When the iPhone first came out, and I grasped the idea of apps – little bits of technology that went with you wherever you went, that knew where you were, who you were and what was around you – I quickly saw the potential for apps that help people navigate the city in a million new ways. I thought, this will be the future of interacting with cities – you’ll have an app on your phone for everything you could want to do in a city, and you’ll use that app to make better decisions as you move through your day.
And in the space of just a few years, lo and behold we have an app ecosystem that is starting to look pretty much like that – an app for just about everything I need to do in the city during my day (well, not everything, but lots of things).
But even with all of these apps, I’m not using much of this technology to help me move through my day. And I bet you aren’t, either.
Here’s how many of these apps I’ve used in the past week: none.
The problem? For me to use any of these apps, I have to reach into my pocket, get my phone, open it up, if it’s password protected enter the password, then locate the app, click on it, wait for it to open. Then I have to wait for it to log me in and geolocate me. Then I have to submit my info and wait for the app to return the answer I’m looking for. Then in some cases I have to send a second query to the app to refine my search, or ask another question, explore nearby areas or secondary options, etc. etc. And finally, I have to close the app and put the phone back in my pocket.
So to get a bit of informed help on a decision I want to make in my day (say, parking my car), I need to go through a whole bunch of steps that add up to a few minutes’ work. My mind quickly does the math and decides in most cases that it’s not worth it – all things considered I’ll do better just making my best guess, or asking a stranger on the street for the info.
So while the ecosystem of apps that can help you use the city better is here, there’s still a big missing piece to making the whole equation work that I hadn’t seen back when apps first arrived: making the whole process fast and painless enough to make it worth your while in the first place.
That’s something that has to get worked out, one way or another, before civic apps will really catch on and be major influencers in the way cities work.
Partly it’s an OS problem: how can the platform reduce the amount of time it takes to interact with an app from start to finish?
Partly it’s a UI problem: how can you build an app interfact that allows people to use it as quickly as possible to get what they want?
Partly it’s a system problem: how can you minimize the wait for data transfer, to allow the user to get what he/she needs as quickly as possible?
And partly – largely – it’s a product problem: how can you develop apps that are, more often than not, worth the trouble to open up and use in the street? (And what factors enter into that equation that help tip the balance?)
These are things that I expect the next gen of apps, and the next gen of phones, will start to grapple with, and within a few years we’ll really start to see civic apps that get used as much as we thought they would when we originally envisioned them.
Until then, most of the decisions that get made in city streets during the day will get made in the same old way – by asking strangers or making best guesses.