“Constantly bombarded with images on screens and the hub of never-ending information that is the internet, people are beginning to forget how to feel. In our quest to reconnect with our senses and our bodies – to be our optimal selves – we are also seeking blissful altered states, with consumers yearning for heightened sensory environments.”
— Victoria Buchanan, trends analyst at The Future Laboratory
The article in Campaign from which this quote is taken describes the challenges of ‘marketing in an era of sensory deprivation’. And it’s a challenge that heritage sites should be keenly aware of, too.
First, heritage experiences have to offer a genuine, personal connection with a place – something that will delight and engage visitors in the environment around them.
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But the need to meet the ‘yearning for heightened sensory environments’ means that organisations have to think laterally about how to impact their visitors in the most effective way.
Heritage apps of all forms, in this context, are a bridge. They enhance the site; changing understanding through augmented reality and guiding visitors to an altered state of perception. Our goal is to create meaning, and thus create an experience.
The key to creating a full and powerful heritage experience is not simply to bombard visitors with technology and games. If we build an app that takes users’ attention away from the site because they’re spending more time scoring points than seeing sights, we’ve failed. Everything we add has to build on and lead back to the place we’re influencing.
Placemaking experiences need to be authentic and complementary to the environment they’re in – enhancing it without distracting from it. All the sensory input from an app has to be naturally affecting, breathing life into a space without intruding on a visitor’s appreciation. It has to add a layer of authenticity to the experience we aim to curate, by replacing the distractions of the present with an augmented simulation of the past.
This kind of placemaking is digital theatre, active in the physical location and in the mind, and guiding visitors along a journey through the story of the site.
The main thing to remember when designing and commissioning a heritage app? The app isn’t the point, the site is. Technology acts as a digital aid, enabling visitors to get the most meaningful experience they can out of the site.
A well-designed app encourages a particular behaviour from users. Pokémon Go encouraged gamers to get up and get out, walking miles and exploring in the real world to progress in the game’s AR one. As heritage developers, we can use this as inspiration in different ways – using audio, visual or something else to encourage action and drive engagement – always with an aim to augment the experience, not to distract from it.
The environment of a heritage site may be alien to some people, and they need a guide; an app can help. Our Bridge Tales app, for example, brings out the hidden stories from the Clifton Suspension Bridge, and weaves them together to provide a compelling, detailed narrative for the site as a whole.
In the age of overwhelming noise, heritage app design doesn’t need to shout to be heard. It needs to say things the audience needs to hear. It needs to encourage a sense of mindfulness and attention, heading in the opposite direction from what we expect in technology. It needs to harness technology so that it augments heritage sites, without throwing distractions at the user. It needs to enhance the sensory experience and provide depth and detail to the site’s narrative, drawing out what’s there and enriching the experience for the visitors. The bottom line? It needs to provide meaning.
Apps give your site an opportunity to talk in its own voice, and the overall placemaking experience can be anything you imagine. Originality and authenticity are what it takes to cut through the noise – not avoiding mobile devices altogether.