A recent article on Techcrunch
announcing that AroundMe has passed the 6 million user mark, prompted me to take another look at this application. I thought I’d try to understand why this app may be popular and, while I was at it, take a look at some other major local discovery apps. I thought I’d propose the following use case. Suppose you’ve come down to the lobby of your new hotel first thing in the morning and you’re hungry but you’re in a hurry. What do you do? (Let’s say asking the concierge is not an option). Glancing out on the street reveals nothing obvious so you whip out your smartphone. How do you “discover” something right next door? You don’t necessarily know exactly what you want. You’d like something new or surprising or different. So, you whip out your smartphone and consider the options. (In these examples I just searched around my house, so experiences may vary.)
FourSquare will now give you a bunch of options with their “Explore” feature. Although their first selection in Explore always seems to be Walgreens (presumably paid inclusion) it starts asking you if you’re up for a meal or maybe some coffee or just want to go shopping. At least the UI is trying to engage you in a conversation, attempting to offer you a wide range of options at least tangentially focused on determining your needs. At the top of the list is their “Top Picks”, invariably restaurants, but at least there’s a chance you’re going to want what a lot of other people already had. I do appreciate some of the time-sensitivity they display (such as asking about taking a coffee break). And the photos really add to the experience but they’re not always organized well and you’ll end up doing a lot of scrolling. You can search, of course, but then again, remembering the use case, you can’t really say you’re hungry and the term “food” is just a category synonym for restaurants and bars.
Yelp and their “Nearby” functionality cuts right to the chase: Restaurants, Bars, Coffee & Tea and other assorted top categories. They have an “Everything” option but it is really not much help, mixing as it does Auto Repair garages with nearby Insurance Agents. Leaving aside the “Hot New Businesses” option (for another article perhaps), the “More Categories” offers a general “Food” category but again, this is more a collection of categories for Restaurants and Coffee Shops - no results for either the 7 Eleven or Whole Foods around the corner (although there is a separate category for Convenience Stores under the Food Category - they just don’t show up in “All Food”). Their augmented reality version called “Monocle” seduces but is limited to the well-reviewed restaurants and in doing so ends up showing results miles away. In fact, their default radius of search results seems to be about the widest of all the options, requiring a great deal of work trying to zoom in.
Google+ Local gives you categories with icons for Restaurants, Coffee, and what everybody wants first thing in the morning, Pizza. They may just about the fewest category options, focusing you as you can imagine on search. Their Restaurants option shows off their search results ordering logic with Zagat reviews driving them instead of the user-generated reviews. Their developer heritage comes to the fore with options for Distance, Open Now, Rating and Price right there under the search box instead of being buried in “Filter” like Yelp or completely absent it seems in FourSquare. And, yet again, Food means Restaurants and Coffee Shops. At least their default search radius doesn’t seem to cover half a city.
Where makes a promising start with “Eat & Drink” but we’re driven yet again to another mega “Restaurants and Coffee Shops” category. One of the more concerning things about Where is the quality of the listings themselves. Multiple results for the same business are accompanied by results for closed businesses as well - even businesses that were closed before the other business that was closed at the same location are returned. As I alluded to with the “Hot New Businesses” option for Yelp, managing new and closed businesses is both an opportunity and a challenge for Local Search and Discovery applications. Purging closed businesses would seem to be essential for sustaining credibility. It’s probably just quite noticeable around me as there have been some rapid closings and opening of new restaurants.
AroundMe, like Yelp, cuts right to the chase again, providing links to Restaurants, Bars, and Coffee Shops from the main screen. Here, some of the differences start to emerge between AroundMe and the other apps. AroundMe has aggregated many more “local” feeds than the other major local apps, singling out things like Parking, ATMs, and Movies. In addition, the default search radius seems to be more in keeping with walking than driving that other apps assume. It may not be much but these little things might just add up to why AroundMe seems to be doing well - a focus on a simple user experience, a broader set of local categories, and more immediately actionable result sets.
UrbanSpoon, that darling of shaking roulette UI design, drives down better than most on addressing this use case, which makes sense given their focus on food. Fortunately, you don’t have to scroll too far through their magazine layout to get to a “Breakfast/Brunch” option (thought I wouldn’t exactly term that a “cuisine”). You’ll be rewarded with results much more tuned to your needs than the rest but still it assumes you’re gonna want to sit down to eat. And they can be forgiven for not including results for fruit at Whole Foods because their proposition is clear from the beginning - they’re all about the sit down. Plus, UrbanSpoon gives you additional ways to slice and dice your result set, such as by cuisine or food “type”.
It seems you can group almost all of the Yellow Pages derived apps (YellowPages, YellowBook, YPMobile, and SuperPages) together as they are all remarkably similar. Each tries to extend their offering like AroundMe with multiple content sources (well, at least with Specials and Coupons). All take a pretty programmatic approach to UI design with an emphasis on search. Surprisingly, all of them seemed a bit challenged in the listing quality as they can’t quite seem to leverage the power of something like Google or the proprietary and specialized content from Yelp, FourSquare and UrbanSpoon. AroundMe is similarly challenged but the tradeoff just might be overall simplicity of use.
You can look at the competitive offerings in a number of different ways. From the analysis I conducted here, I put together a local mobile product positioning diagram based in two dimensions. Vertically, I positioned the offerings with respect to their content sources. Those offerings closer to the top attempted to differentiate themselves with more proprietary and/or specialized content sources; those at the bottom attempted to do so by offering a wider range of content that might be more generically available. Horizontally, I positioned the offerings with respect to their user interface experience. Those offerings towards the left took a more programmatic, search-based approach; those towards the right took a more browsing, discovery-based approach. The relative positioning of each offering is meant to be more illustrative than definitive.
One site that I think best illustrates an approach that helps the discovery of local products with the use of specialized content sources is TheFind
. I searched for something specific on the site (knives) and was presented with a list of results that showed availability at Office Depot (office supply company), Sports Authority (sporting goods company), and Ace Hardware (a hardware supply company). While not quite responding to a simple need, like I’m Hungry, and having a list of breakfast choices returned, it does show how products can break out of the “category jails” they are in for most local discovery applications. This is a step in the direction of having an Internet of Things
where the products you might be interested in almost advertise their own locations. A long way from there but the direction seems clear. Consumers will ultimately connect directly to the things that satisfy their needs regardless of the kind of company that just happens to be providing them around you.