How to build a heritage app


7 minute read
Jo Reid

Jo Reid

Managing Director

Arts & Culture

Mobile Technology

Any discussion about developing a heritage app or placemaking experience has to start with the question, ‘why do we need one?’.

It might sound like a simple question at first, but it can be difficult to answer. If the answer is ‘because every other heritage site has one,’ you might want to rethink.

The question of ‘why’ falls into one of four categories – the context, the content, the interaction or the audience. And it’s these four elements that form our Experience Design Framework.


The framework helps to build a business case to the people who hold the purse strings, helps our clients focus in on the kind of app or experience they want to develop for their visitors and acts as a starting point to flesh out a full brief for your app creators too.

Let’s look in more detail at each section.

  • Context – Context can be anything from “We’re marking the centenary of a historic battle” to “I’ve just re-fitted the glasshouses and want to engage our visitors with them”. It’s a reason why NOW is the right time to create an app, with timely news or developments to be shared.
  • Content – Content can often be the driving force behind the decision to create a heritage app. Apps provide a lively, engaging way of sharing the key stories that make your site so special, and of bringing your exhibits to life.
  • Interaction – For some sites, it’s the means of interaction that’s decided first: a clear vision of the experience itself, be that technology or otherwise. It may be that you love the idea of giving visitors tablets to walk around with, or AR headsets to immerse them in the experience. You might want to use beacon technology to guide them around your exhibits, or download an app onto their own phone in advance.
  • Target user – For some sites, the ‘who’ may be the starting point: an app born of a desire to gain the elusive ‘millennial‘ approval, or to enthrall families with challenges and activities and get them working as a team.

Woven together, your answers to these four quadrants give you a clear view of what value you’ll be giving by developing the app, to whom and why. But to create a great app, you’ll need more than just fantastic ideas – you’ll also need to nail your budget.

Fixing the finances

Once you know the story you want to tell, how you want to tell it, and who you want to use it, you’ll be able to create a storyboard that weaves together all of the elements you want to include. The storyboard forms the backbone of the app project, working towards the final experience that your visitors will love, and that you’ll want to shout about.

Before that, you’ll need to talk about money. Do you have the budget to build the app you want? The funding will, of course, depend on the scope of the app you want to create. While some developers may claim they can create your app for as little as £1,000, you’ll need to decide whether this actually represents value for money. As with most things in life, you get what you pay for.

There’s a reluctance in creative agencies to discuss money, but it’s essential to have a guide so you know what can be done, and for how much. So let’s be vulgar for a second.

Our development costs start off at £10,000, although the average heritage app we build costs in the region of £25-45k from start to finish. The larger projects where we operate as the experience directors and consultants – defining the experience, making the content, developing the app – can cost between £70-£100k.

There are businesses out there that offer DIY app development services, offering ‘cookie cutter’ heritage apps; the type where you can change the colour theme and drop in your own content in the predefined boxes. This might get you an app for £500 – £1000, but you have to question whether the user experience has sufficient impact. You have to ask, what the knock on effect or cost of a poorly built app with terrible user experience is.

Careful co-creation

With a spec created and a budget set, it’s time to bring your ideas to life, working with carefully chosen partners to turn your dreams into reality. You’ll want to find an app developer with experience in the area, but depending on how you’ve filled out your quadrants, you may want to harness the talents of other creative types too.

Whether it’s copywriters to nail your app’s tone of voice, designers to set the scene or create custom handheld devices for your app’s users, videographers or photographers to create visually impactful content, performing arts groups to bring your storytelling to life, there are numerous different co-creators you could involve. Essentially, the scope for creativity is only limited by one thing, and that’s your imagination.

For The Lost Palaces app, we worked alongside designers Chomko & Rosier, and theatre company Uninvited Guests to immerse visitors in the history of Whitehall Palace – a site that burned to the ground over 300 years ago.

The result was a multisensory experience where the content responded to the choices visitors made about where to go and what to investigate. Actors channelled Elizabeth I and Guy Fawkes for an immersive audio tour, while handheld devices with haptic feedback helped create a deeper connection with the story.

A clear and well-structured brief will help you refine your ideas and paint a picture of your app before its build has even begun, making it easy for you to decide which creative partners are most suited to telling your story, in the right way and at the right price. Alternatively, hire a fantastic app development agency to organise it for you. Was that subtle?

Testing times

The spec’s been signed off, the creative partners are all on board… it’s now time for the build. Allow some time for this stage: you’ll need to work together to storyboard your app, test it and refine it, creating a final experience with which you’re completely happy.

Stand in your visitor’s shoes and see the app in progress through their eyes. Does your app give them all they need to know about your site, in a way that’s easy to follow, and keep them delighted? Once the answer’s “yes”, it’s time to unleash the app on the public, spreading the word, and winning some great press and customer reviews in the process.

Building a heritage app is all about knowing who you want to reach, how you want to reach them, the context of the app and the all-important content (as we always say, in a great app, the tech is invisible – it’s the content that matters).

If you know how you want to mesh those four quadrants together and create something special, it’s time to work your way through the creation process, and see what co-creators can do for you.

Interested in a heritage app of your own? Tell us the ‘why’, and we’ll let you know how we can help.

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