Over the years when my father-in-law and I would talk about cars, he would invariably remind me that between Chevy, Ford, and Dodge, in his experience, Chevy had always had the most advanced electronics in their vehicles.True, false, or otherwise, I find myself today driving mostly Chevy products, and having a terminal fondness for gadgetry, I suspect these conversations about electronics had more influence on my truck selection process than I realize. I never thought it would end up in a nice little app on my phone.
My most recent Chevy, a 2011 Silverado (not the 1957 “Jeff Gordon edition” shown above), came with a complimentary 1-year subscription to OnStar, and while sitting through the mind-numbing review at the dealership of how the service works, I noticed on the Onstar web site that they had an app. Great, I thought, now I can track when my ridiculously expensive Onstar calling minutes are going to expire. I should have been more optimistic.
OnStar RemoteLink is a free app that sports 4 basic features (screen shots below):
- Current stats on your vehicle, including fuel level, gas mileage, range, oil life, and odometer reading.
- Remote control, including starting/stopping the engine, locking/unlocking the doors and activating the lights & horn.
- Assistance, which essentially provides speed dial buttons to an Onstar advisor, RoadSide Assistance, and your dealership.
- Navigation, which taps into the Onstar Directions and Connections service.
It’s a very easy app to quickly learn and use, and here’s why:
- The tab bar icons concisely and successfully identify what you’ll find when you press them. This is the first key to the app’s intuitive design.
- The controls are few and sized for both large and small fingers.
- The controls are logically arranged. The words and icons chosen for each button are clear and the buttons are visually paired in the interface by function: Lock/Unlock; Remote Start/Cancel Start; Horn & Lights/Stop Horn & Lights. Whether you prefer text or pictures, the controls are easily and quickly understood.
- The interface is clean and uncluttered. You get just the key information you need without visual overload. I’ll let the screenshots speak for themselves. Make sure to check out the captions.
Take-aways for Designers
RemoteLink is a good app to model for the following reasons:
- It sets out to do just a few things, but does them really well.
- The interface is very thoughtfully laid out with just the controls necessary for ease, and speed of use in mind. It is not festooned with gratuitous graphics (OK…maybe the Chevy bow tie is a bit gratuitous) or unnecessary controls or worse: advertisements.
- The error messages are clear and understandable to the non-geek mind.
- And most importantly, after extensive use I can tell you it has obviously been well-tested and is very stable.
Whether or not you’re a app developer, if you own a 2010-2012 Chevrolet, Cadillac, Buick, or GMC vehicle, you will want to head to the App Store and pick up this App. As a developer, you can learn a lot from it’s design, and as a car owner, you’ll just plain love what it does for you.
Pertinent info concisely displayed
Graphics bring instant clarity to the pressure data
Clean and simple remote control
Sadly, the minutes do expire
Umm...why not tell me how many gallons are in my full tank?
There are literally hundreds of thousands of apps in the iTunes App Store store (OK, over 500,000 actually). The large majority are games to be sure, but there are also tons of non-games apps that can turn your iPhone or iPad into an invaluable productivity tool that fits you perfectly.
Since Apple doesn’t allow “try and buy’s” in the App Store, it’s often difficult to know if an app you’re considering is going to work for you before you buy it. Usually, all you have to go on is the screen shots and the ratings and reviews from other users, but you need more information to make a good decision.
For an app to be truly useful to you, it has to do several things well:
- It provides just the functionality you need. A great app is designed to do exactly one thing really well. This is surprisingly hard to accomplish – developers are constantly tempted to build kitchen sinks because of the competition.
- It’s easy for you to figure out how it works. The way a good app works is easily discoverable. You are not left guessing as to how to use it. What’s easily discoverable by me may not be for you, but a well designed app manages to hit the sweet spot where it’s easy for most people.
- It’s designed with the average human hand in mind. A good app is designed with buttons and controls that accommodate fingers of all sizes, not just tiny ones. It’s also designed to require the bare minimum number of touches needed to accomplish a task. Apple encourages this in it’s Human Interface Guide, but developers are give a lot of leeway, not all of which results in something usable by most of us.
- It’s designed with the human eye in mind. A good app doesn’t use eye-strain/pain inducing colors, such as tennis-ball green. For non-game apps, muted colors work better and are much easier on the eye than bright, vibrant (gaudy) ones.
- It won’t kill your battery. Apps that use the iPhone’s radio to pull data from the Internet need to be good citizens of the iPhone’s battery. No matter how much you like an app, if it’s constantly draining your battery down, you aren’t going to be happy with it.
- It’s not advertising in disguise. This is mostly a risk with free or freemium apps, but not always. If there is a pay-for version of an app, you are usually better off simply buying it rather than being subjected to constant spam in the free version. Sometimes a free app is all about advertising other apps and not about providing any sort of useful function at all.
Figuring out whether all these things are true is difficult to do without actually buying the app because it’s entirely subjective based on your personal needs, likes, and dislikes. Your are left with inferring whatever you can from the App Store description, ratings, and reviews, as well as reviews on app-related tech blogs. Comparing apps with your iPhone-carrying friends is another way to try before you buy.
So to try to help you gain an eye for good apps (and avoid crapware) I will begin posting reviews of apps that I’ve personally used – the good, the bad, and the ugly. They won’t be traditional feature/function reviews so much as they will point out why the apps are good (or bad, or ugly). My goal will be to teach you what to look for in a good app, rather than convince you that you should buy or avoid any one in particular. I’ll shoot for one every week or so.
What good, bad, or ugly apps have you used?