In 2014 Chester Zoo knew they were going to be busy. There were lots of animals to be born, special seasonal events planned, and attendance was soaring. But they were missing an easy way to help their guests know when to visit next, and how to make the most of their time in the park. Mobile reception was patchy at best in the zoo, so their website wouldn't do. They had an app that had been neglected, but it had a healthy (albeit dormant) user base, so the team and I were confident we could create something new that zoo visitors would like and take the time to use.
We learned that visitors were loyal to the zoo; returning often, advocating for it, and consuming absolutely everything about it, and we wanted the app to be a tool that helped them do all of those things faster and more often.
The app begins with the welcome screen – a waypoint for whatever tasks a visitor (or soon to be visitor) wanted to achieve: to find out the best time to visit the zoo, to book their tickets, and then of course to find their way around once they’re arrived.
We placed a geofence around the perimeter of the park which allowed us to adapt the app’s functionality depending on the user’s location. If they’re outside the zoo the focus is on planning their visit. When they’re in it: how to get the most out of the park.
The map is of course the core of the app – it's a feature that the audience wanted the most. It’s based on its printed counterpart but you can filter it to only see signage you’re interested in – whether it’s special exhibitions, where to get a bite to eat, or simply the nearest toilet.
During development we found the artwork needed a lot of tweaking and manipulating as it didn’t match up with the real-world coordinates (as we found out one day during testing when it said we were standing on a building).
We knew fans of the zoo lapped up news about the animals, so it was important to feature this content on the welcome screen. Map integration made it easy for arriving visitors to then quickly find the animals they’d been reading about.
Nothing comes close to seeing the animals in the park, but I wanted them to feel special in the app too. I looked back to classic sports trading cards and the way that they made heroes of the people that adorned them. Digging through the zoo’s beautiful photo library I picked the most portrait-like shot of each animal and combined them with conservation facts and figures.
The other side of trading cards is their collectibility, so it felt natural to reward visitors who took the time to discover and learn about each animal, with a unique illustrated badge.
We felt super-fans would want even more than that, so we added achievements that could be gained by completing certain activities and by earning full badge sets.
During feeding times throughout the day zookeepers often gave talks, providing insight into the animals that the zoo is raising. Visitors found it easy to miss these with so much going on, so a reminder feature was created to give them a helpful nudge at the right time.
When the park grew, the app did too.
A couple of years later the zoo opened Islands, an ambitious addition to the park that invited visitors to discover six south-east Asian-themed islands. New animals were introduced, but there was also a greater focus on the history and nature of the real-life locations. The zoo were implementing a series of practical educational activities but wanted to use the app to help complement this.
So I devised a series of in-app games and challenges for visitors to complete around Islands. To make the app more embedded in the overall experience we planted Bluetooth beacons in the park to trigger activities automatically as visitors hopped from one island to the next.
Since launching the app has gained a dedicated user base of over 7,000. I was sad to leave it behind when I moved jobs, but also content to find it useful as a visitor on my next trip to the zoo a few years later.