The pros and cons of building location-aware mobile applications

Sure, a car navigation application needs to know a user’s location, but do all mobile applications really need to know location? Location services are now easily available on smartphones, and there is an increasing trend in applications wishing to get this information and use it in the mobile app, supposedly to provide an engaging user experience. However, capturing location has data and battery costs associated with it. So let us reflect on whether an application should really be designed in a location-aware manner.

Location aware mobile apps

To start with, here are some applications that use location information: Google Street View, Nearbuy, GasBuddy, Checkmark, Find My iPhone. And there are many more available on the app stores. Following are the main considerations that developers should question before they put that location application programming interface (API) into their next app.

Value for the user

Some users definitely see location as private information. So unless users are getting value from sharing this information, they may not be willing to share. Moreover, the value needs to be explicit enough, which at times would depend on the accuracy and granularity of the location derived in the context of the app. Unless the users are convinced of the value they derive by sharing their location, the application may not take off.

Value to the business

A large number of applications, especially in the retail and healthcare industries, wish to capture user location to understand their customers better and therefore to provide more personalized services. However, the benefit to the business that is developing the application is often clear: a retail store would know the footfall pattern; an airline would know where its passengers are stuck; a hospital would know where the maximum queue or delay is. However, unless the business is geared to use this location information and analyze the data, it may not make sense to get such sensitive information from the user. Therefore the business should be well prepared to digest the location information and use it for improving its customer experience or sales.

A backup plan

Location may not always be available. Some users may download the location-aware app but opt out of providing location information. If the application derives location from GPS, then the GPS may not be available indoors. Therefore the application should have a backup plan for instances where the location is not available so that it can still handle the user interaction in a graceful manner. If the application is built such that location is critical (such as a navigation system), then the application can perhaps save the last available location and use it.

The cost

Location aware

Often location of the user’s phone also needs to be transmitted to a server infrastructure that makes sense of this data. This would involve data costs, which the user would often have to bear. Additionally, if the location is being derived through GPS, this has a significant battery drain on the user’s phone. The user may not realize that the battery drain is through continuous capture of GPS and may label the application as one that drains a lot of battery. Therefore, before you build the application you need to ensure that it is ready to pay for the costs and resources that it would utilize from the phone.

Despite all these warnings, if you still think that your application deserves to be location-aware, there are several solutions that can help you capture and use location in a mobile application, both indoors and outdoors.

But perhaps your scenario may be different from the ones listed here. Do you have any other considerations to add that can help a mobile developer decide on whether to go the location-aware way or not? I’d love to hear new considerations. Connect with me on Twitter @nitendrar.

Written By

Nitendra Rajput

Senior Researcher & Research Manager at IBM India Research Lab

Nitendra Rajput defines and leads the MobileFirst agenda for IBM Research in India. His group invests in developing research technologies that can add value and help differentiate the IBM Mobile portfolio, be it a product, a service or an industry specific solution. In 2014, he has…