The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has partnered with Harper Collins and the folks at Aimer Media to develop an app which is a comprehensive pocket reference guide to the 911 World Heritage sites. Based upon a book between Collins and UNESCO, the UNESCO World Heritage app allows you to search through these sites by alphabetical index, year inscribed, country, or the classification of the site (Cultural, Natural, Mixed). The user can also add sites to a list of favorites, review a list of the last 20 sites the user has viewed, or tap “Random” allowing the app to pick a site for the user to view. When the user selects a category to search by, say sites classified as Cultural, the user can then search within this subset either alphabetically or via a search field. The strength of this app is the ease of use by which one can navigate and explore the UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Each site has an individual screen which provides a dashboard overview including criteria for selection, a brief text introduction, a map of the site’s location, usually a thumbnail picture, and a tab for “Extra Information”. Prominent “+” markers in each area clearly indicate that tapping one of these fields will yield more related information. Tap the map and the user gets a Google map view of the site. Tap the thumbnail picture and the image fills the screen allowing the user to zoom and pan. Tapping the brief text description and the screen flips revealing a fuller description. In a very user friendly manner the developers have even included a settings screen within the app (as opposed to having the user uncover this under the device’s settings–how many users even think to look there?) which allows the user to set the font size for the expanded text views. You can choose from 8 point font to 49 point font. User patience for text within a museum or culture app on a mobile device is limited (And this observation is limited to mobile phones. Tablets represent a different experience and set of expectations). Tools such as this contribute to a better user experience and demonstrate thoughtfulness on the part of the developer.
Tap the “Extra Information” tab and the user receives additional text and links to “read more about this site” and “view related site photos” which take the user to the World Heritage Convention website. Aimer Media did a good job here in designing the viewport so that the user can take a look at this extra information on the website without leaving the app or opt to view the information in Safari. If the user chooses to stay in the app a navigation button in the top header allows the users to return to the “Extra Information” page. This is the way apps should reference resources external to the app itself. Allowing the user to peek at the resources and then have the option to proceed, in this case to the web via Safari, or return to the content within the app. The claims the developers make in the description are true: the UNESCO World Heritage app couldn’t be easier to use. In this app UNESCO, Collins and Aimer Media have a solid foundation upon which to build future versions of the app.
Perhaps the most intriguing element of this app is its $7.99 (US) price (See 2/10/11 update on price below). Intriguing because of the nearly 140 iPhone apps now listed on Museums2Go the UNESCO World Heritage app has the highest price point. From one perspective the analog book version retails for approximately $32, although Amazon has it for about $16. So as a reference ebook relative to the analog version the app falls within the expected price range while providing an easy to use navigation format and a single tap away to additional online resources. The question of price though centers around what are the users expectations for a cultural heritage app versus an ebook on the same topic. This is an open question. The average price on Apple’s App Store for an ebook is twice that of a regular paid app. As apps go the $7.99 price point of the UNESCO app places it within realm of the highest average price for an app which is within medical apps. Still as apps and ebooks converge what will be the best way for publishers to navigate this uncharted terrain?
Also relevant to the UNESCO app are the other apps on the App store related to UNESCO sites. World Heritage Sites is available for $4.99. World Heritage is available for free. And World Heritage for iPhone is $1.99. These are unofficial apps which rely on Wikipedia, Flickr and other online resources. Although I’m not going to review the unofficial apps here, users will. Developers of official apps face a challenge to include content of such substance, quality and uniqueness that it is apparent to all the value the app provides relative to the unofficial alternatives. Does the official UNESCO app provide a definitive edge in user experience over the unofficial alternative apps? How a user answers this question will be critical to the success of the UNESCO app. In following up with Harper Collins and Aimer Media they note the reliance of the aforementioned unofficial apps on web-based information not checked or authorized by UNESCO. Not to mention that with the official app the proceeds actually go to support UNESCO. Additionally the developers of the official UNESCO app note the advantages of the official app working offline such as when traveling to the World Heritage sites.
It doesn’t take long for the UNESCO World Heritage app user to begin to interface as much with the UNESCO World Heritage website as with the app. And there’s the rub. The app undoubtedly offers an easier to navigate in-the-palm-of-your-hand experience than does navigating the website from the same device. The app also doesn’t rely on the speed of the network connection for navigating among the dashboards for individual heritage sites. But does the app offer $7.99 in value over the freely available resources on the UNESCO World Heritage site to which it frequently links? That, in essence, is the question the potential user must decide. The easy to use navigation of the app sets up the possibilities for an exclusive user experience but presently the app doesn’t offer anything over the website in terms of content. And with the iPad this absence is even more apparent. Whereas with the iPhone the app provides a much more user friendly interface than navigating the website in Safari on the iPhone, the iPad user doesn’t experience the same degree of compromise and therefore the value of the app as an interface is diminished. Once the iPad user navigates to the UNESCO website there is little reason to return to the app except regarding network access and speed. The text content on the app and on the web is in most cases either verbatim or an extremely close proximity of each other. Admittedly the experience of navigating the 911 World Heritage sites is facilitated by the easy to use design of the app but is this feature alone worth $7.99 to the user? This comparison assumes an internet connection but then so do the links on every heritage site dashboard within the app. The navigational design of the UNESCO World Heritage app is excellent but the content needs to be enriched a bit before being able to command what in the app world is currently a premium price. This is not meant to detract from the value of the content within the current version of the app only that the value would be more substantially underscored by richer, exclusive to the app multimedia content.
The UNESCO World Heritage app is available for $7.99 from the Apple App Store. Compatible with iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad. Requires iOS 3.1 or later.
UPDATE: February 10, 2011. The UNESCO app is now available for $4.99 from the Apple App Store.
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
The current version (1.0) of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) app is as a study in creating a frustrating user experience. This app, in its current version, is not ready for prime time. Twice in exploring this app I’ve had to uninstall and reinstall the app in order to proceed. This app doesn’t crash but it does lead the user down poorly designed paths from which there is no return. No hints. No suggestions. Just a dead end. Although graphically the LACMA app is aesthetically appealing the accumulated frustration from frictions great and small in interacting with the app results in a poor user experience overall.
The LACMA app excels at giving the user a quick look at current events at the museum but struggles with providing an engaging experience for the virtual visitor. As such the frequent LACMA visitor may be more likely to forgive the shortcomings of the current version. A quick tap on “Today” and the user has a handy, concise view of current and upcoming events. Digging deeper into the app is where the friction occurs and the frustration mounts. On Apple’s App Store the LACMA app is described as “by Los Angles County Museum of Art“. It is that lack of attention to detail that is symptomatic of this app.
Let’s begin with the start screen where the text invites “Welcome, Welcome to LACMA. Swipe to see this week’s highlights”. This is a promising prompt. Just be careful which way you swipe. If you swipe left to right a blur of pictures whirls past. If from this point the user then attempts to swipe right to left the pictures blur past again until you are back at the welcome screen. It’s really a most frustrating welcome. With patience the user manages to read the designer’s mind on which way to swipe when. This experience aside what is appreciated here is the front and center highlights for this week at the LACMA.
Swiping to a current exhibition “India’s Fabled City: The Art of Courtly Lucknow” there is an information icon “i” in the title and tapping that reveals a text based description of the exhibition. There are no pictures from the exhibition here but at the bottom of the exhibition description is the text “See 19th century photographs of the city of Lucknow” and a link indicating “VIEW SLIDESHOW (you will be redirected to Flickr)”. Sounds like a promising use of Flickr. The problem is once the user is finished exploring the Slideshow there’s no obvious way out of Flickr to return to the app. Initially I thought the app had redirected me to Flickr via Safari but when I pressed the iPhone’s home button and then tapped the LACMA app icon I still ended up stuck in Flickr.
Another interesting design choice in this app is that all of the descriptions are white text on a black background. Yes, it looks stylish but it’s not very user friendly in a mobile app. As Webdesigner Depot noted about websites, “Most people don’t like viewing light text against a dark background on websites because it strains their eyes, making for a much less enjoyable experience“. Combine this stylistic choice of white text on a black background with an inability to increase the size of the font and the developer is inviting user frustration on a mobile device. My suggestion would be to use the stylistic choice of white text on a dark background sparingly on screens within the app where there is minimal text.
On a high note, four of the current exhibitions contain brief videos which are a welcome introduction to the respective exhibitions. For the exhibition “Fashioning Fashion: European Dress in Detail, 1700-1915” the user is treated to Vogue magazine editor Lisa Love’s perspective. The exhibition “Olmec: Colossal Masterworks of Ancient Mexico” there is an interview with the muralist who created two murals based on ancient iconography for the exhibition. And for “Steve Wolfe on Paper” and “Blinky Palermo: Retrospective 1964-1977” an introduction to each is exhibit is provided by curator Franklin Sirmans. These videos plus the prominent placement of the current exhibitions within the app provide the user with a quick way to see what’s up at the LACMA and decide if they want to visit.
In a nice innovation the LACMA app start page provides the user with a convenient way to purchase tickets in advance. Unfortunately, the first step is to create an account. Once the user creates an account by entering their email address and creating a password they are then presented with a screen in which the the only mention of tickets is a button for “My Tickets”. Tapping “My Tickets” the user receives a blank screen because the user hasn’t purchased any tickets. The user has to, without any prompts, navigate back to the start screen and re-tap “Tickets” to start the purchasing process a second time. Is that really a good user experience? Why not follow convention and allow the user to first purchase the tickets and in the checkout create the account? And is creating an account really necessary for a single visit? There’s also an element of redundancy here. The “Login” button on the start screen seems to exist only for the purpose of accessing “My Tickets” after they’ve been purchased. While the ability to purchase tickets via the app is much appreciated it seems there could be a smoother overall experienced designed for doing so.
The menu options across the top of the LACMA app’s start screen are “LACMA”, “Today”, “Art”, “Map” and “Tour”. Tapping “LACMA” takes the user back to the start screen highlighting the exhibition the user last viewed. “Today” provides a convenient list view of what is on view at the museum and also provides a brief look ahead at upcoming events. In addition to yet a third view of the current exhibitions tapping “Art” allows the users to view information on thirty “Great Works from LACMA’s Collections”. Remember to follow the earlier developer’s rules about which way to swipe because they also apply here. The user is presented with a single image of the work of art with no ability to zoom or pan. Tapping “Info” the user receives a screen a description in white text on a black background. That’s it. No podcasts. No videos. No additional images. However, if you locate a work which you want to share with a friend along the lines of “Hey, let’s check this out at the LACMA” there are buttons for Facebook and Twitter. User beware! Remember what happened with tapping Flickr earlier. Finding yourself stuck in Flickr. The only exit was to uninstall and reinstall the app. It happens here again with the Twitter icon. Suddenly LACMA became my Twitter app. If you want to return to the app you’ll have to uninstall and reinstall the app. And of course you are right by your computer when you discover this aren’t you? One plus though was that the text the LACMA app pre-populated my tweet with is specific to the work of art I tapped the Twitter icon from. In this case providing a link to Andy Warhol’s “Kellogg’s Corn Flakes Boxes” on the LACMA website. This was handy as the website indicates that this work of art is “Not currently on public view”. That’s an odd message to receive for one of the 30 highlighted works on an app.
Pursuing another path in the app let’s take a look at another of the 30 highlighted works: “Michael Jackson and Bubbles” by Jeff Koons. On the LACMA website one can download a video for this artwork in English, Korean and Spanish. But the app user doesn’t have this option as this video isn’t included in the app for some reason. Although the description provided on the app follows the same script as the video narrator some users might find the video to be a better user experience than reading the small white text on the black background. In any case having the option, given the content already exist, would broaden the accessibility of this information. One nice option provided with each description is a button to “Map it”. Tap “Map it” and the app shows you a very nice graphic representation of which building the art work is located within. This is handy given that the LACMA complex consists of seven buildings on twenty acres. “Michael Jackson and Bubbles” is located on the third floor of the Broad Contemporary Art Museum. Got it. At this point it would be nice to be able to tag the work as a favorite or some way to allow the user to bookmark art works they are interested in seeing in advance of a visit. In any case we know where “Michael Jackson and Bubbles” is located now how do we get back to the highlights. Oddly there’s no obvious way to return to the last place in the highlights the user was at prior to tapping “Map it”. The user has to intuit that tapping “Art” on the top menu bar again and “Great Works from the LACMA’s Collections” again will cause “Michael Jackson and Bubbles” to return to the screen. Make it easier on the user by always providing an obvious navigation path to return back down the path from which they navigated to get to the present screen.
Tap “Map” on the top menu bar and the user views a very nice 3-D graphical representation of the LACMA complex. There are little red pin dots at various points on the map. Tap on a red pin dot and the name of the building, park, piazza etc pops up. The user must make a second, and unnecessary, tap on this title bar before receiving any additional information. In some cases the additional information provided shows which of the 30 highlighted works are in that location. In other cases the user sees the message “Update Coming Soon”. Interestingly “Update Coming Soon” is the message one receives for the “Urban Light Palm Garden” which is featured on the app’s start screen and which also, as one of the highlighted 30 works of art, has a description elsewhere on the app.
The final option on the top menu bar is “Tour”. Unfortunately, the user has to be on site and looking at the work of art to see the code to enter first in order to access the tour. Oddly when the user taps the area “Enter Code Here” a qwerty keyboard pops up when it is a numeric code that is to be entered. The user’s required to make that additional tap to access the small numbers on the standard keyboard. Wouldn’t it have been considerate to have a numeric keypad with larger number buttons to tap pop up? Since the prompt to enter a code indicates that the format for the code is 7xx the adventurous user can type in random 7xx numbers to see what shows up. In any case what the user finds is more white text on a black background. No audio or video clips on this tour apparently.
The LACMA app is available for free on Apple’s App Store. Compatible with iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad. Requires iOS 4.2 or later.