When award-winning agency We Make Awesome Sh. decided to turn its hand to its first self-funded app, there was only one way to go.
With the team sharing a passion for skiing and snowboarding, and a serious gap on the slopes for a fun yet useful tracking and challenge app, Snowbuddy was born. WMAS is certainly no stranger to creating engaging apps - as its work for Calvin Harris and Tinie Tempah proves. But being an in-house project, Snowbuddy was a different proposition - one that was built out around experience, passion and camaraderie.
Available for iOS and Android, and quickly gaining users and accolades, snowbuddy is not your standard tracking app. As well as showing your speed, location and distance, it brings unique challenges to the slopes, all with the trademark WMAS humour and personality in an ice-cool, slick UI.
For instance, do you dare to ride topless for a whole run? If you do you'll get 200 points. If you wear a ridiculous onesie you'll get 100.
There's also challenges for the more accomplished skier or boarder, including the 'Truck Driver' in which you're instructed to 'Jump and grab both ski tips, as if you were driving a truck'. That'll get you a massive 1000 points. It all adds up to a social, fun app that aims to make your skiing or boarding experience as fun as possible.
If you're simply interested in tracking (speed, distance, calories) snowbuddy will do all of that as well, and thanks to Facebook integration and being able to 'Yodel' your location, you're never far from your buddies on the slopes.
All of this data is presented in a unique graphic interface, with your own 'snowbuddy' in the form of the app's mascot, Cristof there to offer a friendly wink every now and then. Cristof is very cleverly designed with the default speedometer value of 0.0 as a pair of eyes and a ski/snowboard as his mouth.
We caught up with WMAS to look at the design decisions and technical challenges behind creating the app. Taking lead on design was Rob Hampson, 'Crayola Operator' at the agency. "We knew from the start the we wanted the UI to be clean, super simple and clear from clutter," he begins. "We iterated on the UI in code until we had something that achieved that. We also had to consider people using the app on the slopes and had to tweak the UI to suit this. For example, simple button actions with large touch areas."
He continues. "We experimented with look and feel, trying various design directions, but none of them seemed to quite work. Tom [Gibby] then discovered an illustration style online which we all liked. This inspiration was quickly worked into the app giving us the final look and feel. We also wanted to make sure the app had character. Tracking apps can often be quite dry and technical which we didn't necessarily want. For this reason, we spent time on adding some subtle details. For example, the background illustration of the app. If it snows in your resort, the mountains in the app will also receive some snow."
"We have been hugely pleased with how smooth the app is to use. We've even had a fair amount of people comment on how easy and smooth it is. And some people have even confused the app for a fully native app. It goes to show that web apps don't have to be as clunky as some people claim," he smiles. "The initial version of the back end of the system was using a custom built PHP based API and MySQL database. However the current version uses the Parse (parse.com) system to help with scaling it out to 100s of thousands of users."
Of course, there were more technical challenges - such as implementing tracking features when users are all over the slopes. "We are using geolocation to determine the location of the device," comments Lawrence. "Once we know the location of the device we can calculate the distance they've travelled, and thanks to our trusty GCSE physics, we can therefore obtain the speed of the person." The major issue with tracking has been due to poor GPS signal, but Lawrence states that the team are "constantly tweaking the speed algorithm to try and make the accuracy of the speed as accurate as possible even with poor GPS signal."
"An unforeseen issue with the tracking is also user education," continues Lawrence. "We are hugely aware that most people when abroad do not have data roaming turned on," adds Sophie Barfield, 'wannabe Shakespearean' at WMAS. "So we have made the app sync for full offline usage. However, some people seem to believe that GPS itself requires data roaming, so we have had to reassure people that the app does not require data roaming to operate."
One of the most unique, social and downright fun aspects of snowbuddy is - as we've touched on - the challenges.
"Most winter sports apps are more based on utility features, things like tracking your speed, distance, altitude, calorie counts and so on," begins 'chief chin stroker' Tom Gibby. "But as we were building our own winter sports app, we had the power to make it exactly how we, and people we spoke to, wanted to. And we know that people all round the world play silly and fun games with each other when they're cruising around the pistes with their friends. Things like spotting crazy onesies, dressing up in Santa outfits or superhero costumes, doing tricks and rails in the snowparks - so this became the starting point for adding a whole new dimension to snowbuddy, as well as making it inherently more fun and social."
The app fulfils its goal - something that enhances the experience of the WMAS team and indeed anyone who uses it on the slopes. As Paul King, 'hardware maniac' at WMAS finishes up, "It's great fun to be able to compare your core statistics with friends, challenge and smash your personal bests, or see exactly how much snow you've put under your planks after a big day on the piste."