App review: Zoopla

I always like discovering new apps, playing with them and seeing what works for me and what doesn’t. I recently looked at some apps in the property finder’ space. Julie Zhuo has recently written up a good way to do a “product critique” which template I’ll apply to my app reviews. I recently used the iOS app from Zoopla, a UK based property site, and applied Julie’s product critique template:

  1. How did this app come to my attention? – I looked at the Zoopla site a few years ago, but hadn’t interacted with the site (or the app) since. I’d heard about significant improvements to both the user interface and functionality of the app, reason why I was keen to have a play with the app.
  2. My quick summary of the app (before using it)  Zoopla’s app enables users to find properties to buy or rent in their local areas.
  3. Getting started, what’s the sign-up process like?  Registering as a new Zoopla user was pretty straightforward; only an email address and a password were required for me to register. I noticed that I didn’t need to be logged in to do actions such as messaging the estate agent about a property that I was interested in. This clearly makes it easier for me to quickly enquire about a property.
  4. How does app explain itself in the first minute? – On the app’s opening screen, it clearly says “Zoopla” followed by the “Smarter property search” strap line. Most of he options on the opening menu – ranging from “For sale” to “MyZoopla” – are pretty self-explanatory (see Fig. 1 below). I felt that some of the navigation options could have benefited from some additional explanation. For example, “Current values” and “MyZoopla” could have done with explanatory hover over comment to explain their function and value to users.
  5. How easy to use was the app? – I found it very easy to use the app. When I played with the app, I particularly concentrated on an important use case: finding a property to buy (see Fig. 2 below). The app lets users filter their searches by a number of factors such as price and number of bedrooms (see Fig. 3 below). When you get the results, the app enables both hiding and sorting of the results. Hiding can be particularly helpful if one doesn’t want the same search results to come up time and time again. By default, the search results are sorted by ‘Most recent’ but users can sort by e.g. ‘lowest price’ or by ‘most popular’.
  6. How did I feel while exploring the app? – Zoopla’s app is easy to explore; the navigational items are clearly signposted and the split menu bar meant that I could easily find my way around in the app.
  7. Did the app deliver on my expectations? – Yes, the app was simple and easy to use. It delivered on the main use cases that I expected the app to cover: finding properties, either to buy or to rent. However, the one bit of functionality and information that I missed from the app was the ability for users to sell their properties or put them up for rent through the app. It made me wonder whether this could be because Zoopla’s business model is based around estate agents who submit properties to be listed in the app.  
  8. How long did I spend using the app?  I’d say I spent about 15 minutes in total playing with the app.
  9. How does this app compare to similar apps?Lovely Rentals in the US and Rightmove in the UK are apps similar to Zoopla. I personally find the user interface of the Rightmove app a lot less appealing in comparison; it gives me the feeling that I have to work hard to get the property results that I’m looking for. A good example is the “Sale Filters” screen in the Rightmove app (see Fig. 4 below). At a first glance, I struggle to comprehend what the “advanced” option will do for me or what “Include Sold STC” means. In contrast, I immediately sensed that the Zoopla was easy-to-use and intuitive.

Main learning point: Zoopla’s property app is easy to use and intuitive. It’s a no-frills app which does exactly what you expect it to do. I like the way the app gives it users the ability to easily filter and sort search results. All around, a good and easy to use app!

Fig. 1 – Screenshot of the opening screen of the Zoopla app

zoopla-opening screen

Fig. 2 – Screenshot of property listings on the Zoopla app

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Fig. 3 – Screenshot of search options when looking to buy property through the Zoopla app

Zoopla searches

Fig. 4 – Screenshot of the “Sale Filters” screen in the Rightmove app

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What to expect from iOS 8?

Last week, Apple spent a large part of its keynote at WWDC 2014 talking about iOS 8, its new operating system for its handheld devices. These are the main features that we can look forward to as part of iOS 8:

  1. Touch ID – Apple’s “Touch ID” fingerprint recognition system is currently only available on iPhone 5S but will now be integrated into iOS 8 and will become available on more Apple devices. Instead of having to remember lots of different passwords, with Touch ID users will now be able to complete transactions just using their fingerprints (see screenshot in Fig. 1 below). In addition, with iOS 8 there is a likelihood that users will be able to scan credit cards via an iPhone or iPad camera and automatically fill in their details as part of an online shopping transaction.
  2. Handoff – With Apple’s “Handoff”, users will be able to switch seamlessly between devices; one can start watching something on an iPhone and then continue watching on an iPad, without any overlap or lag (see Fig. 2 below). Another important aspect of Handoff is the inclusion of the Mac, Apple’s desktop, and the notion that the desktop operating system can now talk to an Apple mobile operating system without any friction. For example, it means that when you start working on a document on a desktop, you can easily resume working on the document on your mobile, without having to delve into different folders, etc.
  3. Interactive Notifications – iOS 8 will include new interactive notifications which will allow users to reply to text messages or accept calendar invites without leaving the app that they are in. These new interactive notifications can be invoked from their temporary banner that appears at the top, as well as on the lock screen (see Fig. 3 below).
  4. Health – At last week’s WWDC, Apple presented it’s new Health app and a developer focused Healthkit API. The Health app effectively aggregates all your health and fitness data, irrespective of the apps that you use to generate this data. Examples of popular fitness/health apps are Fitbit are FitStar and their data can be aggregated into a secure dashboard on your Apple smartphone or tablet (see Fig. 4 below). With the Healthkit API, developers can start integrating the data of health/fitness apps with Apple’s Health app.
  5. HomeKit – With the “Homekit”, Apple is taking a firm leaf out of Nest‘s book. Nest is all about creating a connected home and which home products are designed to learn from user behaviour (I wrote about Nest earlier in the year). The technology which underpins Apple’s HomeKit is very complex, but in essence it covers one or more ‘Homes’, with different ‘Rooms’ within the Home. For example, you can have a room called “Master Bathroom” in your Home and you can have two distinct actions which you can trigger through Siri, Apple’s voice command technology: (1) closing the bathroom door and (2) turning on/off the bathroom light.

Main learning point: Apple has introduced some interesting features as part of it’s new iOS 8 operating system for its handheld devices. Perhaps the least sexy one out off all these features, but the “Handoff” connectivity feature is a really critical one as it will enable users to seamlessly switch between Apple devices and desktop. If I were to go for ‘sexy’, then Apple’s forthcoming Health app is probably the most exciting, both from a user perspective and from a data aggregation perspective.

Fig. 1 – Screenshot of Touch ID integration into Mint app (taken from: http://www.techradar.com/news/phone-and-communications/mobile-phones/ios-8-10-things-we-want-to-see-1166133)

touch-id-mint-470-75

Fig. 2 – Apple’s Craig Federighi presents Apple Continuity for Mac OS at WWDC ’14 on 2 June ’14 (taken from: CNET News, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qe5h4to5FXo)

Fig. 3 – Screenshot of Apple’s Interactive Notifications (taken from: http://www.iphonehacks.com/2014/06/apple-ios-8.html)

interactive-notifications1-1024x605

Fig. 4 – Screenshot of the dashboard function of Apple’s Health app (taken from: https://www.apple.com/ios/ios8/health/)

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Related links for further learning:

  1. http://www.theverge.com/2014/6/9/5792970/ios-8-strikes-an-unexpected-blow-against-location-tracking
  2. http://www.techradar.com/news/phone-and-communications/mobile-phones/ios-8-10-things-we-want-to-see-1166133
  3. http://techcrunch.com/2014/06/02/apple-touch-id/
  4. http://www.zdnet.com/parade-of-apps-to-leverage-touch-id-7000030219/
  5. https://www.apple.com/ios/ios8/continuity/
  6. http://mashable.com/2014/06/02/apple-ios-8/
  7. http://appleinsider.com/articles/14/06/02/apple-unveils-ios-8-with-interactive-notifications-quicktype-keyboard-group-text-enhancements
  8. http://www.cnet.com/uk/news/why-handoff-was-the-most-important-feature-announced-at-wwdc/
  9. http://www.greentechmedia.com/articles/read/apple-launches-home-kit-for-connected-home
  10. http://www.slashgear.com/heres-how-apple-ios-8-homekit-works-04332145/

What to do with Apple’s “iBeacon”?

The ‘iBeacon’ is Apple’s recent product which uses location-sensing technology to help extend location services within the iOS operating system. For example, with the help of an iBeacon an iOS device or other hardware can alert its (location based) apps when a user leaves or enters a certain location. Also, when a user is getting closer to a specific location (e.g. a store checkout) a user’s app can work out the proximity to that location.

Currently, a large number of devices still use latitude and longitude to work out a location. The iBeacon uses bluetooth signals instead. More specifically, the iBeacon works on Bluetooth Low Energy which means that the power used is considerably less compared to ‘traditional’ bluetooth signals.

The question arises how this location-based technology can best be used. Let’s look at some potential use cases:

  1. Enhancing your shopping experience – Companies like Sonic Notify and Estimote specialise in so-called “proximity based marketing”; people will get targeted alerts on their smartphones whenever they enter a certain area (see Fig. 1 below). Another great example in this respect is shopBeacon which  can welcome a shopper when he/she enters a store and show the shopper location-specific deals, discounts, recommendations, and rewards, without the shopper having to remember to open the app. Equally, if a shopper likes a specific product in the app, shopBeacon can remind him/her when she enters the store that sells it (see Fig. 2 below).
  2. Linking digital content to the physical world – You won’t need an iBeacon every meter or so to figure out where a person is located. As explained in this great article in Wired, you can have a number of beacons quietly triangulating your position at distances anywhere from 100 feet down to just a few inches. This technology opens the door for a range of new digital experiences based on so-called “microlocation”. A good example is the “Bar Kick” pub in London where certain magazines will become available automatically and for free via Apple’s “Newsstand” as long as you’re in range of the pub’s iBeacon.
  3. Seamlessly connecting all your devices – Perhaps this use case is one that it’s a bit further down the line, but one can envisage iBeacons facilitating a smooth linking of all your gadgets and accounts. Gone will be the days of having to use lots of different logins, passwords or WiFi credentials. Instead, iBeacons will automatically pick your device and link to your account.

Main learning point: Personally, I find the iBeacon one of the most interesting and promising innovations that I’ve seen in a while. It might take some time but I do believe that these beacons will transform they way we do everyday things such as shopping, using public transport or connecting with other devices. I can foresee a range of new applications popping up, all making content and interactions a lot more targeted, contextual and personalised.

Fig. 1 – Promo video of Estimote Bluetooth Smart Beacon by Beacon

Fig. 2 – Promo video of “shopBeacon” by Shopkick

Fig. 3 – “iBeacon Demystified” – CapTech Webinar on 3rd March ’14 by CapTech

Related links for further learning:

  1. http://reviews.cnet.com/8301-13970_7-57619312-78/when-will-retailers-jump-on-the-ibeacon-bandwagon/
  2. http://www.cio.com/article/748509/5_Things_You_Need_to_Know_About_Bluetooth_Low_Energy
  3. http://techcrunch.com/2014/02/25/apple-releases-ibeacon-specifications-under-nda/
  4. http://www.businessinsider.com/the-internet-of-everything-2014-slide-deck-sai-2014-2
  5. http://www.wired.com/design/2013/12/4-use-cases-for-ibeacon-the-most-exciting-tech-you-havent-heard-of/
  6. http://www.forbes.com/sites/anthonykosner/2013/08/29/why-micro-location-ibeacons-may-be-apples-biggest-new-feature-for-ios-7/
  7. http://www.loopinsight.com/2013/12/04/ibeacon-combines-with-ios-newsstand-to-deliver-location-sensitive-content/
  8. https://econsultancy.com/blog/64408-12-more-examples-of-digital-technology-in-retail-stores
  9. http://techcrunch.com/2013/11/20/shopkick-rolls-out-ibeacon-enabled-shopping-alerts-with-shopbeacon-with-macys-as-its-first-trialist/
  10. http://tapcrowd.com/blog/3-cool-ibeacon-use-cases/

Developing my own product – Where to start measuring?

So I had designed and developed a minimum viable product for my HipHopListings iOS app. I had worked very closely with Alex the developer, designed the mobile workflow and outlining the way I expected users to interact with HipHopListings on their iOS devices. I tested, tested and tested. It led to some critical bug fixes and improvements to both the back-end and the front-end of the app.

My jaws dropped when Apple approved my HipHopListings app within less then a week after submitting it. You can find the app here and I’ve added a screenshot below (see Fig. 1). Based on my previous experiences with getting apps approved by the mighty Apple, this was super fast!! I celebrated and felt like the proudest man on the planet as I’d just launched my own app and had been able to do so within less than a month from actually designing the app screens!

However, I realised that I couldn’t just rest on my laurels and had to start measuring if and how people were actually using my app. If I wanted to learn about how to best improve my app, I really needed to start measuring things, but where to begin!? I had implemented Google Analytics but wondered what metrics to focus on, especially as there are countless analytics ratios and reports to choose from.

I decided to try and identify my key questions and assumptions that I wanted to validate first:

  1. How many people are using my app on a recurring basis? – My simple reasoning was that the number of people who had installed my app (which numbers are available via iTunes Connect) is pretty meaningless when those people never use the app again. I therefore wanted to be able to do some form of cohort analysis to get a better understanding of the usage patterns of new users, developing an insight as to wether my app was compelling enough for people to keep coming back to it.
  2. Where are most HipHopListings users based?  One of my underlying assumptions when creating the app was that the bulk of HipHopListings’ target audience were likely to be based in the UK, especially given the fact that the “Shows” screen on my app only lists UK gigs. I now wanted to find out whether this assumption was actually true. Is most of the (recurring) usage coming from the UK? If not, what can I do to attract more UK users to the app? Is there a particular reason that people use (or don’t) use the app?
  3. Which screens do users tend to look at most? – I felt that looking at screen views (and the duration of each view) could provide me with a better indication of where the app could be improved. When I started creating the HipHopListing app, one of my assumptions was that people would mostly use the app to view upcoming Hip Hop shows (this assumption was part of the opportunity assessment that I did before deciding to build the app). Was this actually true? If I started making slight changes to the “Releases” screen, would these have an impact on the performance of the screen that lists upcoming releases?
  4. What are common drop-off points in the app? Again, I believed that if I wanted to get a better insight into the understanding of my new app, I’d need to understand the common drop-off points within the app: where do users typically lose interest and why?

Main learning point: I realised as I was thinking about the kinds of things that I’d like to measure about my HipHopListings app that I was falling into a classic ‘data trap’. My thinking was very much around specific questions that I hoped would give me a better insight into the performance of my app. However, I’d forgotten to think about goals, setting some sort of benchmark or baseline of what success should look like for my app. I thus learned that it would be good to first take a step back and identify my main goals, before deciding on the right things to measure.

Fig. 1 – My own HipHopListings app in iTunes

Screen Shot 2013-06-20 at 05.27.44

Developing my own product – Creating a Minimum Viable Product

Now that my efforts to develop the HipHopListings iOS app myself had not provided me with the desired results, I decided to seek help. I got as far as creating a basic app version of my existing HipHopListings (‘HHL’) blog and installing it onto my phone. However, it became pretty clear very quickly that Apple weren’t going to accept my app or that “AppMaker”, the 3rd party tool I was using, were going to submit the app for me. Alex, an experienced end-to-end developer, was happy to help me with developing the app in return for a modest fee. One of the first questions that he asked me however was whether I could provide me him with a short brief of what to build.

At this stage, I had thought about my product vision, assessed the opportunity, created wireframes and even started developing the app myself. What I hadn’t done, however, was define the minimum functionality which needed to be included in the app. I thought I had a reasonably good idea of my target users and their problems that I was looking to solve through the app. Also, I felt I now had a better steer on the criteria Apple use to approve an app into their App Store. I just needed to translate this is into some well-defined features and requirements that Alex could work against.

The challenge was to rein myself in whilst I was outlining the product requirements. I could easily see myself falling in the trap of overdesignining this app, now that I had an experienced developer to help me. I therefore used Tristan Kromer’s version of a mix of the “Lean Product Canvas” (by Ash Amaurya) and the “Business Model Canvas” (by Alex Osterwalder) as a technique to try to keep my requirements as ‘lean’ and ‘minimal’ as possible. This is how I broke it down:

  1. Customer needs and goals (problems) (1) – The key user problems I was looking to address through my HHL app were twofold: (1) how do I find out about upcoming Hip Hop shows in my area? and (2) how do I find out about upcoming Hip Hop releases. Both seemed like fair assumptions to make as I’ve received lot of a feedback on these problems from having done HHL over the past 4 years.  
  2. Customer needs and goals (requirements) (2) – In my brief to Alex the developer I translated the user problems mentioned under 1. in the simplest way possible: (1) enable users to easily view upcoming shows and go to a 3rd party ticketing site (see Fig. 1 below) and (2) enable users to filter listings by area and by date (see Fig. 2 below). I also asked Alex to set up Google Analytics so that I could track users’ actual behaviour and validate some of my assumptions.
  3. Keep it simple – I decided to keep the design of the app as simple as possible at this stage. Let’s get the app approved by Apple first (which can be a real pain in itself), get people to use the app and comment the functionality. Once I’ve established that users actually do find the app of value in terms of finding out about gigs and releases, I can them improve the functionality further and worry more about the user interface / visual design. In his “Lean Product Canvas” Tristan Kromer refers to this approach as ‘trimming the fat’.
  4. Customer needs and problems (3)  Based on previous feedback, I thought it would be good to add a very basic ‘discovery’ element to the app; a very simple ‘Featured’ screen which users can turn to for curated shows and releases which I’d chosen to highlight (see Fig. 3 below). I reckoned this feature would be relatively easy to get feedback on. Firstly, through tools Google Analytics and Flurry I would be able to monitor the number of views of this screen. Secondly, I felt this would be the kind of feature which would be easy to get qualitative user feedback on. I could use both feedback methods to validate one of my assumptions: making it as easy as possible for users to discover new shows and releases will be a powerful proposition for HHL’s (target) users.   
  5. Constraints to consider – One of my personal goals was to learn more about designing for mobile. And learning I did. My original design went largely out of the window as soon as I realised from testing that Facebook’s more traditional split screen view (see Fig. 4 below) would probably be easier to implement and for users to interact with. After all, all I wanted is a clean and simple interface, no frills, and it looked my original designs were probably a bit too elaborate compared to some of the simple user interfaces that are working well (with Facebook, Hailo and Vine as good examples). Also, I realised that I had to update the app’s content manually via a back-end which had to be kept as simple and intuitive as possible. I spent a good chunk of my time think about the user flow involved in uploading, updating and removing the app’s content.

Main learning point: actually putting down my functional and non-functional requirements down was both scary and exciting at the same time. Scary, because I really had to rein myself in and be realistic about technical and financial constraints. Exciting because I could apply some of my ‘lean’ lessons learned to my own app and think about the key value I could provide my (target) users with in the first iteration of my HipHopListings app. If anything, it was great to go from creating my original vision to submitting my app with Apple within a month. As scary and challenging as it felt at times, I felt I had created something tangible that I could launch, validate, learn from and build on!

Fig. 1 – My design for a “Shows” to enable users to easily find out about upcoming shows and go to ticket sites

Fig. 2 – My design for a simple filtering functionality, enabling users to only look at shows in their area or by date

0421'13 Draft Show Filtering V1

Fig. 3 – My design for a simple ‘Featured’ screen which highlights pre-picked shows and releases

0420'13 Draft main app screen (featured)

Fig. 4 – Facebook’s split view mobile app design

Related links for further learning:

  1. http://grasshopperherder.com/business-model-canvas-for-user-experience/

Apple’s iPad and its “price umbrella”

Hearing Charles Arthur, Technology Editor with The Guardian, talk about a “price umbrella” intrigued me. He mentioned these two words in relation to the launch of the iPad Mini and I wondered how a price umbrella works. This is what I’ve since learnt:

  1. Price umbrella – This term refers to the pricing effect typically created by a market leader. As long as competitors set their price for a similar product within the ‘umbrella’, i.e. at or below the price set by the market leader, they will be able to compete within a specific market space. In other words, by setting high prices, a company can leave room for competitors to come in and compete at a lower price point.
  2. How to avoid a price umbrellaRyan Jones has done a really helpful analysis of 3 common steps involved in avoiding the creation of a price umbrella: (1) create a new, cheaper product line (2) keep selling old hardware and (3) get someone else to subsidise the product. Offering different versions of the same product is probably the most obvious way of eliminating or at least lowering the price umbrella.
  3. Apple’s iPad Mini and the price umbrella – In his blog post, Ryan Jones has visualised Apple’s approach to avoiding a pricing umbrella very neatly (see Fig. 1 below). This graph illustrates perfectly how different versions of Apple’s devices (at different price points and with slight variations in product specification) help in lowering the price point, making it much harder for competitors to enter the market. However, with the iPad Mini currently priced at £269, there’s enough room for similar tablets to compete in the market; enter Google’s Nexus 7, Barnes & Noble’s Nook Simple Touch, Amazon’s Kindle Paperwhite and others.

Main learning point: I now know what a price umbrella is and how companies can leave precious market space for competitors to enter if they’re not careful. Even a dominant force like Apple is not exonerated from this pricing effect as is currently demonstrated by its iPad Mini. However, companies like Apple have become extremely good at continuously innovating and introducing new product versions at lower price points.

Fig. 1 – Apple’s Price Points for the iPhone, iPod and iPod (taken from http://www.iamconcise.com/main/the-reason-for-the-ipad-mini.html)

Related links for further learning:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Price_umbrella

http://www.iamconcise.com/main/the-reason-for-the-ipad-mini.html

http://www.informationweek.com/byte/personal-tech/tablets/ipad-mini-leaves-gaping-price-umbrella/240009684

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/reviews/9696510/iPad-Mini-to-Nexus-7-Best-e-readers-for-Christmas.html#

iCloud: what’s all the hype about?

This week saw Apple launching its iCloud music streaming and online data storage service. It will enable users to instantly access any song purchased on iTunes on any device. Anything downloaded from the iTunes Store will be made available on all your Apple devices for free.

In addition, for $25 a year, iTunes Match will take every song from your iTunes library – including those songs ripped from your CD collection or downloaded ‘elsewhere’ – and store them on Apple servers in the cloud.

Users will thus be able to download any of their (up to 20,000) tracks stored in the cloud onto their iPad/iPhone/Mac/PC without spending hours transferring the music across.

Since the official introduction of iCloud at the annual Apple Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) earlier this week there has been a quite of hype about it. But what is it all about, what makes iCloud different from any of the other cloud based services?

  1. It’s Apple! – By default, every WWDC is looked at with much anticipation, by developers and users alike. However, Apple cynics see iCloud as yet another way to tie customers further into the Apple eco-system.
  2. It includes non-iTunes purchased songs – iTunes Match will enable users to store any songs ripped from their CDs or downloaded/purchased elsewhere.
  3. It has two advantages over its main competitors – Unlike iCloud’s competition – Amazon’s Cloud Drive and Google’s Music Beta – Apple seems to have agreements in place with most of the major music labels and publishers. More importantly, Apple has the complimentary hardware that the likes of Amazon, Google or Dropbox don’t have. If you already own a Mac or an iPhone it does make a lot of sense to use iCloud and to sign up for iTunes Match.

Main learning point: I now have a better understanding of what all the hype has been about. Apple has launched a free cloud-based storage service that promises user friendliness and the end of worrying about licensing and digital rights. However, for iCloud to fullfil its promise I believe it all comes down to uptake and web access: “will users buy (into) iTunes Match?” and “will iCloud eventually become accessible via the web (and not just via Apple devices)?” It will be interesting to see whether (a) Apple customers are willing to move their music libraries to the cloud as well as pay for iTunes Match and (b) whether Apple will launch iCloud web apps in the near future.

Related links for further learning: 

http://www.readwriteweb.com/mobile/2011/06/icloud-for-developers.php

http://techcrunch.com/2011/05/31/apple-icloud/

http://www.zdnet.co.uk/blogs/mixed-signals-10000051/jobs-reveals-apples-icloud-new-itunes-ios-os-x-lion-10022638/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ICloud

http://www.wired.com/gadgetlab/2011/05/apple-announces-icloud-steve-jobs-wwdc-keynote/

http://thenextweb.com/apple/2011/06/07/a-storm-ahead-for-apples-icloud-where-are-the-web-apps/

http://www.appleinsider.com/articles/11/06/01/icloud_preannouncement_leads_wall_street_to_expect_big_things_from_apple_at_wwdc.html