Apps We’re Loving

As much time as we spend creating the best apps we can for our own partners, we are constantly on the lookout for other fun, creative and innovative apps on the market today. We like to consider ourselves mobile experts, so here are a few of the apps we’re loving right now, as reviewed by our own Conor Dawson, Dan Sullivan and Paul Miard.

CITYMAPPER

Reviewed by Conor Dawson, Software Engineer

Citymapper is an urban area focused mapping app that incorporates all forms of transportation available in that city. It has replaced Google Maps on my phone as my go-to for getting from place to place in NYC. Citymapper has all the information you need to traverse your city of choice. When I am in New York, it gives me route information for walking, biking, Citi-Biking, driving, taking the subway, taking the bus, and taking the LIRR. These options are all shown on one convenient result page with times for each option, allowing me to quickly access the best option. If you are walking or biking it also gives you the number of calories that will be burned on your journey. As an avid Citi-Biker, the biking directions are especially handy. Not only does it plan out a route for me, but it also shows me where the closest available bikes are, as well as the closest dock to my destination. This saves me a ton of time and prevents me from using multiple apps to get directions and locate bikes. Driving directions are also useful, providing a cab fare estimation that can help you decide if taking that cab to avoid the rain is really worth it. Additionally, Citymapper has subway maps built into it so you can navigate those routes even without a network connection. It also pulls in service information to help better plan your subway route, preventing you from getting stranded somewhere because the F isn’t running, for example. The app also allows you to quickly share directions, making meet-ups with friends really easy.

    

Currently, the app is only available in New York, Boston, DC, Chicago, San Francisco, London, Madrid, Paris, Barcelona, and Berlin. However, they are working on adding new cities all the time. You can even vote for which city you would like them to add next! Overall, it is a useful and good-looking app that has made navigating NYC a breeze.

            


FLICKR

Reviewed by Dan Sullivan, Director of Design

Flickr 3.0 for iOS is the first major refresh for the company’s mobile app. Sporting a complete visual redesign and new photo and video shooting features, Flickr is looking to join the ranks of other media sharing apps, namely Instagram. Feature set aside, I was drawn to the app’s modern visual design and its well-thought-out UI animation.

The onboarding screens are really well done. The detailed illustrations combined with the parallax swipe effect create a unique experience that sets the stage for other unique visuals.

The view refresh loader has a two-part animation which plays nicely off the Flickr logo. Transitioning from grid to full image view is seamless, and the outlined icons and white text look sharp on the metadata view.

Even the follow buttons have an interesting transformative animation when activated and deactivated.

This is just a sample of the well-thought-out and detailed UI that Flickr 3.0 for iOS has to offer, which is refreshing to see from a company who hasn’t had much of a presence in the mobile space.


UMANO

Reviewed by Paul Miard, Senior iOS Engineer

Umano is the best way to listen to the web. It’s your perfect hands-free companion when you’re looking to listen to something other than music or a book. Think about it as the Audible of news articles and other blog posts.

       

Umano features a virtually unlimited amount of articles from the web, all narrated by professional voice-actors. You can find articles via the “Stories” or “Popular” tabs, or you can subscribe to channels of your choice for a more personalized feed.

      

Both the narration and the app’s design and UX are high quality, and the overall experience is very enjoyable. The app easily allows you to set up a playlist (based on your interests or time available), access original articles, share them with friends or review your activity, such as “likes” or “listen history”. I personally use it when commuting, whether I’m on the subway or on my bike. It even features a slick car mode that helps you keep your eyes on the road rather than on your phone.

The app works on both iOS and Android, and you can even listen to articles directly from your web browser. In case you find an article you’d like to listen to later, it also comes with a great browser extension. If the article has already been narrated it will be automatically added to your playlist. Otherwise, it will be submitted to Umano and you’ll be notified when it’s ready! Umano in its free version is very enjoyable, but if you want to create a bigger playlist or listen to articles while offline, you can subscribe to Umano premium for $3.99 a month. Whether you want to be thankful to Umano for their great service or are interested in those features, it is definitely worth it in my opinion! You can download it here.

  • Bailey Bennett

Social Engineering

I came from a series of jobs that were positive career moves at the time, but also terribly isolating. Development was the last piece in a long chain of moving parts. As a developer, this is something you get somewhat used to; the vast majority of your working time is spent interacting with a computer, its output contained in text files that are subsequently converted into a series of 1’s and 0’s. You basically become the stereotype of a person sitting in their basement, whittling away on their computer as they consume never-ending supplies of pizza and Red Bull.

Interconnected Gears

When I was looking to move to a new position, I wanted something to change that isolation and make it a more social experience — an experience that broke the mold of what I had been used to. I had come to realize that development needed to be a more pertinent and involved part of the entire process, and I wanted to be a part of a company that believed that. So I oriented my job search to just that: a modern company at which the process was a series of interconnected gears rather than disparate chains in a long sequence of paths.

I found Prolific through a Google search for mobile tech companies in New York and was immediately taken by their website. The presentation was vibrant and colorful, cool and confident. The pages were filled with the people who actually worked there, not just stock photos of people standing in well-lit rooms with wireless headsets wrapped around their emphatically fake smiles. Their social media presentation was equally as interested in its products and clients as it was in the bodies that put the time and energy into making those things a reality.

Chaos and Control

My day-to-day life here has really hammered home the fact that I’ve found what I was looking for. From day one, I was asked my opinions and thoughts on processes; my input was valued and being actively sought out. I have been a part of design meetings in which I’ve played an active role in guiding the project forward. It no longer feels that the parts of the project are separated, but instead are all interconnected, allowing for a work flow completely different from what I had experienced before.

Time and time again, I have been asked, “Is this what you were expecting?”, and every time I cheat and say, “I didn’t know what to expect,” because everything about Prolific has seemingly been built in a way to disarm you. I have never worked in a place where development feels both chaotic and controlled and where involvement in a team effort is always expected of you. It is extremely refreshing. I also feel like it is pushing us to make the best product possible in the most efficient of ways. Development no longer feels isolating but completely involved in an on-going and ever-changing process.

  • Christopher Jones

Apple Pay’s Potential for Mobile Commerce

Apple announced today its NFC payment system, Apple Pay. We expect it to take mobile commerce mainstream, so below is a quick recap of the announcements and some of our takeaways.

Key announcements regarding Apple Pay

- Apple Pay comes with every iPhone 6 & iPhone 6+ (the two models introduced today). While this means all currently existing iPhones will not support Apple Pay, adoption of new iPhones is very fast: in the US, the iPhone 5S and 5C represented over 5% of all active iOS devices just one month after release. We should see similar adoption with the iPhone 6 models.

- The newly-announced Apple Watch will support Apple Pay. Because the Apple Watch can connect to all iPhone 5 models, this is a way for iPhone 5 owners to enjoy Apple Pay capabilities.

- Support for Apple Pay launches in October 2014 in the US, with international support coming later.

- Activating payments on Apple Pay is powered by NFC (more on NFC below), which is supported in 220,000 retail locations around the US already. The user will simply tap their phone against an NFC payment terminal and then swipe their fingerprint to use Touch ID for authentication.

- Security is handled via the new Secure Element chip, which means that no payment info is actually shared with merchant (more on security & privacy below).

- In demos at today’s event, Apple confirmed that using Apple Pay does not require app makers to get user credit card info in the app. It’s all stored in the user’s wallet and integrated automatically. This vastly streamlines the checkout process.

- The API will be available for developers in iOS 8, expected to be released around the same time as the iPhone 6 (September 16).

Apple’s support for NFC could mean big things

NFC stands for “near-field communications,” a radio transmission protocol based on RFID technology that allows your phone to communicate with nearby devices. NFC is notable for its low power requirements but also its small range of communication (typically only a few centimeters). It gained popularity with Android users and overseas markets, but prior to the iPhone 6 NFC has not been supported in Apple devices.

NFC offers several advantages over alternative short-range communication technologies. Unlike Bluetooth, NFC does not require your phone to be paired with the device it is communicating with. This results in a fast and seamless connection; customers can pay simply by tapping their phone against an NFC-enabled terminal at the register.

Because NFC requires little power, some basic transmitters (called “tags”) can draw power directly from your phone when you tap them. This means that the tags require no battery and can be embedded into posters or other static advertisements. When a user taps their phone on the tag (typically a labeled area on the advertisement), the tag will pull power from the NFC-enabled phone and then transmit the data it holds in memory (a URL, directions to a store, a coupon, etc).

NFC tags: tap to get your train ticket

NFC tags: tap to get your train ticket

It is not clear whether the iPhone 6 will support these tags in iOS 8, but this is one of the most promising applications of NFC. Given Apple’s influence on the mainstream US market, we expect to see similarly innovative uses of NFC technology in the 2015 and 2016 holiday shopping seasons.

Apple Pay comes with three layers of security

The iPhone 6 will come with a new chip called the Secure Element. The chip’s data is isolated from the rest of the device and is separately encrypted. All payment information is stored exclusively in the Secure Element.

As a second layer of protection, the payment information that is stored is not the actual card number but a device-only account number associated with each card. Credit card information is therefore never stored on the device; instead, Apple verifies the account information directly with the issuing bank and stores the device-only account number in the Secure Element. In addition to offering extra protection, this makes it easy for users who lose or replace their cards: Apple Pay can obtain new payment information directly from the issuing bank, and a new device-only account number, so that the user does not need to enter the new card data.

Finally, Apple Pay does not share any of your card information with the merchant when you pay. Instead, it creates a one-time payment number for each purchase, and this is verified through Apple Pay’s partnerships with the merchants and issuing banks. This prevents associates at the register, and the merchant, from ever seeing (or stealing) credit card data.

Apple assures customers that transactions are private

Much of this security rests on trusting that Apple is not storing transaction data on its servers. To this point, Apple has assured users that it does not keep track of users’ purchases or shopping behavior; every transaction is strictly between the merchant and the user’s bank.

Partners announced

Because of the deep integration with issuing banks and credit card companies, Apple Pay will only work with established partners.

According to today’s announcement, Apple has already partnered with AmEx, MasterCard & VISA and sufficient issuing banks to cover more than 80% of all credit card volume in the US.

Retailers who will support Apple Pay on launch include:

  1. CVS
  2. Walgreens
  3. Macy’s & Bloomingdale’s
  4. Staples
  5. Subway
  6. McDonald’s (customers can use Apple Pay in the drive-through)
  7. Whole Foods
  8. Disney
  9. Toys R Us
  10. Target
  11. Groupon
  12. Uber
  13. Panera
  14. MLB.com
  15. OpenTable (including the ability to pay for your check in restaurants)
  16. Starbucks
  17. Instacart
  18. Apple Retail Stores

How it will impact mobile commerce

Apple claims Apple Pay will “change the way you pay for things forever.” iOS users already represent the majority of mobile commerce customers (roughly 23% of online sales last holiday season), so we see no reason to disagree.

Removing the step of entering credit card information at checkout would be nothing short of huge. No one likes to enter personal information on a phone; consequently, this is the highest dropoff point in the checkout flow. If Apple has truly solved that, app makers should see a significant rise in mobile conversion rates.

Also, Apple’s support for NFC is a huge step forward for a payment technology that has already begun to take off around the world. NFC is supported in Android 2.3 and later (Gingerbread, released 2010) and in most of the latest Android devices, so we expect that it will become the default mobile payment technology.

In particular, we see tremendous opportunities in NFC tag-enabled advertisements and in NFC + iBeacon installations in retail stores. Working together, these technologies could drive more in-store traffic, and convert more customers to purchasers while in the store, than ever before.

As an example:

- Customer receives a NFC-enabled time and location-specific coupon or offer while walking past an advertisement at a bus stop, driving the customer into the nearest store

- Customer gets location-specific notifications while walking through the store alerting them to customized product recommendations (based on data stored in the customer’s app)

- Sales associates receive detailed information about customers’ past shopping behavior as soon as they enter the store, allowing for informed in-person customer support

- Stores receive data about customers’ shopping behavior in-store as they are tracked with iBeacons

- Customers can check out with one tap using NFC (even using an Apple Watch, which supports Apple Pay), reducing lines at the register

Our clients are the world’s most innovative retail brands, and we’re currently working on all of the features described above. Contact us if you’d like to find out what the newest mobile commerce technologies can do to improve your business.

  • Russ Wallace

A New Kind of Researcher

Same Rules, Different Game

There is a new type of researcher emerging–one that is turning away the misconception that good research is inaccessible and closing the gap between human interaction and design. As Prolific Interactive’s first dedicated UX designer/researcher, I’ve been getting a lot of questions about what I do. Not just from my friends and family, but also from my colleagues and from those within the industry. Many of us are still trying to sort through the trending industry buzzwords and inconsistent terminology in order to understand the core purpose and value of having a dedicated researcher on a product team. The answer, although maybe unsatisfying, is that UX Research doesn’t mean any one specific thing, and those that practice it are having to constantly adapt and experiment to keep up with technology’s evolving impact on humans.

Even though the methods are changing, the rules of research are the same. For a UX researcher, their lab is the internet, their experiments are designed with rapid prototyping tools, and their microscope is the latest usability testing software. Their field might be the local coffee shop and their test subjects look just like you and me-—in my case, if you own a smartphone, they are you and me. The only difference is that, like technology, we have to move fast to stay ahead. Contextual inquiry, ethnography, usability testing, heuristic evaluation, task analysis, personas: these terms have new meaning in the digital space and are assigned to processes used to reach the same goals product designers have been working toward for a long time–to make a useful product that also brings delight to its users.

Research Shouldn’t End With A Report

When I started pivoting my career focus to User Experience Design, I was so excited by the way my interest in studying social phenomena and its relationship to technology plays off of my obsession for good design. I had studied sociology and had been practicing design for many years. It seemed like such a natural combination. Yet, while speaking with digital agency after digital agency, I saw a disheartening pattern emerge. “Design Research? We’d love to do more of that, but we just never have time. We’re mostly looking for someone to just do the wireframes,” they’d say. Or worse—- “That’s great, but we’re pretty much experts in this now, and it’s more of a pattern recognition thing at this point. We don’t really need much ‘research.’”

The bigger design firms have research teams, or employ outside research agencies to create expansive and in-depth reports at the beginning of their projects, or maybe usability testing reports at the end, but they lack the insight and impact that comes with getting your hands dirty alongside the designers and engineers in the midst of the product’s creation. Unlike other kinds of research, UX research doesn’t end in a report or publication. UX research might not really end at all. It travels through the product life-cycle into interface design, testing, iteration, and is repeated cyclically. There are always new things to learn and ways to make improvements.

Raising the bar on product design

When I started at Prolific Interactive, I was the first of my kind-—a sort of experiment to fill a void that Prolific recognized was crucial for the next step in their development as a top mobile agency, which is a recognition that is very rare among young agencies. They wanted to see how a UX designer dedicated for research could improve the life-cycle of digital products to align users with the design process and test our ideas early to steer the product teams in the right direction.

The designers I’ve been working with have been receptive to our experiment, and the product managers have embraced and trusted the insights that have come from my work. What I’ve found here is that everyone I work with is not only smart and accomplished in their domain, but they’re also excited to experiment with me, to try new things and adapt to changing methods of discovery. We’re all working towards the same goal–to make useful products that also bring unexpected delight to those that use them.

  • Nick Kroetz

iBeacon for Retailers: FAQ

Recently, we’ve been getting a lot of inquiries on iBeacons and their potential for mobile commerce. Here’s a quick roundup of the most commonly asked questions about this technology and our answers.

iBeacons come in all sizes. We like the ones from Estimote.

What is iBeacon?

The word “iBeacon” is commonly used to refer to two things: (i) Apple’s iOS protocol for implementing Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) transmitters, and (ii) the BLE transmitter itself. Technically, only (i) should be referred to as iBeacon, as any BLE transmitter can work with the iBeacon iOS protocol. But folks call the BLE transmitters “beacons,” making things slightly confusing.

Think of iBeacon as the software on the iOS side (on your iPhone) that is scanning for BLE transmitters. The BLE transmitters themselves can be all kinds of things: another iPhone, a specifically built device (like an Estimote), etc.

What can I do with iBeacon in my store?

A BLE transmitter functions like a lighthouse, constantly transmitting radio signals. The signal can travel through walls or solid objects, but it doesn’t change; it just repeats.

The iBeacon protocol scans for these radio signals and, when it detects one, it can trigger an action. iBeacon can also detect the signal strength, which can give the device a rough sense for distance to the transmitter.

What this means is that, if you place multiple transmitters throughout a store, you could pinpoint any person with an iBeacon-enabled app in the store and trigger location-specific actions.

Example: A customer walks into an iBeacon-enabled clothing store. The iBeacon protocol does not require the iBeacon-enabled app to be launched; as long as Bluetooth is on, the iOS device will detect any functioning BLE transmitters.

As the customer walks past the sweaters rack, her iPhone picks up a BLE transmitter. Any of the following could then be triggered:

- The app detects that she has been standing at the sweaters rack for more than 30 seconds. A message is pushed to her phone saying, “If your size sweater is not available here, tap to check if it’s in the back.”

- The customer has been shopping on the store’s app previously, and she left a similar sweater in her cart. A sales associate using the store’s customer service app is notified of the customer’s name, her size, what’s in her mobile shopping cart, and any of her past purchases. The associate can then begin an in-person conversation with this data in mind.

- The customer walks briskly past the sweater rack, then to the jeans rack, then stops at shoes to try on a pair. Her movements through the store are tracked and analyzed by the store’s backend so that company management can optimize the store layout. As she walks to the register, the app detects her location and launches the shopping cart. She can now scan the product SKU to check out with her mobile phone and skip the line at the register.

Does iBeacon only work on iOS?

iBeacon, the protocol, is specific to iOS devices, but detection of BLE transmitters is possible with Android apps (Android 4.3 and later).

One major difference is that the Android OS does not automatically scan for BLE transmitters at the OS level; you have to build that function into specific apps. As a result, if a BLE-enabled Android app is not launched when a customer walks into a store with BLE transmitters, then the customer will not receive any BLE-enabled notifications or triggers.

How much does iBeacon cost?

iBeacon, the protocol, is built into all devices running iOS7 or later. Using it in your app is free.

A BLE transmitter can cost anywhere from $5 to over $100, depending on volume. The cost is expected to decrease significantly within the next few years.

Who is currently using iBeacons in their stores?

Beyond small betas, we are only aware of AppleSafeway and Lord & Taylor using iBeacon on a large scale. UK retailer House of Fraser also recently announced that they will be trying iBeacon-enabled mannequins in their Aberdeen store, and it sounds like that program may expand.

Some of our current projects are expected to launch with this capability, however, so look out for more innovative brands launching iBeacon-enabled apps soon. If you’re interested in hearing about the latest iBeacon features we can build into your retail company’s apps, please contact us and we’ll be happy to share what we’re learning.

  • Russ Wallace