How to tell a story with a smartphone? The 3 ingredients for a successful app

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Books, tv, bicycle adventures and so on, are not the only activities that children engage with in their daily lives. Tablets and apps have made their way under the Christmas tree, on the couch, before going to bed and even in classrooms.

We chatted with Federica Pascotto, co-founder of Art Stories, reflecting on how quality content and attention for details are key elements to engage children with culture through digital tools that also involve older audiences.

The strong introduction of technology in the lives of children is often criticized, as it is considered responsible for a decrease of attention and a general indifference for everything that is not equipped with a touch screen. But is this really true?

We stumbled upon a small “italian gem”: Art Stories, a series of apps for the exploration of the most iconic sites in Milan –  the Castello Sforzesco  and the Duomo.

Art Stories is not only the title of the apps but also the name of the company founded by Giovanna Hirsch, local and social policies specialist, and Federica Pascotto, museum education professional. Art Stories is thus a digital project to educate to the Italian cultural and artistic heritage. Art Stories series of smartphones and tablets applications allow a personalized and engaging exploration of the most iconic cultural sites.

From the design to the production, the apps are the result of the work of the milanese duo who has coordinated a development and promotion team scattered all over Italy.

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The two apps follow a similar format and are targeted toward children from 5 to 10 years old. The content is in English and Italian and includes three paths:

  • Short, focusing on the highlights

  • Accurate, with a broader selection of stops

  • Narrative, in which the heritage site comes to life thanks to the narration, involving through senses and emotions

The apps are developed to be as accessible as possible, including the public with auditive and learning disabilities. In this sense, the content, modulated for different “times and modes” of use, increases access beyond the concept of physical disability. In other words, the apps recognize that each visitor consumes content based on preferences, contexts and learning modes.

Through truly beautiful illustrations, each story is narrated in first person: characters, places, architectural elements are orchestrated to make the past alive. The user is conducted thorugh a world of simple games, riddles and rhymes that allow him/her to learn about the history of the sites.

Such high quality content becomes the key for the final product beyond the technology itself. Federica Pascotto helps us understand the details of this winning approach!Screen Shot 2015-02-03 at 21.10.50

V: Why this app? What kind of experience does it allow that wouldn’t be possible with other media?

F: There are two levels: the first is about the narration. If I buy a traditional guide I miss the storytelling component. The guide will tell me that the Castle was built in 1450 by Francesco Sforza. For a child, as much as for an adult, this simple information is not that attractive or relevant. The narration within the app is far more engaging and can animate the building.

The second level is the immediacy. Let’s think about a family with three children that wishes to visit the Duomo on a Saturday afternoon at 3.00pm. A traditional guided visit requires you to book in advance. If you have three children this may be difficult: right before you step out of the house, one child gets sick, another one poops, the third one becomes grumpy and doesn’t want to go out anymore. You end up being late and can’t make it on time. Or you don’t plan anything, you arrive there and there’s nothing to do: you needed to book in advance. If you are a French family that doesn’t speak Italian, what can you do?

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V: Were the apps conceived with a specific target in mind since the beginning? How does this factor influence the production?

F: We had the target in mind since the beginning. We designed the products thinking about what would we like to do. What kind of tool can be useful for an adult who is visiting a cultural site, with a certain level of education and children? In this sense, we can say that the target are the children, but the content is suitable for the parents as well. It is not boring for them. The app can be used before the visit, while on site, or after the visit as a reinforce.

V: What were the challenges that you encountered for these projects, from the planning to launch phase, considering that you act as a private company and don’t have relations with the cultural sites?

F: The true obstacle is having to fund ourselves. We had no relation with the proprietary institution but this was not a problem from the point of view of the design of the experience, rather from the promotional one. Communication and marketing of the products, particularly on site, have been a challenge. We did press office actions that were very successful in making people aware of the apps, but there were very few conversions into actual sales. Communication should happen on site, identifying spaces where the users would actually download the app. For example when queuing to enter the Castle, where wifi is available.

V: What are the opportunities for the use of the app off-site?

F: The use in schools is certainly an opportunity. A particularly successful experiment was the one of a school in Cologno Monzese, set of a project in which the digital component was just the start for a “real” experience.

The milanese artist Anna Ramasco orchestrated the stories of the Castle making 140 children work, coordinated by students with special needs. Each child was the project manager for a section of the project. In the main hall of the school, the Sala delle Asse was recreated through stencils and so all the characters with their costumes, in a very detailed and involving way.

V: In what way this approach to “digital learning” is different from the “traditional” learning?

F: It is actually very similar. The development of the app uses horizontal narration, similar to a book.

What is key here is a series of factors that make you want to visit the site. A synergy is created between parent and child in using the app: it is almost like a game in which you can jump among contents but the story does not become scattered. The user becomes protagonist of the narration. This kind of freedom is not possible with a book, for which a continuous attention is needed.

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V: What are the exportable learnings of this project?

F: I can rather think about exportable doubts. Content creation required a lot of work, from the texts to the illustrations, from actors to translations. This process can be justified only if the core visitation of a museum can actually take benefit from a product as such. Furthermore, if the museum decides to invest on that specific target, than it has to leverage on the tool rather than producing it and then leaving it there, hoping that people will use it.

#svegliamuseo: PROS & CONS

Parents are involved in using the tools as active participants rather than “digital babysitters”. This process also supports non digital activities. Using the “book model” and trying to augment it, the app doesn’t take advantage of the possibilities of the tool. The investment in development of an app is not totally justified as more and more free platforms allow the creation of interactive books with limited resources.
It is recognized that the product is not finished, but rather just a starting point. Promotion and identification of opportunities for use and re-use are important to actually return on the investment. The user is rather passive in the storytelling process. A child is a storyteller too, how can this product open up to two ways interaction?
The use of the app in schools rises an important point regarding the use of digital products and content beyond “the buzz” of the launch.