Beverly Hills Mobile Apps Review

Visit Beverly Hills iPhone AppBeverly Hills has been working on an online map of the city’s bike racks for the past six months (update: it never happened) and promises to include rack locations in the city’s mobile apps. While we see 19 parking garages (!) enumerated in the new Mobile Beverly Hills iPhone app, we’re still waiting on those bike rack locations. In the meantime, let’s catch up with Mobile Beverly Hills to see what it’s all about.

Visit Beverly Hills iphone app iconEvery day we see legions of visitors come to Beverly Hills with phones in hand, photographing our landmarks and perhaps even scouting for that paparazzi opportunity. These are probably folks more comfortable with a phone than they are thumbing through a traditional travel guide, so a the Mobile Beverly Hills app would seem like a way to introduce them to our city’s attractions and cultural opportunities. Greystone mansion, the Paley Center, and our lovely parks are but a few of our assets more familiar to residents than out-of-town visitors.

Now, we already do a good business with the celebrity-obsessed, but wouldn’t it be nice if we attracted a broader bunch of visitors too? After all, our city services depend on foot traffic, sales, and services…just consider how we fund them.

Revenues and expenditures chart 2006 to 2011Nearly a third of all our general fund receipts come from hotel and sales taxes and another fifth comes from tax on business receipts and equipment (which is not broken out by retail or tourism service industry). Compared to property taxes, say, these means of support are especially vulnerable in economic downturns. Not surprisingly, Beverly Hills did take a significant hit during the fiscal crisis: general fund revenues declined over the past 5 years by an estimated 4% while our expenditures increased by 25%! A healthy commercial sector is vital to keeping Beverly Hills in the black, hence our focus on bringing new dollars in.

To ensure that our city remains a tourist destination, we spend $4 million annually on promotion with half of that going to the Conference and Visitors Bureau (for which we’re also building a new headquarters). The CVB focuses on glitz and gloss but backgrounds its considerable inventory of through-provoking attractions, however. Maybe a mobile app could bring them to the attention of visitors while they’re on the move and perhaps persuade them to explore more, stay longer, and part with more of those tourist and shopping dollars. “Come for Rodeo and stay for the  Paley Center for Media – our city depends on it!”

Beverly Hills iPhone App First Impressions

If curating a compendium of our city’s attractions and cultural opportunities is the objective, the Beverly Hills iPhone app is only minimally helpful, though. Compared to the CVB’s large inventory of sights, this app’s catalog is rather thin – just 8 city facilities (facilities?), 16 parks, and 37 examples of public art. Why so few entries? And just who’s coming to view our public art anyway? The limited content positions our app more as a proof-of-concept than as a real travel discovery app.

Then there’s the limited audience for an iPhone app. Visit Beverly Hills is designed only for an iPhone – not Android and not even an iPad. The city says an Android version is coming, but when? (The city is good with press releases but often lags in execution.) More to the point, why not make this app iOS universal? That would make it useful for locals to use the app to discover the city they don’t know.

But when viewed on the iPad, this app is a small, floating window; magnifying it only renders the text and pictures unsightly. What’s more, the iPhone is not quite a third of total mobile market share, with Android nearly doubling that of the iPhone. So why start with an iPhone app?  And why with a mobile app at all when our Web 0.5-era city website desperately needs a refresher?

Before we move on to more detail, let me be blunt about this app’s most critical shortcoming: it’s not really a travel guide. The travel guide’s raison d’être, like a good travel essay or photo spread, is to excite the imagination. But our app instead dons a business suit: the palate is dark, the sans-serif type and design are stuffy, and attractions are presented like an itemized list with no context. For a city so attentive to branding, shouldn’t this app just sing Beverly Hills?

Appearance & Architecture

Let’s look at what the app does do. It provides a list of City Hall phone ‘contacts,’ provides basic information about city parks, events, public art, and (of course) parking garages. It lets you take and store pictures.* It even lets you check-in at your location using Facebook (login is required, so that feature was not tested). One of the more helpful features is the bookmarking tool that lets you browse and save for later the attractions to (re)visit.

Visit Beverly Hills iPhone App home screen
The Home screen.

The home screen is the main menu (at right), a minimal and unimaginative gateway to the virtual Beverly Hills. Where is the personality of Beverly Hills in this screen? Where is the excitement of the travel experience anywhere in this app?

Beginning with the Contacts tab, the app puts a phone directory at your fingertips with at-a-touch dialing (courtesy of the iOS). That’s handy as far as it goes, but ‘contacts’ is misleading: there are no individuals associated with the generic department names and numbers on offer. Interactivity with City Hall is not this app’s strong suit. (Another mobile service app called Ask Bev aims to fill that need.)

The Beverly Hills app also is helpful in other practical ways. The  City Facilities tab provides basic descriptive information on Public Works, Police and Fire and other city assets. But this will likely be of little interest to the visitor, and besides, there’s hardly enough info to make them useful even to a local. Indeed the same information is repeated for the three Fire Department stations. The City Hall entry provides more contextual information but, like every other entry except Greystone, it includes only one thumbnail image (which can’t be stretched). That’s a missed opportunity to provide a rich virtual tour of our most interesting civic monument.

An additional Bookmarks tab on the main screen provides access attractions saved for later reference. Then there is the curious Terms & Conditions tab. Why waste home screen space on it? Can’t it be put somewhere else? And why make it an icon at the bottom of every attractions screen too?  Better to bury the Terms link and put a Bookmarks icon in the main screen dock.

Visit Beverly Hills iPhone App places screen
The Places screen. ‘Public Parking’ is not shown.

Of the five menu items, Places tab will be the popular choice as it’s the gateway to content including events & attractions, parks, public art and…public parking. Public parking? Shouldn’t city garages be accessed via the facilities tab? The Public Parking tab does provide useful information including locations, hours, charges, and helpfully pins them in on a Google map. But private parking options are not included and (as noted) we’re awaiting inclusion of bike parking one day. Whatever the value of the parking tab, it simply doesn’t belong in an attractions section. (A cynic would suggest making the parking tab the home screen given Beverly Hill’s attachment to motoring.)

Inside Places we find other tabs for City Facilities, Events & Attractions, Parks, and Public Art, but a tap won’t open Places tabs. Instead a tap merely highlights one or more categories; the visitor then chooses to list or map the contents. The benefit of the two-tap is listing or mapping multiple categories; the drawback of course is that a second tap is required to reveal the entries in a category. And why provide a map icon here? There already exists the ability to generate a map from an entries list, so why not just make the categories tabs one-touch and then allow the user to then map the entries from inside the category? Another petty gripe is that when viewing a single entry, the map icon is not available; to map it one has to tap on the actual address.