Completely Off Topic

From time to time this blog goes completely off topic. This is one of those times because I’d like to compare some apps I use to track my runs. Running is a meditation for me. I tend to lose myself in it. It’s also good to know my progress, though, so I like apps that help me do so in a way that is a) visible in bright sunlight, b) doesn’t involve getting too many ads and c) has buttons big enough to push when I am tired from running.

That may seem like really basic stuff. But it really digs into some heavy user experience. I have found myself standing on a corner, dripping in sweat, sunglasses fogging up, looking for a tiny save button to capture all my hard work, missing it, and ending up deleting the record of my run. Of course, it lives forever in my heart, and in my Iliotibial Band, but what’s the point of having Apple Health if you can’t watch the squiggly line of your effort go up each week?

I started out really liking Strava. It has a slick, hipster interface, plays nicely with GPS, and while it has intrusive ads and kind of obnoxious upsell at first, both offenses stopped after a couple of weeks. What it doesn’t have is a great UI. The Start Run button is almost impossible to find, especially if you carry your phone in one of those arm bands, covered in touch-sensitive plastic that glares in the sun. The save button is tiny, not post-run sweaty at all. It kept bugging me to share my runs. I don’t want to share my running data. I ditched Strava after a few weeks.

Map My Run is charmingly old school, looking like iPhone apps may have looked if they were around in the 1980s. The web app is really useful: After you’ve gone running or biking you can trace out your path using your mouse and figure out that you actually didn’t run a half marathon, but at least you ran about eight miles. For me, the iPhone app was a little wonky, and it took some time to get it to record “live” runs on GPS. I got tired of the old-school interface as well. Ditched.

Runkeeper has earned a place on my iPhone and is my app of choice now. It’s super simple, has a nice, big GO button, is easy to pause, and toggles nicely between running and cycling. It saves all runs without fuss. There is some upsell, but it’s not intrusive.

It sounds obvious to say this, but when designing things, you have to be sure they work in the place they are intended to be used. Back when I was in TV and film production, when were were mixing down audio for documentaries and TV series, I always listened to final mixed on the most amazing surround-sound speakers. You could hear every breath of wind and every snowflake hitting the ground.Then I always asked for the audio guy to send it to the worst speakers he had, so I could hear what it sounded like on the worst TV. That would vanish about 40% of our hard work, but it was a true user experience for many listening to and watching that show.

Running apps have to be used by humans, outside, in bright sunlight, hunting for buttons through the protective plastic on their phone armband. Simple works best. Hipster design doesn’t always cut it.