Skin and Bones, and is now live. Laura and I both tried it out in separate visits.

The app was created in response to the fact that visitors can find it hard to engage with the skeletons in NMNH’s Bone Hall, since they don’t know how to interpret what they are looking at. Skin and Bones uses augmented reality (AR) to overlay animal bodies onto the skeletons or to animate them and show how they work. My highlight was the animated overlay showing how the woodpecker’s skull allows it to have a very long tongue that wraps around its brain. It’s a really really neat use of AR, appropriately used and well implemented. The only downside was that it was so great it made you want to see this for any animal in the Hall, but it’s only available for the few of the skeletons. Hopefully they’ll add more in the future, I imagine it takes a lot of work to create these.

Photograph of AR app being used with woodpecker animation

Very cool Woodpecker animation

Some other thoughts. The AR does somewhat overshadow the rest of the content, which involves activities and videos. I wonder whether people actually do those, when the AR stuff is so enticing. Also, neither Laura nor I had brought headphones, and if you don’t have headphones with you, or are sharing the device with others, you’ll need to play the audio out loud. From previous experience, many visitors are uncomfortable with this, which is why some places provide headphones, or loan out devices so that groups can have more than one (and so the experience doesn’t rely on people bringing their own, of course). I understand some visitor evaluation is forthcoming in the next year, am really keen to see it and see how it’s being used, I think it will be very interesting for anyone thinking of doing something similar.

Whilst there was a lot of signage for the app in the room, we didn’t see anyone else using Skin and Bones, or any signage for it in the rest of the Museum (though perhaps we just didn’t spot it), which seems a shame. Maybe it could be more heavily trailed elsewhere and in general marketing so that people come prepared and excited about it? Laura tried it with her kids and they also really liked it (and wanted more) so it’s a great asset, worth shouting about. If you have the chance, go check it out.

(Link to Part Two: NYC, robots, the Cooper Hewitt Pen, games)

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Game type cards from previous workshops

Game type cards from previous workshops

I’m writing this to share a simple tool I created for a gaming workshop I recently ran for a museum, and also to see if anyone has suggestions for additions or improvements to it. It was inspired by another card-based tool that Danny Birchall and I created for games workshops a while back, found here. That one was designed to help people rapidly generate game ideas around a particular (museum related) subject. It was a stack of cards with a game type printed on one side and the description (generally from Wikipedia) printed on the other. I’ve used them a lot in classes and workshops since, they work well. You’re very welcome to download and use them yourself.

For the recent workshop, I was tasked with helping a room of non game designers understand the possibilities of games, and a bit more about the process behind their creation. We talked about game design, played a load of mobile games (mostly from this list of local multiplayer games) and discussed the mechanics, and then split into teams to generate game ideas, pick a favourite, create a paper prototype, play the other team’s games and feedback on it. We had about an hour and a quarter for the idea and prototyping session.

My overall aim was to focus the participants on thinking about game mechanics (rather than story etc), the effect they have on the player, and how they can be married to the intended learning or behavioural objectives. Given the limited time, I needed a way to give each team inspiration and an easy reference point for possible existing game mechanics rather than expecting them to pull them out of thin air with no experience.

Game mechanics cards selection

Game mechanics cards selection

So I created a set of game mechanics cards with the mechanic, a description, and a couple of hopefully easily recognisable examples. I gave each team a set and encouraged them to use the cards to inspire ideas. It seemed to work pretty well, with a bit of facilitation. I’ve linked to them here on Google Drive, I hope this works, let me know if you are trying to access them and it doesn’t work. The idea is you cut each one out onto its own card (a job for which I wish I’d had a guillotine).

Please download/make suggestions for improvements

Please feel free to take these and use them any way you like. If you repost them, it would be nice if you could link back here. It would also be nice if they could be expanded and improved. I’m sure there are lots of mechanics I’ve missed or better examples I could have used. Any suggestions for more mechanics to add? Please add comments below or send to me via twitter if easier. Thanks!

At some point I will go back in and tart them up a bit, they aren’t as pretty as the other cards, at which point I will add in suggestions and will also share them here.

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Over the last year, I’ve been involved in various qualitative research projects relating to teachers and how they interact with museums and use their educational resources, especially mobile or online resources, whether on a visit or in the classroom. In doing so, I’ve noticed a number of common themes coming up again and again that might be useful for other museums considering how best to work with and provide for schools.

A note: these are undoubtedly generalisations, and you will find teachers who do not conform to this, but these responses have been consistent enough throughout several different projects for me to think that if you want to be most effective for most teachers, you will need to consider these things.

Also, you are going to notice one word coming up a lot: “easy”. Make life easy for teachers. They work hard, they don’t have much time or budget. Make it easy, and they are much more likely to use your resources.

Make online resources easy to find

Teachers, by and large, are extremely time poor. They do want to find great new resources to use, activities and games to help them teach literacy, images to illustrate a historical topics, etc, and actually already spend a great deal of time looking for them. But they are swamped, and will tend not to look beyond well-known resources sites such as TES or “teachers pay teachers” (or corporate subject specific sites, sometimes that they are subscribed to) or Google. And when they google, they tend to use the key stage as a search term (or “primary/secondary”), the subject, and a word like “game” or “poster”.

Whilst some do go to a museum website that is well-known to them as having resources on a particular subject (e.g. the British Museum for Egyptian history), for the most part teachers are not going to trawl through lots of potential museums to see what resources they may have. So, your stuff will have to either be prominent on a resources portal, or high up the search rankings to be seen.

Alternatively, you will have to work harder to reach teachers directly, but when you do so, remember that:

The benefits must be easy to see

Again, always assume that teachers have no time (or energy) to spend a lot of effort trying to figure out whether your resource or session is what they need, whether it is appropriate for the age group, what it covers exactly, what is required to use it, and how long it is expected to take. Make this easy for them, by spelling it out up front, and by including good images such as screenshots of it or that show it being used.

The fact that it was created by a museum does give it some authority, but generally teachers will use whatever works, whoever it was made by, if it is easy to use and find.

Registration is a barrier that most teachers won’t bother getting over, especially if you can’t trial anything first, so don’t make that a requirement unless you aren’t bothered about losing a lot of customers.

Make the visit easy, don’t ask them to prep for it

Teachers don’t generally prepare for museum visits. Even if directly asked to check out the app they will be using, to recce the gallery, or to send over information about the students before a booked visit, they rarely do. See above re time and energy, but whatever the reason, instead of wondering why teachers don’t do this, and why the visits are sometimes chaotic as a result, better to just not rely on this preparation for the visit to work.

So, make sure any activities you have planned work without prep; make sure any digital resources come with a good introduction and, ideally, direct facilitation (seriously, this is what makes digital work well in these situations, a good facilitator); give teachers information they might need on the spot when they arrive (suggested activities for free time in the galleries, background info, questions and themes etc). Make it easy for them, and I’m sure they will appreciate it.

If you need information in advance, be proactive in seeking it out, don’t wait for a teacher to email. Also, I have noticed that teachers generally do not use email a great deal, especially out of term time, so find a better mode of communication if you must get in contact, probably by phone. But when you do that, don’t forget to:

Be mindful of the time of year

I was trying to reach teachers for interviews in December last year. Major error. The build up to Christmas was apparently frantic, almost nobody answered my calls and emails, and I began to despair of ever being able to get hold of people. In January I tried again though, and it was much easier. Exam times will have similar issues. Out of term time is probably hopeless. But at the end of the year, teachers will be looking to September, so that may be a good time to give them some new ideas for the new year.

Make it flexible and modular

You might have a grand online interactive planned or a beautiful mobile app that will teach the history of the Tudors in a single game, and so this might be hard to take, but chances are that won’t be nearly as useful to teachers as a really good image bank.

When teaching in their own classroom, they have their own way of doing things. Curriculums vary, especially at primary level, student needs vary, and teaching methods vary. For your activity or resource to work, it will be more use if it can be modified, broken apart, or flexible enough to be used in different ways. Rigid lesson plans that make assumptions about how teachers teach the subject and how long they spend on it are also likely to be unhelpful too.

So image banks are great for teachers, they can be used in presentations for teaching from the front or by the students in projects, they can be used to illustrate or enliven. If they can be provided on an open licence, all the better, so they can be repurposed and edited.

There is a bigger point here, too:

Don’t try and break the mould, make it fit with teachers’ existing practice

If you are trying to make teachers do something out of their normal way of doing things, it is probably doomed to fail. If they usually teach the Tudors with plenary classes (that are exactly tailored to their and their students needs, because they designed them that way) and an essay writing activity, your Tudor history game is unlikely to fit in here. It might be great for giving to students as homework, mind, which could be valuable in and of itself, but not much cop as a classroom activity, so don’t market it that way.

Generally, it pays to do the legwork to find out how teachers are already teaching a subject, and what the gaps and opportunities are, rather than making assumptions and finding out too late that your idea just isn’t practical in the time available. This is especially true of secondary schools, where there is a lot to cram in, and time is short.

Also, don’t assume all schools have access to ipads (other tablets are of course available, just not used that much, as far as I can tell), or that the ones that do are using them in the same way. Some are 1:1, many are using them in groups, or swapping them between classes.

Make it beautiful, easy, and solve a problem

Put yourself in the teacher’s shoes. They have a working busy life, a big class of students to keep engaged, a long week ahead and they just spent their whole Sunday marking. On Monday morning, they have to teach a tricky area of their subject, that students always struggle with, so they go in search of something that might help.

Can you give them something that will help solve this problem? Some great pictures, a short and exciting video introduction, some suggested live games to play, or, yes, maybe, a flexible interactive tool that will engage them but do more, perhaps track progress, or allow teachers to choose different bits for different students or be genuinely fun enough that kids will go play it in their own time.

Better yet, can you make it look really good? Because it does help, the students and teachers both appreciate high production values.

The best way to make sure that your resource works for teachers? Research their needs, and test it with them. I’ve found a lot of teachers very happy and willing to share their thoughts, and even just a few interviews will be invaluable for shaping your decisions.

So, I hope that’s useful. If any teachers come across this, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Is there anything I’ve missed, or misrepresented? If any readers want to hear any more detail on any of the research behind this, get in touch.

Thanks to the museums I’ve worked with for letting me share this research as well as the fabulous Teach Your Monster to Read team for whom I carried out research into classroom phonics resources.

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This post looks at the results from some research I did for a project to develop an in-gallery app for a new exhibition (more details on that soon). I spoke to various helpful people (I’m not sure if they are happy to be credited though so will check and add them in if so. Edit: Thanks to Lindsey and Alyson of Frankly, Green and Webb! and Iain George of Antenna International) and also got some useful stuff from the MCG mailing list, thanks to everyone that helped.

Tiny museum signage that all the visitors are ignoring

Tiny boring museum sign that all the visitors are ignoring

I wanted to know: how do you market mobile apps to visitors when the app is designed to be used in gallery?

I wanted to hear what the experiences of others were, what had worked, what hadn’t. I knew that take-up for apps in gallery was often quite low, and that it was a difficult thing to get right, visitors often don’t understand the offer, don’t notice the signage, or didn’t see why they should bother.

There were some challenges with this research for a few reasons. There isn’t much shared data or evaluation about this out there. Maybe we could all be better at sharing our experiences? Also, it can be difficult to untangle how people find an app, without asking them directly. This sort of research is obviously possible, but can be time-consuming.

That said, I did get some good stuff. So, here are the key points from the research:

  • Making a good app that people can and want to use is obviously important, but one person told me that, in terms of take-up, as little as 10% of the success of an app is down to the content. Marketing and distribution is the rest.
  • Where do your visitors come into contact with your organisation’s messaging before and during a visit (and after)? Identify the opportunities to reach your audience at these touchpoints. A visit us page on the website is an obvious point, so make sure it’s there, or wherever your visitors go on your site to find visit information. Do people need to book in advance? Mention it there too then.
  • It must feel official – buy-in across the organisation is hugely important. Too often the marketing is an afterthought, or lost in a jumble of other competing messages. The app must feel like an important part of the experience to the visitor, so must be seen as important internally as well.
  • Copy and language are really important: use language that the audience will understand and find appealing. How can you be sure you have the right message? Test it! Take it out into the gallery and ask visitors what they think the name or tagline means. Or describe the app and ask what words they would use to describe it to a friend.
  • Address audience concerns. Visitors are worries about battery life, data usage, making noise in the gallery and many other things. Find out what those concerns might be and address them (not defensively, mind) in the marketing. Maybe explain that it is a one off download, or that they can use the wifi, or you can provide cheap headphones in the shop.
  • Convey the benefits. Don’t assume that the audience do the mental legwork in interpreting what the app will add to their experience. Be really clear and concise about what those benefits are.
  • Make the target audience clear. Is it for families? Say so. Families in particular are often looking for child friendly activities to do in gallery.
  • Signage is obviously important. But one sign is rarely enough, and one mention on a general sign is going to be ignored by the vast majority. Place specific, appealing, signage early on somewhere prominent. Reiterate in gallery.
  • Use the queues! If people are having to wait for a while for tickets, DEFINITELY use this opportunity to tell them about the app. This may also be a good point to get them to download it. Use it to build anticipation.
  • Use the mobile splash page. Andrew Lewis at the V&A has done some great research on this. If visitors can log into your wifi, use the login page or the page they are redirected to to tell them about the app and mobile offer. One catch though, you still have to market the wifi, as many visitors (perhaps the majority) are not aware that museums have it.
  • Use print. Don’t forget the old fashioned methods. Create a leaflet about the app, hand it out with tickets, or hand it out in the queue. Or place it in gallery, or use it at events. Use it to market the app and provide some guidance for those who may be less tech savvy.
  • Make sure gallery staff are aware of the app and trained in how to use it. A common issue, very understandable in museums with volunteer staff with a high turnover, is that the visitor cannot get support or information about an app from a staff member because they know nothing about it. The whole thing will run a lot better if visitors can ask any staff member about it. In gallery staff are also well place to identify visitors (again, perhaps families especially) who might benefit from the app and can even approach them to suggest it.
  • For teacher audiences, there are more specific needs. They want to plan in advance, so you will need to be more proactive about reaching them before the visit, when they get in contact to book. Or in more direct marketing before they were even thinking about it.
  • App Store and Google Play store promotion is difficult, you should obviously make sure it is easy to find and well tagged etc, but browsing through the App Store is not how most visitors will be attracted to using an app of this sort so don’t rely on this.
  • Press and PR is important, of course. Target the right audience as you would for other marketing. But may need to make it more about the app in the context of the whole visit, as you are also having to do the work to convince people to come in the first place, they aren’t already there.

What do you think? Do you have different experiences or disagree? Or have anything else to add?

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