What’s so great about mobile?

December 18, 2009

I gave a presentation recently at UK Museums on the Web entitled “The Intertubes Everywhere”. It was a re-working of my Ignite Cardiff talk, with a gentle angle towards cultural heritage. Here are the slides:

[slideshare id=2742484&doc=theintertubeseverywhere-091218044628-phpapp02]

The one-liner for those that don’t have the time to go through the slides is something like this: I believe that although mobile has been held up as THE NEXT BIG THING for some time, we are reaching a kind of “perfect storm” of conditions where it is at last becoming a viable reality for many users and therefore something for institutions to think about, too.

This is as much to do with effective marketing and consciousness raising as it is to do with device or network capability: if you’ve tried buying a mobile phone in the last year or two, you will have been offered mobile internet; if you go to a mobile phone company website today, you’ll see smartphones, dongles and internet on the go on their homepage. It would be very hard to miss this kind of marketing push. Couple this with the radical improvement of mobile content, the beginnings of location-based services and the increasing speeds and capability of a “normal” mobile device, and it seems pretty clear that we’re on the cusp of something pretty big.

If you’re in any doubt, check out slides 25-35 of the presentation that Dan Zambonini and I did at DISH 2009, which have some interesting figures on changing mobile usage. With device replacements happening on average every 14 months, even the old-school phones that don’t support mobile internet won’t be here for much longer.

With this level of exposure, it’s obvious that museums and other cultural heritage institutions are going to be following along and getting excited about mobile, either building iPhone apps or creating mobile versions of their sites.

While it is excellent to see innovation in this field, I’m slightly underwhelmed by some of the mobile offerings starting to appear that seem to be more “because we can” rather than “because we should”, in particular the current trend (and I’m deliberately not giving any examples – you can go find them yourself!) for “mobile collections search”.

It seems to me that the single mantra which should surround any mobile web development project right from the start is something like “never forget: the mobile browsing experience is far, far inferior to the desktop browsing experience”.

Browsing a mobile website is generally not a fun time. You don’t relax when you’re browsing on a mobile; you don’t lose yourself in the content: you’re there in sit forward mode, and you want to do one of two things:

  1. find some information and get out as quickly as you can
  2. use the capability of the “mobile” bit of the experience to do something…well, “mobile”

The first point is a no-brainer, IMO. Consider when and how I might choose to browse a museum website on my mobile. The answer is not “in my living room at home” – if I’m there, I’ll go find my laptop and have a far easier and more pleasurable experience in sit back mode. The answer probably is (and don’t shout at me for being obvious..) but when I’m mobile. I’m out and about, wondering what to do at lunchtime, thinking about whether a museum is open or where I can get tickets or how to get there. I’m not on WIFI, and I want the information as quickly and as seamlessly as possible. I don’t want images, I don’t want interaction, I want information. And I want it right now. And – this is the painful bit – I really, really don’t want to browse the collections. Why would I want a second-rate experience of browsing content using a 2″ screen, some clumsy non-mouse interaction touchpoints and a slow connection? And – more to the point – why would I possibly want to stand in the street (being mobile…) and look at museum collections? I don’t*.

* Actually, sometimes I do, provided the mobile experience adds something. And this is where point 2 comes in:

If I can have an experience which augments my real experience rather than just providing a poor quality facsimile of an online experience – then you’re talking about truly putting mobile capability to good use.

So for example – if I’ve got a known location (and this can mean GPS but more likely in our museum context means “I’m standing in front of artefact X and my phone knows that because I’ve keyed in something to tell it this”), then now is the time for the museum to give me additional information about other similar exhibits, let me bookmark that artwork, or share it with my network.

mobile.nmsi.ac.uk - something I knocked out about 5 years ago and still live!

Some of the museum sites we’re starting to see are making use of this capability – check out BlkynMuse on your mobile (and note the immediate emphasis on “where are you on-gallery?”) as a good example; but there also seems to be an increasing number who are simply putting their museum collections online as they are in some kind of mobile format – either a mobile optimised site or (worse) an iPhone application, with none of the context-sensitivity that makes mobile a value-add proposition for end-users.

Much as I’m glad to see innovation in this space, I’d much rather see museums focussing on point 1 above by having a mobile-sniffing code on their homepage and redirecting to an optimised m.museumsite.com page with visiting information, than putting in a huge amount of effort into providing mobile-optimised collections search. At the very worst, museums should have the subdomain m.*** or mobile.*** and there have a script to strip out the images and so on. There are many ways to do this – here, for example is the Museum of London site stripped using a simple PHP script from Phonefier, or see these tips on how to create simple “mobilised” versions of your existing site with zero extra effort.

Once the simple and high-gain win is done, then it’d be great to see some location-specific and innovative approaches to “virtually collecting” or augmenting collections experiences. But the “browse our mobile collections site” without really thinking about the use-case is pretty much saying: “go here on your mobile and you can have an experience which is infinitely worse than the one on your desktop with absolutely no upside”. In other words, no thanks.

What do you think? Has your museum got a mobile site for visitors, or just for collections, or none at all? What mobile apps have you downloaded or accessed that provide museum collections (or other) information? How was it for you?

UPDATE (about 3 minutes after I posted this…): I just realised I utterly neglected to talk about gaming. Which, IMO, is where mobile (and in particular mobile collections) have a huge amount of potential. I think this’ll have to wait for a future post 🙂

5 thoughts on “What’s so great about mobile?

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  3. Nice post. Being a mobile person its good to get this sort of opinion.

    I would say that some mobile experiences are better than PC based. Thetrainline app for example, I never use therainline.com any more because my regular journeys are stored on the device, BECAUSE I also use it when mobile.

    This is what is changing, it used to be that mobile was ONLY used when mobile now it can replace fixed when the context of use is right.

    Cheers Chris

  4. @Chris – thanks for commenting.

    That’s a good example, actually – although if companies thought harder about syncing across the mobile and desktop spaces then it’d be less of an issue, I’d have thought?

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