Mobile Tours

Label from The 4'33" Museum by John Kannenberg on Flickr

Now that I’m out of grant proposal land and looking around, I realize I need to start thinking about an article I promised AAM, and a workshop at Museums and the Web I’m supposed be helping with.  Luckily both are about mobiles in museums, so I can ruminate on both at once fairly productively.  And I keep coming back to tours.  Many times over the past few years I’ve heard people say, “We should do a tour that will lead visitors on a learning journey throughout…” In fact, I’ve been listening to variations on this theme for about fifteen years.  So, let me say this with all due respect to everybody out there making tours, or selling tours, or creating platforms to let others make tours.

“Tours are not the be-all and end-all of mobile apps.”

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve done my share of tours. I love a good tour. They definitely have a place in the mobile landscape, but it’s a small one. There was time when a tour was really all you could do with the existing technology. But that time has passed.  A circa 2011 mobile app doesn’t need to be a “tour” with stops going from object to object. They can be interactive books, or catalogues, or magazines, or something entirely different – some new format that evolves from the unique attributes of touch screens, Internet connectivity and mobile technology. There are some terrific examples of non-tour apps out there  –  Scapes, Dinosaurs, Streetmuseum, and How It Is, among others.  All of these apps rise to the challenge of using more of the capabilities of a mobile and not just treating it like a portable computer or multimedia playback device.  Scapes is a great example of an experience that can only really be done on a mobile.  Check out my review of it.  It does a superb job of letting you forget about the device, if you want to. What else can we do that is that simple?

This trend toward making tours is a piece of the larger issue for me of creating mobile experiences that acknowledge and build on how people already use mobiles. If you were to start not from “We need an app so visitors think we’re relevant. Let’s make a tour.” But instead ask, “What do visitors do with mobiles and how can we build on that to deliver on our mission?” I think there’d be fewer tours.  Why? Because people do all kinds of non-toury things with their mobiles.

  • They use them to access information (onboard and streamed)
  • They use them to communicate with other people (voice, text, email)
  • They use them to navigate the real world (GPS, AR)
  • They use them to take and share pictures
  • They use them to listen to audio
  • They use them to play games

Starting from there, what kind of museum experiences would you build using mobiles?  Give me some examples or thoughts!  I’m dying to see what you come up with!


  1. Exactly. I was reminded justt yesterday of the way Nine Inch Nails approached their ‘concert app’ way way back in 2009. That app basically built out from the notion of fans at concerts already using their phones to take photos and then the app enhanced and socialized that behavior. Two years on it isnt so amazing but museums could learn a lot from that approach


  2. Hey Ed,

    I completely agree with you. At Toura our most successful apps have been more like enhanced catologues. These include the Art Institutes French Impressionism and British Library Treasures apps. The great things about these apps is that they work great while sitting on the couch or on some form of mass transit AND they also can provide supplemental info to visitors who visit the organizations with their mobile devices.

    There are still however great opportunities to create unique “tours” as well. I’m beginning to think that “app” and “tour” are starting to blur in the museum world where a reference to creating a mobile tour equates to creating an app of some sort meant to be used in the museum.

    Anyway, great topic. One that does come up a lot with our clients.

    Chris Alexander


  3. Thanks, Chris!

    You bring up a great point. People use apps in different contexts in different ways. And sometimes they might use the same app for different purposes depending on their context. If you consider those likely scenarios in the design phase, you can build in hooks or functionalities that reward users for engaging in these activities.


  4. Brilliant post Ed – captured my thoughts better than I could have done! Quite interesting that a lot of the non-tour museum apps are coming from the marketing departments, using interpretation to support their marketing rather than the other way around.


  5. I think StreetMuseum is probably the most well documented example – created as a part of the marketing campaign and developed by a marketing agency. Tate Trumps came out of Tate Media with support from the interpretation team. Keeping my eyes peeled for more, though.

    I find the origin of how these apps come about really interesting because audio/multimedia guides traditionally sat with education and were data driven. Now mobile and apps are starting to be lead by a wide range of teams with different needs.


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