Next TTC: Behind the scenes

Last week, I released Next TTC 2.0, a major update to my real-time arrival predictions utility app for Toronto’s streetcars (buses to be added by Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) soon).

Today, I’d like to discuss how I went about dealing with the data that is provided through the API and which UI/UX choices I made based on the data and how it would be used.

Bit of background

Data is provided for Toronto’s public streetcar transportation system through the nextbus.com API. Basically vehicles are outfitted with a GPS. Based on their location and proximity to a certain stop, the API provides arrival time predictions. So for example, if a streetcar is 1.2 km away from a XYZ stop, based on the average speed and time it takes from the streetcar to arrive at XYZ it will tell you that the streetcar is arriving in 4 minutes and 43 seconds. This can however change if the streetcar is backed up in traffic or suddenly able to travel at faster speeds, or make less stops en route to stop XYZ.

The data

TTC provides up to 5 arrival time predictions for the requested stop and/or route.

By requesting data for a stop only, you’re provided with all routes and their arrival times for that particular stop. Depending on the stop, this may be one or several routes at once. You’re also able to request stop and a specific route, which means the API just returns arrival time predictions for that route.

Furthermore, for TTC, some streetcars make short-turns. For example, route 501 westbound has two end destinations. The streetcars are on the same track for most of the way, but every few streetcars will stop at an earlier station. This means the API also returns predictions for each route-short-turn.

The data may appear as such:

  • Route 0
    • Destination 0
      • Prediction 0
      • Prediction 1
      • Prediction 2
      • Prediction 3
      • Prediction 4
  • Route 1
    • Destination 0
      • Prediction 0
      • Prediction 1
      • Prediction 2
      • Prediction 3
    • Destination 1
      • Prediction 0
      • Prediction 1
  • Route 2
    • Destination 0

In the above example we have requested data for a stop. This stop is serviced by 3 streetcar routes. Route 0 is currently in service and we are returned 5 arrival time predictions. Route 1 is also in service and has two destinations (or short-turns) for which we are returned results for both. Route 2 is currently not in service (some streetcar routes only run during rush hour) and we are not returned any arrival time predictions.

So as you can see, we are potentially dealing with a great deal of data.

Scope

Version 1 of the API provided less amount of data and details, so in Next TTC 2.0 I wanted to upgrade as well, while still retaining the basic user experience of the app.

The basic scope of the app is to launch the app and instantly get arrival time predictions for the stop nearest your current location. In essence this is pretty easy with Core Location. Once you have a user’s location, loop through all stops to find the nearest stop and request the data for that stop.

But how do you retain a simple user experience as required by the scope when you’re dealing with potentially lots of varied data?

UI/UX decisions

In Next TTC 1.x, if a stop had more than one route, I prompted the user to select the desired route – or telling them Route X and Route Y service this stop but only Route Y is currently running. While it was the only app allowing the user to view other routes at the same stop it was intrusive and quite annoying.

Alert prompt in Next TTC 1.x to select route for stop at user's current location

With version 2 of the API returning multiple destinations (short-turns) for one route there was more data to present.

My goal was to present all the data possible without any interruptions, while also making it extremely easy and quick to change between the desired data. So in 2.x I added the trust navigation bar (I also went from not having the status bar visible, to making it visible, so the user could see the current time), which allowed me to added a UISegmentedControl to quickly switch between routes for the stop at the user’s current location.

Next TTC 2.0 provides as easy way to switch between routes servicing the same stop in the navigation bar as well as switching between a route's short-turns

With a checkmark, I also visualize whether a route is running. While the returned data is a bit scrambled, I chose to sort the segments in an ascending order. Furthermore, the selection defaults to the first route in the segmented control that is in service, so the user isn’t initially presented with an empty result for a route they most likely wouldn’t care about, since they want to know when the next vehicle is arriving at their current location.

In the screenshot, you can also see another row of segments: All, Long Brand and Humber. These are the short-turns. As we saw earlier, the API would have returned two destination. I then present these two selections above the route button along with a combined set of predictions for both the short-turns sorted in an ascending order. In this case, 501 Queen is a long route, going from east of Toronto to west of Toronto. Both destination short-turns are quite far out of downtown, so if you’re going to a stop way before that, you wouldn’t care which one of the upcoming streetcars you can take, because you know you’re getting off before that. At the same time, if you’re going to Long Branch station, selecting Long Branch will provide you with upcoming arrival time predictions for that location, which could save you lots of time waiting or getting on the wrong streetcar (Long Branch is further than Humber. Unfortunately the API doesn’t sort the destination short-turns in order of proximity, so it’s not possible to present them in a sorted order at this time).

Example of a stop serviced by up to 5 different streetcar routes

While it’s recommended in the API documentation not to show seconds, I felt it was appropriate to show it because “1 minute” may be 1 minute and 20 seconds or less than a minute. If you’re running to catch a streetcar, 30 seconds precision matters a lot. Luckily, lots of users love this feature over other apps that provide the same basic use-case. I only show it for the upcoming streetcar, while the subsequent cars are displayed in minutes. The app auto-updates the predictions based on calculations for the count down time, so the user is always shown the most accurate prediction at any given time. It feels kind of awesome standing at a stop looking up from your iPhone running Next TTC and seeing the streetcar arrive exactly as predicted in the app :)

Core Location

Anyone who’s ever had to work with Core Location probably agrees with me when I say it’s a bitch. While the API is great, it was a challenge to find a balance between very accurate location results and also being able to locate the user when location accuracy is very low (no GPS for example). With Next TTC, I wanted to be able to locate the user quite precisely and quite quickly to find the nearest stop, and not find a stop 500 meters away or more.

All devices cache the user’s location and when initially prompting for a user’s location that’s exactly what you get back. It might be an extremely accurate location, but it may also be very old and inaccurate. If you’ve ever opened the Maps app, and seen the blue dot move over a large area before locating you, or having the circle around it cover a very large area, this is exactly what I am talking about.

So in dealing with this challenge, I initially did a whole bunch of stuff in code to try and figure out whether the location was usable, whether to continue trying to find a new, better location, etc. It turned out quite difficult so in Next TTC 2.0 I went back to the basics, but made it possible for the user to quickly re-locate themselves and request new arrival time predictions for their updated location. In Next TTC 1.x I had a GPS arrow button, but it turns out, even though Apple uses this, most users don’t understand the icon. Since I had worked so much on getting a good location initially (which sometimes took several seconds; way too long) I didn’t really make it possible to re-locate oneself, other than picking another stop manually and then hitting the GPS arrow button again. Poor UX, Rune!

Main screen in Next TTC 1.x using user's current location (GPS arrow)

So as dicussed, in Next TTC 2.0 I got rid of lots of code for my Core Location class, and implemented a much easier way to get an updated (and more accurate location if available) if the initial location wasn’t satisfactory. I implemented the pull-to-refresh paradigm, which works wonderfully for my app.

Example of my custom "pull-to-re-locate" implementation of Pull-to-refresh seen in lots of apps

Clutter or not?

When dragging the bottom view down, it reveals a button to add a stop to favourites. When this button is hidden, I added a small light that allows the user to quickly see whether it’s a favourite (light is on) or not (no light), without having added yet another button that takes up a bunch of screen real estate and doesn’t get used 90% of the time if that much!

Extra hidden menu bar reveals "Add favourite" button

The great thing about this extra menu bar is that I can add features/buttons in the future without cluttering up the UI more, leaving the user to focus on the most important thing to them: “When’s the next streetcar arriving at this stop?”

I did add a button in the centre of the toolbar, to open/close the hidden menu. Based on beta tester feedback, it wasn’t obvious enough that dragging/pulling down on the picker view would reveal the extra menu bar.

Next TTC 2.0 has the same grey noise background as Next TTC 1.x as well as light letters. When I released the app back in February it was winter and the sun wasn’t shining very much. As the months passed and spring arrived, I started receiving feedback from users that the UI was too dark and very hard to discern in bright sunlight. Sure enough, I tested it and the only thing I saw on my iPhone screen was my own face reflected on the glass screen.

Based on this feedback, I added a “Dark on Light UI” setting in the app, which changes the background to a noisy off-white with dark text, making it much easier to read in direct summer sunlight.

While not as pretty as the default setting, the "Dark on Light UI" setting makes it possible for Next TTC users to easily read the content on the screen in bright sunlight

Wrapping up

I hope you’ve enjoyed a bit of insight into the choices that went into the user experience and design of Next TTC 2.0. Here’s a few points to wrap up what I think you should take away from it:

  • While you may have a UI in mind early on, UI and UX design is closely related to the data you need to present. While considering your UI, really dig through your data and decide early on what’s important and what parts of the data you want to present to the user, or what takes precedence.
  • Create a scope early on. This will help you on your path to completing the app and provide clear guidelines for designing and coding your app, since you’ll have the data and the user in mind.
  • Revise, revise, revise. Don’t settle on a particular design just because it looks great. If it doesn’t work well in terms of usability or if it doesn’t allow you to present the data or the user to interact with the data in an appropriate manner, scrap it and figure out a better way of making this possible.
  • Don’t be afraid to make big changes. Next TTC 2.0 was a huge update for me. I completely rewrote the core of the app and redesigned 80% of the app. I consider it a brand new app (which also made it painful in deciding it’s a free update to the thousands of current users who’d this awesome update for free, only having paid a dollar for the previous version).
  • Listen to tester and user feedback and make appropriate changes to your app. Something might appear important to you, or easy to use from a UX point of view, but if several users tell you it’s not, listen to them.

Social game marketing

I’m not a game developer and was actually not planning on doing a game-related post for #idevblogaday, but I’m currently reading Game-Based Marketing about how marketers can use game mechanics to create and foster long term customer loyalty. Basically think frequent flyer programs, points cards and any other type of loyalty program out there.

As a marketer, the premise of the book is quite interesting, and today almost any major chain will have some sort of loyalty program – even in smaller businesses you will find sorts of loyalty program through which you can earn points, loyalty and status amongst peers (much like achievements, leaderboards, etc. that you’ll find in games).

It got me thinking a bit about how game developers should try and utilize the same kind of systems that are in place for loyalty programs. For example, a big part of loyalty programs is earning points, achievements and essentially status within a certain program. People love showing off and they love earning points and higher statuses – even if it doesn’t really get them anything in return.

So in this week’s post I’ll discuss various ways game developers can implement different strategies that are found in loyalty marketing. I’ll discuss features that are well known and quite common in most top 25 App Store games, but at the same time, I hope to bring to light some aspects of these features.

Leaderboards
If you’re currently reading this and have a game in which you do not have a leaderboard, stop right now and start integrating one immediately.

A great part of the fun of playing games are being able to share with your friends your scores, points, etc. Also, being able to compare yourself directly with other players or friends playing the game is an important part of the fun.

The best way to do this is through an integrated leaderboard system. This allows the player to easily keep track of their score and abilities and compare them with their previous scores and how they rank amongst their friends and other players worldwide (or perhaps even cities, states, countries, etc.).

Game Center, OpenFeint, etc. provide easy-to-implement and solid foundations for leaderboards. These are also awesome (and free) marketing tools. For example, I have found myself looking through my GC friends games lists to find new games to play. It has also kept me coming back to certain games because GC has provided an opportunity to indirectly challenge me to continue playing the game to beat certain friends scores. This in return provides you as a game developer to cross-advertise your new game releases or sales for your other games.

Although competition is great, I wish more developers would integrate GC or OF (which also offer built-in GC integration), instead of trying to roll their own or using a less popular social game network. For example, when GC was released, I found myself revisiting old games to beat my friends’ scores or earn achievements. Those games that still do not offer a widely-used system just doesn’t draw enough attention, and I cannot be bothered to find out my friends’ usernames on the not-so-well-known social game networks.

Achievements
Achievements are also a great way to provide a leaderboard-type system in your game. It also helps prolong the experience and fun with your game.

A few examples of use of achievements in games:
• Achievements provide an opportunity to easily reward the player throughout the game. Levels, new upgrades, etc. This helps create a path for your game and a path for completion.
• Think of achievements that would require more practice or more time playing, basically ones that would prolong the game for players for after they’ve finished all levels. For example, Cut the Rope could use a timer and an achievement for finishing certain levels in certain amount of time, instead of just the three stars. You do earn more points for finishing a level fast, however this isn’t apparent, and after finishing the levels I cannot see how much faster I should have been in order to earn more points. Another example of achievements is Trainyard, which could give an achievement for finishing all stations in one city by using only X amount of tracks. These two examples provide a way to challenge the more hardcore players since they’re considerable more difficult than pure completion of a level, and it also does not hinder the completion of the game for the more casual players.
• Be careful not to make achievement nearly impossible to obtain. For example don’t make an achievement for “Played 100 hours” if your game basically takes an hour or two to finish all levels. Unless there’s a lot more to your game after having finished it, you can’t expect anyone to want to spend so much time playing it – even if they love going for those achievements.

Again, Game Center and OpenFeint provide great frameworks for integrating achievements as well as achievement leaderboards and friending systems. Use one or both of the solutions and think of ways to achievements into your game to make it more fun and challenging. They’re completely free and helps save you a ton of work instead of trying to roll your own.

Small side-note to leaderboards and achievements: Add a button somewhere in your games’ menus that let’s the user see their scores and/or achievements. Both GC and OF offer modal views for these. This way the user doesn’t have to leave the game to check an achievement or whether they’ve now trumped their friend’s top score, and you also help bring them right to the information they’re seeking – not leaving them to go to GC via the app itself, for example, and drill through the view hierarchy in order to find what they’re looking for.

Social Sharing
Sharing high scores, achievements, etc. is great opportunity to advertise your game and something that players love to do!

However, instead of just providing a Facebook and Twitter button for sharing a score or achievement, why not go a littler further and help the player out with deciding when it’s appropriate to do so? For example, what might seem like a low score to one player, may turn out to be in the top 5% of the leaderboards. After completion of a level or game, the developer could integrate a system that looks up the score and based on various factors it may say something like “Holy shit, your score was super high, you’ve just entered the top 10%, you should totally brag about it on Twitter and/or Facebook!” – or something like that. This helps the player realize the worth of their skill and score and may actually be more effective than just having a button that enables sharing of a score on social networks.

Also, don’t just tweet a score plus a link. Players will look through this as a pathetic attempt from you to get some free advertising out of them. They already paid you money, why should they help you out more, even your game is the most awesome one ever made?

I realize you don’t have a lot of characters to work with on Twitter, but including more than just the score is important. If I see “John just scored 13,453 in [some game]!”, I don’t really know whether it’s a good score and it doesn’t provide me with a way of relating this score to my own skills (unless I have played it). However, if I see something like “John just placed in the top 5% in [some game] with 13,453 points!” I would be more interested and perhaps more inclined to try out the game and beat John’s score if I know we have similar skill and scores in most games. It also gives both John and his friends a better understanding of just how awesome getting 13,453 points is. Without relating the points to anything, no one can see whether it’s actually a good score if they don’t know the premise of the game and the value of those points. John might actually be tweeting a super low score (compared to his friends’ scores), so helping John decide when it’s an appropriate time to share his score helps him save the embarrassment of tweeting a humiliatingly low score.

Basically, adding more substance to your sharing feature gives you more respect from your user (surprise and delight) and also makes them more likely to actually indirectly want to help you advertise (which you have to admit; you’re adding this feature more for yourself to advertise than actually just scoring some random score).

Another great way of sharing content from your game is something like Matt Rix‘s Trainyard solution sharing system. It works both as a way for players to show off their skills, but also helps more casual players progress through the game. Hardcore players love showing off and it also provides a way to prolong the game for hardcore players as they may try and find new solutions that haven’t yet been done. Linking this with the previous paragraph, one thing the game could do was to provide a small notification if a solution is 100% unique by saying “You have created a unique solution not yet available on Trainyard.ca, would you like to share with the community?” This helps the player realize their skill compared to others and again provides the more hardcore gamers with replay value, as they may go back to some levels in order to make new solutions, not yet seen by the community. That in itself could create a separate leaderboard for players which shows the top 50 players who have come up with and shared unique solutions, again improving the experience and loyalty further for those committed to the game and the community that surrounds it.

Game save syncing
This is as much of an idea as it is a request to all game developers out there.

Universal games are starting to become more common, now with iPhones, iPods touches and of course iPads selling like crazy. I own both an iPhone and an iPad and love when developers take a bit of extra time to release their game as a Universal game – even if the iPad is pretty much the same as the iPhone game, just larger. Of course, not all games scale as easily from iPhone to iPad in terms of the experience with the extra space, but for games that I play both on my iPhone and iPad, I would love to see server-based game save syncing or whatever you want to call it. However, this doesn’t just go for Universal apps, since many people have several devices. If they have the same game installed on both their iPhone and iPod, why not make the game experience more fluid?

The premise of this idea is dead simple: I play a game on my iPhone on the subway home from work. When I get home and hit the couch later that night, I want to reach for my iPad on the coffee table and play the exact same game, from the exact point I left off. I don’t want to start over from level one. I don’t want to have to earn the exact same achievements I just unlocked four hours ago (especially since they’ll appear as unlocked just fine if I head into Game Center).

Again it might be something 80% of users wouldn’t need. You may never have had to bring your game saves on your Wii controller to your friend’s place or transfer your PS3 game saves to your buddies PS3 so you can show of your collection of sweet cars in GT5. But it’s something we have now seen in console games for well over a decade now. As much as it may be a less used feature, it’s something I just don’t understand why is missing on such a portable platform.

It could be somewhat simple, depending on what your game exists of. When you start adding stuff like specific amounts of bullet ammo left, percentage of health left, points in each cleared level, etc. we’re getting a bit more advanced, but it’s definitely possible, regardless.

Game saves could be saved on a server and retrieved using an email and password. I don’t know the exact workings of GameKit, but maybe a successful login to Game Center could prompt a “It appears you have a game save available in the cloud based on your GC username, would you like to sync this device and keep your progression in sync?”. (If anyone at Apple is reading this or if you know someone working on GameKit, please let them know to consider adding game save-syncing to Game Center :))

Or even something like bluetooth sharing of game save states, bumping devices, or sharing via a unique code displayed on one device and entering the code on the other device would retrieve whatever was just uploaded to the server.

Just a few ideas of how you may be able to work it out, but seriously, this is such a great feature that would really set your game apart from others (apart from being a unique experience in itself, of course) and your users will love it.

I have yet to come across a single iOS game that does this, so if you know of one, please do share it in the comments, so other developers can check out and perhaps get some ideas for their own game.

Wrapping up
I hope I have sparked some ideas into your head as to what you can do to enhance the experience with your game and creating some loyalty amongst your customers. Some of the above ideas definitely will enhance and prolong the game experience, adding value to your game from what is actually very little work in most cases, implementing GC or OF or enhancing score-sharing on social networks.

Thanks for reading and please do leave a comment!

Quick guide to updating your app’s UI for iPhone 4

iPhone 4 will make your UI look stunning. Everything in UIKit has been scaled up already so it will require only a bit of work on your end to make the rest of your app look amazing on iPhone 4. If you only code and don’t touch Photoshop, you’re in luck. However, if you’re a UI designer or have the skills to do your own UI, hopefully you did your original artwork in a nice high resolution – if not, you have a bit of work cut out for you with updating all the UI elements to 2x the resolution.

Updating your app’s UI to be compatible with iPhone 4’s Retina Display is amazingly simple. Since the scale works in points, not pixels, you will have to do very little work on the layout itself. Apple Engineers have made it really simple to use new graphics for all your UI on iPhone 4, at the same time as being compatible (and not using 2x memory) on older, lower resolution, lower memory devices.

All you have to do is add the same image file at 2x the pixels to your app’s resources and name it the same it’s lower resolutions sibling with the following suffix: “@2x”.

For example, in your Resources folder, you will now need to have two image files, one for older devices called myImage.png and one for iPhone 4 called myImage@2x.png, which is twice the resolution.

This way, when you call [UIImage imageNamed:@”myImage.png”]; (or contentsOfFile:) iPhone 4 will automatically grab the filename with a @2x suffix, and lower resolution images will grab the lower resolution copy. You don’t have to check for the device loading the image and write any additional code to grab the correct image. Genius!

If you have seen an iPhone app on the iPad in 2x scale, that’s pretty much how your app is going to look on the iPhone 4. Perhaps not so drastic, but there will be a noticeable difference from app not optimized for iPhone 4 and “Retina Apps” as Apple calls them.

Thoughts on @2x on iPad…
I didn’t hear anything at WWDC regarding this, but my thought is that they’ll integrate this into the iPad for the next major OS release. Basically, it will be able to do the same and grab the higher resolution image appropriately for iPhone apps running at 2x scale.

Happy Photoshopping to UI designers and happy relaxing programmers!

UPDATE JULY 7, 2010:

I have discovered a bug in Apple’s code that deals with grabbing the correct image on iPhone 4. If you are using imageWithContentsOfFile: the code will in fact not automatically grab the @2x if running on iPhone 4. I have submitted a bug report to Apple, and they’ve informed me they are now aware of the issue and the Engineers are currently working to fix the bug. So for now, stick with imageNamed: for all your images.

Some notes on UIView animation

UIView animation is a simple and nice way to add to your user experience. I just wanted to point out a few suggestions when using UIView animations.

Duration (speed):
If you choose to use animation to compliment some of the stuff already happening in UIKit, either at the same time or before/after, it makes a big difference how fast your animations are. Pretty much all the UIKit animations I have come across have a duration of 0.3f and so should yours. Of course, it’s doesn’t always work 100% but for the most part, 0.3f is what you should aim for. It’s quick so your user don’t wait for something to finish animating before continuing with the next input action, and it’s not too fast so that the user doesn’t have a chance to see where the object came from or what happened.

If you have an animation happening while the keyboard animates up or down, use an animationDuration of 0.3f. Same with pushing and popping the navigationController. Annotations in MKMapView also drop at a duration of 0.3f.

0.3f is the way to go.

A simple UIView animation can be added with the following code:

[UIView beginAnimations:nil context:nil];
[UIView setAnimationDuration:0.3f];
self.segmentControl.alpha = 1.0f;
[UIView commitAnimations];

The above example is from an app I’m doing, where the segmentControl is enabled and I increase its visibility in the toolBar at the same rate as a pin drops in the map within the same screen.

When to use animation:
A few objects come with free animation (also at a duration of 0.3f, of course). For example, when adding a UIBarButton to your UINavigationBar, consider setting these with animation. If you replace a UIBarButton with another, they’ll even animate in and out nicely during the change. When adding a pin to a map, why not drop it onto the map with an animation, instead of it suddenly appearing on a map from nowhere?

Another good advice is to do animation (whether your own or with objects that include animations) to bring attention to an object. For example, if you have a pushed view, consider what you can “add” after the view has appeared through animating your objects in viewDidAppear.

Create a better UX with animation
Consider all the ways you can use UIView animation blocks in your app to enhance the user experience. It’s a great way to create a more fluid and pleasant experience for your users. A user’s inputs and actions will feel less rough and more smooth and soft to the touch. Don’t go overboard with animations. Too many will become annoying and it’s important to use animations only where appropriate.

The best advice is probably to have a look at many of the built in apps designed by Apple as well as the many free animations that a part of UIKit objects (how UIBarButtons animate in and out when you push a UIViewController stack, how a modal view appears from the bottom, etc.).