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American Museum of Natural History Explorer App

Posted by robinwo on | August 18, 2010 | 3 Comments


The authors of this review have added the following preface to explain the disparity between their experience with AMNH’s Explorer app and the experience that other users may have.

The authors tested the app on their iPhones using OS3. However we subsequently learned that the app is optimized for use with OS4 and we have now seen that the new operating system provides a better wayfinding experience than the one we describe below. Therefore, we suggest that AMNH add an advisory to the signage posted in the museum that promotes the app. We also think it would be helpful to add an introductory screen to the app itself, alerting visitors to the fact that the app works better on OS4 than OS3, encouraging them to seek out the App helpers who are circulating around the museum, and urging people to take the survey and provide feedback. This would alleviate some visitor frustrations.

However, even with OS4, the app will take you to the gallery with the desired object, but not direct you right up to it. Visitors need to do some work to orient themselves and locate the object in most cases; upon second visitation, we found that the map itself proves more effective within galleries with unusual structures than it does within the galleries with primarily symmetrical structures that we encountered on our first visit.

We also look forward to expanded social media capabilities and content offerings in future iterations and believe even more strongly that the “seeds for future impressive functionality” are there.



In his article for Gizmodo, Kyle VanHemert wrote, “The app, which was developed by Spotlight Mobile, funded by Bloomberg, and runs on a Wi-Fi network implemented by Cisco and Accenture, has a slick visual design to match its impressive functionality.” We would agree with the slick visual design, but think it’s more accurate to say that the app contains “the seeds for future impressive functionality.”

There are three basic components to the app: wayfinding, object identifcation and social media links.


The AMNH Explorer app, according to the press surrounding its release, claims to make the use of paper maps obsolete. Yet as we tested it on a crowded Sunday morning at the museum, we found ourselves pining for a paper map. Two basic, visitor-orienting paper map conveniences were missing from the app: an easily-accessible at-a-glance overview of each floor and simple naming of galleries. Without these visual cues close at hand, we found it hard to connect where we were within the larger physical context of the Museum to where we were on the app map.

Upon entrance, we immediately chose the Highlights tour with “nearest to your location” directions on one of our phones and proceeded into the first gallery. We each used our phones through the whole experience, but the second phone required 11 minutes to connect the app to the AMNH’s Wi-Fi network before we could proceed. 11 minutes is a long time for either a single visitor or a parent with a child tugging on the sleeve. If we hadn’t been determined to use it, we would otherwise have given up.

One of the most disconcerting parts of our experience was that we literally spent our entire journey through the museum staring at the screens of our phones. With the step-by-step directions, we found ourselves concentrating on the moving map. Sometimes our movements en route triggered the next screen of directions; sometimes we needed to manually tap the arrow to know where to go next. Occasionally, we looked up to find out whether or not we were in the correct place.

Though floor maps are provided within the app, they’re not easy to access; the visitor needs to leave the step-by-step directions, choose a floor map, exit the floor map, and then again enter the tour in order to re-enter the directions. The directions experience itself felt so myopic that the one of us who was an AMNH novice felt that she left the museum with little more Museum layout understanding than when she arrived. We suggest that having a toggle function between the specific directions and larger maps would be helpful for orientation. Adding the names of the galleries would also help visitors locate themselves as they move through the space.

Once we entered the correct gallery following the tour directions, we faced additional challenges. The app is capable of successfully locating you within 33 feet of your exact position, so when you’re within 33 feet of the desired object, the App says you have arrived. But there are many objects within a 33 foot radius in the galleries! The floor plans show a thumbnail of the visitor-desired object without giving specific orienting visual cues; in a gallery packed with objects, we rarely found our object easily.

Then when we chose the next item on the tour, we received different next steps easily 40% of the time – despite literally standing next to one another. In order to proceed to the next object, we spent minutes re-orienting ourselves to the map, figuring out where our last object was and which direction to go next. The app’s promise of precise directions gave rise to frustration and discouraged the tendency to explore. Without that promise, we would more likely have tended to wander the gallery to discover things.

Simple visual cues could make the gallery orientation much more effective. Color-coding relevant objects within the map and possibly in the gallery graphics could easily assist with visual reference. Simultaneously showing the location of all the objects in one gallery that are on the tour – instead of only showing them one at a time – would provide visitors with multiple points by which to orient themselves.

Also, we would suggest revisions to the overall information navigation. When arriving at an object, the screens automatically flipped so quickly that we found it difficult to read the introductory text. We frequently tapped through a circular sequence of screens to make sure that we viewed all of the information provided.

Object Information

The provided object information felt like a very small reward for the amount of work required. In its next iterations, we would suggest that AMNH provide multiple layers of access for visitors: a brief description; a more comprehensive summary; and access to deeper research. The information currently provided did not feel sufficient for parents to help their children engage with an object, or for any curious visitor.

Social Media

The built-in social media functions that allow you to tweet, email, or bookmark the object you’re standing in front of strangely link to a web page for the gallery as a whole rather than to the current object record. In future iterations, we would suggest modifying this function to be object-specific. We noticed how many people took photos of themselves, friends and family in front of objects; it would be a pleasant addition to allow visitors to take and send their own photos of the object along with the posts.

The ‘find a nearest bathroom’ function and ‘find the nearest exit’ functions worked reasonably well – though our attempt with the exit directions had us standing at one point at a dead end. We appreciated that directions for going for down gave the visitor the option to take either the elevator or the stairs; we would suggest that this option be given for going up too, instead of offering only elevator directions.

Though there was much that we found unsatisfactory, we re-emphasize that there are great seeds for improvement within the current application. The Explorer app provides a wide variety of functionality; revisions to the visual design, the insertion (or ability to link to) additional information, and the execution of additional user testing could turn an app with potential into a very useful tool.

Gizmodo reference:


3 Responses to “American Museum of Natural History Explorer App”

  1. Steve Jones
    August 20th, 2010 @ 12:59 pm

    This reads like a very poor review of what seems to be a great step forward for Museum mobile applications. The reviewer sounds like they wanted it to fail and didn’t use it as a visitor would. I’ve read many other reviews that seemed not to have the issues that this reviewer had.

  2. Nancy Proctor
    August 25th, 2010 @ 12:21 pm
  3. When the app critic calls, how will museums answer? : MuseumMobile Wiki
    October 7th, 2010 @ 8:03 pm

    […] their own useful commentaries on the value of social media functions in museum apps; earlier, Robin reviewed the AMNH app with Sherri Wasserman as […]

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