Did you know there is a Salem, MA iPhone app? Neither did I until about a month ago. So I loaded it up and have been testing it out.
From the iTunes app store:
This App is the Official Guide to Salem, Massachusetts.
It features information on events, accommodations, museums, attractions, tours, dining, and shopping information.
Located just 16 miles north of Boston, Salem is an easy connection via car, train, or seasonal Ferry. It has never been easier to explore Salem, Massachusetts – America’s Bewitching Seaport!
Having witnessed first hand the creation of some outstanding apps and, with my background as a developer, I have a unique insight that most people don’t have in regards to what it takes to build a quality app. One of the most important facets of building an app is delivering quality information that your users are looking for. Since Salem is a tourist destination, there should be no shortage of quality information. There are so many great things to see and do in Salem that the hardest part should be organizing the information into easily digestible bites. The downside of building a quality app of this magnitude is that it takes a lot of money, obviously more money than their budget allowed.
In building this app, Salem used Mobilaurus, a MA based cookie cutter app shop. They focus on building out a very basic framework that organizations can then add content to. If you were to download apps for Cape Cod, Providence, or Denver you would see the same app architecture with different content.
The app features four primary sections; events, great deals, what to do and tickets.
With festivals, live music, exhibits, classes and a multitude of community organized events I expected the events page to be overflowing with content. I was quite disappointed. The events page only showed a total of 7 events when I set the dates from August 19th to the 22nd. Also, as you can see from the above screen grab, many of the events listed are outside of the dates I queried for.
The Great Deals section is a bit more robust. It defaults to showing the current week’s deals, but you can change the dates and look ahead (this is a great feature for tourists or for planning an upcoming adventure). Great Deals is broken down to subsections, including Accommodations, Dining, On the Water and more. Most of these deals are published elsewhere on the web if you want to go looking for them, but to have them available at your fingertips is a bonus for bargain hunters. The downside here is that I know of more bargains than are displayed on this page.
What To Do
The most extensive section of the app is the What To Do section, with 9 sub sections, including Accommodations, Attractions, Shopping and Visitor Information. If you are looking for some place to stay in Salem, you could click over to What To Do -> Accommodations -> Bed&Breakfasts/Inns -> Salem Inn (or any of the other fine places to stay). Here you would find a link to map the location, a photo, small description and contact info.
The downside is all the Neighborhood fields say “Salem” nothing is broken down further. In Salem, we have very distinct neighborhoods, all with different charm. Staying in the McIntyre district is quite different than the Wharf, which is different than the Common area and so on. Another oversight is the ability to check the ratings of these places. Most people research an establishment before staying there, so a link to something as simple as Yelp would be quite helpful, as would showing the number of stars a place has.
One of the big problems with this app is overall poor programming. For every picture you are trying to load, the app must then pull a crappy quality image from some online image repository. So, you’re not even being treated to a beautiful photograph for the constant loading screen you have to sit through.
The same lack of forethought and attention to detail that is exhibited in the Accommodations section is also prevalent in the Dining section. You would never know by looking at the listing what a hidden gem Bella Verona is. The app tells you nothing about the food, atmosphere, price point or service. Again, a small description and link to a review would be very helpful.
I could continue with this section, but by now I’m sure you see the pattern that is emerging.
The final section we will be looking at is the Ticket section. I was most excited for this because I thought it would be great if a tourist staying in Boston could buy their Salem Ferry ticket through the app, then schedule the typical touristy stuff like a visit to the House of Seven Gables and the Witch Museum. Well, you can imagine my disappointment when I found out that there are only three ticketing options; the Philips House Museum (nice, but not high on the tourist priority list), the Schooner Fame (fun, but again, not a “must do”) and the Salem Trolley (this is the best option for getting around if you are a tourist).
My overall assessment of the Salem, MA iPhone app
This app is a great idea with a ton of potential, but it falls flat in almost every aspect. I’ve seen this happen before when a client is in a rush to get their app into the market, but doesn’t ensure that it’s fully functional, debugged and stocked with content.
I can’t really blame the Salem Office of Tourism and Cultural Affairs, they are a small, quazi-government agency doing the best they can on the meager budget they have. They probably didn’t have the expertise they needed to go into a project like this. Perhaps they should have consulted with the folks over at North Shore Happy Hour, a group of iPhone developers that meet right here in Salem.
How could this app be better?
Three simple steps which would make major improvements:
First order of business is for Destination Salem to insist that their vendor fix the defects in the app. There is no reason to show bad information or return results that are outside the scope of the query. When I am looking for info from September, I don’t want results from July.
Second is to get more relevant content, make the 100 clicks it takes to get to a restaurant result worth while to the end user. Partner up with a reviewing service like Yelp or Google or even a local blogs (TheSalemInsider.com or North Shore Dish come to mind).
Third, offer local businesses a way to get their info into the app. I notice that many of the businesses in the app are also businesses that Destination Salem tweets about often. Does one have to pay to get listed? There should be a simple online form on their website where a business (or organization or event) could upload their info and have it added to the app.
Who knows, maybe there is an iPhone developer who is willing to work with Destination Salem to build a better app. Or perhaps Destination Salem needs to get a group of people together to really take this project over the top. Heck, if they don’t maybe there needs to be an “unofficial” guide to Salem app.
Forrest Frazier is a Sr. Web Developer at Mullen in Boston, MA and is co-founder of Malign Design. He has worked with Fortune 100 companies in launching websites and iPhone apps. A Salem resident, he can often be found in a coffee shop or watering hole writing code.