Digital chewing gum: what it is and how we avoid it


5 minute read
Alumni: Kieron Gurner

Alumni: Kieron Gurner

UX & Design Lead

Digital Insights

Mobile Technology

Chewing gum on shoe

Picture the scene. You’re walking down a cobbled street, surrounded by beautifully preserved buildings taking in the stonework, the history, lost in a world of sights and sounds. With every step you’re more and more immersed in the beauty, the depth, the history, and then… squelch.

You look down and you’ve stepped in chewing gum – unpleasant, unwanted, and an unwelcome reminder of the everyday world. Puts you off, doesn’t it?

Moments like this occur in heritage app experiences too. This ‘digital chewing gum’ is our shorthand for digital experiences which break immersion, cause unnecessary friction, and undermine the placemaking effect we strive to create.

Here are some examples of the things we can’t stand – and the principles we use to avoid them in our work.

Digital chewing gum: what sticks in our treads?

Intrusion. Constant push notifications from an app, full-screen pop-ups, sudden audio or video spikes – anything that gets in the way of using devices how we want to. Unexpected, uninvited multimedia surprises can even trigger motion sickness and hyperacusis in users, moving them from ‘annoying’ to ‘actually harmful’.

Archaism. Unresponsive apps, with interfaces that feel like they were designed for a PC, all tiny text and fiddly interactive objects. Apps that spam our email addresses instead of messaging us through the OS.

Artificial stupidity. Apps that try to automate an experience and fail – think of an audio guide that cuts itself off mid-sentence because you happen to have walked past a beacon and triggered a new audio event.

All these globs of digital chewing gum come from the same place: prescriptive design. Apps built to serve their designers, not the needs or preferences of the customers. There’s nothing natural about using them, and there’s no room for variety of use in the design.  Users who’ve invited such an app onto their devices and agreed to give it a try end up feeling their trust has been betrayed.

At a heritage site this is doubly damaging. The designers have failed to deliver on their promises, and the very existence of a technical snag has snapped the user back into modern annoyances, out of the mindset we want to create.

Keeping the streets clean

We avoid digital chewing gum by considering the context within which we’re designing and developing.

For example: we know that any push notification we create won’t be the only one in town. People get really hacked off when faced with unwanted, unnecessary notifications arriving on their screens – even us. So we think carefully about the digital environment of our users and our place in it, and avoid producing digital litter by only messaging when it matters and when it’s welcome.

There are five things we try to build into our heritage apps – every feature we include has to feed into one or more of these.

  1. A deep connection to place. Powerful storytelling that connects you, the user, to where you are. Our designs are bespoke, tailored to the surroundings to which they’ll refer.
  2. The armchair experience. Whilst being there is the ultimate experience, we always design an armchair version, so those who can’t travel or have the time to do an entire trail can still engage with the content in their own time.
  3. Interactions that emphasise real world objects. In Tower Bridge we designed the app interactions to match the objects found in the environment. In the engine rooms there are a rack of spanners; in the game app, users crank their phones to mimic tightening nuts with the right spanner.
  4. Graceful interaction. Somos Brasil wasn’t triggered in the usual way – no typing in numbers, no scanning QR codes, no selecting menu options. Point your phone camera at the exhibit and it automatically triggers an audio response. Seamless and graceful.
  5. Algorithms to match user needs. UCAN GO is built around accessibility options. The routing method guides users along appropriate pathways, chosen by a team of consultants with visual and mobility impairments who visit your site as part of the build.

The bottom line is all about creating an engaging experience that makes people feel connected to a person or place. Apps should be designed for people – not to deliver messages, accumulate media views or show off bells and whistles that look fine on a PC but don’t scale to mobile.

That’s how we avoid digital chewing gum in our placemaking designs – by respecting the other people in our space. Every footfall takes you closer to your destination, as smoothly and as possible, without stopping to unstick yourself along the way.

For more info on some of our award-winning (and strictly gum-free) app experiences, head over to our projects page. And if you’d like more detail on our work processes, download our ebook on digital innovation for cultural heritage institutions here.


Image credit

Chewing gum via Pixabay

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