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Welcome the very excellent Tamsin Bishton-Hemingray - previously Head of Content at iCrossing and all round super-experienced web content person. I can't recommend her highly enough if you're looking for help with content or content strategy.

I've been badgering her to write me something for Travelblather... and now, here it is!

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This summer I spent a wonderful week inter-railing around Italy with my family. We spent 36 hours in Venice, a couple of days in Rome and a couple on the coast in the Cinque Terra national park. As well as being a fantastic holiday, it also gave me the opportunity to try out a travel app on my HTC Android phone, which being a content geek was quite exciting to me. I was really disappointed by the experience. This blog post explains why, and why I think that travel publishers have got to work a lot harder on their apps before they are going to put good, old-fashioned guidebooks out of business.

Planning the trip
Planning this holiday required some forethought. There were a lot of things that we wanted to do and see in Venice and Rome, and only limited time to do and see them all in. We sorted out our accommodation online ahead of time using a combination of TripAdvisor recommendations for Venice and Rome, and a superbly useful B&B website which uses a searchable Google map to help you find a B&B exactly where you want one – in my case the tiny village of Manarola.

Then we turned our thoughts to planning our holiday activities. Despite both being web-savvy types, we headed straight to the book shop – because in our experience online travel content of this kind is still poorly lacking.

Guidebooks, ebooks, maps or apps?
We went to the lovely Waterstones in Brighton and sat down in the travel section to work out what we needed. My husband had youthful brand loyalties to Lonely Planet while I had fond memories of a week in Paris when I was 18 with the Rough Guide as my companion - so we knew we wanted a guide book. But should we buy one each for Venice and Rome, or just buy one for the whole of Italy?

As we browsed the bookshelves we also searched the Android Marketplace for apps. These were much cheaper than the printed guidebooks.  But we wanted to balance cost with having enough detail to help us get the best out of our holiday.

And then there were maps. We definitely needed a good map of Venice, and one of Rome.

In the end we bought the following:
Rome Compass (Lonely Planet app) – 49p
The Rough Guide to Italy (10th edition, March 2011) - £15.99
Pocket Rough Guide to Venice (Including large map) written and researched by Jonathan Buckley - £7.99

We were relying on the app to be our map in Rome, and the pull-out large scale map in the Venice guidebook to help us there.

How good were our guides?

App: Lonely Planet Rome Compass
I downloaded this app for 49p while we were still browsing in Waterstones because it was published by Lonely Planet. In fact, it was the only relevant app that I could find on the Android Marketplace from a publisher I trusted.  I was surprised how important this issue of trust was. My phone is an important tool – and I felt nervous about downloading an app from a publisher  I didn’t know. I felt even more nervous about giving my credit card details to them. So I rejected unknown publishers immediately.

I was excited by the Rome app because the blurb said you could use your phone’s camera function to display an “augmented reality” map giving you directions to the places you wanted to go to in Rome, a bit like a SatNav display from your phone. As I fired it up in Waterstones, I realised that, durrr, I was going to have to wait until I was in Rome itself to see how this actually worked from a usability point of view! There was also static content in short guidebook-style sections – Eat, Drink, Sleep etc. But the content in here wasn’t very detailed and didn’t provide indications of things like price range – something that was a critical factor for us. We were holidaying on a budget.  And it was also clunky to search for things and there didn’t seem to be a way to search by location or type of restaurant without using the map function.

So before I even got to Rome I was feeling a bit nervous about using this app.

Once there, things got worse. I had been receiving regular text messages from my provider (Vodafone) about my data usage reminding me that I had a “passport” and so would pay a fixed fee for a certain amount of data usage – but then an astronomical amount per MB once I passed my limit. It meant that I got worried about using data services on my phone. And without data services, the app was next to useless. On the couple of occasions I turned it on, it was so slow to load that my husband had already found what we needed to know in our print edition Rough Guide To Italy.

After our first afternoon of failing to find our way around with the app, I switched it off. We got a great map from the reception of our B&B – complete with the receptionist’s recommendations on how to get to the major sites, and we used the Rough Guide for everything else.

In short, the app was crap. This was partly because it was so hard to search for stuff, and partly because with roaming costs for mobiles still so high, I was just too worried about my mobile bill to use it.

Lonely Planet need to give users a clear indication of the amount of data the app is likely to use. They also need to add content and make it much more easy to search and bookmark for future reference. For me one of the advantages of a digital guidebook should be that I can carry around lots and lots of information without having to carry around a weighty book. Having less detail than the print version just doesn’t make sense.

Rough Guide to Italy
This rocked in comparison to the app. Easy to find stuff (just use the index), quick to flick through, simple to bookmark (just fold the corner), fun to browse in more detail on train journeys (no batteries or mobile signal required), jam-packed with reliable and important detail, it absolutely trounced the app. We used it for Venice, Rome and Cinque Terre and also had fun reading up about the parts of Italy that we just glanced fleetingly through the window of our train. Yes it was 30 times more expensive than the app, but it was worth every penny.

But – as with my previous experiences of Rough Guides – the small maps included alongside the fantastic detail were consistently pretty useless and often completely wrong. We would have got lost many times if we had relied on them. So it wasn’t completely perfect.

Pocket Rough Guide to Venice
We bought this because of the pull out map, and because we were worried the Rough Guide To Italy wouldn’t have enough detail. Actually, we could have lived without it. And the pull out map was a little bit inaccurate when it came to locating recommended cafes and gelateria. The best map we found to Venice was (like the one used in Rome) the one that was provided to us by our fabulous B&B; it was clear, easy to understand, accurate and free. We brought one home with us to use next time we visit Venice.

So what?
As a content geek, I’ve been reading for years now about how mobile phones are becoming our favourite way to access content of all types. I was really excited about the idea of an app that would fuse Google Maps data and guidebook content into a new format right there in the palm of my hand. But practicalities got in the way. There are a few people who will take their phones on holiday with them and not worry about the cost of use. But there are a lot more people like me who really worry about that expenditure. I might just take the risk if the content in the app was more detailed, more up to date and easier to access. But it wasn’t.  There was less detail than the guidebook. And on top of that, you just can’t flick through an app the way you can flick through a book. These are both critical flaws in my opinion.

For me, the bottom line is that the new medium isn’t enough. The content and the experience have to be top notch too. Based on the Compass experience, I think travel apps still have a way to go.

27 thoughts on “Are mobile travel apps a bit crap?

  1. At last someone who calls a spade a spade. Great article Tamsin.

    I've been on the road for the last two years here and there. I've used print and digital Lonely Planet, Luxe, Rough Guides - the competition is fierce in print so players really step up on details, insight and directions.

    I tried Lonely Planet and Luxe iPhone App guides in Paris and hated the experience... like you say, by the time I'd filter searched to a place for 'eat', found a dot on a map, tried to find 'me', I could have learnt French and asked a local myself.

    I even downloaded a Lonely Planet audio guide for London recently... cheeseball content and impersonal kids tv-like guide.

    I love Apps. I love my travel technology... but they've got a long way to go before being a solid print replacement.

    1. Thanks Josh. I was concerned that perhaps I'd just used a not-very-good app and that maybe there are awesome apps out there that I just didn't find (and maybe there are . . . ) You experience suggests that I'm not the only one who has had the clunky app experience. And yes, I love tech and apps too, so I'm not just writing this as a "print is definitively better" perspective at all. For me the data roaming thing is a big deal. If I was building a travel app it would be the first thing I'd try and deal with in the UI - tell the user how much data they're using or likely to use for typical app activities so they can relax / worry about their phone bill from a position of knowledge.

    2. "by the time I'd filter searched to a place for 'eat', found a dot on a map, tried to find 'me', I could have learnt French and asked a local myself."

      Love it!

  2. Nice piece. I think you can split the issue in two:

    1. Data / roaming costs. There are ways around this, some of which can be addressed in the short term (such as storing as much as possible, including maps, onboard with your handset). Most smart travel app publishers are doing this already; you won't need *any* data connection at all to use the full (or almost full) functionality of their apps. Roaming costs are more of a medium-term issue. They will be addressed eventually, for intra-EU travel quicker than for worldwide. But it won't be immediate.

    2. The limited nature of the delivery mechanism. On that, I pretty much summed up my thoughts on Google+, so I'll just link rather than repeat:

    https://plus.google.com/109852013615103151846/posts/Fpajxyhx5YM

  3. I've actually had good experiences with travel apps. They don't replace guidebooks, but as a supplement they are very useful. My London app told me not only what undergrounds to take, but also the time each ride would take. I also like that you can zoom in on the map in your hand. And when I stumbled on a church I hadn't read about I found it on the app quicker than I would have in a book, without having to carry a heavy guidebook. Not to mention that you look like a local checking your phone, which is especially nice for women in places where foreigners are hassled.

  4. Perhaps a better little for this story would be "I tried one Android travel app from a legacy publisher and it was crap" :-)

    I've a pony is this dash, but that aside, A few thoughts:

    1) buy an iPhone. The apps are generally far superior.

    2) buy a local aim with data. Negates the roaming issue.

    3) I'm not familiar with the intricacies of the android store, but again with iPhone, your card details are going to apple - who you may/may not trust more than LP :)

    4) do think it is disappointing that with such a low price point you were not willing to try more products. I'd have thought that was an advantage compared to a guidebook where you have to pay out £20-30 without knowing how good it will be.

    Yes, I agree there is lots of crap in the AppStore, but there is lots of crap in the bookshop too. And just because LP is producing mediocre apps doesn't mean everyone is. Plus lp's apps are getting better - their early ones were awful.

    Sorry to hear it wasn't a good experience for you, but drop me a line when you've got an iPhone and are heading to Bali - I can point you towards something you may (hopefully) find more useful :-)

    1. Yes, your iPhone apps are much, much better. (That's why I've often recommended them!) But you'd concede, though, that there's limits to what a smartphone app will be able to do well? Some stuff that books (e- or paper) can do will always be out of reach of an app... just as the other way round is true, too, IMO.

      For me, it's going to be very hard to replicate or mimic the "joy of random browsing" on a small screen. Though, of course, a decade from now, nobody in their right mind is going to use a paperback to find them a hotel or map their way to the tourist office.

      1. Yes, sure - they're not perfect. For one I'd never throw my iPhone at a rat chewing through my backpack, but LP's SEA on shoestring is perfect for that :)

        I said at a presentation the other day that our goal was to replace the guidebook, but regretted it the moment the words fell out of my stupid mouth. What we really want to do is accompany the guidebook to do things it can't (eg automatic updating, interactive mapping or virtual whatever) while the traveller is still able to take advantage of the depth of knowledge that is present in some guides.

        Like you, I get a pleasure in thumbing through the traditional guidebooks, but I like to do so with an iPhone in my shirt pocket.

        1. > I get a pleasure in thumbing through the traditional guidebooks, but I like to do so with an iPhone in my shirt pocket.

          Ah, well, that's where you're going wrong. I prefer to do it with an Android phone in my pocket...

  5. I'm an iPhone user and use an android tablet, as mentioned previously there is a lot more choice in travel guide apps for the iPhone. I've used travel apps on trips and found them very useful, before going away I've used the web and guidebooks. I see travel apps more as another medium, which doesn't always mean one is better than the other but can depend on personal preference and what you're used to. Also, like guidebooks it depends on the content, some are crap or don't provide the same information and content they have in their books. I used Unlike, Luxe and the now updated LPlanet apps. The maps were great, good being able to find where you are in relation to where you want to go. Admittedly I looked at the app content before I went to decide on what I was interested in so wasn't mucking around trying to browse for something of interest although I did that too without that slowing me down any more than if I'd been checking with a book.

    Roaming data's definitely a concern but I work around that either through purchasing apps that don't use data or buying a prepaid sim with data in the country I'm visiting. In future I'll continue to use travel apps as I travel and books and web beforehand.

  6. Surprised to hear about the data issue - I used LP's Dublin app in May and from memory everything in it could be used offline, including the maps. Do the Android ones need to go online? I agree that the navigation and search on the LP apps could be better, but I'm guessing this will happen in due course - the current stand-alone LP city apps are much better than the first generation ones which lived inside a library app. I guess my point is that print guidebooks are a mature medium and guidebook apps are only just starting out, but will improve.

    (Disclosure - I'm a Lonely Planet author).

    Cheers,
    Tim

  7. Travel apps are really quite difficult to be honest. For them to be any use whatsoever you've got to make them work 100% offline (or near) and in practical terms that means replicating everything that the internet gives you on a plate. Can't embed google maps, gotta figure out some way of getting, formatting and storing your own. Can't just link to wikitravel or any other website, got to get that content (legally) and store it, *then present* it, offline. And write a search engine so it's all easily findable.

    And apps are all about the content, I can write an amazing app but without the content.... useless.

    It's a tough one, but no doubt someone will crack it sooner or later.

  8. Thanks for all the comments and the very good points made by one and all.

    I completely acknowledge that there may have been better apps out there that I just didn't find for whatever reason. Telling me I should have looked harder for them or got a different phone to access them kind of misses the point a bit though doesn't it? I do think that my experience holds some valid lessons for app publishers in general and some for Lonely Planet (who I hold in high esteem, incidentally) in particular.

    Those lessons are:

    1) Not everyone has an iPhone. In fact, most people don't. Get over it ;-) (Personally I'm never going to go there with an iPhone because my experience with iTunes / Apple have been pretty poor over the years. But that's just me.)

    2) You can really help users get over anxieties about roaming charges by addressing them specifically in the UI and the app blurb. @Tim - Offline functionality is one thing, but what appealed to me about the LP Compass app was the augmented reality element - that meant a satellite needed to tell the app where I was. Which meant it had to be online.

    3) It's the content not the format or medium that matters most in the end. I'd pay a bit more for an app that had more content, so long as the search function was up to the job. And I definitely want a digital format to have at least as much content as a print version.

    I think Rob's comment above sums it up for me best.

    I'll definitely go back and see what improvements are made to the Compass app in the future, and see what else is on the market next time I'm holidaying - it is, as someone has said, a medium in its early days. But I won't give up my print guidebook for a while yet.

  9. Fascinating conversations!
    I have little to add really - but as a *ahem* guidebook writer and an app writer too (both to Seville) I can see pros and cons to both. (He then writes a short essay!)

    Data Roaming - in theory, my app is available off line. I had data roaming turned off when I tested it in Seville. My Telco still sent me scary text messages about using £20 and then £50 worth of data time. Got home, had massive row with O2 guy in-store. Called Cust servs - no sign of these mystery charges on my account. And still no sign. Until the Telcos get their crappy act together on this it will be a barrier to entry - even with reassurances from app publishers I think.

    Guidebooks date - I know of several places now closed in Seville since the last time I updated... nowt I can do til the publisher gives me the go ahead for a new edition. I can update the app in moments

    Feedback - my app (publisher Sutro Media - whom I really rate) has comments on everything. A user can comment and I get an email in moments and can respond in-app. That is totally cool for users (they help each other and I can respond to their queries). And it's great for me as a writer. I get so little feedback about the guidebook. I know loads about my app - stats tell me which pages get read most etc and I get lots of feedback.

    iPads/Tablets - I share Tamsin's issues with trying to make sense of a small screen. It's really hard. But I'd love to try my app on an iPad down in Seville and see how that changes the experience. Yes, It's also on iPad. As I said on a previous post I think the tablet could be the game changer

    Lonely Planet - I can only comment on the LP app to Seville. But I bought it to check it out. The fundamental issue with it for me is it is a guidebook squeezed into an app. So hardly any pics (huge fail). Until trad publishers take a step back and really think about what users want from an app. Bespoke app publishers will win out. Like augmented reality? I so don't get that. On a tiny iPhone screen - it must be hopeless. Best in class for me? Not my publisher Sutro - although they are pretty close - it's mtrip. This free one is well worth checking out:
    http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/trondheim-guide/id435101762?mt=8

    And - feel free to compare with my Seville app too:
    http://travelblather.com/2011/09/seville-iphone-app.html

    And finally! Cost. I argued with my publisher about cost a bit. They told me price it cheap, sell more apps. I disagree. I want people to associate my app with quality and to feel it's worth paying for. So mine costs a huge 5USD(!) compared to the 3USD they suggested. There are so many crap 'free' apps out there with sod all content that then badger you to upgrade to the full version (at cost of course). I hate that bullshit. Put a price on something that really shows its worth.

    J

    1. Jeremy,

      I salute you on your battle re pricing. We tried that, most recently with our Bali app, but the numbers just beat us down. Am I delighted about effectively being forced to sell something for $1.99/2.99 when I think a fairer price would be $7? No. Absolutely not. And I hope it works out for you.

      The problem in part I think is the public perception that apps are a license to print money. They're not. Perhaps if that message actually got further out into the public realm, they'd be less of an expectation from the public that these apps should go for pennies because the developers are selling a gazillion a day.

      At the talk last week I mentioned above, the speaker on behalf of Sutro revealed that their best selling app (a Las Vegas title that is $3 I think) sells 40-50 copies a day and that they (Sutro) believe that 80% of their app titles are "underperforming" -- 80%.

      Sure $150 a day isn't to be sniffed at, but that's effectively $50 for the author... from a "best selling", US focussed app. Crikey!

      1. Hi Stuart
        I imagine it would be Vegas yes. I wonder what was meant by 'underperforming'?
        I'd take 50 bucks a day, happily. That's over 18,000 USD a year. WAY better than you'd earn writing a guidebook in my experience.
        Re: perception. I think the perception problem is more that people expect everything online to be free. But maybe this is changing... albeit very slowly.
        Cheers
        J

  10. Tamsin, I think it's entirely likely that Droid phones will play second fiddle to iPhones for a good while yet. For a developer the consensus is that people are much more likely to buy apps on the iPhone than they are on droid, on droid you're more likely to make money via advertising than through actual purchases.

    Now for travel apps (which to be any good have to work offline for the most part) advertising is a bit of a non starter, at least the google adsense for mobile approach anyway.

    So in practice most developers will develop for iPhone, then they'll be faced with a question, continue to push forward developing a code base you already have, adding features and what not, or begin the entire process again for Android because most of the code written for iphone will be useless on Android so it'll need to be rewritten.

    That is why I would expect the best of the apps to be available on iPhone and not Android for the foreseeable future.

  11. Really interesting post - as someone else without an iPhone (and no current intention to switch), it's definitely a limited field when it comes to travel apps, which is a shame because I think there's certainly a part for them to play and I can only imagine the market getting bigger. The points Tamsin makes about data/roaming charges are definitely an issue though.

    My current compromise is downloading guidebook content onto my Kindle (mainly Lonely Planet, as you can get individual chapters and I like their content) - some are designed for the Kindle, so you can easily skip chapters, and the maps can be used offline (as well as online info which skips all those phone charges). It's much lighter than a massive guidebook, and while it's not always as easy to flick, it's not too far off. And as a solo female traveller, being able to pore over maps without actually looking hopelessly lost has been really useful.

  12. Great discussion - thanks everyone!

    My pinhole view of the world working with Sutro =>

    - Personal loyalties aside (I was a Linux/OSS zealot for a decade+) the Android app ecosystem is significantly behind Apple's - both will improve - but this isn't likely to change soon.

    - Mobile apps and books compete with websites more than each other. Travel print publication may be going away, but it's primarily because of the web, not apps.

    - Mobile apps are just over 3 years old, from a customer standpoint it's still mostly early-adopters. There were plenty of people poopoo-ing the limits (aesthetics, credibility, etc) of web publishing in 1997 (Mosaic was released in 1993), but they don't look that prescient in retrospect.

    - From a quality standpoint, I don't think the medium (web vs books vs apps, etc) will be as important as the talent/inspiration/etc of the author. Self-publishing (websites/e/books/apps/all-of-them) is easier than it's ever been right now, and I think there will only be fewer technical and economical hurdles over the next decade.

    1. Kevin, thanks so much for your insights!

      Could you explain how mobile apps and books compete with websites more than with each other? Books aside, I thought information packaging and delivery on mobile devices was a major sales point for apps. Looking ahead, do you think web content will be 'scraped' or otherwise more easily converted to mobile content that will directly compete with apps?

      1. Zooming out - I think web publishing is the elephant in (on?) the publishing industry at this point. eg, Lonely Planet print is more threatened by web publishers than it is mobile publishers (as are *many* other traditional publishers => http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Encyclopædia_Britannica?)

        Zooming in - I think mobile has a lot of advantages/"selling points" over web (more/easily portable, more fun, GPS/microphones/cameras/etc) and print (lighter/cheaper/more-interactive/etc)... but the game is still new, and we'll have to see how it plays out and/or predict the future by creating it :)

  13. I agree with Kevin Collins' view that mobile apps and books compete more with websites than each other. I'd add books and apps (especially apps)often win by comparison, culling the good stuff from the self-serving blather.

  14. Have to agree with the overriding impression Tamsin had - there is a lot of work needed here. Data charges are a big issue (which can be worked around, free wi-fi will hopefully spread too). But I think for planning technology can be good, just don't let me see you waving your iPhone at tribespeople in Africa trying to use its 'augmented reality' to provide you with information...
    We don't need more barriers to communication. To see my take on this with a case study of finding a good middle ground go here if you're interested:
    http://grownuptravelguide.com/how-tech-can-help-you-travel-a-case-study

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