More on iPhone field guides

This was originally posted in response to a comment from Rik, but I decided to bump it up into a separate post because it got quite long. He said, in response to my post about the iPhone guide to British & Irish butterflies:

So in an ideal world you’d be able to take a photo of butterfly X, touch the screen of the photo to help the software identify where the butterfly is, then get it to phone up a butterfly database which could then send back details to the app of the most likely candidates so you can quickly read up about it.

And I replied:

Your point about ‘where the butterfly is’ is an interesting one: since the iPhone has GPS and knows what time of year it is, I suppose it could theoretically use that information to quickly suggest a list of the most likely species for that area at that time of year. Which would be neat.

There’s a kind of trade-off for field guides between quantity of information and ease of use, so a beginner is often better off with a guide that has fewer species and less information. Otherwise they spend a lot of time looking at species that are extremely unlikely and the process becomes needlessly difficult. Meanwhile the expert who has enough knowledge to sort through the information appreciates having all the detail and the obscure species.

If anything the iPhone potentially exaggerates the problem of having too much information because while there’s the possibility of including more information andmore pictures than in a traditional guide, it’s more difficult to skim through the possibilities than it would be in a book. So finding ways of narrowing down people’s choices, of guiding them through the data, may be one of the key challenges for field guide designers on mobile platforms.

To go back to the GPS example, just being able to quickly eliminate all the species that are not normally found within 100 miles of where you are would be a good start, so if you’re in Kent you’re not looking at species found only in the Scottish highlands. And that would be even more true for a guide that covered a larger area like Europe or the US: imagine how great it would be to have a guide that showed you Spanish butterflies when you were in Spain and Swedish butterflies when you were in Sweden.

‘Butterflies of Britain and Ireland’ on the iPhone

Having written a whole post the other day about how much I wanted field guides on the iPhone and was willing to pay good money for them, I was pleased to hear that a new field guide was available in the App Store: Butterflies of Britain and Ireland (iTunes store link).

It’s an interesting reflection on how much I expect to pay for iPhone apps that a price of £9.99 seemed quite a lot, especially since I just paid £13.49 for a field guide to the butterflies of Europe that I’ll probably use about twice a year at most. Perhaps it’s because I just ordered that book (which hasn’t arrived yet) that I slightly balked at buying another field guide to butterflies. They’re not my main interest, after all. Still, by any reasonable standards a tenner isn’t a lot of money.

I haven’t actually used it in the field yet, but here are my immediate impressions. On the positive side, the content is excellent: high quality and comprehensive. My slight reservations are to do with the app’s usability as a field guide. I’ll give you a quick tour of the way the guide works and then explain what I mean.

It opens with a list of butterflies, which can be sorted either taxonomically or alphabetically:

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This list doesn’t scroll quite as smoothly as it might, btw, but that’s a fairly trivial point. When you select a species, you get a screen like this:

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As well as illustrations of the adult butterflies, it also includes the eggs, caterpillars and cocoons, plus a selection of photographs, a distribution map, a calendar, and a text description for each species. Te arrows in the top-right corner move between species.

The illustrations are by the excellent Richard Lewington.

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You can flick from one picture to the next within a species, and zoom in on the illustrations or turn the phone to see them larger in landscape mode. In fact it behaves pretty much like the iPhone’s built-in Photos app, which is effectively what it is.

There are illustrations of male, female, upperside and underside, and sometimes variant forms. And here’s an example of a map:

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The text is also very thorough:

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As you can see, the content is really impressive: detailed, comprehensive and of high quality. I don’t have the expertise to judge the accuracy of the details, but it all appears to be very professional. Incidentally, I suppose one advantage of an electronic guide is that if people do spot any inaccuracies, they can be corrected via a software update.

But as I say, I don’t know how easy it would be to use as a field guide. If you were on a walk in the country, saw a butterfly and wanted to know what it was, it wouldn’t be that easy to quickly see what the possibilities are. There’s no easy way to compare the illustrations or information between two different species. Certainly you don’t have several illustrations on the same page in the way you would with a paper field guide, but also there’s no easy way to flick quickly back and forward between two or three species. You can’t skim through the information.

I don’t want to sound too negative: part of the problem is the fundamental limitations of the technology, particularly the size and resolution of the screen. And it’s still early days; I’m quite sure that over time developers will work out ways to make these apps more usable. The kind of key which is sometimes used for wildflowers, which uses a series of questions to help find the right species (is the stem smooth or hairy? are the leaves in pairs along the stem or alternating?) seems well suited to the iPhone, for example.

For this particular app I would ideally try to make the main screen for each species more informative at a glance: perhaps with a kind of summary screen showing two or three pictures of the adult butterflies — male and female or whatever is appropriate for that species — and a very rough distribution map. It would be a bit crowded and the pictures wouldn’t be very big, but it would be just enough information so you could quickly see whether you wanted to look in more detail or move on to another species. Then you could swipe the screen left to reveal the species screen as it is now, and drill down to find all the juicy details.

So the main species screen could look something like this (apologies for the clumsy mock-up):

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And then you swipe across, or hit a button or whatever, to get the species screen as it is now, with all the more detailed information.

Anyway, I don’t mean to be too picky; as much as anything I’m just thinking out loud because I find it interesting. And despite the pickyness, I’m really pleased to see a British field guide in the App Store, and pleased that it has such high quality content. Hopefully it’s the first of many.

iPhone field guides, please

I was interested to read Chris Clarke enthusing about iBird Explorer Plus, a field guide to North American birds for the iPhone, because it’s just about the first application I thought of when the phone was released. There doesn’t seem to be an equivalent piece of software for Europe yet, but hopefully it will come.

It also seems relevant to a discussion that has been rumbling on in various places (e.g. this post which I found via Daring Fireball) about pricing for iPhone applications, about whether all the crappy applications for a couple of dollars will crowd out better software and prevent people from paying a more serious price for them.

Well, I paid £17 (about $30 at the time) for this book, probably the best field guide ever written, and I would cheerfully pay the same again just to have exactly the same information available on my phone. I paid £35 for a 4 CD set of the bird songs and calls of Europe. And I bought an iPod Nano just so I could have those bird songs with me when I was birdwatching. For a really well-designed application for the iPhone that combined the information and illustrations from the Collins guide with added audio and photographic reference, I would pay £40 without thinking and would probably go higher.

And that’s despite the fact that I don’t think the iPhone is ever going to make an ideal field guide: the advantages like portability and multimedia will never quite compensate for the small screen size. For proper birding I would want the book as well. But to have that information with me at all times, I’d certainly pay good money. And why stop there? I also own field guides to British wild flowers, butterflies, moths, trees, fungi, and insects. Since I don’t want to break my back, I don’t normally carry them around with me; I would love to have iPhone versions of them.

The thing is, I have difficulty thinking of pure functionality that you could add to the iPhone that I would spend a lot of money on. I’m not saying it doesn’t exist, just that I don’t have the imgination to think what it is. But I would certainly pay for content.

Another example: amazing though Google Maps is, for walking in the UK, it’s no substitute for the appropriate Ordnance Survey map with all the footpaths and pubs marked on it. And while it would be nice to think that OS could sell digital versions of their maps slightly cheaper than the paper ones, I would pay the full price, grumbling a little, if I could. I paid £6 for a buggy version of the London Mini A-Z, so I guess I couldn’t complain about paying the same for an OS map. For a package that gave me coverage for the whole of, say, Sussex, Kent and Surrey at multiple resolutions, £50 or £60 wouldn’t seem like an unreasonable price.

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