On paper, Saga, a new iPhone app by Seattle’s Aro, is everything inspiring about our connected world. It entices you to “choose your own adventure,” to go out and live your life to the fullest, without worrying about Facebook checkins or Foursquare.
We’ve said it many times–how we reconcile our online social life with our in-person one is one of the greatest design challenges of our time. Saga takes a great first step to get our eyes off our screens: It will track your GPS coordinates and their associated locations of everywhere you go, all from your pocket. So you can disconnect for a while and enjoy that dinner rather than impulsively recording the memory. Imagine your Facebook Timeline, if it recorded itself. And all along, you gain “XP” for going out and having a good time–for enriching your life. That’s the promise of Saga, and it’s a great one.
Unfortunately, it’s an invite-only beta product for a reason. Saga doesn’t quite work–which I’ll get to in a minute–but it’s lacking something greater. Its UI has no soul. It’s neither too minimal nor too overwrought, but every bit of its blue-green skin feels like a coupon site disguised as a social networking tool. I simply get no delight in opening it.
When you load Saga, you see “The Present,” where you are, and how long you’ve been there. You see your overall XP. And you can select basic status updates like if you’re working or out with friends. Then when you scroll up–looking at “The Future”–you’re inundated with places to go that feel like they’re drawn out of a hat. It’s nauseatingly corporate. Rather than focus on the core user experience, Saga is overburdened with its own monetization scheme, a pile of “go here!” opportunities and coupons that feels far less inspiring than it does imposing. These opportunities are also simply places, not events. How about suggesting times I could see a new play or movie, rather than mentioning that there’s a Target nearby? And most excruciatingly, this is the launch product. If Facebook sold you as hard as Saga when it debuted at Harvard, would 900 million people be using it today?
It’s also incredibly buggy. Taking Saga for a spin one morning, I left my home, looked through fresh sweet corn at the farmer’s market and sat on the steps of the Museum of Contemporary Art. I peeked inside a famous hotel and hung out for a few at the historic Water Tower. I did all of this over the course of roughly four blocks, and Saga recorded none of it, despite my attempts to manually check in each step of the way.
Every place it recognized as my home. And my manual check-ins couldn’t sync with the server. I’m happy to chalk this syncing issue up to a bad morning on Saga’s end, but I do worry how well the app can scale for those of us living in tightly packed urban environments. (My phone also got pretty hot. Many App Store reviewers commented on its significant battery drain. No doubt, it’s a technical challenge for the team to tackle–one plaguing the entire GPS industry.)
So why am I even telling you about Saga? The thing is, there are some great ideas going on here. The core premise, again, is fantastic. Recording your adventures from your pocket is the ultimate UI promise in this field, and it’s not hard to imagine it scaling with your photographs and other media into something even more meaningful. There’s also an infographic-esque presentation of your life–“The Past”–that breaks down how/where you spend your time. Imagine a Mint.com for getting off your butt and doing something fun–that’s the vision I so want to see between the cracks. There are also just some practical moments of brilliance in which Saga is doing its best to learn your habits. If you leave your home and check in somewhere else, not only will Saga check you in if it hasn’t, it will ask you how it got things wrong–was it wrong about where you left from, or where you ended up?
In its current incarnation, Saga won’t take over the world as our passive social network of choice. It won’t even compete. Still, the sheer amount that I wanted this app to work was proof to me that something out there with such functionality–maybe Facebook’s own app–needs to do this, and do it soon.
[Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock]