First a disclaimer. I’ve something of a vested interest in this app, as a graduate of computer science at St Andrews, before I switched to history and picked up three more degrees. I really like the idea of St Andrews computer scientists and historians working together to provide this resource. And I like that it’s free.
My husband – also a computer science graduate from St Andrews – and I attended the app launch in November 2014, where we got to try out the app on Android tablets provided on the day. We’ve been keen to try it out properly ever since, so as soon as it was available for iOS I downloaded it to my iPad to try.
Unfortunately I have run into a lot of usability issues, which I’m going to detail below. But I want to stress that I think the content of the app is superb, the underlying historical resources which it aims to provide access to. For 22 sites in the town each one has a summary description, with a relevant portion of the Geddy map of the town from circa 1580, and typically additional resources like photos (modern, historical and virtual reconstruction), videos and audio files.
I particularly like where modern and virtual overlap in the app, as in the screen shot below, from the entry for the church formerly above St Andrews harbour.
The app also has a modern digital map of the town, with its historic sites indicated, providing alternative access to sites of interest. And a section for guided tours, just one tour at the moment, but expect more to be added in future
But the implementation of the app and its user interface proved to be a stumbling block for me, and it’s only fair that I detail the issues, not least to help the app creators improve things. I was testing it on my iPad. However my husband and I also noticed many problems in our brief try out on an Android tablet at the app launch. Particularly how slow the app is to use, probably due to it constantly needing to download information to show the user, an inconsistent user interface design, and troublesome bugs cropping up. However what I’m writing below focuses on my experience with my iPad, an iPad Air 128GB 3G + WiFi model running iOS 8.1.2. I was using the Mediaeval St Andrews App version 1 for iOS.
The first major issue, and it’s a design issue, is that the app requires a permanent online connection. If it’s started with no network connection the screen goes blank and gets stuck in that state. Started with a network though, and all is well. As a long-time user of iOS apps I’m used to offline working, and apps installing everything they need. In practice it’s likely that the amount of data in this case is very substantial, so having an 8MB core app, as it is for iOS, and downloading everything else is appealing. But it won’t always work well. For example I could take the app on my iPod touch to St Andrews, but couldn’t use it as a reference tool without Internet – the iPod touch relies on WiFi, and is not a smartphone. Likewise my Dad has a WiFi only iPad mini, which he wants to use the app on. He can from home, but not elsewhere, including on visits to St Andrews. The constant need for downloading data also makes the app, as we noticed on Android on launch day, often seem sluggish to use, as the user waits for more data to download. And even with a smartphone I wonder how good constant downloading is in terms of data use, especially for larger resources like videos.
On the subject of videos, many of the sites in the app have these linked to them. But the videos would not play reliably for me on my iPad. At the first attempt, and even after rebooting my iPad, they would not play at all. They’d start to download, with a download spinning animation, but the videos wouldn’t play at all. Well apart from any linked sound, as in the Katie Stevenson narrated St Andrews Castle video. The sound started as soon as the spinning animation started, indicating downloading. But no pictures would appear. Fortunately a later attempt did get the videos to work, in a window in the centre of the screen, but I don’t know what was different this time, certainly nothing I was aware of having changed.
An irritating issue when viewing linked photos for sites is that the user interface changes when you view a photo. Normally there’s a back button you tap to go back to the previous screen. To get the same effect when viewing an image, and to close it to return to the previous screen, there’s no back button, but instead you have to look for and tap a small x cross at the bottom left of the screen to close things. I found this very unintuitive and have not got the hang of it.
I ran into other issues. For example the in-app map won’t appear at all if location services are turned off. I don’t normally give iPad apps location services access, and since I don’t have a smartphone I’m unlikely to be carrying this app around as I walk. But turning location services on, even for me located at a distance in Dundee, and suddenly the map worked. I also repeatedly ran into a nasty bug – which I cannot replicate reliably unfortunately to help get it fixed – where I’d be looking at a site’s core listing, complete with Geddy map portion, and suddenly the right half of the screen would go white, and then as I tried to navigate to other sections text would overlay my screen in a very unreadable manner. I also sometimes found the categorisation of linked photos confusing, particularly photos incorporating both virtual reconstructions and modern views, which weren’t categorised as virtual images. But that may be a personal thing for me.
This all sounds very negative, but I can’t stress enough that the underlying content is superb. I’d like to see these user interface issues ironed out, at least the easier ones. Change the photo back interface to use the standard everywhere else back button rather than that confusing cross, fix the app so it at least acts elegantly if started without network connection, and check the videos to see if there might be a bug in there re playing them. It’s probably also a good idea to get the map working with location services turned off. Likewise I’d recommend considering the feasibility of providing an offline version of the app, but don’t know how much data that would take up. Perhaps it might be possible to store the core content for example, such as the core site entry pages, which might speed things up in many places, not least loading up each site initially. But if the app must be used in always online mode, then that should be made clear in the App Store description for people to read before downloading and trying to use it.
At the moment I can’t rate the app higher than 4/10 for implementation and 9/10 for content, giving 6.5/10 if averaged. But I feel that it has much potential, if only some implementation issues could be ironed out in the next version.