I am a huge fan of using technology to enhance real life experiences as you can see the app designs I have worked on throughout my career. So I was intrigued with the app Field Trip from Google that helps you discover interesting and unique things in the world around you. The problem has been that I’ve been really busy so I haven’t been able to test out the app. But this past weekend Field Trip put on a Field Trip Day in NYC to explore Red Hook, Brooklyn which they described as “An afternoon of local discovery, challenges, one-day-only opportunities, and hidden surprises. Armed with the Field Trip app and your wits, an afternoon’s adventure will reveal the city’s secrets – from the longest underwater road in the US to artisan chocolate, whiskey, and homemade key lime pies.” It sounded interesting so my wife and I met up with one of my senior art directors and his wife at the IKEA boat dock in lower Manhattan and set off across the water to explore Red Hook with their iOS app and their Google Glass app that was announced last week.
About Field Trip
Field Trip was launched to help you learn about everything around you from local history to the latest and best places to shop, eat, and have fun. The concept is simple as you just need to select your Interests from categories like ‘Lifestyle’ or ‘Cool & Unique’ and then interesting locations in those categories will pop up on your phone automatically as you walk past them. The experience we had on Field Trip day had three parts with using the iOS app, the new Google Glass app and the actual Field Trip Day event. Even though all three are intertwined I want to review them separately so I can go over the strengths and weaknesses of each.
We started most obviously by using the iOS app to explore the area around the South Street Sea Port and we found some good and bad things out about the app. You can download the Field Trip app for iOS here.
I have worked with a lot of companies for a lot of years trying to find interesting and unique local area content. It is really hard to come by because you want to find content that is different from the generic info that anyone can find on Google, you want that content to have value to your audience and you would ideally like it to be written in a tone and voice similar to the brand you want to use it with. At this point I’ve pretty much given up since user-generated sources like FourSquare have come along with better quality and more up to date content than I have seen from any other providers. But I have to give Field Trip credit because their data is unique and interesting which gives the app some value and helps it stand out the crowd which is obviously critical for something like this.
Notifications makes it easy to experience
I also like how the app will actively push the data to me without the need to go into the app and hunt for it. It created a nice sense of discovery, showed how the app provided value and created some nice surprise and delight moments as I learned information I didn’t know about the area I was exploring. I know that a lot of people get tiring of being spammed with notifications from their apps so you can adjust how often you get those notifications so it doesn’t drive you crazy with a new location on every block.
A drab visual aesthetic
I did also have two big frustrations with the app starting with the fact that I just don’t like the visual design of the app. The color palette for the app just isn’t very appealing using teals, brown and tans because it just feel lifeless for an app that is supposed to be about childlike exploration and excitement. There is also a problem with the color in more subtle but more problematic ways like the how you navigate the main section of the app along a linear timeline where you can move between a map and lists of nearby locations, recent locations and favorite locations. The item that is selected appear in bright white on a medium brown background but unselected items appear as dark down on a medium brown background which makes them nearly impossible to read especially for an app that is mostly going to be viewed outside in daylight. It is also problematic because the majority of their color palette is monochromatic to tans and browns and the result is an interface that is really lacking the visual hierarchy you need for data rich interfaces like this. I think if they would explore either expanding their color palette a bit or look at better ways to use colors in the app it would make it feel much cleaner and more focused.
An app in need of a serious UI overhaul
My largest frustration with the app by far was the with the user experience design and it starts with the main timeline navigation I talked about in the previous section. I found it incredibly frustrating that the main navigation is such a linear experience which forced me to constantly swipe horizontally to move up and down the timeline to find what I wanted. I think this problem could have been mitigated if there was some navigation convention that would let me access all four section from any screen instead of such a linear experience.
That horizontal swiping convention was also complicated by the fact that they didn’t take the time to see that it wasn’t going to work for all their content like when you land on the map. You arrive at the map by swiping horizontally on the screen to change section but once you are on the map that horizontal swipe stops working creating a huge usability breakdown and you find that when you swipe horizontally it just pans the map around instead of doing what you want. You are then forced to try to hit the ‘nearby’ nav item in the main navigation bar which is too small to do accurately or realize that you real saviour is the bar running down the right hand side of the map with three dots on it that look more like a design element than a navigation feature. I think that is app really needs a great IA to sit down and clean it up because even the simple addition of a persistent main navigation at the bottom of the screen with the four main options would make a huge difference to the usability of the app.
So in the end Field Trip’s data was it’s real saving grace and if they could craft a better and easier user interface to support the experience then I think the app would find a lot more success.
Google Glass App
Last week there was a lot of press about the fact that Field Trip had expanded their apps to include Google Glass so I was anxious to be able to try it out. The Glass app works the same way that the smartphone apps works in that it uses the GPS for your location and when you walk by a location you get an alert on Glass and it will show you a card with a photo and details of that location. With all my frustration around the iOS app this experience on Glass was really nice since it stripped away all the usability problems and let the experience focus on pure discovery. While this type of simplification is necessary for apps on Glass because of the form factor but there are times like this when that simplification really helps. This is a Glass app that I plan to keep on Glass so I can use in the future. You can install the Google Glass app here.
Field Trip Event
The whole reason for our trip to Red Hook was to attend Field Trip Day which ran from 3 – 5 p.m. starting in Louis Valentino Jr. Park. When we arrived we checked in and received a small Field Trip bagged filled with a Field Trip logo’d sticker, button and notebook as well as a map of the days events and a quiz card to fill out. I answered a few questions about Google Glass and we were on our way on an experience that was nothing like what I was expecting and here is why –
A digital company put on a mainly analog event
Right from the first interaction at the registration tent I was immediately struck by the use of a map and quiz card that this was a very analog way to engage with an event from a digital company. We saw the trend continue as each event stop along the field trip was marked with a balloon, a number and a description of the stop on a 8 1/2″ x 11″ piece of paper taped to the wall instead of something that would drive you to get more information through their app. It was also made all the more frustrating that the analog implementations like the map, which seemed to be doing its best impression of Apple Maps, had missing streets and businesses in the wrong locations. It was all very strange since you could spend the whole day without even needing to have or use their app and the strategist in me spent the entire day screaming in my head at all the missed opportunities.
A closed attraction is not interesting at a curated event
The next thing we quickly found out about Field Trip Day is that it was not the curated experience we had all hoped for. Our first two stops started really well at Steve’s Key Lime Pies and Red Hook Vineyards. Both of these businesses were expecting Field Trip users and had small but special experiences prepared for us but the day quickly fell off of a cliff when we left there. We decided our next stop would be at the farthest destination which was listed as ‘Stumptown Coffee Roasters and Tasting Room’. About 20 minutes later we walked up a half closed garage door at Stumptown Coffee Roasters to find some very confused and annoyed business owners. We were quickly informed that the Tasting Room had closed two years ago and they had never agreed to be part of Field Trip Day so they had no idea why we were there. We apologized for bothering them and then walked over to our next stop at the Sixpoints Brewery. When we arrived the same scenario repeated itself as we found another half closed garage door and another set of confused employees at the brewery staff who again had no idea why we were there. So we walked around the corner to the Brooklyn Clay Retort and Fire Bricks Works to this building was completely closed up with nothing more than the 8 1/2″ x 11″ description on a piece of paper taped to the outside of the building. Needless to say we quickly figured out that this was far from the “one-day-only opportunities” we had all hoped for. It was instead an experience that seemed to have been put together by a people who never actually visited the locations they were promoting or they would have known things like the Stumptown Coffee Roasters Tasting Room had closed two years ago. This lack of attention to even basic details really killed our image of the brand and we weren’t alone in that feeling as we talked with other Field Trippers we found along our travels. It wasn’t all bad as we did find a few cool business on the map but even those came with their own problems.
Vendor confusion and frustration
We did find a few cool business like Cacao Prieto and the Brooklyn Slate Company but when we arrived the owners of those stores again didn’t know anything about Field Trip Day. Most of them seemed frustrated by the parade of people which was understandable since the ones we saw would walk into the shop, ask ‘so what’s free for us here?’ and then immediately leave when they didn’t receive anything. It got the point where near the end of the day we took off our Field Trip stickers or buttons so store owners wouldn’t have a bid impression of why we were coming into their store which is the completely opposite of what any brand would want for one of their events.
At the end of the day we all felt like Field Trip Day was a lot like the Field Trip app itself where you recognize a great idea that lets you see flashes of real value but the mediocre execution creates so much frustration that it kills the overall experience. I think Field Trip needs to send the time to get clarity around what their brand really stands for and how they are going to bring it to life. I think putting on events like Field Trip Day makes a huge amount of sense as a vehicle to bring the brand promise and value to life. But it also means that you need to take the time to have your event reinforce your brand promise, drive people back into the digital experience that is the heart of your brand and create an event that people want to promote in their social channels. Until they are able to get that clarity and level of execution I think they are really going to struggle on how their app is going to find its place among a crowded exploration app landscape.