One of my techie-related roller coaster rides at work this week centered on development of an Apple iPod/iPhone app for Fort Vancouver.
I’ve long wanted to develop one, but my personal time has all but disappeared with a second child at home and several huge projects at work. Thus, the growing number of companies that will do the job for folks like me – online, even – present quite an attraction.
Last week, I bit on a Mashable tweet about PointAbout’s new online iPhone app development program, dubbed AppMakr, that reportedly will build a quick app based on your RSS feeds. With a promotional discount lowering the cost to $49, I figured it was worth checking out.
What is this program?
The niche of programs like AppMakr, MobBase, Swep Apps, and others is a quick-and-dirty app set-up for those without the time and/or skill set to do it. For the do-it-yourselfer, app development is possible – Popular Science and others have outlined the process online – but it is not a project for the faint of heart. In addition to a sizeable capital investment (you must have an Apple and it must be newer and Intel-based) you also need to enroll in the Apple iPhone Developer Program and have quite a bit of time and patience to devote. I had none of the above, coupled with a dangerously small knowledge base and an attraction to anything bright, shiny, and new, so I passed on the do-it-yourself option and went for the instant gratification that these new programs pitched.
How do these programs work?
Generally speaking, once registered at one of these sites (a free process), you pick and choose from a short list of design options, add images from your library or the web, and then identify and link specific data you want to feature (usually an RSS feed or webpage URL). With most of these programs, you can see your design changes right there on your screen, and actually road test the app as well.
Once you have it they way you like it, you check out (read: make payment) and then your app is pretty much ready to go. Of course, there are other critical steps before your app is live in the iTunes Store, but several of these programs will offer that service as well.
I began setting up an app using AppMakr and was very impressed with its simple graphics, the ease in which I could create a personalized icon and splash page (rather than select from a few prefab options) and the ability to connect RSS feeds. Here are a couple of screen shots showing my mock-ups:
Unfortunately, though, I didn’t pull the trigger on the project.
Why? Well, several reasons. The primary function of AppMakr and several of the other leading programs is to center the app around one’s extant RSS feeds. For a blogger, this would be wonderful match; for a historic site like ours that is less reliant on these feeds, it doesn’t seem the best fit.
As you can see from the images above, for zero initial cost I was able to build a basic app mock-up that featured our park’s podcast, Twitter feed, Flikr feed and news releases, but was unable to make simple links that a user might expect; links to core material including our operating hours, programs, maps & directions, etc. All of this info is readily available on our website, and it would have been fantastic to pull this data into the app, too.
After getting some feedback from colleagues, I opted not to move forward at this time because – while an app featuring these 4 feeds would be uber-cool – I felt that users might be more fixated on what wasn’t there than what was. In other words, it didn’t meet the basic objectives I had established. Based on our website metrics, a smart phone user survey conducted by Prof. Brett Oppegaard at WSU-V, and anecdotal observations, our intended audience seems to be seeking the foundational plan-your-trip information that the website provides.
Perhaps there are other programs around that will allow this; I’ll keep looking. Perhaps there is a way to do it in AppMakr that I’m missing. In any case, I’m not deleting the prototype just yet; just not paying to finalize it. I’m also keenly aware of the changing nature of user needs and expectations, especially as the world of heritage tourism keeps growing. My goal is still for us to have the first NPS iPhone app, but I’m not going to rush us into it.
If anyone else has any experience they’d like to share, please do so. I still consider myself a recreational techie; one who is fascinated with the ways technology can be used to enhance historic site interpretation. In the future, I still think that smart phone applications (including ones on Android and other platforms) can be helpful tools in this process.