Getting physical with mobile – What can the High Street learn from Museums?

As mobile technology becomes ever more central to consumers’ lives, museums can be an unlikely source of inspiration for businesses looking to use mobile technology to enhance physical experiences.

Museums are continually working to turn visitors into repeat visitors and to get them spending longer (and more money) on-site. As such, with each new technological advance comes a fresh wave of experimentation focused on creating engaging, in-gallery mobile experiences.

In recent times we’ve seen the National Maritime Museum using Augmented Reality (AR) to take visitors on journeys across its gigantic Great Map, and the Cleveland Museum of Art offering interactive interpretation with image recognition technology. Further afield, the Museum of New Art in Hobart gives visitors a say in the works it displays by asking them to ‘love’ or ‘hate’ artworks via iPhone.

These innovations change the nature of a visit. Learning becomes more akin to play, and so the relationship between visitors and museum alters, too. What once resembled a teacher-pupil relationship becomes a more involving, collaborative partnership.

Translated to retail, these are the sorts of tools that could enrich a high street shopping experience and help businesses bring their customers closer. Here, we share three things we’ve learned working with museums that we feel may be relevant to business considering using mobile out in the real world.

1. An exciting experience is more valuable than exciting technology

One of the hardest lessons for museums to learn has been that visitors won’t use technology for the sake of it.

Tools like AR may be enticing, but if all they do is let visitors access information they expect to find elsewhere (i.e. on the walls), they become more of a hindrance than a help.

Likewise, mobile falls flat when it only delivers the information museums want to share – what they think is important – rather than content that meets visitors’ interests and needs. (The difference between a bowl of All Bran and a pile of cakes.) In our experience, visitors tend to want to access the meaning and emotion behind a few, select objects, rather than know the basic dry facts about everything.
So great content is more important than the platform used to deliver it. If you’re making something for mobile just to take advantage of a new technology, then you’re doing it wrong.

2. Great ideas come from focusing on customers’ needs at very particular moments

To understand what will work for your customers, you need also to understand the moments they experience when engaging with you.
Often, using mobile can seem an encumbrance. In museums it can be a distraction from experiencing objects and the physical space. As such, it is important to find the opportunities when a customer’s curiosity is piqued and when they haven’t got something just as interesting competing for their attention.

Think about physical opportunities, too. Recently we’ve been working with an organisation using iPads to animate a sarcophagus emptied of its content (a mummy!) for ethical reasons.

Being able to ‘unearth’ a skeleton could add excitement and a sense of discovery – the archaeological experience – to a day out, where otherwise they could be left cold by an empty stone box.

3. Mobile design processes should be inclusive

We often see digital specialists working on mobile projects in isolation, but the most exciting digital projects are not necessarily coming out of digital teams.

The Museum of London’s learning team creates activity plans for kids based on using everyday apps. It lends visitors iPads and prompts them to make films or digital scrapbooks. This is an innovative use of technology, but one grounded in the understanding the team already has from years of experience working with families.

To get close to your customers, involve the teams that know them best and that work with them day-in, day-out. The key is to treat mobile not as a thing in itself, but as a way of capitalising on opportunities across your organisation.

The Future
Physically embedded mobile experiences represent a new frontier for technologists and businesses alike. They take us out beyond the more comfortable territory of online retail and social media engagement, and certainly there’s much more experimentation to be done. Let us know how you see the future. How is your business working to make the most of mobile’s potential?


Frankly, Green + Webb create mobile experiences that deliver inside the physical spaces of museums and galleries. With 25 years’ experience, we work to find the best ways to use technology that also meet audiences’ needs and fit with organisations’ missions. Our expertise is valued by clients across the world from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to the V&A, to the Van Gogh Museum.