I am a *huge* fan of location based services. Being able to open my phone and seeing where my friends are is an awesome idea.
However, after trying a few of these services, I’ve felt an enormous amount of dissatisfaction with their UI.
This article outlines my thoughts on how to create a better Location Based Service.
What is a Location Based Service (LBS)?
According to the Wikipedia article on LBS:
> A location-based service (LBS) is an information and entertainment service, accessible with mobile devices through the mobile network and utilizing the ability to make use of the geographical position of the mobile device.
In other words, it is what an address book should have been since day one. A typical LBS service today will show you where your friends are on a map, along with a one-liner describing what they’re up to.
The biggest problem with LBSs
LBSs today are facing an identity crisis: They don’t quite know what the right combination of services should be to achieve a profitable business model.
Since all of them are subject to the network effect, no service has truly gained traction by meeting the common needs of a large base of users.
Instead of identifying this as a truly different experience that solves a real-time problem, most LBS services have instead jumped onto the Social Networking bandwagon, touting as me-too services, except with location, except on your mobile phone.
This is dumb.
LBSs are not stepping up and providing the users a brand new experience. They are trying to fit themselves into the mold of existing social networking paradigms.
My ideal LBS
Alright, enough complaining. I think the core features that are important in an LBS app already exist out, however it is the extra crap that get in the way that really bother me.
If I were to create my own LBS app, here is how I would design it.
Top Use Cases
1. Post my location
2. See where my friends are, and what they are doing
3. Find places near me
4. Coordinate a meet up
***By the way, I am a huge fan of paper prototypes, so I will be using some sketches to illustrate my points.***
Confusing navigation is one of my biggest gripes with existing LBS apps.
Cutesy tab labels like “What’s Up?!” and annoying navigation that go three levels deep make these apps very difficult to use.
No matter what I am doing in my ideal LBS app, it falls under three high-level categories:
*Me* — Post my location, Post a picture, Update my status, etc.
*My Friends* — See where my friends are, and what they are doing
*A Place* — Find places nearby, and once I do, contextually schedule a meet up.
**My LBS app will only have 3 “tabs.”**
This is the “Me” tab. This tab only has one purpose: enable me to tell my friends where I am and what I’m doing.
It shows some basic things:
1. My profile picture
2. My current one-liner “status”
3. My last posted location (on a map)
4. Some indication showing me how long it has been since I have posted my location
The *only* action that you’ll see in this tab, is “Update Location.”
When you tap Update Location, you’ll get still be in the “Me” tab, but you will be able to update your status. This includes:
1. My current location on a map (this is automatic, thanks to GPS magic)
2. What I am up to (simple text, think Twitter)
3. Attach a picture (from my cameraphone)
4. And a simple checkbox stating “Alert my friends.”
Onto the “Friends” tab. This is where I find out where my friends are, and what they are up to.
Another gripe I have with today’s LBS apps is that they keep insisting on showing my friends on a map. I find this to be useless for a couple of reasons:
1. That location marker is probably out-dated (i.e. he posted his location 2 hours ago and is no longer at that exact location)
2. The map view limits me to find out about my friends in my proximate location, whereas what I really want is to get an idea of where “all my friends” are regardless of how far or near they may be.
With that in mind, my ideal LBS app would give me a list of my friends ordered by “proximity and freshness.”
Proximity meaning the closer they are, the higher up they’ll be on the list. Freshness meaning, the more-recently they’ve updated their location, the higher up they’ll be on the list.
Also, my list also shows me my Friend’s profile picture (or the latest picture from their latest updated), and it even tells me the general location of where they are right now.
We’re still in the “Friends” tab, but I wanted to see more about what Alok is doing in Palo Alto.
So, in my ideal LBS app, when I tap on his name, I get a similar screen as the “Me” tab, showing me details about Alok’s whereabouts and what he’s up to.
In my ideal LBS app, there is also a simple “send message” link which will let me send Alok a SMS right from the app.
You could also imagine adding a “Call” link here as well.
The “Places” tab is where it all comes together. You know where you are, you realize a couple of friends are nearby, why not meet up and grab lunch?
The initial “Places” screen shows you a list of your Favorite Places, and then helps you find other places nearby if you’re looking for something new.
Another powerful idea here are the contextual links. Being able to find a place nearby, and clicking “Call” or “Get Directions.”
**I think being able to link across applications to leverage other competencies is going to be a strong trend (especially on the iPhone) in the near future.**
This means that my ideal LBS app will not be collecting reviews, but you can imagine my contextual link for “Get Directions” will link to the Google Maps app, or the “Read Reviews” link going to the Yelp app.
Want to meet up?
This is the true value add for LBS apps, but none of them have truly cracked it yet. Once you know people are nearby, and your favorite hangout spot is nearby, the killer feature for the LBS app will be to quickly coordinate a get together.
You can even imagine a feature saying “Hey, 3 of your best friends are nearby, want to meet up at your usual hangout, which is also nearby?”
I purposefully didn’t sketch this one up. I’ll leave it to your imagination, or for the LBS company that offers me a consulting gig to help fix their broken LBS app 😉