This approach to interpretive planning understands that different people engage with different precincts and experiences in different ways.
Some users need to have the facts of the matter in hand before they can decide what values and opinions they may ascribe to these. Others need to get a feeling for a place before choosing if they want to learn more about it or not.
These simple observations align strongly with our present day understanding of personality types as originally outlined by Carl Jung back in 1927. He identifed the four functional qualities we use to relate to the world around us – thinking/sensation and feeling/intuition.
Others preferring to initially get a feeling for a place are unconsciously using an emotional/intuitive approach to begin to connect with the experience on offer.
This simple appreciation highlights the importance of interpretive planning going beyond the headline delivery of interpretive media to also consider the overall context and landscapes within which these experiences are delivered.
A feature example of how awareness of the four functional qualities can underpin the interpretive planning for a major precinct comes in the case of the work we undertook at Mungo National Park in 2010 as part of a specialist team assembled by Epacris Environmental Consultants.
The challenge this project faced was how to interpret Mungo's human fossil trackways - the world's largest collection of ice age fossil footprints.
Today the location of this large ensemble of footprints is a carefully guarded secret and the footprints themselves are covered by a protective layer of sand.
Rather than embrace the idea of a technological 3D re-creation of the trackways delivered within the walls of the adjacent visitor centre as had been envisaged for the trackway interpretation, we recommended that they be experienced outdoors - in the open landscape that gave birth to them.
To this end, a section of 3D scanned replica footprints were installed in a custom designed amphitheatre created beside the visitor centre.
This venue also included special facilities to allow the Traditional Owners to gather around a fire beside the replicas of the footprints of their ancestors.
The delivery of factual content via the signage medium onsite is kept very discrete.
Only the entry orientation sign and two detailed narrative signs nestled in the context of the "lunette" styled landscape feature tell the essential story narrative.
The key idea here is that the preferred way for visitors to learn the stories of the Meeting Place is via a guided tour.
Accordingly the sign content doesn't attempt to undermine this core information delivery platform. Rather it is structured so as to support the effective delivery of a guided tour option through the means of its various "props" that the guide can talk to.
The key sensory experience on offer at the Meeting Place is the chance for people to walk, jump and run amongst a recreated section of the footprint ensemble.
Given the original footprint location is a closely guarded secret and that they are also covered by a protective layer of sand, this recreation using 3D scans to make mouldings prior to forming concrete replicas is the only chance anyone has to see a sample of the footprints in the open air today.
The local Aboriginal communities that care for their Country at Mungo were closely involved in every stage of the project's development from concept to execution.
This sense of ownership and pride in their heritage underpins the venue's sense of place.
The landscape intervention mimicks the sweep of the lunette running around the 30km long dry Mungo lakebed.
Visitors speak of immediately feeling like they have entered a considered, very special place.
Amongst the variety of non-verbal communication media underpinning the communication ensemble at Mungo is a striking entry rock installation undertaken by Aboriginal artist Badger Bates.
Additionally the entry signage uses a design palette that evokes the swirling shifting sands of the lunette that have buried 40,000 years of heritage treasures along the eastern edge of the lakeshore.
Additional Aboriginal artwork morifs by Badger Bates were also integrated into the entry path.
This underlying integrity of the product in the way it actively seeks to assist Aboriginal people to share their connections to Country in a culturally appropriate manner, underpins the intuitive sense of purpose and authenticity that visitors receive upon arrival to the precinct.
It recognises that people unconsciously attach values and meanings to every aspect of their heritage experience. This extends from the time of planning their outing through to their post-visit memories and ongoing connections.
By placing the overall user experience (UX) at the heart of the interpretation planning process, it seeks to positively influence the value/meaning sets visitors attribute to the heritage setting.
Quality landscape design speaks to a location that is valued and cared for, while effective orientation panels recognise that the first priority for visitors in an unfamiliar setting is to get their bearings. They first must access key facilities like toilets and gain a simple understanding of the experiences on offer to them in the precinct.
By extending the interpretive process to actively engage with the design and delivery of this infrastructure, UX interpretive design aims to assist in the visitor forming positive meanings and values from the outset of their connection with a precinct.
It can simply communicate what is. The meanings and values people may choose to attach to this content are entirely their own affair.
In this way a user contract is formed between the manager and the visitor. One provides the experience grounded upon a clear sense of place. The other delivers the emotional assessment as regards what the meaning and value of this may be to them.
Respecting this transactional space ensures interpretation does not overreach its mandate and attempt to attach a defined set of meanings and emotions to the content it presents. It recognises and respects the fact that different people will respond to/interpret different heritage places in different ways. This understanding provides a clear foundation upon which UX heritage interpretation design can build.
Ideally interpretive planning comprises an integral part of the overall project development process such that it can inform and nuance the visitor settings being created.
This ground up, integrated interpretive product experience is very difficult to achieve when interpretive product has to be retrofitted into a setting that may have been developed without interpretive planning input.
Sometimes these nodes comprise a significant step aside landscape feature as in the case of The Gully Aboriginal Place path at Katoomba shown above.
They can also be as simple as inserting a landscape intervention into the pathway itself. This ensures the visitor approaches signage content with a sense of arrival at the same time as providing impromptu seating that invites them to break their journey and take in the content on offer.
Visitor orientation material helps people make choices about the visitor experiences on offer and to thereafter connect with these in a secure and confident manner.
Interpretation materials play a derivative, subsequent role in this process, by assisting people to attribute positive meanings and values to their chosen experience.
This simple approach understands that good interpretation is predicated upon good orientation materials being in place in the first instance. It is only once people are confident of where they are and what they are doing, that interpretive considerations can effectively come into play.
Recognition of this structural consideration was central to the work we undertook for the ACT Parks and Conservation Service in 2017 to assist them to develop a new suite of visitor orientation signage materials.
A central tenet of this strategy was the recognition that successfully conveying essential “need to know” visitor orientation information, required signage that is very simple and clear in its delivery.
It stated that "Orientation signage must be reduced to an absolute minimum and be fit for purpose in terms of communicating its messages. Part of this means ensuring that it functions in peak load periods when carparks may be full and low level signage obscured."
"This typically means making imposing statements on the landscape in a manner that may run counter to historical thinking whereby the visual impacts of signage in the park setting were sought to be minimised. Choosing colour schemes designed to blend in with the landscape however can result in signage being hard to discern."
"Likewise small signage units that have little capacity to integrate additional or more complex messaging, invite the erection of additional small signage units as one management issue after another arises. This results in a level of signage profusion that can impact on and detract from the entire aesthetic of a precinct. Removing this clutter and intervening in a minimal but purposeful manner is the underlying purpose of this strategy."
The strategy also noted that "An essential part of the roll out process is recognising the natural domains that apply to the delivery of orientation “need to know” and interpretation “want to know” messaging. These must be clearly demarcated with each domain recognising the mutual benefit of respecting the other’s space."
"As the diagram [left] makes clear, orientation intervenes at the points where people are crossing thresholds to connect with their environment and move from one precinct / activity to another. Interpretation messaging occurs when they are securely located within a given setting."
"Where interpretive content is currently located in orientation settings, consideration should be given to moving it to a nearby, more appropriate setting [e.g. an interpretation sign being moved from a carpark trailhead to within a picnic area]."
People now increasingly expect to make enquiries of the information media on offer to them. They also want to be able to easily and simply customise their own lines of enquiry.
Managers also expect to be able to use new technologies to meet their core obligations including compliance with delivering essential content in line with user accessibility provisions.
Increasingly this means publishing content across an array of formats including as PDFs and in HTML where it can be easily translated into other languages or delivered aurally by screen readers as desired.
The new technologies available today in the form of both digital media and also in the production of materials like signage, requires nothing less than a fundamental reappraisal of many conventional approaches to interpretive planning if interpretive media are to remain relevant to a modern audience.
It is no longer enough to simply roll out disparate stand alone interpretive products and expect the user to weave amongst these thereby creating the thread that somehow ties these together.
This model was to a degree unavoidable in an age when managers had very little choice in relation to what long lasting, light fast materials they could deploy outdoors and visitor centres were recognised as a piece of crucial visitor infrastructure in many high profile settings. With little available choice in the materials mix on offer, investments in interpretive media tended to be capital intensive with mid-long term content replacement / update cycles.
In this modern realm it is the needs of the user, not the technological limitations of the manager that drives the delivery of communications product including interpretive media.
This User Experience (UX) design model is only beginning to come into focus in terms of what it means for the interpretive planning process.
The essence of creating an interpretive planning platform that is founded on UX design principles is to have one that favours small scale bespoke interventions that can address present needs while at the same time being capable of easily responding to future innovation.
Similarly it recognises that the user should not have to reorient themselves to new content and differing mapping styles as they migrate from one form of media to another. Rather the information they receive from a sign should mirror the content they can access via their phone.
While it is true that not all interpretive interventions will have a digital component, it is the case that all interpretive product solutions are now being delivered in a mobile optimsed world. Here the goalposts have been permanently shifted in relation to both user expectations and the level of effort people are willing to expend in order to access information.
This has changed as the increasing use of web-apps (viewed via the mobile device's internet browser) means digital product can now be easily and simply integrated into small and large scale interpretive projects alike.
In many cases it can actually save limited project funds by reducing the amount of signage that may otherwise be needed.
Web-app support can provide opportunities for further enquiry while delivering this content in the user's language of choice. Additionally it doesn't fade in the sun, is scratch and spray paint resistant while being easily and cheaply updated to provide customised responses on a seasonal/event basis.
The scroll-across section below provides an in-depth description of how web-apps can enhance heritage interpretation.
In a mobile-optimised world, providing essential user information in a manner that meets modern accessibility standards and expectations requires content to be published in HTML and preferably also PDF formats wherever possible.
This is the best way to make it accessible to the widest range of people including non-English speaking users and the visually impaired.
While this provision is now accepted as standard practice for conventional Government communications operations, its uptake in a outdoor settings traditionally reliant on signage and publications as the sole means of message delivery has been limited.
This onsite connection is the place where the promotion stops and the doing starts. It is the point where people have committed to their visit and now require the detailed content needed undertake their activity in a safe and confident manner.
This approach recognises that the information needs of people on site are very different to when they are offsite considering to commit to a trip and/or planning the totality of their visit.
Understanding the importance of this “offsite promotion + planning” vs “onsite doing” divide is central to the development of the web app product option.
Underpinning to this approach is the importance of ensuring the digital product is eaily accessible to all users.
The Australian Government Digital Transformation Agency guidelines also emphasise this point in their simple credo of “designing content so that everyone can use it”.
They emphasise the need to:
“Make it accessible – ensure the service is accessible to all users regardless of their ability and environment. You need to make sure everyone who needs your service can use it. This includes people with disabilities and older people, and people who can’t use, or struggle with, digital services.”
“Your service must be accessible to users regardless of their digital confidence and access to a digital environment. This includes users in remote areas and users’ different devices.”
The web-app product solutions under discussion here have been designed to meet these criteria whilst also being easy to integrate into land managers' existing funding and operational maintenance systems.
The first mobile decade has seen the emergence of a binary response in the digital platforms of nature tourism providers.
This reflects the either/or decision making process facing both providers and users alike. Will they or won’t they offer/choose-to-access a downloadable app product?
New product developments in relation to web-apps, smartphone optimised PDF guides and local area network wi-fi hubs offer the chance to develop a more nuanced approach to the delivery of digital platforms.
Expanding from a binary focus to a digital ecosystem model presents an array of opportunities to provide a more nuanced and adaptable platform upon which to explore further areas of digital integration in the second mobile decade.
Deciding whether or not to invest in downloadable app product is a challenge for many nature tourism providers.
Aside from the startup capital establishment costs to create both Android and IOS product there is the recurrent expenditure to consider.
This variable must take account of mobile operating system upgrades and the need to respond to these. The user also has to decide whether to commit to download the product.
Are they familiar with downloading product from their relevant app store? Do they have access to wi-fi to download the app or is their mobile data plan easily up to the operation? Do they have spare storage space on their device to house the app or do they need to constantly prune photos and music to free up additional memory?
This commitment threshold in relation to first the delivery and thereafter the user uptake of the app product is inbuilt into the binary system model.
It has singular points of connection with little or no chance to customise these to the operational needs and scale of the project under consideration.
The best tool you’ll ever have is the one you don’t remember using. The Google search engine is the iconic digital example in this regard. It’s just there on hand to do its job seamlessly without drawing attention to itself whenever you need to reach for it on any desktop or mobile device.
This simple approach underpins the delivery of a digital ecosystem platform. It is there to ensure the visitor has simple and direct access to the digital content they need, where and when they require it.
Delivering this service must take account of not only the user’s needs, but also address the managerial capacity to provide this service as an ongoing part of recurrent operational activities.
Over-reliance on any single point of connectivity in this regard is to be avoided. The digital disruption of the last decade has shown that future technological developments are difficult to predict.
The digital ecosystem’s capacity to respond to change and actively embrace future innovation is an essential criteria by which assess any digital platform.
An emerging trend over the first mobile decade has been for digital product solutions to become smaller and more bespoke.
Customised digital design solutions for specific settings is increasingly required by both providers and users alike. Agility and access to an array of easily adaptable core digital platform options provides the future toolkit for managers.
In this context, websites and downloaded apps take their place as just another component/option in an expanded digital platform. Solutions need to be easily scaleable relative to the project setting involved.
Just as a manager thinks nothing of publishing visitor orientation content via signage at a trailhead, neither should they pause to explore how digital support in this precinct can solve long running issues that impact both their staff time and budgets.
Digital content doesn’t fade in the sun, is beyond the reach of vandals and can communicate easily with non English speaking visitors.
Today the establishment threshold has been reduced. This makes the delivery of bespoke digital locality-specific solutions as simple and cost effective as traditional signage.
This is not to say that digital can or should replace signage. Simply that when the two work together they can achieve efficiencies that are beyond those of either media acting in isolation.
In the wake of the first mobile decade the profile of the typical park user has changed forever. User groups now bring their own essential technology with them in the form of their mobile devices.
People no longer need technology supplied. What they need is content - relevant content precisely customised to the needs of the setting they have entered.
Working with the preinstalled apps on the user’s device to deliver this content is the first and simplest way of engaging with people in the outdoor setting.
1. THE PHONE CAMERA
The first powerful app for user engagement is the phone camera.
This now delivers the inbuilt capacity to scan QR codes and deliver people directly to a customised landing webpage.
Knowing where people are standing when they snap the code means we can connect them with a digital experience of direct relevance to their setting.
Many visitors currently use their phone to take a reference shot of the map usually on offer at a trailhead.
Positioning a QR code link beside the map means that they can now be prompted to download the map and associated trail notes in a PDF smartphone guide.
2. THE INTERNET BROWSER
The functionality and complexity of this inbuilt app makes it a powerful and effective tool for the delivery of content including video.
Whilst the browser is at its most potent in areas with internet coverage where it can deliver language translation on the fly, it can also work in concert with a local area network delivering a locally hosted web-app solution.
3. PDF READER APPS
The capacity to store and read PDF files offline is standard on IOS phones via iBooks.
Most Android users will have acquired this capacity via a suite of other commonly loaded apps.
When used in concert with the internet browser providing a portal to download PDF smartphone guides, this option allows users to embed content onto their phone at trailheads for use along the trail in areas remote from either internet or local area wi-fi coverage.
An important consequence of the digital delivery model where the user brings the technology and the manager delivers the content is that it largely future proofs the investments in digital platform development.
As more efficient iterations of existing technologies like web browsers, video players and cameras emerge, the capacity to experience and interact with the content will only increase over time.
By standing alone as a separate asset rather than being bound up with the technology that delivers it, the content archive is never at risk from technological innovation.
This notion of building robust systems that adapt to and embrace technological change is the basis upon which the digital ecosystem model rests. Stability through diversity is its underlying principle.
While any one element within the system may prove more or less powerful and significant at various times, its underlying strength derives from its connectivity as part of a larger system.
Additionally the system is open to innovation and engagement from numerous points of connection.
Democratising the “digital codes” and opening the digital ecosystem up to the operational sphere of management is already underway.
Codifying and understanding this process is a valuable means of responding to it in a strategic manner.
A pivotal feature of the web-app solution under discussion here is the fact that it is engineered for speed and precision of page download to ensure its effective delivery in areas with patchy internet coverage.
The product delivers immediate page loading with supporting background infill of images occurring in the background hidden sections either rapidly or immediately depending on mobile coverage.
This is aided by the fact that page sizes are always optimised for total data downloads not exceeding 1–1.5MB.
As well as helping page load speeds, this minimises the data downloads requirements for anyone on expensive/limited data plans.
As a result of this approach there is no need to include page loading GIFs in the web app set up.
This speed of content delivery is of especial utility in areas with poor / patchy internet coverage and also in the case of users who may have older mobile devices with slower processing ability.
It also uses a mobile-first design approach utilising adaptive rather than responsive design to deliver the differing page layouts to desktop-tablet/mobile phone devices.
The difference between a static web page as delivered by the web-app and a dynamic page as delivered in response to a PHP (Hypertext Preprocessor) request to the server typically sent as part of the Content Management System (CMS) operation can be simply understood by comparison with a sandwich bar setting.
On one side of the bar you have gourmet prepared sandwiches already made /packaged and standing by ready to hand over on request.
On the other you have the ingredients and the sandwich assembler.
There service is delivered only after your request is received and the selected ingredients have been assembled within the wrapping.
In the first instance there are very few variables that can influence the service as all the shop assistant has to is hand over the product.
On the ingredient assembly side of the counter however there are many more variables. How hard is it for the server to find the content you asked for? Are they trying to also fill multiple orders at the same time as they are working on yours? Are they a speedy worker or more casual in their approach? All of these variables can affect the time it takes for you to get the sandwich you asked for in hand.
The same set of variables influence the speed with which a web server can respond to a request from a CMS webpage.
This is why page loading icons are essential in CMS sites.
The variables affecting the speed of the page load are many depending upon both the optimisation of the database content and also the speed and utility of the web server.
One of the big advantages in building a delivery system for the web-app product that minimises its reliance on a powerful server in order to operate, is that it means that the web-app can, if desired, be hosted in areas remote from internet coverage by establishing a local area wi-fi hub.
These can easily use a Raspberry Pi mini computer running a lightweight server software such as NGINX (rather than Apache) to host the web-app while also allowing users to download track smartphone guides prior to leaving the trailhead.
These smartphone guides can easily be made available across a range of key languages so as to provide multi lingual options for the delivery of this content in places without access to live internet coverage and “on the fly” translation.
A feature of the web-app approach is the decision to prioritise mobile first design delivered via adaptive rather than responsive designs.
The essential difference here is that adaptive design does not use the one web page to deliver content to all device sizes by applying different CSS style rules for different screen resolutions.
This means that the mobile phone page can be hand coded to deliver a bespoke optimal product uniquely catering for the phone user environment.
This contrasts with responsive design where the mobile phone product commonly sits at the end of the design flow after the desktop site has been wrapped into a tablet format and then finally configured for phone screen presentation.
The main reason adaptive designs are not used more widely in general web settings is that any changes needed to the site have to made twice - once to the mobile and once to the tablet / desktop page.
This for many providers is a prohibitive consideration. In the case of the web apps here under consideration, the foundation of the product is such that once established, very little if any ongoing maintenance is needed as heritage information and track notes don’t tend to vary from one week to the next. Double handling in this instance is hence a very minor issue.
The surge in the uptake of QR (Quick Response) code into product messaging since 2016 means that they are now at the point of not really needing any elaboration or justification.
In the US for example, the 2016 Smartlabel QR Code initiative requires food manufacturers to add QR Codes to their product packing to lead consumers to a webpage with more information about the product. Close to 30 food companies including PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, Nestle, Hershey, and Colgate are part of this initiative.
Responding to this uptake in demand, Apple added QR code reader functionality to the iphone camera in July 2017. This brought in into line with Android phones and meant that users no longer needed to have downloaded a third party QR code reader app in order to scan them.
Prior to this time, QR codes had been dismissed as dated technology with approaches such as augmented reality app recognition of photos and geofencing taking centre stage as the next big thing. (N.B. Geofencing here describes the process of placing technology within a sign such that when someone walks by it they are sent a message inviting them to access further content in relation to the sign.) Neither of these approaches involves either the essential simplicity or widespread recognition and uptake now afforded to the use of QR codes.
The crucial value of QR codes is that they ensure we know where people are when they scan the code and as such can deliver content of direct relevance to them in that given setting. Mobile technology has redefined the potential of interpretive signs to deliver a rich interpretive experience to visitors.
Considering the sign not as a stand alone media in its own right, but rather as a portal to a rich online world opens up an array of interpretive possibilities.
Foremost in this regard is the option in areas with internet coverage of publishing the sign content in HTML so that it can be easily translated into the visitor’s native language via the internet browser on their mobile device.
This means that when people go to take a photo of a trail map at a trackhead, their phone camera can pick out the QR code and prompt them to link to a smartphone PDF download page.
The key point to note here is that visitors do not have to have prepared for this experience in advance by downloading an app to their phone before they set out to visit the location.
Rather it takes advantage of the inbuilt functionality of their phone’s internet browser and camera. This equity and simplicity of access is a crucial element that needs to underpin digital support for interpretive signage.
The easiest way for people to embed data onto their phone for reference in areas remote from internet coverage is via a PDF.
Once downloaded through the internet browser, the PDF file is easily opened in a PDF reader app where it is then stored safely for future reference.
The iBooks program on IOS delivers a native PDF reader app to all Apple users as a standard feature.
Android users have usually acquired PDF reader capability through either a PDF app download or other app product suite. Even without these PDFs can still be saved onto the phone via the print command.
Nature Tourism Services has responded to this opportunity by developing a smartphone guide format that uses the PDF format to mimic the look and functionality of an app. As these smartphone guides are content only documents however, their download size is easily managed without wi-fi connectivity.
Depending upon the geographic area of coverage the smartphone guide is attending to a file size of between 15-30MB is involved.
One of the vital questions to be asked in relation to any major digital investment is in identifying its anticipated life cycle and the capital and recurrent expenses that are likely to be required to maintain/upgrade it.
This is particularly relevant in the case of any investment in cutting-edge new technologies. Augmented reality product solutions for example are increasingly spoken of as the major next horizon that will open up in the wake of the development and roll out of 4G/5G technologies.
As the Pokemon Go phenomenon of 2016 showed however, serious engagement in this space requires very serious infrastructure and investment.
Even when this delivers a successful product outcome the life span of the product may be short as the cutting edge moves endlessly on.
The take out from this is that the capital and recurrent costs involved with developing and deploying cutting edge technology over the longer term are significant and likely to be beyond the capacity of most small to medium nature tourism providers to engage with.
This does not mean that smaller operatives cannot be creative in their digital initiatives. Simply that they need to be very clear from the outset about the overall paradigm within which these investments are to be made.
The simplest way to future proof investments in the digital realm is to separate out content creation and archiving from the coding that delivers it.
A common approach for many app products (but not all) is to wrap their content up within the coding package.
This means that if the future funding stream is not in place to continually upgrade the coding wrapper and keep the product “live” on the app stores, the content will be lost when the product is taken down. An additional consequence of this approach is that the content is only accessible via the one access point - the app.
Web-apps avoid this problem by keeping the content separate from the technology that delivers it. Technological advances have no cost implications for the product which is based around the simple model of using the technology the user brings with them in the form of their internet browser to access the information.
In this way further investments in the product relate not to its basic maintenance but rather to enhancing the depth and extent of the content matrix on offer.
It also means that the content can be accessed from an open ended array of portals as any third party web site can link across to connect its users with the content of relevance to their needs.
Open source modular systems that have the flexibility to respond creatively to emerging opportunities while at the same time delivering present tense solutions meeting the needs of both users and managers underpin the user experience UX approach to the delivery of quality nature tourism experiences.
The interactive table below demonstrates practical examples of how these approaches can be integrated into the coherent presentation of a major nature tourism destination.
It examines this within the classic Bauhaus design dictum that form follows function - not vice versa.