When the Guide Dog Bites

He came to see the famous Rembrandt painting “The Return of the Prodigal Son” on exhibition at one of the best museums in the world, The Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia. All along his trip, his smartphone had been an invaluable aid, helping him to find and buy the best deals on airfare and hotel, alerting him to a last minute change in his flight, navigating him through an unfamiliar city, and giving him tips about the best places to eat. Like a highly trained guide dog, it never faltered, never failed. App after app delivered on its promise.

Now, finally, he is standing in front of the painting, smartphone in hand. He had purchased a new app that promised to guide him through the exhibits, including the Rembrandt. Excitedly, he taps the app icon on his device, and launches the app.

Then the guide dog bites him.

Head bowed, eyes glued to the tiny screen of his device, furiously tapping and pecking, he works the app. Rembrandt’s magnificent masterpiece, the very thing he came to see, hangs before him, glanced at but not fully appreciated. The app is no longer an aid or enhancement to the traveler’s experience. Rather, it has become the worst possible travel companion ~ a distraction. The app has failed him, failed the Master, and failed the Hermitage.


The major reason apps fail is due to poor design, primarily of the User Interface (UI). The UI is that part of the app with which the user interacts ~ screens, buttons, sliders, knobs, and the like. The UI is to an app what a dashboard is to a car. If the UI is poorly designed, as many are, then the user will waste time dinking around with the app, trying to extract its benefits rather than enjoying them.

We can only wonder if we would have today the wonderful book “The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming” by Henri J.M. Nouwen, if the author had had his nose buried in a smartphone rather than studying the famous painting, as he did for days on end, pondering its every minutia and brush stroke. On the other hand, how might an app have helped Father Nouwen if it enabled him to hear the voice of the artist explaining his own creation ~ his motivation, his influences, his purpose, his techniques? What secrets would we learn? How might that enhance our experience, or not?

Only the individual tourist can decide if, when, or how technology enhances or detracts from their experience. Our job, as app developers, is to deliver excellence, and then let the individual choose for herself.

Driving in the Rain

As an example of a well designed UI, imagine you are driving your car and it starts to rain. Even if you have rented the car and are unfamiliar with it, chances are good you can turn on the windshield wipers fairly quickly without taking your eyes off the road for too long. You are the beneficiary of a well designed UI. It is important to car manufacturers that you, the user (driver), not become distracted by their UI (the dashboard), lest you wreck the car, become injured, and (in the United States at least) sue them. For that reason, car manufacturers are very careful UI designers, and follow rigorous standards for design practice and quality.

Not so for app designers. UI design and quality can vary from app to app. Most are not designed by UI professionals at all, but rather by the geek or nerd who coded the app. He or she may be a great programmer, but UI design is a completely different skill set, and one most development shops are unwilling to pay for. Sure, the app gets built and it works, but the UI is flawed, and in the case of our Hermitage visitor, it becomes a distraction rather than an enhancement.

The Hermitage would be right to be annoyed, for that app has not served them well. Museums and other tourist destinations would be wise to know what apps are being used in their environment, and steer visitors to the better ones. If no such app exists, the organization could always build their own.

Now…Fewer Features Than Ever Before!

It is beyond the scope of this chapter to cover all the elements of a good UI, but there is one recommendation I will make: Less is more. This advice is especially true for travel apps, where the point of interest should never be the app itself but rather the very site, person or object that draws the tourist in the first place. The key is simplicity, or simple elegance as I like to say. I would be cautious of any app that offers too many fancy but useless features, which tend to divert the user’s eyes down to the device (such as to watch a video). Rather, toursim app designers should borrow a page from the car dashboard design manual, ensuring the user’s head and eyes are up and on your points of interest as much as possible. Using more audio content and less visual content is a best practice for a travel app.

The “less is more” design point has proven its appeal again and again, with companies such as Apple and Google using it with great success. The original Google page was simply their company name and a box into which we entered our search term ~ nothing more. But notice what happens over time. Pressures to add more bells and whistles inevitably creep in, if for no other reason than to keep up with the competition. Imagine one of those companies announcing the new version of their product with the headline, “Now even fewer features than ever before!” or “Good news! Nothing has changed.” It doesn’t happen.

Techno nerds and geeks love to add features, because they love what the technology can do and often lose focus on what the technology should do. A good UI designer never loses that focus, always keeping the User Experience (UX) front and center in the build process. The pièce de résistance of an exquistely designed UX is when the technology completely fades into the background of the user’s life (yes invisible), a phenonemon we refer to in the computing industry as “Ubiquitous Computing.”

A Caveman Lights a Fire

A great example of ubiquitous computing is the humble thermostat. As cave people, we regulated tempurature by throwing another log on the fire ~ not very ubiquitous. It became more ubiquitous for men, but less so for women, when the caveman had his cave wife throw the log on at his command. Eventually we evolved out of that injustice with the invention of central heating and the thermostat you probably grew up with and may still have: the one where you set the temperature and the heating and cooling system maintains that set point withing a degree or two.

The next evolution of the thermostat is the programmable one, where you can identify periods of time (say from midnight to 6 AM) when the set-point can be different from other times, say after the kids get home from school. This is definitely a step forward in ubiquitous evolution, as the evolved thermostat requires much less human attention than its predecessor.

But what if the thermostat could sense when the kids came home from school by virtue of some human presence sensor? What if it were smart enough to learn, on its own, the unique lifestyle patterns of your family and set the temps accordingly? When you are at work and the kids are school, it would know, without your having to tell it, and it would adjust the temps in order not to waste energy, saving you money. You would never have to touch this device ~ it would simply fade into the background of your life as a very sophisticated piece of ubiquitous computing. Such a thermostat exists ~ the Nest thermostat from Tony Fadell, the guy who led the team that created the first 18 generations of Apple’s iPod and the first three generations of the iPhone. It is an amazing device and a perfect example of ubiquitous computing.

You should not be surprised by Nest’s provenance. Under Steve Jobs, Apple products were designed with an unwavering focus on the UX. Apple was not the first to build MP3 players or smartphones ~ plenty of geeks had done so before and burdoned their devices with oodles of fancy gadgetry, the weight of which sank them ~ but Apple made quality design and ease-of-use a top priority. Success required that kind of leadership and vision, and that is what your app will need too ~ if it is not to fail.