Interview with Ivan Mitrovic, VP of Technology at uLocate Communications, creator of WHERE
Feb 15, 2010 6:05 AM –
Since our initial Android app review of WHERE, there has been some cool additions to the app like WHEREreviews and GuessWHERE. Today we’re interviewing Ivan Mitrovic, VP of Technology at uLocate Communications, creator of WHERE. Ivan really goes in-depth sharing strengths and pitfalls to avoid on the platform, plus great tips and advice for other developers. Learn more about eariler adopters of Android location-based services mobile developers:
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I am the VP of Technology at uLocate Communications, creator of WHERE.
A few years ago I started a company which developed one of the earliest mobile LBS platforms for Smartphones at the time (Palm Treos and BlackBerries). The company was acquired by uLocate and that is how I started working on WHERE.
Why did you create your app?
We created WHERE to help people save time and money while exploring the area around them. We wanted to develop a service that would make travelers feel like locals, and help locals discover new places nearby. By providing users with real-time, hyper-local information and recommendations, WHERE is dedicated to helping users search, discover and experience the world around them.
We also understood the potential of Android platform earlier than our competitors did, which turned out to be very beneficial for us. Speed was our main strategy.
What technology did you use in creating your App and why?
Just regular Android SDK. Ten months ago there were fewer apps and not that much information on Android, so we stayed close to the official SDK. We did build our own location management module since that is core to what we do. Our location module reduces the number of network calls by 70% thus saving the battery life.
About how long did it take to create your App?
The application is constantly developing. It has been on the market for 10 months and we’re always improving it. We launched the first version after three weeks of development. At first, we launched a pilot version under a different name and a different package. We let people download it for several hours to test users’ engagement, ratings and feedback. You can and should do this when releasing an Android app; it is a good release management pattern for Android. The feedback on the pilot was very positive, with almost all 5 star ratings. Our reporting data also showed good engagement so we didn’t have to tweak a lot. We launched the official app two days later.
What is a cool uncovered tip or trick you can do with the App?
For users trying to decide where to go for a bite to eat, WHERE offers fun and helpful games on the Android version of the App. One of our games, titled GuessWhere, challenges you to keep two moving bubbles from colliding. You can play a game AND figure out where to go for lunch. WHERE even keeps a record of how long you can keep the bubbles away from each other so every time you play you can try to set a new personal record.
What other interesting uses can come from the App?
WHEREreviews is a new addition to WHERE that further enhances a user’s local experience with the application. In addition to offering directions to and descriptions of restaurants and businesses, WHERE gives users the ability to write their own reviews of various local venues. Users can write full reviews on their mobile device and read other users’ reviews as they’re posted in real-time.
WHEREreviews also help users organize their favorite locations by providing a direct link to add a venue to their “My Placebook” section within WHERE as well as a button that saves a location’s phone number. We realized that people wanted to save places they called or visited often but they didn’t want to mix the venues with their personal contacts in an address book. Users want a separate storage for venues they frequently call and visit outside of their personal contacts.
Can you tell us about future feature enhancements with your App?
In the near future, we will launch a Web supplement to WHEREreviews. Users will be able to create their own profiles and view a database of all the locations they and their friends have rated and commented on. The Website will directly connect to the mobile WHERE application, and newly posted data will appear simultaneously on both web and mobile platforms.
We will also provide the ability to personalize the home screen of WHERE, allowing users to decide how they want to engage with local content.
What did you really like about creating Apps on the Android platform?
The best parts about creating Android apps are the speed of development and the speed of release.
The ability to invoke 3rd party activities is also great. Hopefully more developers will open their Intents for external use. WHERE definitely will, as we have published on http://android-developers.blogspot.com/2009/11/integrating-application-with-intents.html
Being able to design layouts using XML is great, too. Contrary to what some people say we have found porting to different Android versions and screen sizes not to be that challenging. By properly using layout and drawable resources you can pretty much port most of the apps to any screen size and still keep it within the same binary. Android porting has worked fairly well for us, making it another great Android development feature.
What are some things you would like to see improved with Android?
Standardized UI. I once said that building an Android app is easy, but building a great looking one is not – http://www.forbes.com/2009/05/14/google-android-cupcake-technology-wireless-google.html
WebOS and iPhone are great examples of standardized UI components (widgets) that let developers build good looking apps easily. Not to say that you can’t build a great looking Android app. You can but it is tougher than on iPhone and WebOS, so Android developers usually don’t try that hard.
Also, the lack of simple drag and drop is a bit frustrating since the developer has to look at Android source code to decypher how drag and drop works on the Android home screen.
However, don’t build an Android app looking at iPhone apps. The rule here is that content and clickstream (reduced number of clicks) are way more important than UI design. Content is the king. The more content you throw on your users, the more they will consume. Iterate on content and clickstream. Use standard Android UI components as limited as they can be sometimes.
What is your opinion of the Android App Market’s distribution method? In comparison Apple’s model (strict control over the iTunes store) or the Windows Mobile model (no store at all).
Ok, here is what we have done… In 8 months of development we have pushed more than 80 updates of WHERE to Android App Market, making WHERE the most updated application on the App Market by far. On average, that is 10 updates to the App Market per month. We decided on extremely fast iterations that let us quickly process user feedback and correct the mistakes from the previous iteration. This has also kept our users engaged and has provided a constant stream of feedback. We ended up with a lot of usage, almost 25.000 ratings in the App Market and a 4.7 average star rating. In other words, we absolutely love the openness of Android App Market. WHERE on Android has turned out to be a great release management experiment and we have learned a lot about user behavior.
But developers should still be careful. Don’t go for frequent releases if you don’t have a “what is new” page ready with each release. We ended up creating static html pages with screenshots of changes for each release and would show that to users when they updated the app. If you do an update to the App Market and don’t show a “what is new” page users will think that you’re bug fixing and would start assuming the app is unstable. A “What is New” page truly lets you use the Android App Market’s openness to the extreme.
This fast tempo of releases has also discouraged some of our competitors on other mobile platforms to release their Android apps when they were unable to keep up with our OODA Loops.
What is your Opinion on the state of the Rating/Feedback system in the App Market?
We definitely like the way users are able to leave reviews and ratings in the Android App Market. Google had some great ideas while developing the system. Each user who downloads an app only has one review to write, but they do have the option to edit their review. This helps us keep track of our app’s performance over time with an individual user. For example, if a user initially has a problem with the application, but that problem eventually is resolved, the user can go back and update his or her review to reflect the experience. We love hearing feedback from our users and it’s great that they have an easy way to reach us through the Android feedback system.
It is great that new applications that are good can quickly pop-up at the top and don’t need to collect hundreds of thousands of users before showing above the fold for their category.
Do you have plans on releasing Apps for other markets (i.e. iPhone, Windows Mobile, Blackberry, etc.)?
WHERE is actually available on multiple markets already. We have versions of WHERE for iPhone, BlackBerry, Palm and many other feature devices on all major carriers. For example, WHERE is the 3rd most popular download on Palm WebOS phones, just behind Pandora and Accuweather.
Must-have Android Apps?
Seesmic, Best Tech News (excellent Tech News aggregator), Pandora, Stream Furious Pro (I use Google navigation and turn Stream Furios Pro on in the background while driving) and ConnectBot, to name just a few.
What advice would you give to another aspiring mobile application developer?
Make sure that you understand the way you are going to make money with your app. Once you understand how your Android app will make money don’t spend too much time building the first release. Build the first version of your app so that the best part of the app is its core value proposition (e.g. content), not the UI. Then look at the feedback and iterate fast. Make sure you have a feedback button or a menu item within your app. You will get a lot of user feedback this way.
You can fix the UI as you go as long as the basic value proposition of the app turns out to be correct. Google has created Android App Market open and without controls. Use that wisely to your advantage and iterate fast. Use packages like Omniture and Flurry to understand the usage.
Remove features that look cool but have no usage (look at Flurry to help you with this) and remove them fast. Don’t become emotionally attached to them. If they don’t work when you launch them, it is unlikely that they will pick up on usage later. And did I say iterate fast?
Also, know your demographics. While you may think of cool features to add your users may be those that have just switched from mass market, feature phones to Android. Cool application features may appear complicated to them. Again, if Flurry tells you that your cool feature of the day is not being used remove it from the app as it will discourage first time users to continue using your app.
Thank you Ivan! There was a lot to learn there and even more great advice for mobile app developers. If you haven’t already downloaded WHERE for Android head to the Market to get it. Also check out our updated 4+ star Android app review of WHERE!
P.S. Thanks Nicole!