Remember Highlight? That app that everyone thought was hot stuff back at SXSW? I used it for a few days and then deleted it, discovering quite quickly that the app, despite some utility, was an absolute battery hog. But what Highlight did was prove that, given the proper scenario, check-in works and is important. What frustrates me most, however, is that we keep doing it wrong.
Take this new app, Chkin.at, for example. It allows you to check-in at various websites and to become King of a certain page, thereby giving you certain conjugal rights with the ladies of your Kingdom (not really). Rather than dismiss it outright – it kind of works, but it spurred this little rant – I’ll note that it, like so many other apps, suffers from that fatal flaw: the check-in.
This is not a new complaint and it won’t be the last time someone grumbles about the current state of discovery-style apps. The main problem is always compliance, and it’s a problem familiar to doctors, dietitians, and researchers. Your app requires the user to offer up a bit of information. You can do it in a number of ways, the least efficient being the voluntary check-in (even with the promise of reward). Slightly more efficient is the “discussion” check-in used by devices like Autom, a diet robot that reminds you to log your food and feelings with friendly chit-chat and anthropomorphized features. Finally, there’s the invisible check-in à la Highlight, one of the better – if fatally flawed – instances of check-in I’ve seen in a while. Highlight was sort of a scavenger hunt for the ego (as are many check-in apps) which is why it got so much press. The folks who yodeled the most about it (TCers included) didn’t want to find other people, they were excited when other people found them.
Check-in becomes valuable when we don’t notice it. But invisible check-in requires deep hooks into the mobile device’s operating system. For example, FindMyFriends on the iPhone is just about perfect because it lets you find people without forcing them to Tweet that they’re behind a Denny’s smoking banana peels. The app, instead, knows where they are by using micro updates sent to a central server. Google already supplies similar functionality through Google Latitude and there is currently an API available.
This, in turn, sets privacy advocates on edge because, in a sense, the app is telling people where you are without your explicit knowledge (although not without your explicit permission.) You give up a freedom to gain a bit of functionality.
It seems the best apps are those that offer check-in after the fact. Yelp, for example, offers Foursquare-like check-ins but also just leaves you alone if you don’t want to use that service. More important, Yelp creates a valuable dialogue between the user and the service in that they don’t let you publish reviews right from the app or, presumably, right from the location. This, in turn, forces a more ruminative approach to restaurant reviews.
Most check-in apps get it wrong more than they get it right. If I have to do anything other than enter a room to use a location-based service, someone is doing something wrong. Here’s hoping someone really figures out the sweet spot between volunteering information and “streaming” it live before we all get so engrossed in checking, plusing, liking, and tagging that we forget to live our lives.