A Barrier to Use For Civic Apps, And How to Overcome It

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 are the civic apps I have on my phone right now: CabSense, ExitStrategy, HopStop, Weeels, Locavore, ParkShark, NYCRestaurantScrutinizer, SpokesNYC, NYCWAY and LaptopCafes.

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.

How?

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.

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6 Responses to A Barrier to Use For Civic Apps, And How to Overcome It

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention A Barrier to Use For Civic Apps, And How to Overcome It | John Geraci's Blog -- Topsy.com

  2. AG says:

    Thanks for the post, John. You’re spot on. This is why I really think — in fact, have always thought — the future of this functionality is ambient UIs of one sort or another. To me, it’s only when the presentation has “dissolved into behavior” that these propositions begin to feel convincing.

    And this, of course, introduces another order of complication, from the perspective of someone intending to build a business on municipal data: what kind of business logic or other revenue-generating activity can you pull a user through, when they’re interacting with information that’s essentially dissolved into the environment? If that revenue potential goes away, where’s the incentive for any third-party private actor to provide you or I well-designed access to this information?

    This is a question we’re all going to come up against in the near future, from our various perspectives. Anyone who knows me well knows that the last thing I want to see is a world of intrusive, putatively context-aware, utterly pervasive “experiences” that start and end with commercial logic, and take our own needs and desires nowhere into account. But I also know that unless some kinds of commercial plays are enabled, the whole space is likely to stagnate, we’ll be thrown back on the present not-particularly-satisfying array of alternatives, and the greater body of people won’t be afforded access to what I genuinely believe are transformatively empowering informational services. Something work thinking about.

  3. Have you used the subway SMS updates? (Send “txtnyc subup” to 368-638)

  4. johngeraci says:

    AG says:

    But I also know that unless some kinds of commercial plays are enabled, the whole space is likely to stagnate, we’ll be thrown back on the present not-particularly-satisfying array of alternatives, and the greater body of people won’t be afforded access to what I genuinely believe are transformatively empowering informational services.

    I totally agree. And I think finding that delicate balance of “commercial plays” that enliven products and ideas while not overwhelming and destroying them is the name of the game here. Very few people/orgs/corps that I see have so far done that in this space (though the space is very new, so that’s not entirely surprising). I’m currently looking to other, nearby spaces & genres for ideas on how this problem can be creatively tackled.

  5. Pingback: VIsitors To This Blog in January – The Breakdown | John Geraci's Blog

  6. jodie says:

    Yes, all of what John says and…. one more thing – for us seeing impaired – minimal visuals that are clear, concise and able to be navigated without a pilots licence would be gr*