10 Essentials for a Successful Digital Placemaking Mobile App


11 minute read
Jo Morrison

Jo Morrison

Director of Digital Innovation & Research

Digital Placemaking

Digital Insights

A photo of a man using his phone with a map on a screen, with checkpoints for key locations

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During my recent Digital Leaders talk about supporting town and city centre recovery, an interesting question was posed about the oscillating app sentiment in the place management and destination marketing communities. This article intends to provide a comprehensive and helpful response to that question.

As we all know, there are usually waves of enthusiasm and adoption when it comes to any technology. In turn, each wave is often followed by disillusionment of some sort, until everything settles into place and the viability of the technology for organisations or individuals is understood. Apps downloaded on to our smartphones from the app stores are a perfect example of this phenomenon. 

When it comes to the world of place management, there’s an ongoing discussion around the viability of apps to enhance people’s experiences of towns and cities. There are some people who are steadfast and vocal in their refusal to accept that a visitor experience enabled by a mobile app could possibly be countenanced. As far as they’re concerned, if it’s digital then it’s a web app or a website – “end of”. I disagree.   

This article, as you’ll see, isn’t written as a defence of the mobile app, nor is it intended to antagonise the already devout non-believers. It is, however, to help place managers and DMO professionals who want to innovate, support place-based growth and create excellent visitor experiences.

a person looks through binoculars onto a city skyline
Source: unsplash.com


Before I crack on, firstly I want to direct your attention away from the mobile app and towards the thing that you’re aiming to achieve. It’s your goal that comes first, not the technology. So, please don’t ask yourself or anyone else “Should I have a mobile app?”, instead ask “How can I best achieve my visitor experience goal?” – the technology that you will eventually choose will be one part of the answer. For instance, you may want to improve the ways that visitors navigate the town centre, provide multi-perspective interpretations of key public statues or inform people where they can find public toilets that are open. Those are your goals, and that’s where to start.

Each of those three examples could be served by a mobile app, a web app, a website or a digital totem. To shed some light on how to determine whether a location-based mobile app is the solution of choice for your circumstances and will give you the best chance of success, read on…

Digital Placemaking

Firstly, when we are talking about location-based mobile apps, we are in the realm of digital placemaking. I’ve written extensively about digital placemaking and you can read a comprehensive overview of the practice in this guide.

Now, let’s look at some key areas that you need to consider when thinking about commissioning a digital placemaking mobile app. 

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1. Connectivity 

Understanding the technical infrastructure of the locations where your solution will be experienced is an essential part of the puzzle. For example, is there public access to the internet through 4G or WiFi? If so, is it freely available and evenly distributed across the location? If you discover that there’s patchy connectivity in the area, you need to design a location-based solution that takes into consideration this real-world technical environment.

It’s perfectly possible to design a digitally-enabled experience that can be accessed through smartphones when the connectivity is unreliable or inconsistent, but to do so successfully one needs first to understand the technical infrastructure.

If you want to learn a bit more about this topic, read an earlier article about an ‘offline-first’ approach to location-based apps that discusses:

  • Apps that will be used in areas with poor connectivity
  • Apps with a large directory of content that needs to be searched (e.g. shopping apps, museum/gallery apps, etc)
  • Apps with limited features that do not really require to be online all the time 

2. Visitor Experience

When it comes to creating a great visitor experience, take a user-centred approach. Start with researching your target audience and understanding the people for whom you are designing. Really try to establish their needs, their expectations, other services they use, what devices they carry with them and so forth. Don’t opt for a location-based solution that isn’t informed by your audience.

You may have the resources in-house to carry out the work, or you may choose to commission a company that undertakes user research, whichever, it’s well worth the investment.

Once you have a good sense of your audience, you have another piece of (the information you need to establish the context for) your location-based app pie!

User using NavSta in Canada Waters Station
NavSta user testing trials at Canada Water Station

3. Research 

By now, you will realise that research takes centre stage and is required before, during and after you design and develop a location-based app. You need to research the people, the technology, the place and the data you expect to use in order to give yourself the best chance of providing a mobile app that delivers great value for your visitors and your stakeholders. The more that you understand the problem area, the better the design of your solution – be it an app that reveals the heritage of your location or one that acts as a navigational tool for the town centre.

Again turning to NavSta, read this article to get a swift overview of what good holistic research looks like and how an integrated approach can be achieved.

I’m going to skip over recommendations about the actual commissioning and development of a location-based app as these topics have been covered extensively already in the Calvium blog, some of which are listed here:

4. Compelling Content

Storytelling is a powerful tool to make an app’s content compelling. Stories can engage a user base more than merely presenting the facts and data.

At Calvium, several of our projects have focused on the power of storytelling. Hidden Florence, Hidden Cities, and The Lost Palace all create immersive visitor experiences through carefully crafted and unique stories. Instead of simply announcing the history of these places, stories are woven into the app experience, allowing visitors to build relationships with the places.

Hidden Florence 3D at the National Gallery, London

5. Updated Content

Do you want people to revisit your digital placemaking app? If ‘yes’, then update the content regularly – otherwise the experience will become stagnant for the return visitor. This then begs the question: How often should you update your app?

The answer depends on the context of the app. If the app’s sole purpose is to provide information (e.g. number of people in a particular beach), then as long as it’s performing that role, the app should not need to be updated. However, if the role of the app is to provide, for instance, the opening times of local businesses, amenities, and museums, then it needs to provide up-to-date content.

If it’s an app that provides stories about a place, then there needs to be a roadmap of ongoing refreshed content. If the nature of the place is that visitors are there, say, once or twice a year, then ensure that there is new content every 3 to 4 months that builds on the experience. If visitors are around more often and come from the locale, then you’d want to update more regularly. 

The key here is to be attentive and not leave the app to sit on a dusty shelf in the app stores.

6. Roadmap

With a clear plan and roadmap, the continual relevance of your product is all but ensured. Let’s use our recently launched Place Experience Platform (PEP) as an example.

The Place Experience Platform


The PEP is a platform that enables place managers to offer a new visitor experience. You can create a visitor experience that tells the story of your destination and, over time, you can build new stories and app functions – which means the app stays updated and relevant for the benefit of your visitors.

For instance, you may choose to start with a simple visitor experience that offers stories about 12 separate locations in a given place, and then connect these locations to provide a route to follow around the destination. You can also choose to offer the app in multiple languages, in case you have a strong non-English speaking visitor base. You could choose to create Easter Egg hunts in the city centre, and countless other activities, as part of your roadmap and budgeting.

With so much flexibility on the platform, you can plan ahead and enjoy the creative opportunities that the Place Experience Platform gives place managers.

7. Accessibility

Ensuring that your location-based solution works for everyone means designing inclusively. According to the Family Resources Survey, there are 14.1 million disabled people in the UK. By ignoring the needs of people with disabilities, businesses in the UK lose approximately £2 billion a month.

An inclusive approach will not only increase the adoption of the app, but it will also lead to better services for everyone – whether their impairments are permanent, temporary or situational. 

When designing accessible interfaces, remember to use the web and mobile accessibility guidelines which cover everything from the touch target size and spacing to layout.

To find out more about successfully employing an inclusive design approach to improve the accessibility of public spaces, look at Calvium’s project Navigating Stations (NavSta)

8. Promotion

One of the key reasons why some location-based mobile apps have poor downloads in the App stores is because people don’t know that they are there. I know this sounds obvious, but I feel compelled to say it anyhow – if people have no idea that an app exists or where to download it, how can anything but poor downloads be expected? You need to promote your app and keep on promoting it to your target audience. To help spread the word about an app, we recommend:

  • Maximising available marketing channels by combining digital (e.g. websites, social media) and traditional methods of promotion (e.g. magazines, newspapers) 
  • Writing a compelling app store description, highlighting its most important factors and focusing on how it will benefit the user
  • Building a constant and steady buzz around the app to increase awareness
  • Always getting feedback from the app users; in the event of criticisms, listen instead of being defensive, then act on applying changes.

A perfect example of this can be found in the graphic below. Five European cities launched their ‘Hidden Cities’ visitor experience apps on the same day. As you can see, the download numbers of one city in particular stood out – Hamburg. The reason? Hamburg did a great job of promoting the project and it was featured in a national newspaper. So, here the proof is in the pudding, promote your app!

Hidden Cities app store stats
App Store download stats of the Hidden Cities suite of apps

9. Updated Software

Consider a software upgrade as a ‘health check’ for your app. We recommend doing this on an annual basis to avoid the device’s operating system no longer aligning with the version of the app that came out a year ago. Doing this will:

  • Address any major or minor bugs
  • Keep users happy as they will feel that you are taking their feedback seriously
  • Help the app stay technically up-to-date, especially in the event of operating system updates
  • Keep your app top of mind, as updating the software is also a great marketing tool for your existing user base.

10. Ownership 

Take ownership of the app. Someone in your organisation should be responsible for maintaining it, making sure it doesn’t fall through the cracks of the organisation. Otherwise, your visitor experience will end up suffering as a result.

a circle of hands surround a phone with a map on the screen.
Source: unsplash.com

Creating a Successful App

So, there you have it. The ten points I’ve covered will help you to work out whether a mobile app is the digital placemaking solution for you, your place and your visitors. 

Visitors expect to have information about places at their fingertips. They expect to have digitally-enabled and enjoyable experiences. Digital placemaking is the approach that you should be taking to ensure that your destination is supporting visitors and, in turn, they are supporting your local economy. Mobile apps are one of the most compelling investments that you can make.

Calvium’s Place Experience Platform can help you mitigate the full cost of development and maintenance of an app. Contact us today to see how we can help you.

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