Historical Places Apps

UNESCO World Heritage iPhone/iPad App: Challenges Publishers Face in the Age of Digital Convergence


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.

Or does it?

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.

Why Visit? 3 iPhone Apps for Historic Places


Let me confess up front that I have a weak spot for apps that focus on local historic areas.  These are like someone inviting you into their home. This is where they live and work. There’s an element of pride based upon a true appreciation for a place that shines through the best of these apps. Even if it’s unlikely you’ll be able to make the physical journey to everyone one of these, the best historic places apps create a soft spot in your heart that you don’t forget by taking you on a mental journey. Let’s begin with a warm invitation to the Strawbery Banke Museum.

The Strawbery Banke Museum

App icon for Strawbery BankeMuseumRated Four StarsHave you seen the travel book series “Why Stop?” such as this one for Texas. Each book covers the historical markers in a state so that as you drive across the state you can read about the markers on your route and choose to stop at the ones that interest you or in reading about them become more informed about the places you are traveling through.  Perusing through the App Store the first question an app developer for a historic place answers is “why stop?”. Why stop and spend time with this app and then why stop and visit the historic place with which it is associated.

For me the above video answers the first question for this wonderful app developed by John Forti, Curator of Historic Landscape, in partnership with Audissey Guides (too bad the App Store doesn’t allow the embedding of videos in the app description) and this very well developed app answers the second question. After spending time with this app I really do want to visit the Strawbery Banke Museum one day.

Located in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, “Strawbery Banke today is unique among outdoor history museums – tracing 375 years of history in one of America’s oldest continuously occupied neighborhoods. The 10-acre site, with its authentically restored houses and shops, period gardens, and costumed role players, presents the daily lives of ordinary people who lived here – from Colonial times to World War II, from the mundane to the elegant, from economic boom to war time austerity – in engaging and accessible ways. Strawbery Banke Museum is a capsule of New England seaport life across four centuries.” (from the museum’s website).

Screenshot of Strawbery Banke map with 29 stops identified

Touch screen map with 29 stops

Navigating the Strawbery Banke app is super easy and intuitive.  From the “Home” screen tap “Property Map” and you are taken to an interactive map of the museum’s ten acres.  I really appreciate this design because including this interactive map is not only useful for the onsite visitor but also draws in the app visitor to the place. If however, you prefer a list view simply tap “Sites”. Tap stop #1 and there is an brief introductory video that invites the viewer “to come discover your place in the unfolding story of America”. This welcome is a nice touch that some apps skip. Tapping on each of the 29 stops takes the user to a screen with 1-3 videos to choose from. The variety of voices and the accompanying musical score really  do a good job of bringing user into the museum grounds. Strawbery Banke comes alive as historical pictures and illustrations are interspersed with pictures of the contemporary space.

After spending time with this app the user really feels like you’ve visited someplace. And someplace you want to return to again and again to discover the little gems provided in each stop. Tapping “Visitor Info” on the “Home” screen takes the user to a screen with links for “Events”, “Hours & Admission”, “Directions” and “About this Application”.  Overall an uncluttered navigation design. The only thing missing is any integration with social networks or the possibility to email links to the video clips to friends which I was tempted to do on the one on “Victorian Children’s Garden” in which the listener is encourage to think of encouraging the children you know to have their own garden to tend.

The Strawbery Banke Museum app is available for free from Apple’s App Store and well worth checking out. It is compatible with iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad and requires iOS 3.1 or later.

Chester: Revealing The Rows

App icon for Chester: Revealing the Rows

Rated Two StarsLocated about forty minutes south of Liverpool in the UK is the town of Chester which, in partnership with Imagemakers , has incorporated the children’s game of i-spy into a stroll through historic Chester.  The Rows are a system of covered walkways that run through the fronts of buildings and are found on the four main streets of Chester. This app is a game where participants try to spot one of thirty different objects from the city motto of “Aniqui Colant Aintiquum Dierum” (Let the Ancients Worship the Ancient of Days) to the marking on a building of “1274 AD” for when King Edward I of England used Chester as a base to attack the Welsh.  As the app says, “Not great for the Welsh, but good for business in the Rows!”. Each of the thirty items are assigned a point value from two to ten points each and up to four people can play together.  The thirty objects are divided into three themes: “Ancient shopping mall”, “2000 years of history” and “People and places”. In order to “spot” all thirty objects in the game one must play the game three times, each time choosing a different theme.

Screenshot of The Hand

Screenshot of "The Hand"

A list view displays the ten objects in the theme the players are trying to spot and tapping on each takes the user to a screen such as the one to the right for “The Hand”. Tapping “Look” on this screen results in a full screen view of the object. Tapping “Map” displays a map of the Rows with the location of the object.  “More” simply means in this case a more complete description of the objects significance to the history of Chester.  Once the object is spotted the user taps “Seen it”.  Modest in its ambitions this app is an interesting example of leveraging the game model to increase one’s knowledge a historical area.

Chester: Revealing the Rows incorporates no multimedia which is a shame. Although playing around with this app does not inspire me to visit historic Chester it does give me a brief appreciation for its place in history. Mostly though I kept wondering what it might be like to merge this app with the next one in today’s post: DigiMacq.

Chester: Revealing the Rows is a free app and is compatible with iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad and requires iOS 3.0 or later.


App icon for DigiMacq

Rated Three StarsFor our next historical places app we’re going down under to Parramatta in The Heart of Greater Western Sydney (as this video by the Parramatta City Council is entitled).  DigiMacq is the app as history channel focusing on the historic centre of Parramatta.  Six beautifully produced vignettes take the viewer on a journey into the past with oral narratives reflecting historical sources and actors playing the roles of the central characters in the drama of the cities early history.  This app is entertaining but frustrating.  It’s the first app I’ve come across in some time that forces the user to follow the tour lock step from start to finish.  And I do mean in lock step. The user is given no navigation options to move around in any order other than the one designed. This app may or may not be designed primarily for grade school children (I’m waiting on confirmation from the developer) but it has the feel of a DVD being played in a grade school history class.  However, I wonder if it would appeal to today’s children.

As I mentioned in the review on Chester: Revealing the Rows I really kept imagining blending these two apps.  Take the production value of DigiMacq with its beautifully crafted multimedia narratives and combine that with Chester’s three themes and game playing model and I could see a much more engaging app than either of these two individually are.

Screenshot of Parramatta Park

Screenshot of Stop #1Parramatta Park

Don’t link to social media if you don’t have a follow up plan in place.

When you finish the multimedia tour you are invited to take a survey (but the link doesn’t lead to a survey only to SurveyPirate where you can create your own survey).  Additionally the user is provided a link for DigiMacq’s Facebook Page where we read that “the DigiMacq Facebook page has been set up as so users from all around the world can discuss their experience and meet other DigiMacq users!”.  Sounds like a plan however, the two most recent post on the wall are spam and there are no discussions in the discussions tab.  Follow the link to “follow the DigiMacq journey on Twitter” and you find a hand full of tweets from months ago.  It seems like the developers had good intentions for incorporating social media into the experience but it seems to have fallen short. I’ve reached out to the developers to find out what happened here and will update this if I’m successful in reaching them.

DigiMacq is a free app available on Apple’s App Store and is compatible with iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad. Requires iOS 4.0 or later.

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