Reviews on the Google Play store since the release of London Bus Pal 4 has been disappointing (it has only been four days since release, but the reviews have been generally negative). At least it feels that way!
I have been moping around all day and I have lost all motivation to improve things.
Six reviews in and my average is 2.5 stars – the last six reviews of version 3.2.11 average 4.67 stars. Bad reviews really hit me hard, because I spend a lot of time thinking about my users and what they would want. I am constantly told by my advertising provider that I can make so much more money with interstitial ads, but I refuse, because I would never want to annoy a user.
As I am full-time employed, I can only work on my app in my free time. This takes quite a lot of energy at times, especially if all I want to do is take some time out. But when users are facing issues, I want to fix it for them.
There is also an unfortunate problem with the rating system. As it stands, anything which is not a 5 star rating, takes my average down. I don’t necessarily agree that every rating should be 5 stars, but I always think about what those 4 star ratings are doing to my average. That said, I am thankful for those 4 star ratings!
Because of the large number of apps on the Google Play store which are
of poor quality or just plainly unusable, I feel that giving me a 1 star
review is comparing me to those publishers.
How do I rate other apps?
Given that we only have 5 stars to play with, there isn’t too much scope to play with, so the difference between poor quality apps and good apps is quite small. Here is my baseline for rating apps:
1 star – the app does not do what it is meant to do
2 stars – the app is clearly missing much functionality or bugs / poor usability get in the way of full use
3 stars – the app does most of what it is meant to do, but with some missing functionality or poor usability hindering use
4 stars – the app does what it is meant to do but for whatever reason I couldn’t give it 5 stars (usually a crash or frustrating usability)
5 stars – the app does exactly what I want it to do
Those are my baselines and I would then subtract stars for negative issues such as crashing, excessive battery usage, unneccessary permission requests, excessive advertising or deceptive practices.
As I’ve just published a fourth major revision of my app, I thought I would relive the history of the app just to see how far it’s come:
Version 1 – the prototype
This version was first published on 6 September 2013, version 1.0.1 (incorrectly numbered 1.01) followed 2 hours later and version 1.0.2 followed 2 days later.
Opening version 1 with no nearby stops (as I no longer live in London) just shows a blank screen. I see no options and I clearly deployed a version with no ads enabled!
Version 1.1.7 was the final instalment of version 1 and went live on 28 December 2013. When I now open the app, I see an error (as I am not anywhere near London), but it is quite generic and could really be anything.
Improvements I can see is a loading indicator, the search bar looks much better and a new map icon which appeared. The map views have always annoyed me as I haven’t given it too much attention. Something else which is quite obvious is that the lines are not high enough for a touch device.
Version 2 – going native
The first release of version 2 was in October 2014. I rewrote the entire app to get rid of Google Web Toolkit and all the callbacks between basically a front-end and back-end.
Opening version 2.0.0, it looks very much like a minor change from version 1.1.7 (except I know it was a substantial change!). The one thing which is obvious is that the listview tiles have become even tighter.
Fast forwarding to version 2.1.3, the list view is still very “tight”. The changes I can see from version 2.0.0 are: I can now search for specific bus stops by name and we now have some settings. In the settings I can see that by this time I changed my implementation to allow more granular view of nearby buses (showing in 15 seconds intervals rather than seeing “due” for 90 seconds, which can feel like forever if you are waiting for a bus!).
Version 3 – material design
Version 3.0.0 was released only a week after 2.1.3, but I had been working on it for quite some time. This version was all about material design and it was fairly cutting edge, as material design was only announced in June of the previous year. The design hasn’t changed too much since this release – apart from a styling change for dialogs. The main design has remained fairly similar since. In the back, there were a fairly large amount of moving parts, but most of this would have been invisible to users.
The next notable update was in May 2018 with GDPR coming around. With 3 days to spare, I put out the GDPR release on 22 May. This caused so many headaches that I had to try again several times to the point where I actually started over and finally released the last version on 7 June 2018.
Version 4 – Flutter and iOS
At work, a colleague told me about Flutter and I decided to investigate. Having looked at it, it seemed to be a really easy implementation of material design and there was the added bonus of being able to also build apps for iOS. I’ve had some requests to also make my app for iOS, but I didn’t want to end up having to maintain two code bases, the only way I would do that is if I ended up with a single code bases. I had considered many times if I should go back to my version 1 design to facilitate this. Early in November, I installed Flutter. It was a slow start, but I gained speed and confidence really quickly that I was using the right technology.
On 16 December, I published version 4.0.0 of London Bus Pal. Not as an Android app, but as an Apple app. I wanted to try the Apple deployment process and see if I missed anything major. And I was still missing map views, so I decided to soft launch on Apple and Android would follow once I had map views in place. Finally on 26 December, I launched version 4.0.3 on Android. Being another rewrite, it is quite nerve wracking, because things which were previously fixed or just stable, might not work. I have seen a few small issues, but not being used to the new error reporting software, I don’t always know if my users can see all of the errors.
Well, for now I’m going to focus on stabilising version 4 of London Bus Pal. The way it has been designed now, means that it should be quite easy to add new features. But I might just leave it alone, because I have a steady following of users.
May 2018 has been a really long and frustrating month in terms of updates to London Bus Pal. I would never have imagined just how much effort I would need to put into my app when I thought that I was free from any GDPR requirements.
I was on holiday and I saw some emails from Google and then also saw an article on The Register (https://www.theregister.co.uk/2018/05/10/google_gdpr_consent_klaxon/) which pretty much made it clear that I would have to do something. Upon return from my holiday, I immediately got on the internet and started reading all kinds of horror stories of people building entire consent databases and having to come up with really intricate ways to obtain and store consent. It felt like it was overkill and like it was completely against what I thought the spririt of GDPR was (less data, not more!). The panic started to set in as it seemed like this was a much bigger beast than I had anticipated and I started studying the regulation itself, rather than just reading blogs based on third-hand information. At least it turned out that I was right and that GDPR was meant to limit and reduce the amount of data we process, not process more data because of it.
After reading the regulation and no consent SDK being available yet from Google, I decided to build my own pages to manage this in the app. I settled on the following requirements:
Location permission – I already had to obtain these due to Android requirements and my app works fine without it. I decided to still build a screen to tell users about it and that they can revoke permissions if they want.
Ads – this was the main reason I built this, because it felt like Google was willing to stop us from using AdMob if we did not do something to gain consent. To be honest, I understand where they are coming from as they would be held responsible if they didn’t insist on us doing something. The consent isn’t to consent to ads or not, it was basically to use personal data to personalise ads or not. More on this later!
Crash reporting – as I didn’t consider capturing crash reports as a legitimate enough reason to keep my app going, I decided that I had to gain consent to store crash reports.
There is very little else that I do with data – I just take a location or bus route or bus stop request, get the relevant data and show it back to the user. I really have no interest in obtaining data I don’t need.
So I built my GDPR consent screens and I ran into a bit of trouble. My crash reporting and analytics tools are bundled together really. If I switch one off, I have to switch both off. I then decided to change the wording for crash reporting to something along the lines of tracking expected and unexpected behaviour (the former being analytics and the latter being crash reporting). I had some issues with the analytics, so I then had to go and find each use and check if I could use it or not before posting something as I didn’t use standard methods everywhere.
Due to the GDPR consent screens being one of the first screens and having to test with different permutations, I decided to just do some manual testing instead of expanding (and fixing) my automated tests.
I changed my AdMob settings to select my own technology providers and I published version 3.2.6 on Wednesday morning, two days before GDPR was due. Things sort of looked normal, my ad revenue seemed unaffected and even though I could see a bit of a drop in users reported through my analytics tool, the users who still opted to keep crash reporting and analytics on, still had a 100% stability rate.
Over the next two days I noticed some 1-star reviews, two of them were removed before I could get to them and it just looked like someone trolling the updated GDPR screens. But there were some legitimate ones too and I started to investigate. I noticed on the Play Store that my app stability had decreased since the GDPR release and I found some specific pieces of code I missed! If someone had chosen to turn off analytics, I still had some instances where I was trying to track events and it would crash the app. I asked the users to contact me to give me more detail to help my investigation.
Rushing to get a fix out, I made sure I found all of the uses, fixed it and I released version 3.2.7 on Saturday morning. I received another 1-star review saying that the app was broken – this review was left for version 3.2.7 and I also received an email from one of my users who confirmed the same. Frustrated, I decided to take the nuclear option and remove all of my GDPR updates (by reverting the code back to version 3.2.5) and then just serving non-personalised ads.
I have now scrapped the idea of requesting consent for crash reporting and analytics since I believe that this is actually crucial information for the app to work based on the nightmare I had. I was trying to stick to the “letter of the law”, rather than the spirit of the regulation. The data I am collecting does not contain enough information to personally identify anyone and I’m happy to have it go under scrutiny.
Today I watched as my revenues plummeted. This is either due to only serving non-personalised ads or the fact that it’s a bank holiday in the UK. It’s probably a combination of both – I can see my click-through ratio has gone down and so has my CPC. So I made another attempt at implementing a quick consent request so that I can at least get personalised ads back on for some of my users.
Effectively, all of the work I have done to implement GDPR in version 3.2.6 and 3.2.7 had to be undone and I started from scratch. This time also, I have taken a softer approach and just made it a pop-up where you can choose Yes, No or Later – similar to my rating pop-up. (I still used all of the saved consents from version 3.2.6 and 3.2.7 if it worked, so at least people won’t be annoyed with more pop-ups!).
I’m going to package version 3.2.9 now and publish it to all the app stores. I am hoping that this is the final version for GDPR and that I can finally get onto other things. If you are a user who was impacted by my GDPR disaster, I can only apologise!!!
I was hoping to get this out there quicker, but rather late then never!
This week I added some map views of all the data to London Bus Pal. There are four “distinct” views of data in the application, but only three maps are interesting (seeing a single bus stop isn’t the most interesting view!).
If you switch to the map view from a list with multiple bus stops on, you will get a view similar to this. It shows you markers of all the stops near you with their “letter” indicators on, it there are any. This is a really useful view to see any bus stops in the area or near somewhere else you might be going (try searching by post code). Tapping any of the markers will give you the name of the stops and where it goes – if you tap on the information box that appears, you will then be taken to the screen to see the estimated arrival times for all buses serving that stop.
Bus prediction view
The next view that is possible is one showing you a list of all stops for any specific bus over the next 30 minutes and the number on the marker indicates how many minutes the bus is expected to take to get there.
Bus route view
The last view I want to show you, is the bus route view. This is a calculated route based on all buses for that route over the next 30 minutes showing their stops. Red markers indicate one direction and blue markers indicate another direction. The pins are also arranged so that you can get an idea of which way the bus is going (I will add some arrows soon!)
If you don’t have London Bus Pal yet, you can download it from the Google Play Store: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.mulder.buspal
My first Android application was launched on 6 September 2013. It’s called London Bus Pal.
I’ve had the idea for quite some time, but just never got around to doing it. Finally, over the summer, I sat down and gave it a go.
The idea was for a bus time predication application which you could just open and it would know what you were looking for without complicated set ups. It should just load it up and it show you what’s nearby.
I went off and built much of the application which can be seen today. You could see all stops near you and then drill through items to see specific buses, stops and even routes (the route functionality only came later).
One issue I had, which took a while to sort out, was that the way in which I calculated distance, did not take into account roads, so in my case at home, my nearest bus stop, wasn’t the quickest one to walk to. So I decided to calculate the walking route for each stop near me and then show the closest ones to me in that way. Unfortunately, this ended up being a really slow process and I actually had to remove this feature. It was definitely going to add to the cool factor for this application, but sometimes you just have to make a call and say, it’s not worth it!
So what did we end up with:
Stops near me – when you open the application or tap on the home button, the application tries to find your location and shows you all the bus stops in the area with all of their arrival times in the next 30 minutes. (This does not work if your location could not be determined – there are many reasons for this). You can expand and collapse all the stops and if you tap on a bus, you get taken to the bus view (see below).
Specific bus view – when you tap on a bus in the stops near me or bus stop view, you get taken to the specific bus view which will show you the route details and bus registration number at the top. You then get a view of the expected time of arrival at all the stops for the next 30 minutes. This is a useful view for me to keep open and refresh from time to time once I am on the bus, just to check progress. (A slightly hidden feature is when you see a bit of a thicker line between two stops – this means that the bus changed direction between these stops and it will be heading back to where it came from).
Bus stop view – this is similar to the stops near me view, except you only see a single bus stop. It simply shows you the next buses for any stops for the next 30 minutes.
Bus route view – this is a fairly unique view which I haven’t seen available on many other applications. First, to access it, tap on the bus route details on the top of the specific bus view or enter a route number in search. This gives you an overview of all the stops on the route, in route order and it shows you when the next bus is due at each of the stops. It’s quick to see if there is a gap in the service anywhere between stops using this view!
Search functionality – this acts as a “short-cut” to many of the views mentioned above. By entering a post code, or GPS co-ordinates, you will get the stops near me view (but for the entered location), enter a bus stop number (which you can see on the side of the bus stop) for the bus stop view of that bus, enter a bus route number for the bus route view and enter the bus registration number to find a specific bus (I have to point out that this does not work on customised number plates and I believe that some of the New Buses for London have custom number plates).
I decided to stick with this core feature set for now and get the application out there. There are still many features which I think would make the application truly great, but these will have to wait a while as I only have ten fingers to type with! As it stands, the feature set is very usable and I use this application constantly and very seldom use any of my competitor applications.
Some of the features I will be working on in the coming weeks and months include (if you are reading this in the future, be sure to check out the latest feature set of the application as this would hopefully not always be work in progress):
Bus stop notifications – sometimes TfL puts out alerts or notifications for specific bus stops or routes. London Bus Pal doesn’t currently display these, so it’s difficult to know if there are any issues affecting your local stop.
Map view – being able to see bus stops on a map, especially for the stops near me feature would really add great value to the application. Sometimes I am also on a bus and I wonder if I could get off early or I am just on a strange route and I want to see which stop I should use. Being able to see that on a map would be a lifesaver!
Strip-maps (maybe) – this would just be a cool feature to have – to see buses on a strip map. I’ve got some really cool ideas for this.
Bookmarks or favourites – most applications have this and they tend to be useful. We all have our favourite stops and it’s always great to have these ready. Hopefully the “stops near me” facility partly fulfils the requirement for this feature until it is actually implemented.