A digital product, such as mobile apps, that provide services or experiences connected to the user’s location can greatly enhance their sense of place by allowing them to deepen their connection with the public realm.
Before embarking on any app creation project there are questions around its value proposition that need to be asked: What will it do and who benefits? Who will want to use it and value it enough to keep using it? How will it help your organisation? What’s unique and distinctive about the product? How is it competitive?
When one wants to add a location-based feature, this opens the door to new questions that also need to be considered, especially as the world emerges from the Coronavirus pandemic. These questions are part of what makes Calvium’s services unique, as designing location-specific bespoke mobile experiences is core to our business.
In this article, I want to emphasise the value of knowing the right questions to ask before developing a location-based app. Otherwise, an organisation risks investing resources into a project that doesn’t deliver for their market, and doesn’t get used as a result.
Mobile apps that are sensitive to the user’s location typically deliver services or experiences that are customised to that location. This can happen in lots of different ways. For example, do we want an app that will:
- Tell the user what is around them like Google Maps or Happy Cow
- Help users find their way to a destination like CityMapper.
- Tell stories or show images when the user reaches a certain place like The Battersea Power Station, Tower Bridge, and City of London trail apps.
- Let the user communicate about the location like Heritage Eye.
- Activate gameplay like Pokemon Go.
- Track the user’s movements like Strava.
Of course, it’s possible to have an app that combines one or more of these user experiences. The key is to know which one your target market will better respond to and which will best deliver the goals of your app by conducting thorough research.
The next step is to assess whether what’s wanted is feasible. Aims and costs are part and parcel of this kind of project, but there are additional questions we keep in mind that are specific to location:
- How precisely does the app need to know where the user is? Is it enough to know they are in, say, Bristol, or must the app know exactly which street corner they are on?
- Will the app be used outdoors, in which case, will GPS be used to locate the user with 10m accuracy?
- Will the app be used indoors, wherein additional infrastructure (e.g. Bluetooth beacons) might be needed to sense the user’s location?
- Will the app also need internet connectivity, for example, to download maps?
Remember, there is often a way to achieve your aims even without automatic location-sensing. For example, our wayfinding app UCAN GO is designed to use visual landmarks to guide people with sight loss through environments where there might be no GPS, WiFi, or cellular connectivity. It’s all about asking the right questions up front and not relying on assumptions.
Privacy and Trust
Given that location-based apps deal with sensitive information, the question of ethics and a user’s concern about their privacy cannot be ignored and should always be respected. For instance, users might be happy for their phone to know where they are, but less happy about their whereabouts being reported to an online service or even sold to third parties (e.g. for advertising purposes).
Of course, we should always follow GDPR guidelines and best practices, but a good additional rule of thumb is to restrict access to the user’s location on a need-to-know basis with a high threshold for establishing that need.
According to We Are Purple, 1 in 5 people in the UK have some form of disability. They also estimate that UK businesses lose approximately £2 billion a month by ignoring the needs of people with disabilities.
I assume that we want to include everyone in the potential audience for the app, partly to increase adoption and partly because inclusive design leads to better services for everyone. But mostly because it is the right thing to do.
We, therefore, need to rethink how we design mobile apps by taking accessibility into account. To do so, we ask ourselves the following questions:
- Does the app design require movement around the physical location that might be difficult for people with limited mobility? If so, then what?
- Is the app designed inclusively, with the input of people with different access needs?
- Is the app’s content accessible to those with impaired vision or hearing?
- Can the app help to reduce anxiety for users with invisible impairments who might find our place challenging?
Navigating Stations or NavSta, our pioneering digital placemaking system designed for people with invisible impairments (e.g. autism, anxiety, dementia, learning difficulties, etc), is a mobile wayfinding app that covers all of the above. We co-designed with people with neurodiversity and so understood their experiences when travelling, allowing us to design a system that will let them confidently and independently navigate the often-busy and chaotic railway stations.
All of these questions should have been asked pre-pandemic and we should continue to do so today. Considering the world we live in, however, new questions have now come to light that we didn’t consider back then:
- What will the place and associated app be like with social distancing?
- Can the app let potential visitors know how busy the place currently is?
- Will physical access need to be booked and managed?
- Can the app support contactless interaction with the place?
- What about travel limitations?
We do not know how long current restrictions will last or what the world will look like when this pandemic recedes, but we are most likely looking at permanent changes to our lifestyles and behaviours. We have to build for uncertainty and swift change, and designing for flexibility is key.
One trend that has emerged strongly during the pandemic and is likely to continue is to be able to experience places remotely as a virtual tour or what we often call “armchair mode.” Armchair mode provides a way of using a location-based mobile app when you are somewhere else. For example, in the Walk With Me app that we built for Kneehigh Theatre, users can listen to the wonderful tales of Cornwall even if they are in Newcastle or New York. This has always helped with marketing a location-based app by whetting the appetite of potential visitors. Armchair mode today, however, starts to have extra resonance when travel is restricted or just more challenging.
Know The Right Questions to Ask
The world may have shifted quickly, but our need for various services have continued—even more so, in fact. Travel restrictions in place have led to a surge in mobile app usage, with downloads and consumer spending setting record highs worldwide during the pandemic.
So, surprisingly, for an article on questions to ask about location-based mobile apps, our final question might well be: “How do we use the app to provide a service or experience of a place to users who are not there?”
If you need to create a location-based mobile app for your organisation, especially now that people need it the most, feel free to contact Calvium so we can talk about how we can help you.