Developers On Transit Apps In iOS 6 Maps: Good For Users Long-Term, But Needs Improvement

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Since the iOS 6 update, there’s been a lot of negative reaction from users, around issues of accuracy (this Tumblr says it all) and the lack of built-in transit directions. In particular, as a car-less city-dweller myself, I wanted to talk to developers who are filling the gap when it comes to public transit navigation, to find out what they thought about the way it’s been implemented, what’s coming next, and how all of this will ultimately pan out for users.

Right away, I should note that developers obviously stand to benefit from this change. It gives their apps another opportunity to get in front of user eyes, in a context that’s extremely relevant to those individuals and thus highly likely to result in a conversion. That means that by and large, they’re likely going to be pleased with the change. That said, the developers I spoke with didn’t have unqualified praise for the change, and in fact, many offered suggestions about how the experience might be improved and thoughts on where Apple went wrong with this particular feature.

First, I spoke with Chris Cieslak and Jacob Van Order, developers behind the Buster app for Chicago city transit. Buster will get iOS 6 and Maps support in version 3.0, which the team is planning to release next week after some of the initial shock and awe has worn off around the iOS 6 release. They explained that their latest app update, which was designed to provide more features and detail than was available via the transit route planning in Google Maps anyways, should actually be a marked improvement for those looking to get around Chicago.

“What we tried to do, which is a little different from what we see in other apps, is we kind of tried to bring the experience that people already have in their cars with turn-by-turn navigation to public transit,” Cieslak explained, providing one example. “We use things like geo-fencing to tell you where you’re supposed to get off, if we can, or if we can’t we use time-based notifications.” These and other features like transit route maps and real-time tracking are things you wouldn’t get in Google Maps.

Still, Cieslak admits that there’s a lot to be desired out of how Apple’s implemented transit in this release. Drawing specific apps based on location border markers in the app’s code based on a user’s location, for instance, is handy on the spot but less so when you’re trying to plan ahead for a vacation in another city. Also, Cieslak said that the ability to set a default transit routing app would go a long way toward helping users adjust. Apple’s never done this sort of thing in its mobile OS, though it allows users to set their own default apps on the desktop; this is a key element of how it maintains control over the iOS ecosystem and experience, and I find it unlikely that it would give it up.

And while the current method of round-tripping users out of the Maps app to external third-party software is beneficial to developers, ultimately he said that if Apple provided a way for routing apps to display routes and transit directions within the Maps app itself, that would be better in terms of usability. That’s something though that David Hodge, co-founder of YC Combinator-backed Embark, which makes transit apps for a number of U.S. cities says isn’t really feasible, however. He also believes that ultimately, moving people out of the Maps app will cause them to find one and stay there, ultimately for the better; in other words, the Maps app itself is just the hook, and finding an app like Embark that’s better at the city you’re living in than Google is in general is the lasting reward.

“What we’ve found is, to get really good transit results, you really need to focus on a particular city and really make sure to get down into the details of, like ‘how fast do New Yorkers walk?'” he said. “You need to do a lot of work on data, you need to listen to your users, and you need to do a lot of work on UX and design. What existed before was something that worked pretty well, or reasonably well in a lot of places, but it was Google Transit was never particularly good in any place in particular.”

Hodge points to Google’s Transit directions in New York as a perfect example. They’re notoriously bad in that city, and as a result not very useful. By opening up the market to third-party developers, Hodge believes we’ll see higher-quality product emerge in every market, though that could take time.

Everyone I spoke with agreed that there are major communication issues at play here, meaning that Apple hasn’t likely gone about educating its users on the changes to transit in the best way possible, and also that this 1.0 release needs a lot of work before it can even come close to becoming an adequate replacement for Google Maps. But I’m also hearing from sources close to the Apple Maps team that it’s been pushing hard to iterate and improve the product, and that they’ve at least considered making changes like allowing a default app selection to improve things down the line.

Developers seem to agree that at the very least, the way Apple is surfacing transit apps in the Maps transit direction tab seems to be a meritocracy that pushes the most deserving to the top. They’re also seeing lots of additional downloads from users following the iOS 6 release, with Hodge noting that they’re larger by “an order of magnitude,” though they haven’t finished counting how big the actual spike has been. That will help immensely in improving the quality and accuracy of the Embark products, Hodge says.

There’s no denying that Apple left built-in transit out of maps because it just wasn’t feasible for them to include it, not without spending the many years and many billions of dollars Google has on its own crowdsourced effort to build its product. And there’s also no denying that at first, there’s no way the experience can compete with Google Maps. But where others see weakness, developers see opportunity, and a way for startups like Embark to take on a giant like Google in a meaningful way on a platform with massive reach.