Commentary

Little Local Pleasures: Letting Your Fingers Do the Tapping

There is a lot of waiting that goes into summer. Whether it is sitting in airports or just plopping down in a chair at Lucky's or Express while you wait for wife and daughter to shop at leisure, I find myself spending more time with my iPhone deck than I have in recent months. Generally in these outings I am only needed at the tail end of the experience, so there is time to kill remembering all of the cool stuff I downloaded and stopped using long ago. Perhaps it is the draw of the iPad each evening, or just a kind of app myopia that sets in and focuses the eye on just the tools you need most often, but I have had the wait time available lately to take note of the upgrades some of my old and un-uninstalled apps have enjoyed. There are pleasant surprises, especially on the local front.

Shopkick, the retail check-in app being led by former CBS Mobile exec Cyriac Roeding, suddenly became more welcoming with recent iterations. In addition to a wave of new store partnerships that give the app greater coverage, its newer versions seem to focus more on bringing actual offers forward rather than making me play another insufferable check-in game. A Faves section collects the major retailers and in an interface that resembles a familiar weekly circular more than an alien Foursquare prod to follow the new mobile dog whistle. I can't tell you how much of a relief it is to hear so much less this year about the "check-in" maneuver than last and to see apps like this open up to a wider set of user reflexes and entryways. Now when that still-irritating snot-green bubble appears in Shopkick to alert you of a reward, it actually might deliver something I can use - a real discount. I am sure there are people who want to play this Shopkick bucks game and all, but allowing people multiple entryways to your mobile experience appears to be the new trend.

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Another LBS app, Where, continues to impress me with its iterative process. It has greatly simplified the top end of the user experience with a very bare opening screen with three top-line options: Eat & Drink, Things to Do and Offers. On the bottom end, as you actually choose a merchant or location, then the aggregation power of their model kicks in and the user gets a long list of options for using the information (call, review, share, check-in, etc.). You can also customize the interface with shortcut widgets to things like gas prices and stations, movies or coupons. The design evolution here is a good example of simplifying the front end but giving the user the option of drilling deeply into a choice.

Speaking of local, we have seen a number of cool uses of both old and new approaches to locating options that follow one's tastes nearby. Alfred is one of the more interesting blends of LBS directory aggregation and recommendation engines. The app learns your likes in an Apple Genius kind of way by noting what you have perused in the past. You drill into different categories of venues (dinner, nightlife, desserts, etc.) and the app prioritizes the local offers based on your previous likes. You can also teach the app your tastes. Alfred, who takes the form of an adorable mustached concierge desk bell, asks questions about nearby favorites to profile your preferences. Actually this front end feature, while endearing, is less impressive than the back end aggregation. Alfred does a great job of scraping the available Web sites and city guides to pull in as much relevant information about a place as it can get, from menus and images pulled off of merchant Web sites to reviews across a range of local directories. And most of all, it is fun to use.

Surprisingly engaging given its buttoned down roots is The New Yorker magazine's Goings On About Town app. Talk about old school. The magazine re-engineers its famous weekly front matter, the capsule reviews and event listings that the erudite and wannabe erudite New Yorkers have used for generations to tell them what they are supposed to like. It represents the opposite of Alfred's recommendation engine front end (you already know what you like) and aggregation back end (the more data the better). And yet for the prisoners of New York smugness, there hardly is a better guide. Neatly divided into critic's picks and events by location, date and type, the MasterCard-sponsored app combines the magazine's signature cartoon stylings with retro dials that filter the listings. What I love about the app is the juxtaposition of traditional stylings with very deft functionality. Maps are embedded on the listing screen. There are cross-references to find other events at the same venue. And the app adds a special New Yorker touch by including essays on the city by some of its standby writers and a small collection of audio tours.

One thing all of these apps have in common is an engaging interface that is actually entertaining in its own right. Recent studies of app use have suggested that sheer usability is as important to an app's longevity as feature set. It has always been my contention with the Web that users have a recall for the sites in their daily browsing rounds that are sluggish, or that interrupt with pop-ups or that make you suffer ridiculously long video pre-rolls - and we simply use them less. I suspect the same holds true for apps, even the ones that are indispensable. When the mouse cursor or finger hovers over those icons and bookmarks many times a day, I believe there is a tendency to opt more often for the choices that we recall offer the fastest most efficient way into the information we want. We remember the hiccups, the extra clicks, the little disorientations that differentiate the must-have app from the always-used apps. One of the things that the touch interfaces have highlighted in recent years is that there is an undeniable fun factor to engaging with content, and much of this relies on the interface.

One of the many legacies of Steve Jobs we can celebrate as he leaves his leadership role at Apple today is his championing of design. In its own small way the iPhone salvaged digital data from the engineers who developed the Internet and handed it over to the creatives and true information designers who can make it all more usable, human, fun. 
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