The days of printing out directions from MapQuest are long gone in today's mobile world, but to the surprise of many, that hasn't been the fate for the mapping company. While Google and Apple duke it out on mobile, AOL-owned MapQuest has been sitting in third place, quietly building an iOS 7 app from scratch to show it's still in the game.
Across mobile and desktop, MapQuest sees more than 30 million unique views monthly, and the company touts that one in five American adults use its service once a month. In fact, in the brief period when Google Maps was missing from the iOS ecosystem, users frustrated with Apple Maps overwhelmingly chose MapQuest, which shot up as the No. 1 most downloaded navigation app the day the iPhone 5 went on sale.
Diving into its demographics, MapQuest realizes it has a niche audience. "The person we're really focused on is the soccer mom who's in her car with three kids in the backseat," head of product Nate Abbott told Fast Company. But he said the app "needed a lot of love," and it was rebuilt from the ground up to be fast and responsive.
One of the main focuses was simplifying the information presented with navigation. By default, traffic data is turned on and users are automatically given traffic-optimized routes. When giving directions, the app shows the move that follows the next, so drivers can prepare and move into certain lanes. A feature not found in other mapping apps, MapQuest has a progress bar, color coded for traffic. "What I find is I'm going 60 on the freeway, and I'm pinching and zooming out. Obviously that is stupid on my part and dangerous, but still I'm a curiosity seeker," Abbott said. With the progress bar, he says "I get an immediate sense of how far I've gone, how far I have to go, and what's upcoming."
Other differentiators? One-way streets are depicted as arrows, so it's obvious which direction they run. Staying true to old-fashioned paper maps, interstates are colored blue. "Our team said we love our blue interstates. We really should keep them as blue," Abbott explained. "It's what users are used to. It's what they see in a road atlas."
But how accurate is the mapping data? "We haven't gotten it perfectly right. Frankly, no one will get it perfectly right, but we can do a lot better than what we've done," Brian McMahon, MapQuest's general manager, admitted. He said MapQuest uses about 70 mapping data sources, and the company is in the middle of finalizing a few deals to improve its accuracy.
The iOS 7 app is still missing a lot compared with the competition. Transit directions are one of the most glaring voids, but McMahon says now that the app has shipped, MapQuest will continue iterating to bring new features. In addition to transit directions and richer content for layers, he hinted at the ability to check in and make reservations with the app.
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