A Mobile Guide App Platform Prototype with Front-end Evaluation and Potential Business Model for Museums in Finland

Shuchen Wang, Finland


Museums in Finland operate as a network with a centralized management for collections and administration due to the moderate size of their buildings, collections, exhibitions, and numbers of visitors. This network provides a good base to develop a mobile tool for the purpose of audience outreach and exhibition mediation, which are presently weak in the mobile and web environment. This paper concludes the first part of an ongoing research project in the analysis of the conditions for developing such a tool, describing the conditions and verifying the hypothesis that a distributed mobile guide app platform as a tool would attract more visitors to museums and better facilitate museum communication. The first task has been to deal with the existing literature and public archives. The second task has been to describe the prototypes in information architecture, in-app features as GPS, interactive maps, links to social media, etc. The third task has been carried out as a front-end evaluation and with suggested business models, knowing that a thorough app user experience study combined with a museum visitor behavior study as a second part of the research project will later be able to provide more complete insight.

Keywords: museum communication, mobile application, audio guide, distributed platform, business model

1. Introduction

Ubiquitous mobile technology has made it possible for museums to offer numerous applications in the form of multimedia guides, podcast publications, and gamified education programs. However, to most museums in Finland, a mobile guide app is still unachievable. The reasons for this are manifold. Being the homeland of Nokia and Angry Bird, innovative telecommunication technology is certainly not in short supply; neither is the required building infrastructure. The mindset of decision makers in the cultural heritage sector is perhaps the key for Finnish museums deciding to go for mobile and web or not. There are still concerns in Finland about intellectual property protection, as illustrated by two articles “Copyright Protection and Exploitation of Digital Cultural Heritage” and “Protection of Intellectual Property: A Must in Digital Content Exploitation” in Chapter 20 of the EVA conference publication Digital Applications for Cultural and Heritage Institutions (2005). However, things are changing, as Petrie (2013) argued in the Guardian article “Dear museums: the time is right to embrace mobile”. Museums are being asked to be responsive and relevant to the information needs of society (MacDonald G.F. & Alsford S.; 2010). A distributed museum mobile guide app platform can be developed as a tool to meet the challenge of museum outreach and exhibition mediation in the mobile and web environment when there are limited resources in budgets and personnel.

This paper first investigates the Finnish museum landscape in order to identify the conditions and use-cases for such an app platform. The results of this study are favorable because the museums are of modest size in all aspects but use a strong networked system for collection management, research activity, funding allocation, and organizational administration. Secondly, the paper describes the prototype app platform with demonstrations of the information architecture and the in-app features. Thirdly, it reports the results of a front-end evaluation in the form of an online survey and interview in order to speculate if this app meets the needs of young visitors and facilitates museum communication. The suggested business models of the app platform are intended to solve the problem of insufficient budget and manpower.

2. Why a distributed museum mobile guide application platform in Finland?

2.1 The museum landscape of Finland 

According to the Finnish Tourist Board (www.visitfinland.com), Finland’s cultural beat is more into classic design and music than historical relics and monuments. Nevertheless, as museums represent and strengthen the nation’s cultural identity, they were of central importance in the Nationalist movement in the period that lead Finland to achieving full independence from Russia in 1917. Museums are still today regarded as essential to conserve material culture and collective memory as well as to encourage Finnish communities’ social engagement.

The museum history of Finland started in the 18th century when it was still part of Sweden and continued when it was a grand duchy within Russia until the early 20th century. The Museum Act decreed in the 1960s was a continuation of this tradition. According to national statistics (www.museo.fi), there are currently over 1,000 museums in Finland, a country with a population about five million. There are seven UNESCO World Heritage sites in Finland. One third of all museums in the country are run professionally and the rest are managed locally by volunteers. There are museums in every city or town throughout the country; however, they are in all aspects moderate in size.

Unlike “encyclopedic” museums, the Finnish museums operate in accordance with a well-established network system. Only a few of them are “complete” museums with all four conventional functions, that is, collection, research, exhibition, and education. Most of them undertake one or two of these or none at all. Rich in diversity but modest in content, the centralized management in collection related matters is efficient and economical. This advanced museum management network would be beneficial to developing the distributed museum mobile guide app platform for data gathering and communication.

2.2 The management structure of Finnish museums and the funding resources

The Department for Culture, Sport and Youth Policy of the Ministry of Education and Culture is responsible for the museum system and cultural heritage (www.mindu.fi). The National Board of Antiquities under the Ministry is in charge of museum management and development. Together with the Board, there are 3 national museum groups to carry out collection-related tasks in acquisition, conservation, research, and restoration. In addition, there are also 14 national museums. A few of these are managed under other authorities, e.g. the Military Museum under the Ministry of Defence, and some cultural sites under the Ministry of Environment.

The three national museum groups well illustrate the museums’ networked system.

  1. National Board of Antiquities: National Museum of Finland, 20 national museums and castles around Finland.
  2. National Museum of Natural History: Museum of Natural History, Kaisaniemi Botanical Garden, Kumpula Botanical Garden, Mineral Cabinet.
  3. Finnish National Gallery: Ateneum Museum, Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma, Sinebrychoff Art Museum.

These depict well the main museum landscape. The leading unit runs a centralized collection management system and administers the research activities of the group. Within this system, each museum or exhibition building organizes its own exhibitions and educational events.

Additionally, there are 38 regional museums, all working in a similar way to invigorate the regional cultural life. According to the Ministry of Education and Culture, there are around 160 professionally-run museums responsible for more than 300 cultural heritage sites with a total collection exceeding 4.5 million objects. 53% of these museums are managed by local authorities (www.minedu.fi). Furthermore the Finnish Museums Association, with 200 societies and 385 museum members, interacts closely with the international museum forums; e.g. ICOM, ICCROM, ICOMOS, and UNESCO (www.museoliito.fi). The Association is also responsible for carrying out special projects; e.g. cultural capital development, digitization, museum shop development, and historical re-enactments.

The funding for Finnish museums comes mainly from the government. In general, the government and local authorities contribute 40% each to finance the museum work and the remaining 20% comes from ticket sales, sponsorship, gift shops, etc. (www.minedu.fi) Furthermore, the Ministry of Education and Culture grants specific funding on a case-by-case basis to conserve museum buildings and fund ICT projects, digitizing collections, special exhibition programs, etc. The EU Structural Fund, the National Board of Antiquities, and some private cooperative foundations are also possible funding resources for the museums.

The generation of revenues for museum work is becoming topical in Finland, just as in other European countries, due to the economic recession in the recent years. In this light, the emergence of service economies boosted by the new media technology may open doors for these non-profit cultural organizations to increase revenues. The cultural contents of museums can be the best resource for the creative industry with new media technology to generate new productions on various digital platforms. This app platform with smartphones can be a good value-add to the existing methods of museum marketing, such as ticket sales, souvenirs, copyright leasing, etc.

2.3 Insufficient presence of Finnish museums in the mobile and web environment

Despite being the original homeland of Nokia and Angry Birds, Finland’s museums do not seem keen to embark on the exploitation of the mobile and web environment – or at least the notable attempts have been scarce. It was only in 2012 that the mobile website of the Finnish Museum Association was launched (www.museo.fi). The number of participating members remains low, the provided information is insufficient, and updating is not timely. As regards mobile apps, except in 2011 the National Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma provided an app for Symbian with Nokia N9 and in 2012 the Word Design Capital of Helsinki got an app available for Symbian, Windows Phone, iOS, and Android (www.wdchelsinki2012.fi), there are no other examples of the use of a museum app to be found.

The common reply from most museum directors to the question of why they do not have a museum app is that their museum is so small, or as described by the Finnish Museum Association: ”most Finnish museums are small, local or district museums, open mainly during the summer” (www.museot.fi). Nonetheless, the importance of these small museums in terms of cultural history, collective memory, social activeness, and community gathering, is no less than the large national museums. The mobile and web can provide a virtual space for them to expand their cultural presence beyond the museum walls and opening hours.

As McLuhan (1964) predicted three decades ago, “the medium is the message”, that is, museums cannot afford to be mute or absent in the mobile media as smartphones have profoundly penetrated people’s everyday life. Acknowledging the need and identifying the conditions are the first steps in developing a common tool as the distributed mobile app platform, and these will be described in the following section.

3. The distributed museum mobile guide app platform for Finland’s museums

3.1 To go or not to go mobile?

According to a survey done by IDEAN (2012), smartphones will outnumber feature phones by early 2013 and the growth of smartphones and tablets is expected to be strong in the near future in Finland.

Figure 1 Feature phones, smartphones and tablet devices in Finland 2010-2015 (2013)

Furthermore, according to Statistics Finland (2011), 90% of the population are Internet users, and nearly 40% of people aged 16-74 use a mobile device to access the Internet. It is time now for the Finnish museums to utilize smartphones in providing exhibition interpretation, delivering educational programs, and supporting museum communications and marketing.

Shall we go with a mobile app or mobile website? The mobile site of the Finnish Museum Association has confirmed Nielsen’s evaluation (2010). Since the app can better offer a personalized mobile service with higher usability, together with the fact that smartphones are becoming more available, we expect the app to gain dominance.

Which operating systems? If we note that according to a recent survey (Fig. 2) the Finnish mobile market is rather equally shared by iOS, Android, and Windows Phone, the distributed museum mobile guide application platform will have three identical versions available in the Apple App Store, Google Play, and Windows Phone Apps+Games Store.

Fig 2

Figure 2 Finland Mobile Market Shares (2013)

3.2 What is the distributed mobile guide app platform? 

The goal of the app platform is to provide museums in Finland with a tool for outreach to their audiences and interpret their exhibitions with minimized costs and maximized effect. Similar to the above-mentioned museum network system, a centralized management and maintenance center for the app platform would prove most economical and efficient. Each participating museum (in the genre A, B, C, or D in Fig. 3) can upload its own tailor-designed guide content with text, image, audio, and/or video. The Google Cloud Storage service will store the metadata and provide access to the app administrator and/or the museum responsible.

Fig 3

Figure 3 Centralised distributed app platform for museums in Finland

This app platform uses outdoor location awareness and an interactive map to indicate to the end-user/visitor how to get to the selected museum. The app allows photo capture and sharing on social media platforms, e.g. Facebook, to create social interaction and discourse and to raise the museum’s visibility in the virtual world.

As the app is designed for as many museums as possible, the information architecture and use-case scenario should be simple. The three main information layers are as follows:

  1. 1st layer: “closest museum” leads to “menu”, “map”, “guide”, “language”.
  2. 2nd layer: “menu” leads to “closest museums”, “browse museums”, “my museums”, “setting”; “guide” leads to “museum intro”, “architecture”, “collection”; “map” leads to interactive map with route options; “language” leads to Finnish, Swedish, English, and Russian versions. All footers can loop back to the previous page or the beginning, with the goal to find the “guide” that the visitor wants.
  3. 3rd layer: “closest museums” leads to a museum list by distance order; “browse museums” goes to another list by alphabetic order; “my museums” leads to a list set by the visitor over time; “setting” leads to language and social media; “guide” leads to tailor-designed multimedia museum guide info, and each page is with a pop-up “share” button that leads to mobile cam to share image, text, film, voice mail through the built-in social media links.

Fig. 4 demonstrates the starting page of the app. Displayed on this 1st info layer are the branding image or logo of the museum with a welcome message. Four touch buttons will lead the visitor to the 2nd info layer in: 1) the central icon leads to “guide”; 2) the left top goes to ”menu”; 3) the right top goes to “map”; 4) the central down opts for “language”.

Fig 4

Figure 4 The first info layer of the distributed museum mobile guide app

Different from a museum specific app, this distributed mobile app guide platform aims first to offer the visitor an overview of all the participating museums, then lead him or her to find the one he or she is interested to visit online or on site.

4. Main features to meet the needs of Finland’s museums

4.1 Outdoor location awareness to facilitate museum outreach

The “map” feature can be effective to attract passing visitors. Conventional museum signage such as flags or road signs on highways are difficult to see and often ignored due to the long distances between buildings as Finland is sparsely populated. Utilizing 3G or WiFi to access the interactive map with outdoor location awareness can facilitate the museum’s outreach and discoverability.

Fig 5

Figure 5 Outdoor location awareness to facilitate museum outreach (prototype sample image)

Fig 6

Figure 6 Interactive map and route suggestion to the chosen museum (prototype sample image made with iOS map)

Fig. 6 demonstrates that the app will automatically locate the visitor and identify the closest museums situated within 30-45 km. The suggested routes will emerge with highlights when the museum is chosen by a touch-click.

4.2 Exhibition guide and mobile interpretation

Content will surpass technology; it is with this understanding that the mobile guide content plays a crucial role in whether the app is successful or not. The 3rd info layer contains the exhibition mediation with multimedia content regarding architecture, collection, exhibition, etc.  The participating museums need to work with a post-production house to transfer the original material into a mobile ready format to be uploaded to the Cloud-based metadata center of the app platform and to be downloaded by the visitor by option.

Fig 7

Figure 7 Museum exhibition guide content (prototype sample image)

Here under the “guide” page, the visitor can access the work’s info by 1) browsing through the item list or 2) inputting the 3-digit codes in the top-center grid of the screen from the label next to the object on display. The main reason not to use a QR code system here is the general lighting situation of the museums, which makes it difficult to scan codes with a mobile camera in most cases.

On the screen shown in the fig 7, the image on the bottom represents the exhibit object. The lower part of the text can be scrolled up by touch with a quasi-transparent text background to be able to still see the image of the object underneath. On the lower-most part of the screen, four buttons operate the audio guide file to reload, play, and see file length, and the arrow on the right side goes to the share to social media feature.

Avoiding lengthy wording and opaque images is important due to the mobile screen’s constraints in size, brightness, contrast, hand-held and fingertip operation, etc. Less is more and catchy visuals are the design principle. After successfully triggering the interest of the visitor, more info can be linked to or downloaded separately under the “guide” option if needed in the future.

5. Visitor engagement and museum marketing

5.1 Mobile as ways to engage museum visitors

The smartphone is an effective tool for museums to approach target audience. As Proctor (2010) pointed out:

A Web-based version of museum tours, designed for the small screens of smartphones, increases access to the content not only for on-site visitors, but also for non-visitors, who can virtually tour collections and exhibitions thanks to soundtracks and other content that can be meaningful independently of the physical site.

The objective in developing this distributed museum mobile guide app platform is precisely  out-reach to the target audiences in three categories: off-site visitors, occasional visitors such as foreign tourists, and young visitors keen on mobile. The proof of concept will be established by a complete app user experience study and a museum visitor behavior study after the app is released and put to use. However, in the design process of this prototype, a small-scale front-end evaluation was carried out in the form of an online survey and interview to preliminarily study the visitors’ concepts and interests in utilizing the mobile guide app. A small group of invited testers, both male and female aged 19-40, have helped in fulfilling the evaluation. The online survey contains two kinds of questions; the first is to find out the visitors’ familiarity with the museum app, and the second is to evaluate the app prototype. What follows are the findings concluded from the online survey.

The background of the selected testers: Most of the testers (aged 19-40, male and female) regard themselves as heavy users or very familiar with smartphones; all have previous experience in other museum mobile apps and have used the conventional audio guide of the museum where this evaluation was held.

The functionality and user experience of the app prototype: 1) It is easy to use and navigate without written instructions and the language is easy to understand. 2) The information architecture is cohesive in logic and visuals but the navigation buttons are not very easy to find. 3) It is enjoyable to use the app but there is room for improvement in terms of usability. 4) The content is appropriate and they feel confident in using the app. 5) They would use the app in all museums they visit, they like the product and it meets their expectations, but they think that it’s not designed for everyone.

After the online survey was done on site with the provided devices, an interview was carried out to further understand the testers’ opinions and comments. What follows are the main findings.

Favorable features of the app: 1) The Facebook link is useful. 2) The female voice is better than the male voice in the audio guide. 3) Length of the audio guide and understandable language are important. 4) Seeing comments by other visitors is welcome. 5) An indoor map is necessary, however small the museum is.

Comments and suggestions: 1) A small quiz at the end could be beneficial to school kids. 2) Links to read more about the works and artists would be welcomed. 3) It is good in a sense to distinguish masterpieces from ordinary works. 4) Interpretation about the work should be the focus but not the history of collector, and so on.

Based on the online survey and interviews, we know that a mobile guide app is very well accepted and regarded more positively than the conventional museum audio guide device. During their visits for this front-end evaluation, an observation was carried out, and it showed that the mobile guide app made visitors stay longer in front of the exhibits. They also expressed that they prefer to use their own smartphones. The latter correlates with the findings of Petrie (2013) for reasons of familiarity, hygiene, and convenience.

Currently in Finland, the cultural heritage sector is under a centralized digitalization project. Digital strategy will become essential to museums. Although this small-scale front-end evaluation is limited in terms of the number of testers and age group, museum guide content, amount of participating museums, etc., it is still beneficial to improving the app as the findings somehow reveal the trend that the smartphone will become indispensible as a personalized, unique, and friendly medium for museum curators to “talk” to visitors, online or on site. Social media and game features are recommended as important as well in the museum mobile guide app.

5.2 Possible business model of the distributed app platform

Although theoretically it is economical and efficient for the Finnish museums to participate in this distributed mobile app platform, it is possible that they still couldn’t afford it in terms of the costs of content production and the app development, management, and maintenance. Apart from the public funding application, a few possible business models are suggested here to make the implantation of the app possible. There are three basic models as described below. Any two or all three can be combined to form new models depending on the situation:

  • The museum pays (e.g.) monthly fee for content upload and maintenance
  • The end-user purchases the app and opted content from app stores
  • Sponsor(s) buy(s) advertisement in the app according to space, time, location, volume, etc.

As the Finnish museums are mostly publically funded and the funding is diminishing, it is already a burden for them to provide mobile-ready guide content. Options 2 and 3 are undoubtedly better for them. It is worth the app developer considering operating on the revenues brought by advertisers, because: 1) museums already provide cultural content and they are informal educational institutions open to the public, 2) the museum’s visitors may be a target market segment for the advertisers, 3) advertising sponsors are now using digital marketing and this unique museum mobile app platform is valuable to their reputation as museums conventionally represent high culture, classic esthetics, good taste, etc.

In any case, the combination of models by any of the three options can be created to best suit the cases. After the prototype is finished and the final product released, the app should include as many participating museums and end-users as possible to prove the effect.

5.3 Potential revenues generated by the app for museums

Although they are non-profit organizations, museums nowadays really need to consider generating income on their own. However controversial the idea of museum marketing was previously (McLean 1997), it is nowadays a common notion. It occurs in Finland, too. The National Gallery Ateneum has of late put more effort into museum public relations and marketing, and is ready to embark on smartphones to reach off-site and online visitors as well as younger generations.

However, museum curators should be careful not to become simply a free content provider for media agencies just because the exhibition content (free or not) and the museum visitors have value and can be sold (for profit or not) to the advertisement sponsors. At least two points need to be considered: how to best utilize the app platform to communicate with the visitors, and to bargain for a proper share of the possible revenues from sponsors.

In any case, it is possible to avoid commercial pitfalls and utilize the mobile app platform well. It is almost impossible to deny the numerous advantages of smartphones due to their unique features as portability, individuality, and functionality. With this distributed mobile guide app platform, we expect to see an increased number of “virtual” museum visits at minimum, and better-interpreted exhibition interpretations. The app platform requires further study of the built-in sub-apps for temporary exhibitions, special events, school education programs, e-publications, etc. Each of them is an individual product expanding the museum service, which means more potential to generate income and self-sufficiency.

6. Conclusion  

The distributed museum mobile guide app platform will be finalized and released in the second half of 2013 in Finland, and soon also in Sweden. A thorough mobile app end-user experience study and a museum visitor behavior study will be carried out during the first half of 2014 as the second part of this research project to verify whether this app platform can increased the visibility of Finland’s museums and facilitate the museum’s outreach and exhibition interpretation in the mobile and web environments.

The app seems to meet the needs of Finnish museums. They are more or less ready to embark on using smartphones for the purposes outlined here. The market niche of this app platform comes from the fact that the Finnish museums are: 1) small-medium sized in general, 2) operating on a networked basis, 3) lacking in-house Webmasters and ICT specialists, 4) facing diminishing public funding. The challenge now is to ascertain the best business model for all stakeholders – museums, visitors, sponsors, and developers.

As the mobile service economies have grown stronger and stronger, museums in Finland have started to see the mobile app not as a distraction but as a tool offering high ROI (return on investment) and potential to engage in museum communication and marketing. Moreover, the mobile app is trans-border and cross-cultural; it can be a powerful medium to promote Finnish historical and cultural heritage in the global virtual world, following the successes of Nokia and Angry Birds.


Sincere gratitude is due to many people: Mr. Teemu Oksanen, a great post-production house manager who leads the app development with competence; Mr. Jussi Passio, a successful marketer who is specialized in digital marketing and good humor; the Bit Bang 6 lecturers on the topic of the Future of Media; Dr. Nancy Proctor, for her kind and encouraging correspondence. At last but not least, thanks to the little Lumi angel who every day brightens my life.


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Cite as:
S. Wang, A Mobile Guide App Platform Prototype with Front-end Evaluation and Potential Business Model for Museums in Finland. In , N. Proctor & R. Cherry (eds). Silver Spring, MD: Museums and the Web. Published September 30, 2013. Consulted .

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