Beta testing an iPhone app – RunKeeper

RunKeeper

I recently got a chance to be a beta tester for an iPhone application. Specifically it was for an updated version of the RunKeeper Pro application. (iTunes link) This application will track your speed and distance for a particular activity (walking, running, cycling, etc) and then plot your course on a google map for you to look at and share with others (if you like). They even have integration with Twitter so you can tweet your results!

How did I get this chance? Read on for a bit of background before I talk about the experience.

Back around the middle of January, I noticed a tweet by iphoneincanada saying that for one day only the RunKeeper Pro application for the iPhone was free. (As a side note, I read later that the reason it was free for a day had something to do with being able to introduce two versions (free/paid) but allow existing customers access to the ‘Pro’ version for no charge – some shortcoming of the iPhone App Store I think) Anyway, with me being such a fan of free stuff, I decided to download the RunKeeper Pro version for free, just in case I’d ever want to use it. I remember thinking at the time that I couldn’t see myself ‘lugging’ my iPhone with me on runs, it just seemed too bulky. This is kind of funny when you consider I used to drag my Garmin eTrex Legend along with me on some runs just to be able to get a GPS track of the run, but maybe not as funny when you consider I had been using an iPod shuffle on my runs in the not too distant past.

Anyway, the app sat there on my iPhone for quite a while – I didn’t even fire it up to have a look at it. I don’t remember what prompted me, but one day on one of my lunchtime runs I decided to bring my iPhone along and try the application out. We got outside and in view of the sky and I started up the application. It seemed to be taking quite a while to acquire my position so we decided to just start running (it was damn cold that day and standing still waiting for the phone to figure out where I was didn’t seem like a good idea at the time) and once I noticed it had a signal, I’d start the timer. Unfortunately I had turned off my cell radio before the run, thinking that would save battery, without thinking about the fact that the GPS receiver in the iPhone is an A-GPS receiver. D’oh! A short way into the run, after realizing why it wasn’t finding me, I switched the cell radio back on and re-started the RunKeeper application. It found me right away and I stuck the phone in my jacket pocket for the rest of the run. Obviously I didn’t capture my whole run, but I was still able to look at what data was captured and how it was presented. You can have a look here for results from that first run.

After a couple more runs, I decided that I had enough user experience that I might have some useful feedback. I sent a message to the RunKeeper twitter account asking how I could supply some feedback to them. I immediately was told that I could send it by email, post in their forums, or even just through twitter. Since I tend to be somewhat long winded (notice the length of this post), I opted to go the email route. I sent off an email to Jason Jacobs, the man behind RunKeeper, giving my feedback. I quickly got an email back thanking me for my feedback and basically telling me that they were either already considering or in the middle of implementing nearly everything I had mentioned. Cool! I considered this reply email as a green light to continue sending feedback to them as I continued to use the application. It was after my second, or perhaps third, email that Jason asked me if I’d like to be a beta tester for the updated version of RunKeeper that they were working on. I jumped at the chance! Not only would I get to try out the new version of the app, but it was added motivation to make sure I was keeping up with my running – something that isn’t always easy in the dead of winter in Canada.

This new version, which has since been released to the App Store, added in audio cues to the application. You could set it up to talk to you every 5 minutes, or every km / mile. In addition, you can tap the screen to get all the vital stats of your run at any time – things like elapsed time, elapsed distance, and speed/pace. Overall, I think it was a great improvement to the application and I was happy to be able to try it out first and give my feedback. Hopefully the little bit of ‘work’ I’ve done for them will offset the fact that I didn’t actually pay for the PRO version of the app. :)

I’ve been super impressed with how RunKeeper is engaging with its user community and their availability for customer support. Granted that is easier when you are small and your number of users is small, but I have a feeling these guys are going to do their best to keep up this level of communication as their user base grows. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this application to anyone who is looking for a GPS tracking application for outdoor activities. (I’m really looking forward to using this more when cycling season arrives up here) They even have a free version that is identical to the pro version, except that it has ads. I believe the plan is to add more features that will be ‘pro-only’ as time goes on and I think the audio cues features was the first of these, but I’m not 100% on that.

To the folks at RunKeeper – thanks again for including me in your beta testing group and please consider me for future beta testing as well. :)


Just for completeness and interest’s sake, here is the list of features / feedback that I’ve provided to RunKeeper so far:

1) Re: Elevation shown on website – is this info available from google maps? Seems that would be much more reliable than using the altitude that you’d get from the GPS on the iPhone. The elevation profiles for my runs have been a bit crazy. The reason I’m thinking the data is available from google is because you can get elevation when using this site: http://gmap-pedometer.com

Compare the elevation given here with the elevation from RunKeeper: http://bit.ly/NBLu0

2) When looking at a map on the RunKeeper site, you can move your mouse along the speed and elevation profile and it’ll tell you what values are at particular points. Would it be possible to also show on the map where that point corresponds to? That would be very cool! This has been implemented by the RunKeeper team – well done!

3) some sort of Heart Rate monitor module that you could plug into the bottom of the iPhone would be very cool – preferably something that would work with Polar chest straps.

4) A way of having the app set up the phone in a particular ‘profile’ (turning off wifi, turning on GPS, etc) so you don’t have to. Don’t believe this is possible through current SDK.

5) for a ‘hands free’ experience, could you have it give you vital stats (time, distance, current or perhaps average pace over last km) when it updates you every km?

6) How about live updating of maps on RunKeeper.com – this would be especially cool for races – my friends and family could track me when I’m running a race and see how I’m doing in real time.

7) Option to tweet updates during a run. This would be very similar to what I had suggested previously with a dynamic map, but VERY easy to implement, particularly if you are already updating the site on the fly. Just put in an option in the app to say ‘tweet during run’ and then just tweet updates during the run (race).

8) Along the same vein, and this would go hand in hand with ‘live maps’ – for each km, after you’ve gotten your audio update from the app, enable the mic and allow me to record a short (5 to 10 seconds maybe) message that would be uploaded and attached to each km marker on the map. Again – this would be really cool for races.

9) How about a section on the live map webpage (see above #6) that allows you to send a message back to the person. The application on the phone would either read it to you, or else just beep and display it. A poor man’s way of doing that would be to send a SMS to the phone.

10) fade out the music (drop the volume a bit) if iPod is playing when audio updates are being given by the application

11) audible low battery warning. Not really sure how much use it would be (not sure what could be done to conserve battery once you got it) but still…

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