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Apr 29, 2008 - 12:04

Technology, Web

How Brightkite Flunks at Mobile Usability

Yesterday, my friend, Daniel, invited me to try out a new mobile messaging / microblogging service called BrightKite. With a writeup on Webware and a shiny new closed beta, BrightKite is teeming in buzz. I was excited to try it out.

I’ve been using Dodgeball since August 2006. Dodgeball is now owned by Google and many of my friends are on there, although a number of them have me blocked, primarily because I like to check in from all over the Bay Area. Lots of people who live in San Francisco feel like “San Francisco” means the City of San Francisco only (and not the Bay Area). I like Dodgeball because I can add locations in it, add an alias to make it easy for me to check in, and use it to remember what I should Yelp.

In January of 2007, I signed up on Plazes as soon as it opened for public beta. I don’t really use Plazes that much, although I do like the fact that I can check in anywhere in the world. This makes it handy for me to track where I visit when I’m on vacation, so I don’t check in from Boise, Idaho (and irritate the four or five Dodgeballers who still follow me). The syntax is simple and I can go back and edit my check ins. Although the UI is a little clunky, it’s easy to check in with Plazes. If more than one of my friends was on there, I’d probably use it more than Dodgeball.

Enter BrightKite. It has a pretty web 2.0 user interface and behaves like a combination of Twitter and Plazes. Very nice. Unfortunately, I can’t use it. Let’s see why.


me: @ bayside market

db: OK! We just sent a message to your 17 friends in SF letting them know you’re at Bayside Market.


me: at bayside market in san francisco

pl: You’ve been plazed at Bayside Market on 120 BRANNAN ST.


me: ?bayside market, san francisco, ca

bk: Pick one:
1) San Francisco Soup Company (1950 University Ave)
2) more

me: ?bayside market

bk: Pick one:
1) Bayside Design Incorporated (846 N Hillview Dr)
2) Bayside Equipment Company (3562 Haven Ave)
3) more

me: @san francisco, ca (evidently, bk thinks I’m still in the South Bay).

bk: Are you sure that you want to check in @ San Francisco, CA, US? Reply with Y to confirm, or try again.

me, not stomping my Blackberry Pearl into the Embarcadero: STOP

With SIX SMS messages back and forth from my phone to BrightKite, I gave up. That’s a usability flunk right there. Yesterday, when I attempted to check in from Trader Joe’s in Sunnyvale, it took nine tries before success was mine. Any time I have to reply to an “Are you sure?” SMS message, you get a D-. If I can check into Dodgeball, which seems to be limited by locale and mainly abandoned, or Plazes, which is so European that the ZIP code is before the city name on their website (i.e.: 94107 San Francisco, USA), why does BrightKite give me so much frustration?

I’m giving the developers the benefit of the doubt, because their product is still in private beta, but it really needs to solve this simple problem. If it’s this much of a pain in the neck to check in (reply with 1, really? seriously?), everyone will use BrightKite for about three weeks.

I hope sending a photo to the service isn’t this much of a pain. I don’t have time to play footsie with a mobile service.

Here’s how I should check into BrightKite: @ bayside market in san francisco, ca or @ bayside market on brannan st in san francisco (having a different symbol than @ to check in somewhere (it’s ? for a business) breaks standard conventions). If there are multiple locations, let me come back later on the web and fix it.

Good luck with this, BrightKite. I’d really like to be able to use your service, but it required too much willpower not to hurl my phone in the bay. Sorry.


Posted by
Martin May
Apr 30, 2008 - 10:04


Thanks for your feedback. You are making some valid points, and I’d like to address them here:

– We don’t allow free-form checkins like Dodgeball and Plazes because we don’t draw from a database of places. @ checkins are actually geocoded, which means that our service should work for any address that works in Google Maps.

– Dodgeball lets you check in at businesses that they have in their database. If it’s not in the DB, you’re out of luck, not to speak of other countries.

– Plazes checks their database for a match, and if they don’t find one, you have to manually create the place, entering all of the info yourself. We think that’s a pretty bad user experience. On top of that, many places have more than one standardized name.

– We have 2 types of checkins: address (using @), and business (using ?). When you do a ? search, we base that search on your last check-in. That means if you were checked in at 555 West St, San Francisco, and you do ?Starbucks, we will list the closest matches for Starbucks around that location. This has worked extremely well so far. We are about to introduce a ?Starbucks @666 East St, San Francisco, or ?Starbucks in Chicago feature, too.

– The “are you sure” confirmation only appears when you are attempting to check in somewhere that’s more than 30 miles away from your last check-in. This is to prevent errors, and was a much requested feature.

– The whole point of Brightkite is to meet people around places, ad-hoc, in real time. That means that we actually have to be able to pinpoint you on a map based on your check-in. Plazes doesn’t need to, as its primary function is to “log” your places. Different use cases.

All that being said, there are of course a lot of ways to improve our service, and we’re working on it (we’ve been in private beta for 2 weeks). We appreciate any feedback you might have.


Posted by
Apr 30, 2008 - 11:04

Hi, Martin:

Thanks for your response.

I misunderstood how the question mark thing works. I thought it was a separate syntax for checking in at a business. I didn’t know about the distance confirmation, although I did encounter it when I attempted to check in from Sunnyvale the day before yesterday. Is there a way to turn off the confirmation? Can I SMS “location change no-confirm” or something? In the San Francisco Bay Area, 30 miles isn’t very far (unless, like, most of my friends, you live in San Francisco — in which case, a mile is far). But, it would be impossible to check metro areas and which places would be included in any particular area (even here in the Bay Area, there’d be disagreement about how far out the area goes).

I agree that the Plazes UI is pretty terrible. But, I like their check in method: “at starbucks on 82nd ave nw in edmonton, ab, canada”. It’s easy and could work for geotagging.

Dodgeball actually lets you check in anywhere. It just won’t put you on the map. Any user can add points to the map, but it is limited to major metro areas. That makes me sad.

So, if there’s a place in your database and I want to check in, say at the aforementioned “Bayside Market”, I have to check in to San Francisco, then ?Bayside Market or I have to @Bayside Market, 120 Brannan St, San Francisco.

I like your UI and I think you’re going to go far, but I became inadvertently perplexed by the complexity and frustrating quagmire of the check in process. Error prevention notwithstanding, it really should be easier.

Thanks for your reply. I’ll keep playing with BrightKite.

Posted by
Jun 24, 2008 - 14:06

I can’t use Dodgeball because when I created the account, it somehow linked my number to a deleted Google account, and it won’t let me change it, or create a new account since my number is already in use. Emails sent to their support team seem to be the equivalent of emailing /dev/null. Dodgeball is dead to me.

When I get my iPhone, I plan on checking out that site they showed in the keynote that uses live GPS location data – Loopt, I think.

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