How I Wrote My First iPhone Travel App
How a card-carrying member of AARP learned a new trick
For someone born B.C. (before computers), writing a mobile travel application seemed a daunting task. However, all of us in the travel writing industry know that mobile apps are the next paradigm shift in our business, so I knew I had to learn the technology and try to get a foot in the door of that growing market.
I partnered with an established company, Sutro Media, to publish a travel guide app on my adopted hometown of St. Petersburg, Florida.
Sadly, Sutro Media went out of business in November 2015, so none of the guides they produced are available any longer.
As they always say — whoever “they” are — “Write what you know.” Sutro already had a relationship with Apple, a template, and several published and successful travel guides, so it made more sense than veering off on my own into cyber and c-fone space.
You can go to the Apple website and apply for your own app, but you’ll have to come up with the format or template for it yourself. If you’re that tech-savvy, you’ve probably already stopped reading this article.
My instructions from Sutro to start with were fairly minimal, but being a Mac person, I’m used to winging it without a manual of any sort. Trial and error have been a way of life for me since my first clunky desktop.
However, I did learn a lot about organizing my material and how to maximize the small screen space on an iPhone or iPod touch.
One of the coolest things about these apps is the ability to sort the entries by several criteria: by category (art, museums, dining, historic, etc) or by function (cost, distance from where you are). Each entry has a Google map giving you the pinpointed location and number of miles from where you are when you’re looking at it.
View of the St. Petersburg travel app.
The function sorts are established, but you have to create the “tags” that will become the category sorts. You also have the ability to group and sort by neighborhoods (again you input the neighborhoods). It’s a good idea to do this first, as you will need to check off each tag box and/or choose the appropriate neighborhood for each entry.
You also have a mini-slideshow for each entry and a master slideshow for the whole app, so the pros recommend having a minimum of 10 photos per entry. Since this is a commercial application, you can’t use photos from the CVB or the properties you’re featuring.
You’ll need to shoot them yourself or use a free stock photo site. Sutro has included a link to a free stock site on the template screen, which is really helpful.
At the bottom of each entry on the final screen are the entry’s URL and phone number. If you have an iPhone™, you can touch the number and call directly. Although you can access the guide offline, on both devices, you can touch the web link and go immediately to the entry’s website for more information if you have access to Wi-Fi. It’s all about immediate gratification!
Learn from My Mistakes
Since I’ve been writing blog and web content for years, I thought writing the app would be a piece of cake, but there are tips and tricks to this. First of all, the screen size is small and narrow: one sentence can fill an entire screen and although folks can scroll down through an entry, you need to keep them as short as you possibly can.
The type also looks really dense on the small screen, so you’ll need to put paragraph breaks in more often than you normally would, sometimes after just one sentence. In general:
1) Write short and then edit again and make it even shorter
2) Insert breaks at regular intervals
3) Remember that the user can go straight to the web for details: your job is to describe the one or two major reasons the place is worth a visit
4) Don’t forget to check all tags that are applicable to the entry so it will show up in multiple sorts
5) Write an appealing subhead that will entice the user to scroll through the entire entry
Choosing the best photos and organizing them into slideshows is another major component, and on this first attempt, I learned a lot from my mistakes in this area. Each entry has a thumbnail icon and these are teeny-tiny. Forget panoramic shots of the beach or skyline: close-ups work best for these apps.
The photos do appear full screen in the slideshows, but remember that the screen is vertical, so horizontal shots are going to have huge bands of black at the top and bottom. In the Sutro app, every photo is earmarked for the master slideshow, a fact I didn’t know until I was almost finished so I then had to go back through each entry and delete photos.
Next time, I’ll delete everything from the master show as I enter it so that I can go back and pick what I want to be in the big slideshow. You might even want to sit down and make a list of shots that you feel are the best for the slideshow…the ones that really give a visual overview of your subject, like a photo essay. Remember that:
1) Thumbnail icons are really, really tiny so use close-ups
2) Photos are appearing on a vertical screen, so vertical shots will fill the screen
3) While you can use duplicate photos on entries, remember not to duplicate them in the master slideshow
4) Put some real thought into how you want the master slideshow to look and which photos you want to use for that
5) Use free stock if you don’t have enough shots of your own. This is particularly good for historic attractions in major cities, and close-ups of nature (like a seashell on the beach or a bird) Use the most general search terms for the subject to get the most results.
With Sutro, I was able to run test after test on my iPod Touch™ to find errors in spacing, bad photos, etc. Also be sure to check every single URL and every map, as I found bad links and bad maps that had to be adjusted.
Would I do it again? Absolutely! I’m already working on my next app, this time about Paris. It’s presenting its own set of challenges with foreign addresses and foreign currency, but I’m loving it.
If I can do it, you can do it. You don’t have to be a “techie” to learn this: you just have to have some patience, learn through trial and error, and not be embarrassed to ask questions. I can’t say enough about the team at Sutro, all of them professional writers and editors who really get it. They want their authors to succeed and were incredibly patient mentors. So if you have the next great “small idea”, go for it…you’ll love seeing your guide in lights on the world’s biggest small screen.
Sadly..Here is what happened to Sutro Media…
Sutro Media as of November 3, 2015 appears to have shuttered its publishing effort and brought a final pause to the 450 travel apps for which the founders contracted. Sutro Media was founded in 2009 by two talented young men, Kevin Collins (email@example.com) and Tobin Fisher (firstname.lastname@example.org). They engaged the services of the highly-talented and hard-working acquisitions editor, Kim Grant, who knew or could source the major players worldwide capable of producing credible travels apps.
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