How the Potsdam-based company D-LABS helps visitors find their way around the Bode Museum

Bild D-Labs
Image © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Fabian Fröhlich

How can visitors be guided through the thick walls of the Bode-Museum with an app although they don’t have W-LAN, mobile phone or satellite reception, or even GPS, and nothing can be changed structurally? The Potsdam-based company D-LABS (initiated by Hasso Plattner in 2006) was facing this challenge in 2018. SAP, who has been one of the main supporters of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation (SPK) for many years, commissioned D-LABS to provide an app for the “Beyond Compare – Art from Africa” exhibition at Berlin’s Bode-Museum to suit the actual user needs and be state of the art.

The managing partner of D-LABS, Jörn Hartwig, an alumnus of the Hasso Plattner Institute, says: “We help customers to understand where the difference is between desire and need”. D-LABS designs, optimizes and implements digital products and services with a clear focus on the essential: the needs of the user. With sound know-how in the areas of user research, digital experience design and software engineering, the digital experts work together in interdisciplinary teams to create optimal digital solutions. The solution-oriented and close cooperation with the technology experts from SAP Consulting Berlin also enabled them to work together to bridge the gap between technology and design.

Claudia Steinhoff, Director User Experience Design at D-LABS, explains that the exhibition the app was being developed for was spread over several floors of the museum and in various museum areas. The comparative exhibits stood next to existing art in the museum. The task was to suggest a tour and use the app to show visitors whether they were in the right room. “The conception and design phase of the mixed teams lasted about three months. But the real challenges came afterwards…”

“We made use of SonoBeacons, small loudspeakers that emit signals at a very high frequency that can’t be heard by a human being, but which can be received (heard) by the smartphone,” adds Jörn Hartwig. “We wanted to equip the exhibits directly with them. So, the SonoBeacons supplier created an even nicer design for us. But then we learnt that the SonoBeacons could not placed directly on the art objects for aesthetic reasons. We hadn’t reckoned on that at all. We then thought about the alternative of filling the whole room with sound. But then the speakers turned out to be much too quiet for that.” In the end, they had to install a SonoBeacons – Bluetooth combination in the passageways. This is not ideal, but still meets all the needs of both the art and the visitors.

The app itself, with its intuitive user guidance, offers the visitor additional information once they have completed the guided tour. African and European art are juxtaposed, there are interesting facts about special markings on the art, pictures of the exhibits are shown in their original surroundings, and there are also interviews and videos as well as lots of other pieces of exciting information.

The innovative technology can now also be found in other museums – in various different forms. “D-LABS was a courageous pioneer,” says Hartwig. “We have received many plaudits for this. Of course, there was also criticism because things don’t always work with new technologies”. The project taught him “that a well thought-out idea could be working well, but then fail due to quite different things – in this particular case, it was because of the argument that such a loudspeaker could impair the aesthetics of the works of art. “This was a mishap which could even happen to us as experts in the fields of user experience and customer focus.” Claudia Steinhoff adds: “Even the best digital product is useless if you don’t have the whole context in mind.“

In general, Hartwig and Steinhoff warn against simply setting up an app for every museum. Digital support may be good for museums, but sometimes having a mobile phone in your hand can be a hindrance, for example, in an experimental museum. The need must be precisely determined in advance.

Whoever would like to get an idea of the D-LABS app for the Bode-Museum should click here for the iOS app and the Android app.

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