Liz Gannes

Recent Posts by Liz Gannes

Notifications as a Platform: Google’s New Field Trip App Pushes Fun Local Facts

Google today rolled out Field Trip, a new app made by an internal incubator run by John Hanke, one of the creators of Google Earth.

The app interrupts mobile users in the course of their daily lives with interesting recommendations and history about places near them.

What I find particularly interesting about Field Trip — which, it should be said, just came out today, and is for U.S. Android phone users — is that it relies on mobile push notifications as the main way to get information to its users.

It’s extremely hard to get people to make a habit of going to a brand-new destination Web site, or opening an app every day.

And it’s something Google has not had much of a knack for at all, despite its massive existing audience. For instance, the Google Local team had previously created offshoot local recommendation service Hotpot, which was shut down, and there were a bunch of one-off social apps that came out of Slide before the acquisition was fully absorbed into Google. Meanwhile, Google’s best products continue to be broad utilities.

So into that context comes Field Trip, an app made by a team of about 40 people, led by Hanke, who does have a great history of building stuff that’s both useful and fun.

Using notifications as the main way to deliver information — with the option to hear entries via audio, rather than read them on the small screen — could be a way to break out of the new-app rut.

How it works, basically: When you’re in a new place, Field Trip connects the location with a bit of relevant info, so it buzzes your phone and pops up a short message: “Hey! Did you know …”

“It’s really nice for the user, because they don’t have to actively go into their mobile phone and ask for the information,” said Google’s Yennie Solheim, who leads business development for the team and helped secure partner content from Thrillist, Cool Hunting, Atlas Obscura, Songkick and others. (There’s no user-generated content in the app, only publisher partners and Google’s own Zagat.)

But, of course, there’s a downside to notifications. They’re highly interruptive, and if users get bothered more than they want (ahem, Path), they’ll turn notifications off entirely and resent the app.

Solheim said Field Trip will deal with this problem by allowing users to choose how much information they want to get — “Explorer Mode” is for a new city, and will be hyperactive; “I’m feeling lucky” will be more sparing and serendipitous; or users can turn notifications off. They can also subscribe to specific topics, like architecture, food and obscure places of interest. So, if they’re feeling overwhelmed by notifications … well, they asked for it.

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I think the NSA has a job to do and we need the NSA. But as (physicist) Robert Oppenheimer said, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”

— Phil Zimmerman, PGP inventor and Silent Circle co-founder, in an interview with Om Malik