Theres More to Location than Location

MurphyslawbikesIf you were paying attention at the start of the week, you will know that we have been focusing on location on the site this week. We thought that as we were launching a new version of the site, we should try out the idea of having a theme for the week. Not to the exclusion of everything else, of course. News dictates its own agenda, and there will always be a heap of interesting stuff to write about. But the theme for the week, on the weeks we have them, will enable us to focus our energies in a given area. So maybe one or two of the Guest Columns that week will have location as the subject. And location is also likely to feature in other non-news content, such as interviews, reviews and analysis pieces.

So as we were thinking about location, it took me to thinking about, er, location. So I did a little bit of analysis about the apps and services I use most on my own phones, wondering how big a part location was of the whole experience. Turns out, it’s a fair bit. In no particular order, the apps I seem to find myself using on my phone (not including calling and texting) are the browser, Maps, Sky News, email, Music, Hailo, Addison Lee, Memo Pad, the camera, Thetrainline, Barclays Bikes, National Rail Enquiries, Tube Map and, increasingly, though often just to see what’s behind the QR code in question, QR Pal. So that’s 13, of which more than half have a strong location focus to them.

Context is key
So I started thinking about what makes for a good location-based app, and I came to the conclusion that the key is context. The idea that there’s more to it than just telling you where you are in relation to something else, but that there is an added dimension to it, whether it’s to solve a problem beyond the one of finding the thing you’re looking for, or adding an additional layer of intelligence to it.

Perhaps the best explanation is by way of example. Take the Barclays/Boris Bikes app, which I discovered after around a year or so of using the scheme without it. As regular Boris Bike users will confirm, there are two problems with the docking stations from where you hire the bikes in the first place and then return them when you’re done.

The first is that, almost by definition, they tend to be off the main roads, down smaller side streets, particularly in central London. This would not be too much of an issue if they were well signposted, so that as you were coming within a few hundred yards of one, there was a chance of seeing a sign telling you which way to turn to find it. But they aren’t, so the irony is that even though you are probably never more than 250 yards from a docking station in central London, without the app, you can spend half an hour trying to find one.

Given this problem, the Barclays Bikes app, which tells you where the nearest docking stations are, is already on to a winner. It’s not so much a case of finding where to pick up a bike from, though this may occasionally come into play; it’s more about checking your destination before you jump on your bike so you know where you can dump it at the other end.

But knowing where the docking stations are, it turns out, is only half the battle. From personal experience, things have improved a little in recent months, but certainly before that, finding a free dock to park your bike in was a major problem, so knowing there’s a docking station round the corner turns out to be not quite as useful as it could have been, when you get there and find all the docks are full so you can’t park the bike after all.

This is where the Barclays Bikes app goes the extra mile (or 250 yards perhaps), with a live feed for each docking station, telling you how many bikes there are for hire, and how many spaces in which to park a bike, at each one. It’s one/two additional bits of information, but it prevents a wasted journey in one direction to hire a bike that isn’t there, if you can see that there are plenty for hire if you head in the opposite direction. And it’s especially useful in giving you the confidence to jump on a bike and head across town, knowing that the docking station you are headed for has plenty of empty spaces to dock the bike.

Hailo also impressed me the first time I used it for similar reasons. The additional dimension in this case was that it solved a problem I had no idea I was going to encounter, and it did so in a matter of minutes. It was earlier this year, when I found myself at the All England Tennis Club in Wimbledon for a press preview, ahead of the annual tennis tournament there. It was a fascinating afternoon, but as I exited the complex, I realised I was a good few miles from the train station, with no obvious sign of how I was going to get back there, other than on foot. (I’m all for exercise, by the way, but on this particular day, I was in a hurry to get to the next thing.)

It was at this point that I put Hailo to the test. I downloaded it from Google Play, registered my details, called a cab via the app, and five minutes later, was sitting in a black cab on my way back to the train station. This is the power of mobile and location, at its best, and having experienced it for myself, the success Hailo has enjoyed, both in terms of taxi signups and investment, came as no surprise.

With National Rail Enquiries, I guess the added dimension is convenience, or maybe, since convenience is arguably the raison d’etre of any location-based app or service, convenience+. If you commute out of London in the evenings, National Rail’s Live Departure Boards service is a must-have, giving you a vague idea whether the train to take you home will arrive, and if so, when. I have the mobile-optimised site bookmarked, though have not got round to downloading the app.

Using it a few weeks ago, I noticed a feature I hadn’t seen before, called ‘Get Me Home’. Tell it where ‘Home’ is and then wherever you find yourself, just hit the ‘Get Me Home’ button and it will bring up a list of the closest stations to where you are, and the distance to them. Click on the one you want and it brings up details of the train journey between there and home, including changes, the journey time and price. In truth, it’s probably only a couple of clicks less than a service that brings up the stations you frequently enter – your home station is inevitably on of them – but it feels a lot more convenient than that.

I’m starting to see this sort of context come into other apps too. Check out Spindle, which gathers live updates from social streams to alert its users to events and offers being pushed by businesses and organisations in their area, and which was bought by Twitter over the summer; and Ruffl, best described as a spontaneous dining app that uses location and real-time reservation information to help Londoners book a last-minute table.

They both have this additional dimension of context, though it’s a different take on it in each case. I guess for a retailer, you could take the Storefinder feature that most offer on their apps and mobile sites and add a stock-checker facility to see if the item you need now is in stock at the store closest to you. It may be a logistical back-end nightmare for the retailer, but if it serves the customer’s needs better, it’s a job worth doing.

Location on its own, then is a nice-to-have. Location and context though, is a killer combination.