Greg Shine, Chief Ranger at the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, and I have been working on this FVM project for a couple of years now. He asked me recently what were my top tips for people considering starting such a project in other places. He wanted to share those, along with his tips, as part of the National Park Service's first Digital Media Webinar at the Washington D.C.-area training center, which is being attended right now, as I type, by Shine as well as by more than 90 employees from throughout national parks in the U.S. & territories (such as Virgin Islands, American Samoa, and Guam).
Here is what I wrote:
1. Make friends. No one person can create a high-quality mobile app alone, no matter how talented. The process just requires too many things to be done, in too many different fields, with too much expertise needed. Sweat equity builds these mobile apps, and the payoff for friends is the fun of collaborating together on a cool project.
2. Focus on something small and achievable. Ambitions will grow, no doubt, in the process, but the original idea should be something that a small team can build and celebrate as a success. Mobile devices can do it all – text, images, audio, video, animation, plus interactivity with contextual awareness – but an app creator will do best by starting with a series of small goals, and gradually chipping away at the bigger dream.
3. Stay focused on that original goal. It will be tempting to follow the siren call of mobile app possibilities. Just remember, something inspired you to build the mobile app for your site. Whatever that was, keep your eyes on it. Build it. When you are done, there always can be a Phase 2.
4. Don’t skimp on the backend. While the least interesting part of the mobile app is the invisible coding that makes it work, think of that component like the engine of a car. If your Ferrari of an idea can’t make it out of the driveway, then it’s just as valuable as your garden Gnome. Such backend work on a mobile app is much more complicated than even your programmer probably understands, because of the interactions it creates with non-coded physical space. Whatever your most conservative estimate is for programming costs and time, triple it. Then, triple that.
5. Avoid old patterns. A mobile app offers radically new opportunities. Explore them. Porting a wayside sign onto a mobile screen, for example, is no different in ambition than the companies in the mid-1990s who thought it was innovative to transfer their tri-fold brochures, as is, onto a web site.
6. Get to know your visitors. Take the time, do the research, and get to know your users in as much depth as possible. It is not just sufficient to know what users do at your site, because they very well may be following the rat maze you have created. Instead, try starting with a blank slate, and asking visitors what they would like to be doing at the site, and how, and let your imagination and your mobile app try to respond to those ideas.
7. Challenge all of your assumptions. The world of mediated spaces has changed so significantly during the past decade, with the mass adoption of mobile devices, and the growing abilities of them, that almost any habitual interpretive process you have could be outdated. Systematically test what you are doing. Don’t just assume it is working. Find out what actually is making connections with visitors, what isn’t, and what your visitors want right now and in the future. Move resources away from the past and toward the future. Serve your users, not your habits.
8. Quality is more important than quantity. It might be easy and seemingly helpful to dump all of your desktop-oriented web pages into the mobile device. But if those pages do not look good or work well on the device, then your users will develop a negative perception of your app and site. It might be difficult to create a small, yet high-quality object, on the mobile device, such as a high-res image, aligned with the physical space, and pushed to the user at a specific geolocated place, ripe for intellectual engagement. But which do you think would have a greater positive impact?
9. A professional app requires professional contributors, with professional equipment. It might be tempting to bring along cousin Billy, and niece Billyette, with the camcorder and a box of tapes, and try to reenact a scene from history in your backyard. And it certainly would be cheaper and less hassle. But the difference between that approach and a partnership with professional actors, videographers, costumers, editors, script writers, etc., is the difference between a Ken Burns’-like documentary aesthetic and a hack’s YouTube channel.
10. Do something fun. Don’t create a mobile app because you think you have to, or it should be done. Don’t assign it to somebody, or create an elaborate bureaucracy to handle the “mobile” issue. Find some aspect of your interpretation that you really think would be exciting as a mobile app. Work in that inspired space, of wanting this new piece of digital media to exist, because you want it to exist. If this project becomes just another chore, or task, to check off, everyone loses. If this project expresses something you passionately want to share with your visitors, because you know they want it, too, then you should start today. There is a lot of work, a lot of agony, and a lot of glory ahead of you.
Fort Vancouver Mobile - A video overview
Courtesy of: Research Assistant Aaron May of Washington State University Vancouver's Creative Media and Digital Culture program. Produced in 2011.
Video highlights from the apps (36-minute version)
This montage provides a sampling of some of the video media in the Fort Vancouver Mobile apps. This app is much more than just a video distribution system, but these videos show the variety of content, from expositional segments to new journalism to those intended to prompt the development of interactive narratives.
More about the fort
More about mobile storytelling ...
Phase One background
- William Kaulehelehe background
- Hawaiians at Fort main
- Hawaiians at Fort brochure
- Polynesian Cultural Center (Hawaii)
- Leaving Paradise book by Barman and Watson
- Crossing East (NPR excerpt on Hawaiians)
- Crossing East (radio series)
- Hula's history (NPR piece)
- Ke Kukui Foundation
- Na Hawaii
- Kalama ceremony (video)
- Clark County gov's Hawaiian link