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.