Forget apps and get responsive

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.

12 Responses to “Forget apps and get responsive”

  1. Kat says:

    I completely agree, I find it particularly frustrating here in Australia where iPhone ownership is much higher most arts organisations only develop iPhone apps, which locks me out as an android user. A really good mobile website is preferable.

  2. Yes, I too agree that a mobile-friendly website is a top priority and that we should think about content first – that is the only thing that has a chance to survive the fast change of platforms and provide some long-term return on the investment.

    I think there is some dissent about having the mobile site be a stripped-down version of the immobile site since a lot of people use their mobile devices in “immobile” situations when they could be using their laptops or desktops. And would be interested to hear how others approach this. I have found that I sometimes prefers to hold the screen in my hand, or find that the mobile interface is better than the web interface, so will use my phone when I could use a keyboard and big screen instead. As the retina displays and mobile interfaces become better, will this be a growing trend?

    Also, can you point us to this research you mention? “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.”


  3. Kevin Bacon says:

    Wholly agree with you re responsive design, and mobile optimisiation is one of the priorities we’ve identified for the redevelopment of the Royal Pavilion and Museum’s website.

    But is it really a case of mobile-friendly website vs app? To my mind they are two very different platforms, and accompanied by different user behaviour. We released an app for iOS and Android late last year that, in its present iteration, is based on content that can be found on our website. Our business model was based on using it to provide an offer on entry to a paid attraction, and using it to cross-promote some of our outlying sites, and the ROI has exceeded our expectations.

    The main appeal of apps is that they will work in areas of low connectivity, and users seem to like the sense of ownership that comes with a bounded product. Although it won’t suit every museum, it is possible to build a business model on those foundations. Apps are also becoming much cheaper to develop, particularly when they can be built around a template.

    I don’t really think apps are rivals to websites at all. In many ways, they are more like a digital version of the What’s On guide and other paper brochures.

  4. Jim Richardson says:

    Hi Kevin

    I agree that the two things apps and responsive are different beasts and don’t need to compete, I guess the only problem is limited budgets and the temptation tends to be to opt to spend budget on a new app rather then updating a website which could have been made responsive.

    I the UK a very small number of museums have gone responsive (I can think of Tyne and Wear Museums and Archives, TATE and maybe National Museums Scotland), but many seem to have apps…


    • Kevin says:

      Hello Jim,

      I think the problem is that substantial redevelopment of an existing website can often be a complicated process, as it will depend on the structure of the existing site, the relationship with the developer, and consulting numerous staff within an organisation. By contrast, an app is less likely to be entwined in any corporate infrastructure, so it’s a comparatively easy thing to commission. The temptation is clear: why refit the battleship when you could buy a shiny new speedboat instead?

      I suspect many museums will hold off mobile-friendly improvements until they come to wholly redevelop their websites.


  5. Jim Richardson says:

    Hi Nancy

    The research I refer to was by Pizza Hut about the difference between those using their app and those browsing their mobile website.

    Their fans have the app, while those who are new customers or who aren’t so passionate about ‘hitting the hut’ tended to use the mobile website.

    The source of this information was either your book or a presentation by Seb Chan (sorry my notes are unclear).


  6. Expectations: There is a difference between broadcast and involvement, between being a contributor versus being entertained. What we saw with the (dreadfully named and undefined Web 2.0) was the migration of the Internet from an information system to a communication system. Most current apps are still in the early phase of digital evolution – just presenting the same information on a new medium. There are many good app examples but development is a democratic platform and there will be as many poor apps as there are poor web pages- it is up to each site/app to determine what is valuable to their audience.

    The “average” cost of apps aside (I hear figures from $5,000 to $50,000) the investment in a good app should provide a different and value-add experience rather than app-duplicate information on an existing medium.

    The only question remaining for websites is that with new devices rendering high quality, high resolution web pages does the user want to be presented with a “lower-level” mobile experience? Increasingly the device and interface allow for a full (albeit small) experience without compromise… I often choose the full web-site from the met office as I find the mobile version does not display enough information for me!

    As long as all sites are well designed (light, fast, fluid, responsive, plug-in free) the mobile experience can be complete and immersive and complimentary to app solutions.

  7. Responisve design isn’t necessarily about reducing content for mobile devices (though sometimes that may be a good choice). It’s ideally about designing for mobile first and progressively enhancing as viewport width increases. This has the added benefit of focusing on the essentials rather than throw in content and features just because there happens to be screen real-estate available.

    The technical challenge in doing the above usually lies in reducing the weight of the pages to ensure very quick loading speeds also over slower connections. This means e.g. optimizing media for different resolutions (including making versions for retina display), using vector graphics for icons, and loading only the CSS and JavaScript that will actually be used at the current viewport. Sadly there are no good standardized ways of doing this so everyone pretty much makes their own hacks.

    In terms of functionality though, at least for fairly simple sites, there’s usually no problem having the same functionality and content for desktop and mobile (or rather large and small viewports). The Europeana Exhibitions ( and Europeana 1914-1918 site ( ) are both responsive sites with the same capabilities and content, but with content presented in slightly different ways depending on viewport (and loading images of different resolutions at different viewports). Performance was certainly, and remains, the main challenge in these two implementations.

    My main annoyance otherwise with the 1914-1918 site is that Apple doesn’t allow its Safari browser access to local files making actually contributing your WWI-story on an iPad or iPhone impossible. Otherwise tablets are really useful at our Collection Days. That’s what I don’t like about Apple – pushing you towards a native app (when there’s no need for one) which of course will also be available via their walled app garden.

    So personally I’d go for native apps only when you really want to offer the user the ability to interact with your product and using their onboard devices and sensors when doing so.

  8. Jim Richardson says:

    I think that whether the content should be stripped down for mobile or not really depends on the way that people are using a website… analytics have the answer.

  9. Lynda Kelly says:

    Hi there. We launched our responsive website in May and it has been received vey well by users and staff. I wrote a short piece on museums and responsive design that adds to this discussion:

    My view is responsive every time unless there’s a good reason for something different…

  10. TJ Gokcen says:

    I think, if you are only delivering content in a different way, then a responsive web site is much more useful, as you can use you resources much more efficiently.

    However, if you are aiming to bring “some functionality”, or some kind of “social activity”, the an app may be the way to go. For example, it could be an app that provides a portal like interface to the museum members, or provide public access to its collection of videos. These types of applications seem to be more befitting for a mobile app rather than a web site.

    Having said that, it should also be noted that HTML5 based mobile applications are getting more and more traction – it could be possible to use one code base in the future to provide a foundation for different functional applications – web site, web app, mobile app etc. There is already a trend going towards this direction.

  11. Netpleb says:

    Hi Jim

    bit late to the post but can you let me know where you got the data for this from, specifically the research around people not already attending venues are more likely to end up on the website.