The Tate gallery in London
Copyright: Tate Photography

We had the amazing opportunity to work with Tate to develop native apps on Android and iOS that allowed visitors to explore Tate Modern, Tate Britain, and Tate Liverpool.

The brief

Tate came to us wanting to create a digital product that could enrich the experience of visiting, and planning to visit, one of their galleries. Their vision was a product that was easy to navigate, and that gave contextual information about the art and artists, as well as audio tour guides and other on site details.

They had developed a minimum viable product (MVP) with Fabrique as a native app for iOS, and wanted us to solve a number of issue that they’d uncovered during testing. Tate also asked us to create a version of the app for Android phones.

The Tate gallery in Liverpool
Tate Liverpool. Copyright: Tate Photography

The iOS app was close to their vision, so working with the team at Tate, we prioritised increasing the prominence of artists, reducing the friction for users moving around the app and generally helping them have a better understanding of where they were in the gallery.

The challenge

At the start of September we received two black boxes: the iOS app, and a converter that rewrote files from Tate’s live API to JSON files that the iOS app could more easily use. We knew nothing about the software, and opening them up to look inside on day one was nerve-wracking.

Using the iOS app as a canonical reference, we started scoping out the work required for Android. We were on a tight deadline; by early December we needed to deliver both apps to production, so whilst we got a scaffold Android app in place, we were working on the required UI and UX improvements.

Running three concurrent processes is difficult at the best of times, but developing two different code bases that had equivalent functionality, and would be visually as close to identical as possible, upped the challenge.

It was even trickier when we factored in that the iOS app was based on code we had inherited, meaning there were certain doors that were closed to us.

Getting it done

We had a team of nine working on this project: two Apple developers, three Android developers, a Scala wizard, a visual designer, a UX designer, and a project manager. It was a big team for a fast moving project, but we needed all hands on deck.

The Tate app interface

The team at Tate were incredibly helpful, with good communication throughout. It was the first time at Potato that we’d run client comms via Slack. This was a huge success in ensuring that everyone had a good idea of where the project was at any one time.

Testing played a large role in making sure the apps were working as expected. Within the offices we had four Bluetooth beacons that helped the app locate the user in the gallery.

The Tate app in use in the gallery

That helped with day-to-day testing, but nothing beats an on site visit. We never had a chance to visit Liverpool ourselves, but we were regular visitors in Tate Britain and Tate Modern to make sure that all was behaving as expected.

Some Tate app imagery

By our December deadline, we had production ready apps for both Android and iOS. We had integrated the improvements across both platforms to solve Tate's problem statements. These included:

  • A permanent main menu
  • A perpetual location bar
  • Improved wayfinding towards artists and clearer side-view maps
  • We had also integrated an upgraded mapping system, created by Movin, to allow users to get a more accurate view of where they were within the gallery.

Right now, we've gotten the apps closer to Tate's vision of an enhanced visitor experience. We’re all excited about pushing the apps' capabilities even further this year to make visiting a Tate gallery as immersive and enjoyable as possible.

The lessons learned

  • Native apps appear reasonably simple. This is deceptive. Both Xcode, for Apple, and Android Studio, out of the box, come with very helpful building blocks. These are great if the UI and flow of the app remains very close to how Apple and Android expect an app to be created. Having inherited an iOS app we started down the path of having that UI inform the Android development; we should have avoided that.
  • There’s nothing more thrilling than sending someone to the Play, or Apple App store, seeing them download the app and start using it to explore a gallery or artwork.
  • There’s nothing more stressful than waiting for the Apple review status to change from “In Review” to “Approved”. We now better understand the expression, ‘The watched pot never boils’.

Read more about the Tate Gallery app here.