I’ve just played with the official Android app  for the Royal Carribean cruise line . The cruise line is apparently great (I’ve never been on one of their ships but the reviews are good) but the Android app isn’t.
The most obvious and significant problem with this app is that it’s entirely useless without net access. All data of note comes from the Internet which means that the program is useless in any location where Internet access is unavailable (or unreasonably expensive). They wrote an app about cruising that can’t be used on a cruise ship! Did they even think about what they were doing?
The correct thing to do when writing such an application is to have all basic data about all ships included in the app. This means that when they change the deck plan of a ship they need to release a new version of the app and have people download it. Having done a lot of software development I understand that forcing software updates (even updates to included data files) involves some effort and expense. But when they spend $20,000,000 to update a ship (which is about the minimum that is spent for a major ship in dry-dock according to TV documentaries I’ve watched) it seems quite reasonable to budget $10,000 to release new software. Also one benefit of updating the software is that it can promote the changes, after spending tens of millions of dollars improving a ship they probably want to promote that to customers and pushing a new app update with adverts for the improved ship seems like a good way of doing that.
There is some data that can’t reasonably be included in the app due to size constraints with photos of ships being the most notable example. The solution to this is to provide an option for the user to cache the data that interests them. For example if I was meeting some people to discuss the possibility of a group cruise on a RCL ship then I could download all the pictures of that ship on my home Wifi network and then have them all available with no delay or 3G costs.
Also the app seems to hang if net access is temporarily interrupted. As phones are expected to have unreliable net access this is also a significant flaw.
The maps of the ships are comprised of a series of pictures which each show one deck. In addition to being downloaded (not cached or included in the app) they aren’t scalable (they should be SVG or at least allow zooming the high resolution pictures) and they don’t allow a 3D view. The paper maps used to promote cruises (including RCI cruises) and which are given to all passengers on Princess cruises (I’m not sure about other lines) show a side cutaway view of the ship which is handy for working out which things are near where you are. It seems that an ideal cruise ship mapping program would have some sort of 3D component, maybe X3D.
My experience is that a two night cruise isn’t long enough to become familiar with one of the smaller cruise ships. Using a map is essential and a smart phone is a good way of managing such a map as typical 2D paper maps just aren’t good enough for such a large and complex structure.
One of the significant things that is wrong with the app is a lack of care in displaying the photos of ships. They display three pictures of the Allure of the Seas (one of the two newest, biggest, and most luxurious ships in their fleet), but one of those three photos is actually of the Oasis of the Seas. The fact that the two ships are almost identical is no excuse, there is a principle at stake! Also only having three pictures is pretty poor, there is no way that less than 50 pictures could do justice to such a big ship!
A Google search for the words cruise and photos turns up many sites with pictures of cruise ships and it’s not particularly difficult to find pictures of any particular ship. Photographs by customers are often of high quality as some of the better DSLR cameras are in the same price range as some of the cheaper tickets for cruise ships. Probably the best thing that RCI could do is to run a contest and allow their customers to enter photos and vote towards the winning entries. That would get them photos that aren’t as sterile as the official photos and which include the things that are of most interest to customers.
Finally in terms of caching, pictures are the most easily cached source of data and as phones get higher resolution they keep getting bigger. The storage space for a modern phone is equivalent to the entire 3G download quota for about a year on an affordable Australian 3G plan. When dealing with photos downloaded from the net the default should be to cache everything.
Navigating a smart-phone app is a lot more difficult than navigating the same data on a desktop system (which would be in a web browser). Users can compensate for some deficiencies with web site organisation by using a large monitor and having several web browser windows with multiple tabs. But with a phone it should be possible to switch between things quickly.
The main menu has a “View Our Ships” option (which allows viewing deck plans and pictures) and a “View Our Staterooms” option which offers a list of ships and then describes the state rooms available for each one. This means that you can’t see all the information about a ship in one place and even worse you can’t easily compare ships. As it seems likely that people will want to use this app for selecting a cruise it should be possible to select a few ships that are of interest and then quickly flip between them. For example the Rhapsody of the Seas and the Voyager of the Seas are cruising in my part of the world so it would be nice if I could tell the app to compare those ships and then allow me to view a page about one ship and then flick to the equivalent page about the other ship.
Another notable problem is that the ships are listed in alphabetical order. The sensible thing to do is to list them by class going from biggest to smallest.
Lessons to be Learned
These problems aren’t specific to the RCI app, many other Android apps have the same flaws. For example the Google Play market app doesn’t cache the icons of the installed apps so every time I want to see a list of installed apps it goes slow and wastes some of my bandwidth. Doing something wrong in the same way as Google isn’t necessarily a great mistake, although using the Google Play market on a cruise ship is probably very uncommon.
Probably the biggest problem is a lack of testing. They should have sent the developers on a cruise as a live test. Every cruise ship has a sales desk for booking future cruises so it wouldn’t be difficult to have a dozen Android phones at the sales desk to see how real customers who really want to book a cruise find it. I presume that even if net access was available then such a test would fail dismally. If a 3D display of a ship combined with all the data management capabilities of a modern smart phone (which is a lot more powerful than the desktop systems I used prior to 2000) can’t at least be a useful supplement to a stack of paper brochures then it’s probably a failure.
I think that the RCI app is an example of how to make an Android app which doesn’t fall into the more common failings (such as being a quick and dirty port from iOS) but yet still isn’t useful to customers. I recommend that people who develop apps which have an objective of imparting information to users try it out as an example of what not to do. Try a few basic tasks like comparing the three biggest classes of RCI ships in terms of features, after failing to do that with the app you can then use Wikipedia to get the result. But don’t use the Wikipedia client apps, use a tabbed browser such as Opera Mini.