Developing the Belfast Bred iPhone app

Guest post by Lyndsey Jackson, General Manager, Kabosh

Sometimes you hit upon an idea or a model of operation that just works, and for Kabosh, Belfast Bred was just that.  That isn’t to say it didn’t take a huge amount of work, nurturing and collaboration to get the production on its feet, but from the first performance it was clear we’d hit on something that spoke to audiences, entertained, amused and delighted. The show is a 2.5-hour theatrical walking tour of Belfast that explores the vast food and drink history of the city. Audiences are led around the city by Barney, a chef from the ill-fated Titanic, and as he collects ingredients for the elaborate menu he tells audience members all about the Belfast he knew and loved as a boy.  Barney takes you to some of Belfast’s finest food and drink establishments, namely; Sawers Deli, Mourne Seafood, The John Hewitt, Nick’s Warehouse and McHugh’s, to sample their delights and meet the proprietors, before depositing you at St George’s Market to explore the sights and smells for yourself.

Kabosh’s work is, by the nature of it’s site-specific form, often seen by a limited number of audiences but much of the company’s canon is easily revived and provides the company with scope to ‘earn’ income through revival and digitisation.  When considering the fit between potential projects and the criteria of CIIF funding (which, at the time of our application, had a heavy focus on digital content), Belfast Bred presented itself as the front runner for exploration into this new area of work.  It made sense that a digital medium for the show would enable audiences worldwide to experience the wonders of Belfast food and drink and would (hopefully) draw audiences into Belfast, and thus, the idea for a mobile application was born.  The application was made in partnership with The Design Zoo, a Belfast Based design studio, app and game developer.  The funding was awarded to develop a mobile app, specifically for the iPhone, based on the walking tour.  The app would integrate a GPS tour of Belfast with video from venues, audio, photos and animation.

The Design Zoo were on board from pretty much the start of the process and were able to attend a Belfast Bred tour, this helped them understand the model of operation and to begin to think about how we could transform the live performance into a mobile application.  They were introduced to us by Culture NI, who had worked with them to develop their app, and the value of both the recommendation and the experience of the working relationship was invaluable in helping us navigate the process. Our Artistic Director had never used an app but had a very clear idea of how the experience should feel for the user.  The Design Zoo had never made an app based on a performance before but had some really unique ideas on how the user interface could bring the app to life.

The relationship between Kabosh and The Design Zoo was very open; they were incredibly knowledgeable in their areas of expertise and spent a long time ensuring we all understood the processes they were undertaking and didn’t attempt to confuse us with jargon to make their own lives easier.  They were genuinely engaged in developing a unique user interface, and help us comprehend the requirements of the medium and how best to fit this to the experience we had in mind.  We were involved at all stages, through a very well maintained and open communication, led entirely by The Design Zoo through Basecamp.  The process was clearly time-scaled and the developers were entirely committed to answering all manner of stupid questions about the technology and we were confident in both their skills and shared ownership of the project so were fully able to allow them to guide decision making on areas that we were less knowledgeable.

On the whole our experience of CIIF funding was positive, we encountered very few problems or stumbling blocks, but along the way it did throw us many challenges we hadn’t anticipated.  One of these challenges arose from being given the opportunity to consider additional elements to the app with potential for further investment.  We were successfully selected to a Belfast City Council Digital Media Scheme, with included mentoring support and the opportunity to pitch for a share of funding toward the project.  The mentor assigned to us through the BCC scheme was one of the most useful partnerships in terms of our learning, it was through this scheme that we began to discuss the potential for the app to generate income.  The main focus of the pitching process was how we would take investment and generate income/value through this.  We were forced to consider the inherent ‘Why?’ of the project – we all understood that the app would look lovely and would give users an unique experience of Belfast but we still hadn’t answered the essential question – what was the point of the app in terms of the company and it’s development.

After a lot of time, chat, tea and biscuits we uncovered the sticking point; if the app only encouraged one time use then it would not be useful for the company as a means the advertise further shows or market activity, and would quickly be forgotten among millions of other apps on the store.  Through our mentoring we decided a game element to the app would encourage repeat usage, and with a very limited brief The Design Zoo pitched us a number of game ideas for the app, and we are hugely indebted to the compromises made by The Design Zoo to give us the game we wanted on the limited budget we had!  The game was developed as a separate app and to date both apps have been downloaded just over 500 times each.  We actually had no idea what our expectations of downloads should be, and were a little adrift as there were no comparable apps for us to measure ourselves against.  We continue to measure these and examine how the traffic between apps, websites, facebook and twitter translates to new potential audiences for Kabosh, which was our overall aim.

What next?

We see the potential to provide best practice advice and guidance in producing a similar cultural tourism product, as well the market potential for the IP model of operation, which is unique to our product.   Kabosh has been approached by numerous hospitality outlets keen to be involved; cities in England and America eager to learn more about the model of operation; members of the corporate sector booking the show for capacity-building and staff morale enhancement; as well as members of the public desperate to secure a ticket. This project allows Kabosh to take an entrepreneurial approach to meeting this significant demand by using the app as an exemplar to sell services. Kabosh view the Belfast Bred app as the first of many digital products. The company is uniquely placed, with a variety of suitable shows and tours to continue to develop similar innovative approaches in the future.

what I’ve learned:

  • Once you’re in, you’re in, and you have to see it through. For us, this meant company investment that hadn’t been anticipated in order to ensure the app made it to market and was the quality we wanted.
  • If the partnership is genuine and established from the offset then the ownership is truly shared – the app is the result of a lot of love from The Design Zoo and Kabosh equally and without their commitment we wouldn’t have the product we do.
  • Apple’s walled garden is very pretty, but it’s a walled garden none the less and I would never underestimate the hoop jumping required to get an app on the store.
  • That the value of a product is not always easy to calculate – sometimes you have to trust your instincts and allow the value to emerge over time (or not, as the case may be)
  • That the simplest things are often the best – to trust my experience as an app user and accept that one clear, simple function is more effective.
  • Gamers know what they’re talking about!

The Belfast Bred app is available for free on the app store

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I’m on the hunt for other examples of research, development and innovation projects by Arts Organisations in Northern Ireland. If you or your organisation would be interested in writing a blog post, or taking part in an interview to share your experience you can email me hello@oonaghmurphy.com or say hello on twitter @OonaghTweets

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