Thursday, 14 March 2013

If an app is the answer...

...what was the question?*  And seriously, what questions should museums ask before investing in a mobile or tablet app?

First, some background. In We’re not ‘appy. Not ‘appy at all., Tom Loosemore of the Government Digital Service (GDS) gives examples of the increases in mobile traffic to UK government sites, including up to 60% mobile visits to site with complex transactions like booking driving tests.

For a cultural heritage perspective: as part of the Culture24 Let's Get Real project, I looked at the percentage of mobile visits (and visitors) to 22 cultural websites for Jan 1, 2012 - September 2, 2012 (an extended time to try and reduce the effect of the Olympics) and found that on average, museums and arts organisations were already seeing an average of 20% mobile visits.  I also reported the percentage change from the same period last year so that people could get a sense of the velocity of change: on average there was a 170% increase in mobile visits to cultural websites compared to the same period in 2011.

We'll re-run the stats when writing the final report in July, but in the meantime, there's a recent significant increase in web traffic from tablet devices to take into account.  In BBC iPlayer: tablet viewing requests nearly double in two months the Guardian reported BBC figures:
"Tablets' share of total iPlayer requests grew from just 6% (TV only: 7%) in January 2012 to 10% (12%) in November and 15% (18%) last month. Smartphone requests have seen similar growth from 6% (TV only: 6%) of the total a year ago to 16% (18%) in January. [... ]A spokesman said it is thought the rise of the "phablet" – smartphones that are almost as big as a tablet, such as the Samsung Note – that have driven the surge."
Some museums are reporting seeing 40-50% increases in tablet traffic in the past few months. So, given all that, are apps the answer?  Over to Loosemore:
"Our position is that native apps are rarely justified. [...] Apps may be transforming gaming and social media, but for utility public services, the ‘making your website adapt really effectively to a range of devices’ approach is currently the better strategy. It allows you to iterate your services much more quickly, minimises any market impact and is far cheaper to support."
Obviously there are exceptions for apps that meet particular needs or genres, but this stance is part of their Government Digital Strategy:
"Stand-alone mobile apps will only be considered once the core web service works well on mobile devices, and if specifically agreed with the Cabinet Office." 
So if your cultural organisation is considering an app, perhaps you should consider the questions the GDS poses before asking for an exemption to the requirement to just build a responsive website:
  1. Is our web service already designed to be responsive to different screen sizes? If not, why not?
  2. What is the user need that only a native/hybrid app can meet?
  3. Are there existing native/hybrid apps which already meet this user need?
  4. Is our service available to 3rd parties via an API or open data? If not, why not?
  5. Does meeting this need justify the lifetime cost of a native or hybrid app?
What questions should we add for cultural heritage, arts and educational organisations?  (My pet hate: are you creating amazing content that's only accessible to people with the right device?) And since I know I'm being deliberately provocative - what exceptions should be allowed? What apps have you seen that could only work as an app with current technology?

* I can't claim credit for the challenge 'if an app is the answer, what was the question', it's been floating around for a while now and possibly originated at a Let's Get Real workshop or conference.

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