It is hard for me to remember life before smart phones, let alone a time before cell phones. I bought my first smart phone in 2010 and in just four years, my Android has become indispensable. As the Pew Internet Project’s Mobile Technology Fact Sheet makes clear, mobile has taken over. Not only do 90% of Americans own a mobile phone, 44% of Americans sleep next to their phone every night to avoid missing texts, calls, or emails. Mobile phones are an intimate part of many American’s daily lives. And they are beginning to be the preferred way for Americans to access information. 34% of internet users primarily use their cell phones to access the web… a number that is growing every year!
Mobile websites and mobile applications are therefore an incredibly important way to reach a huge audience of Americans. But does mobile fit into the mission and purpose of cultural institutions such as museums?
The Smithsonian Institution Office of Policy and Analysis conducted a visitor study in 2010 to find out how their audience used and would like to use mobile devices in a museum. Many people used cell phones to find directions to the museum, access operating hours, and learn about what exhibitions were on display at the museum. A few people even googled names or titles from the gallery to learn more about the exhibitions. The interviews make it clear that people use mobile devices to get information on-the-go. However, I wonder if these are the types of questions that museums should be trying to answer. Can museums really compete with Google Maps at wayfinding, or with Yelp at providing local recommendations? Perhaps there are better, lower-tech ways to provide directions or information to guests at a museum. My favorite quote from the visitor study was: “I don‘t need an app to find a restroom.”
Mobile media opens up a lot of exciting possibilities. But museums need to think carefully about the mobile experiences that they create and make sure that their mobile apps are encouraging people to learn, share, and engage…not just directing them to a restroom.