Fix This App: Alfred

[We spend a lot of time with mobile apps. We know what we like and what we don’t—sometimes within the very same app. Each week in Fix This App, we’ll take a mobile offering that’s not without its share of flaws and try to nudge it a little closer to perfection.]

Looking for a place to eat? Alfred wants to help iOS and Android device owners find out where their next meal is coming from. The restaurant recommendation app—which uses your likes and dislikes to formulate its picks—shows some promise. But there are a few shortcomings that leave me hungering for more.

Android users enjoy a much more useful launch screen in Alfred than what’s featured in the iOS version of the app.

What it works on: Alfred debuted on the iOS platform in 2011, and arrived on Android by year’s end. The app looks slightly different on Android than it does on the iPhone or iPad—and this unabashed iOS enthusiast isn’t afraid to admit that the Android version looks better. A more useful home screen on Android features Idea, Profile, and Teach buttons for easy access to Alfred’s core functions, while a carousel of restaurant recommendations lets you get started finding restaurants right away. Alfred works on any iOS device running iOS 4 or later; Android users need version 2.2 or higher.

What it does: In its description in assorted app markets, Alfred says it finds “places”—that’s essentially correct, so long as you define “places” as “restaurants and bars.” When Google bought Alfred developer Clever Sense, much was made of the move being Google’s first step in coming up with an alternative to Siri, the intelligent, voice-driven assistant currently available on the iPhone 4S. That hasn’t happened yet—you can’t ask Alfred for directions or dictate an email to it, or (if you’re a quirky sitcom actress) ask it to tell you if it’s raining.

Alfred uses information about the restaurants, bars, and clubs you like and dislike to formulate its own recommendations.

But what Alfred does do is still worthwhile. You tell the app which restaurants you like through a series of interview questions, and Alfred conjures up recommendations for other nearby eateries based on what it thinks you’ll enjoy. (The app’s algorithm seems to rely heavily on recommending places that are liked by people who also like the restaurants you prefer.) Giving Alfred’s suggestions a thumbs up or thumbs down further teaches the app about where you like to eat. Alfred also lets you share those recommendations with your Facebook friends if you’re into that sort of thing; if you’re not, your Facebook friends probably appreciate that.

What it gets right: Alfred’s basic concept is solid—restaurant discovery is a natural fit for mobile devices—and the app presents information in a clear, easy-to-scan package (though Alfred could do a better job of picking which information to display, as I’ll discuss below). Navigating your way through Alfred is a breeze, and the app cleverly ties its Quick Pick recommendations into the time of day, so that it knows if you’re looking for places to eat around noon, you’re probably interested in lunch places. And I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t a little amused by the animated dinner bell that serves as Alfred’s mascot.

Sign into Google, and Alfred syncs your recommendations between multiple devices.

More important, Clever Sense has a track record of working to improve its app. When Alfred first launched on the iOS platform, it included a Facebook tie-in that let users of multiple iOS devices sync recommendations between their iPhone and iPad. That saved early adopters from the pain of having to teach Alfred about their likes and dislikes multiple times. Alfred subsequently dropped its Facebook affiliation—and the accompanying ability to sync—but that syncing capability was restored in a recent update. Now to match your data between devices, you simply sign into your Google account. It’a a welcome return.

That same update also makes the process of teaching Alfred much less of a chore. Previously, the app walked you through a multi-step interview process that could get pretty tedious and repetitive. (If Alfred asks me to name a bar or club I like to hang out at one more time…) The app subsequently let you enter in the names of specific places and then rate nearby eateries. Now if you’re stumped by a question—or just can’t remember the name of a place—you can ask Alfred for suggestions and then mark off any places on the list that you happen to like. It speeds up the teaching process exponentially.

This is an Alfred entry for a restaurant I like to eat at; the featured image is nowhere to be found on the menu.

What it gets wrong: Unfortunately, Alfred still has much to learn. The app has a problem with chain restaurants. Tell Alfred you don’t mind getting the occasional coffee at Starbucks, and the app will fill subsequent recommendations with every Starbucks in your vicinity. That’s all right, I suppose, if you really like Starbucks. But for an app who’s primary mission is to help you discover new places attuned to your tastes, does it really serve any purpose to remind people of the many chains and franchises dotting this great land of ours?

Alfred also falls down in the discovery department by offering incomplete—and sometimes misleading—information about the restaurants it recommends. Let’s tackle the misleading info. Each of Alfred’s recommendations features a gorgeous photo of mouth-watering cuisine that make you want to drop whatever it is you’re doing and head out for a bite to eat at that establishment tout de suite. And that’s unfortunate since the photos are not actually of the restaurant in question—they’re stock art. Consequently, you have no idea whether the place Alfred is sending you to is a white-tablecloth eatery with plating straight out of Top Chef or a humble hole-in-the-wall joint. The app should do a better job of not giving you the wrong impression of a place right out of the gate.

Alfred’s curated reviews don’t give you a lot of data to go on.

Unfortunately, Alfred doesn’t have much to add if you dig deeper into an entry. In lieu of a review, it serves up Zagat-style blurbs culled from other websites. The comments are less than illustrative: One of my favorite restaurants in town serves terrific Mediterranean fare with mind-blowing sauces and a seasonally-adjusted menu, and the only guidance Alfred provides is “great prawns.” All of the restaurant entries have a menus tab, but many don’t have any information in that field. If you want more information, Alfred expects you to click on links to other services like CitySearch, Opentable, and the like, in its built-in browser. Only some of the links seem optimized for mobile devices.

How to fix it: A few modest changes—some cosmetic and one a major shift in philosophy—would make Alfred the go-to choice for finding great places to eat. Yes, even over you, Siri.

I’m pretty sure I don’t need help tracking down a Starbucks.

  • Ax the photos. Don’t show me images of entrees I’ll never be able to order—especially when Alfred already offers actual photos from the actual restaurants deep within the more information tabs for each eatery. If those photos can’t be displayed in the eye-catching fashion that Alfred’s design demands, then go with icons or illustrations that depict specific categories of cuisine. Better that than to display a stock image of elaborate pastries for the entry on my local corner donut shop.
  • Expand the editorializing. Short, unattributed blurbs tell me nothing about the dining experience I’m about to get myself into. Alfred needs to take a page out of the book of the much better LocalEats and provide me with a short description of a recommended restaurant. Oh, and sample menus are a must-have, not a nice-if-it’s-there data point.
  • Break the chains. Really, Alfred: If I’ve told you I enjoyed myself at a local pizzeria on my last trip to Boston, do you really need to hep me to the undiscovered gem that is Pizza Hut? And just because I like a deli or two, that doesn’t mean I need you to point out the nearest Subway. If I want to find a nationally known chain in my vicinity, I’ve got my phone’s built-in mapping app to handle that task. I’m turning to Alfred to help me find great restaurants I might otherwise overlook—the app needs to start living up to that charge.

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