New York has about 244 neighborhoods, depending on who you ask. Some large, others small, and many nested within each other like Russian dolls. The differences between them can be bold or subtle, obvious or hidden, and not always available to the immediate senses. Bringing these differences to light, providing insight and context to location, is something NabeWise is just a little obsessed with. A few weeks ago we released Version 2 of our mobile site, combining geolocation with quantitative and qualitative data to provide profiles for neighborhoods as they are traversed. Because the new mobile experience is vastly different from its predecessor, I thought it might be interesting to capture the reasoning and process that lead to the version we have today.
The first mobile site we built was feature rich and duplicated a considerable amount of the desktop experience. We even included city maps and neighborhood overlays with the option to track your location in real-time, which was totally awesome when taking the train up to Boston and zipping through all the neighborhoods in Queens, but fairly cumbersome otherwise. In product meetings we'd discuss technical approaches to speeding up the application until one day we finally realized we didn't want a faster version of the current app, but a different app entirely - an app whose sole purpose was to answer the basic question, "Where am I?"
There are a number of different ways people navigate cities, two of the most common being destination directed (going from point a to point b) and discovery directed (wandering by whim and serendipity). When trying to reach a specific destination people generally care more about the how (how do I get there?) and the specific where, while people who are taking a more exploratory and less directed approach care more about the what and the general where (where am I and what is its story?). Google Maps does a stellar job pinpointing the specific coordinates at which you happen to be standing and what streets, stores, and intersections are nearby, but it doesn't help very much with the slightly less specific context and general where embodied by a neighborhood.
And that's what we wanted our mobile app to do – provide an answer to the question of general where, and in the process maybe even settle a few bar bets.
With a freshly defined purpose we set out to discuss details which, naturally, requires beer. We hashed through possibilities and potentials, argued about functionality and features, and threw around ideas until we settled on a core set of content. We dropped the city map and location tracking, search, and even navigation in the process. It was a gruesome battle, but in the end we were rather satisfied with our work.
Sketching on a stack of paper wireframes we explored a variety of interface ideas. The narrowed, focused set of content we had selected led us in new directions and demanded to be handled appropriately. At every step of the way the temptation to add “just one more thing” was strong, but we disciplined ourselves, asked why at every turn, and ultimately prevailed in keeping the app focused on that one question, “Where am I?” So focused in fact, that the site boasts only one button which reads, “Where am I?”
Visually the mobile site inherits from the web app, though the background is new and is actually a map of SoHo from the early 20th century. Bendy (our friendly NabeWise llama) makes an appearance on the error screen, which generally pops up if you are in a city we don’t currently cover. Neighborhood information is displayed in a vertical list eliminating the need for extra taps. While we removed any form of global, structured navigation, there are a few different ways you can navigate:
- Through neighborhood containment, which is what we call our system for determining relationships between neighborhoods. If you happen to be in a neighborhood that contains or is contained by another neighborhood, we’ll show you the surrounding context and ways to view those neighborhoods.
- Physically navigate to another neighborhood
It’s the second method of navigation I love about version two; you must physically move yourself in the world to navigate through the site. The idea of transportation paths and patterns as interface is intriguing, and while our site only scratches the surface, it’s a topic I’ll continue to explore.
And so we’ve launched! If you’re in any of the cities we currently cover, definitely check it out. It’s not the kind of app that will bug you 20 times a day or make you feel overwhelmed with information; rather it’s the kind of app that’s there when you need it, with enough information to help but not hinder, and let you go about your day when you are done.
- Going with a web approach allowed us to explore mobile ideas available to all platforms. While native apps are in the product roadmap, we knew we wanted to build out the web side first. ↩
- In New York it’s not uncommon to overhear people arguing about what neighborhood they are in, especially at bars ↩
- Core content: description, photograph, reputation, top attributes, real estate values, reviews. ↩