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Personalising the audio tour experience through AI at the Smithsonian American Art Museum

Smartify CEO and Head of Product, Thanos Kokkiniotis, explains how the company has been working with the team at the Smithsonian American Art Museum to enhance audio tours through AI-powered personalised experiences.

First launched in 2017, Smartify has built an impressive reputation as the world’s most popular arts and heritage app, due in part to the technical innovations its platform pioneers to transform the visitor experience. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the company’s recent project with the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

“The Smithsonian American Art Museum was looking at how it could engage with its communities most effectively,” explains CEO, Thanos Kokkiniotis. “Fundamentally, it was all about identifying what their community outreach – both on-site and online – could look like over the next five years.”

He continues, “This created an opportunity for us to really deep dive into how visitors use their phones to engage with a museum collection; and to understand the potential this has for the future of interpretation. A key requirement in SAAM’s brief for the project was the ability to offer a seamless, personalised visitor experience – enabling people to find the exhibitions, artworks and stories that were most meaningful to them.

“This resonated with us at Smartify because we have always been focused on allowing visitors to connect with arts and culture on their own terms.”

Curating visitor experiences with AI

As Thanos explains, “Our solution was to develop this new feature on the Smartify app that asks visitors to the museum the three most important questions: what is your preferred language? (Including American sign language and audio description options for the visually impaired.) What are you interested in? How much time have you got to spend at the museum?”  

Thanos continues, “We use these inputs to come up with a trail that you can reasonably squeeze into the timeframe allocated and that appeals to your individual tastes and preferences, based on the collections available.”

Having spent the last 18 months developing the AI technology and language learning model, the collaboration with the Smithsonian American Art Museum presented Smartify with the perfect opportunity to refine and release this newest technology alongside traditional audio tour options.

Of course, no matter the chosen option – a personalised tour or a traditional linear tour – the digital guide features a wealth of valuable human-created interpretation including new and archival audio from more than a dozen artists talking about the inspiration for their work. Further commentary and insight is offered by SAAM’s Head Curator, Randy Griffey.

“It begins with looking at the curatorial content and expertise available and then exploring ways for that content to resonate better with a visitor.”

Test for success

With four stages of testing built into the launch process, Smartify takes a rigorous approach to ensuring that every museum solution is optimised for users – whether AI, immersive experiences, shop integrations or anything else.

Smartify attaches three core Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) to their work with museums: take-up rate; completion rate; and net promoter score. What perhaps indicates the success of the SAAM project in particular is that completion rate has so far exceeded all expectations. Thanos says,

“Personalised tours have a completion rate that is through the roof. Higher than traditional linear tours. Net promoter scores have also been very strong and we’ve been able to gain extra feedback through social media reviews, which have all indicated that personalisation has had a positive impact on the visitor experience.”

One in-person response to the technology was observed by Thanos himself on the opening night of the galleries.

“A woman with hearing impairments walked by the audio guide desk. She was clearly signing in ASL to her friend, so I offered the guide. Initially she waved ‘no, thank you’ – she probably felt that she’d seen it all before. I persisted and showed her the AI Personalisation feature. Her face lit up. She had never had so many options to customise a unique ASL experience just for her. She signed ‘joy’ over and over.”

The future of Bring-Your-Own-Device (BYOD)

The Bring-Your-Own-Device (BYOD) model utilised by Smartify enables a whole new approach to audio guides – moving from basic media player to a true visitor companion. Visitors can access tours, venue information, eCommerce as well as get real-time push notifications. Thanos explains,

“Messaging to those who are using the app is something we now place a lot of emphasis on. We have 5 million contactable users at last count and this gives us the ability to deliver pre and post visit messaging – personalised by location or preferences. Of course, this is subject to permissions.

“We now offer marketing options for our partner institutions, post-visit surveys and a range of other features that support the goals of museums and galleries around the world.”

Thanos describes this functionality as a reciprocal benefit between institution and individual user: “Having the platform live on a user’s smartphone enables them to keep the memory of a visit and stay connected with institutions that may be of interest to them. Similarly, the museum has a valuable method of communication with engaged museum-goers based on their interests and location.”

Over the coming years, Thanos suggests that Smartify will look to further develop its AI and language learning model capabilities, alongside new XR features. But Thanos is quick to note that applying these technologies isn’t about simply adopting innovations that are on trend; instead Smartify’s approach is to create meaningful tools that enhance experiences for museums and their visitors.

“We try to bring technology into a state that is easily scalable, reusable and economically viable for cultural institutions. We see personalisation as a feature that ticks these boxes.

“In the next few months, we see AI giving us the capacity to deal with more conversational responses and handle open questions rather than a small number of fixed queries. That will take personalised tour guides to the next level.”

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