“There's an app for that” was the 2009 Apple catchphrase heralding a shiny new smartphone-enabled future in which we could accomplish just about anything simply by downloading the right apps. And there followed some fantastic native apps – changing the way we bank, sleep, communicate and more.

One side effect, however, was that we experienced something of an app frenzy. Many became so caught up in the buzz that they assumed that any new smartphone solution must require a new app - and in so doing forgot about the benefits of the good ol’ web.

There’s a website for that

So when long-term client Rubadub first enquired about a native app we adopted a defensive stance and told them they didn’t need one. After all, their musical equipment and records e-commerce website was already mobile-friendly, built using responsive web design techniques. And if you have something that is mobile-friendly and accessible to anyone with a web browser, why duplicate it in iOS, Android or indeed any proprietary technologies with all the attendant build and maintenance overhead?

Having made our case successfully, we all agreed that no action was required.

Challenging our assumptions

In the weeks that followed we asked ourselves if we’d given the right advice. We were comfortable with our philosophy of looking first to web-based rather than proprietary solutions given that the web is open, accessible, interoperable, quicker to update, based on web standards and so on. But we also wanted to consider:

  1. which apps (especially e-commerce) we ourselves used regularly;
  2. other online retailers offering both a mobile-friendly e-commerce website and a popular native app (such as ASOS); and
  3. digital music platforms and services which offered both web- and app-based options (such as Spotify and Soundcloud).

We wanted to understand what the native apps did differently to their website counterparts and how for some people – or in certain situations – they might suit better. One theme we noticed was that the apps tended to offer immediate access to a personalised experience. They also tended to focus solely on one or two key user goals, supported by highly streamlined layouts with few distractions.

We had decided that a Rubadub App which simply mirrored their existing e-commerce website wasn't worthwhile. But what if it offered something uniquely different?

Anatomy of a Record Shop

In addition to selling hi-tech music equipment, Rubadub has a bricks-and-mortar record store which has been serving customers for over 25 years. They also operate a global record distribution facility, and through these combined channels are one of the most recognisable names in the electronic music industry.

The in-store experience at Rubadub is much like that of any good, specialist record shop. Staff are friendly, happy to recommend new music and keen to learn your tastes. Customers have the opportunity to take a stack of records to a listening booth, don a set of headphones then skip through tracks. Records that don't cut it are relegated to a "no" pile while those that do go into a "maybe" pile. Eventually, you pick your winners. At the till staff make a mental note of the records you took and those you left so they can make better recommendations on your next visit.

Meanwhile, many customers who previously shopped in-store now shop online – from both Rubadub and their competitors – because they find it saves time and is more convenient. Competition between e-commerce record shops is fierce. Demand for limited vinyl releases regularly outstrips supply, leading to records selling at inflated prices on other marketplaces such as Discogs and eBay. For customers, it's a case of “if you’re not fast, you're last”.

Taking the theme of record shopping and combining that with our findings after studying other retailers, we were struck by an idea for a mobile app that would offer something timely and unique.

The idea

We realised that the ideal mobile app for record shopping would be a modern, time-saving version of the physical record shop experience: feeding you high quality, tailored recommendations, just like one of the team in the store would. You’d indicate records you liked and the app would continually learn your taste and make better recommendations every time. It’d even recommend the occasional curveball just to keep things interesting!

Furthermore, it'd do all of this with the minimum of fuss and distraction. You'd be in at a tap of an icon and immediately into your latest recommendations; no logging in, no typing and no navigating. The app’s subject matter would be streamlined and focused - just new vinyl recommendations and nothing else. Each recommendation would be presented as a full-screen photo of the album cover art. There'd be no header or other typical page “furniture” - just a fully immersive experience letting the audio and striking cover art sing.

Navigation through recommendations would be performed through swipe which not only complemented the full-screen approach but also felt like a nice physical analogy for sifting through a stack of 12″s.

Friendly, not faceless

We wanted the app to tap into the social interaction and community aspects of the physical store experience. We’d inject an irreverent tone, using occasional messages to highlight "Record of the week" or say "Here’s a curveball!". You’d get your recommendations with a side of witty repartee just like you would in-store. We felt that this social aspect is an important factor in what differentiates a shop like Rubadub from its online-only competitors, and should be represented digitally too.

Lastly, the interaction wouldn’t end when you left the app. We’d use periodic Push Notifications to alert users to new records they'd like, drawing them back into the app.

The Rubadub app has taken the online record shopping experience up a gear for me.

– Tom Churchill, DJ and Producer

The technical approach

Mobile Framework

Having identified iOS and Android mobile devices as our target, we chose Ionic as our platform for app development. Ionic is a toolkit for developing hybrid mobile apps, offering great component libraries, tools for testing and simulation, and the ability to develop a single application which can be used to deploy both Android and iOS apps. Furthermore, we had already successfully used Ionic on previous projects including an app for the University of Strathclyde and our own Cheers product, so we knew it was reliable. A quick proof of concept also revealed that Ionic provided - or could be extended to provide - everything we needed with regard to audiovisual capabilities, interactivity, and data storage.

System Architecture

Rubadub already had an e-commerce website which housed all their products (including record descriptions, artwork, audio samples, prices and stock levels) so we knew that this had to remain the definitive data source. Additionally, we wanted all customer orders to “go through the website” so as to trigger the website’s standard order management processes and not introduce any new administrative overhead for Rubadub staff vis-à-vis stock management and customer communication. For these interactions with the website, we could use its API.

We also identified required functions which were not already served by the website and were not realistic to bolt on. We would require a whole new engine for analysing and machine learning customer tastes so as to make tailored recommendations. For this, we first designed an algorithm to profile customer taste. We then created brand new middleware to sit between the app and the e-commerce website. This middleware would pull in tag, genre and category information about records from the website. It would receive word from each customer’s app about what they liked. And by combining all that categorisation and preference information, it would work out what to recommend.

Usability Testing

From our earliest prototypes, we set about gathering feedback. We shared beta versions with a number of regular record buyers (using tools such as TestFlight for distribution prior to public release) and they were only too happy to help by reporting bugs, flagging user experience issues and contributing ideas for improvements.

In one particular instance, early user feedback helped to shape a fundamental aspect of the app. We had been considering a Tinder-style navigation to allow users to swipe right to like a record and swipe left to dislike it. Beta tester feedback revealed that this was too binary and inflexible: people didn't necessarily want to have to “dislike” a record they didn't explicitly like, and they wanted to be able to return to records if they had a change of heart. By testing early we saw that the idea was a nice gimmick but didn’t properly serve our users, and had time to change things before launch.

Launch

The Rubadub App was released publicly in June 2018 and so far has been very well received. Users have reported that it saves them time and alerts them to limited releases before they disappear; that it introduces them to new artists and labels; and that they are now buying more and better records.

Aside from gaining a new stream of revenue, we see some additional “soft benefits” to Rubadub. Firstly, they now have a presence on the Apple App and Google Play stores where previously they had none. This new global exposure via massively popular marketplaces can only serve to increase awareness. Secondly, for those who have downloaded the app, Rubadub now occupy a branded space on their phone’s desktop and on their radar. Lastly, as purveyors of electronic music and hi-tech musical equipment, there is a nice synergy in Rubadub also being seen to pioneer fresh ideas in their digital strategy.

Future development

As for next steps: there’s a tonne of features and enhancements on the roadmap with regard to taste-based recommendations, emotional design and messaging, searching, payment and more. We’re excited to see where the app can go.

Try the app: https://www.rubadub.co.uk/rubadub-app/