Technology has changed the expectations of arts audiences, they no longer want information broadcast at them, they want tailored experiences available where and when they want them and the revolution in smart phones offers a powerful tool to achieve this.
Since the advent of the iPhone in 2008, smart phone ownership has grown at a rapid pace, with 47% of the UK population now owning such a device. With the relatively short timescale which people keep mobile phones (2 years) this is set to continue rise.
A smart phone app lets an arts organisation get into their audiences pockets, whether that is in the form of an exhibition guide, a promotional game or exclusive video of a new production, but this rush to be on mobile devices often seems to be done out of fear rather than for sound business reasons.
Many arts organisations feel under pressure to develop apps, worrying that they will fall behind the technological curve if they don’t offer a way to interact with them on the move and the result is poor apps and rich app developers.
Developing apps is an expensive business, with the average costing over £20,000. However the cost of reaching all smart phone users is far greater, as three main mobile operating systems exist (in November 2011 the three biggest players were iPhone with 30.9% of the UK market, Android 46.6% and BlackBerry 16.9%) and an app developed for one platform will not work on the other devices.
Faced with expensive development costs and fragmented smart phone platforms, I believe that arts organisations should take a step back from apps and first consider how their website is working on the smaller screen of these devices.
The mobile web isn’t as sexy as apps, but it has a vital role to play. Research suggests that while your existing audiences may download an app, those who are not already attending your exhibitions, productions or events are far more likely to end up on your website.
Over the past few years the amount of traffic to websites from smart phones has been steadily increasing, this isn’t seen by most as having reached a point where it is worth developing a website especially for smaller screen sizes, but I believe that doing this can increase traffic from these devices a huge amount.
In 2011 the English Heritage Picnic Concerts developed a mobile friendly website for the first time, the result was that half of the web traffic came from mobile devices, a much greater percentage than the usual 10% you would expect to see coming from smart phones.
Most websites don’t work well on smart phones, however responsive website design is changing that.
Traditionally, websites have been designed on a one size fits all basis. A website will be displayed the same on a large computer monitor as on a smart phone. Responsive website design changes this. The website is designed to be fluid, changing how and what it displays depending on the device.
This means for example that you are able to reduce the content shown on a mobile phone to focus more on the kind of information your audiences will need on the move, highlighting what’s on and how to find your venue while hiding less important information such as news and collections.
It is important with responsive websites to think about your content before the design, so that you can prioritise which information is essential for all users to see, and what can be hidden for those browsing on mobile devices.
Responsive website design is now the industry standard, and any cultural organisation looking at redeveloping their website should demand a solution that will work across devices ranging from large desktop computer monitors down to the smallest smart-phone.
Two recent responsive websites which we’ve launched at my agency will give you some idea of how responsive works, York Minster and Tyne and Wear Museums and Archives. Look at these two websites on different devices and you’ll quickly understand the benefits of responsive website design.