my review of The Walk

The Walk is an iPhone app that tries to do for walking what Zombies, Run! did for running. When I heard about it, The Walk sounded right up my alley. I like to walk. In fact, due to some recent medical issues, walking is one of the few forms of exercise my doctor is happy with me doing at the moment. Anything that encourages me to walk farther and more often is a good thing, because I’m haven’t been allowed to lift weight for the past two months.

So I was pretty excited to learn that The Walk went on sale a while back, and I bought a copy, right about the same time I was getting my new iPhone 5s working. I’ve tried to adopt it, but as of today I decided to just give up. It’s not working out, and I blame the game designers.

The basic concept is that the app can use your phone’s internal sensors to track when and where you’re walking. So you leave the app running all the time, and it does two things. First, it simply records how much time you spent walking each day. You can see a map of where you walked so far today, if you’re interested, but that information seems to be lost at midnight. Second, you can play the “game” part of the app, which is supposed to be the main draw.

It’s not really a game, though. It’s more like a story, told in small tidbits. The story starts with you surviving a terrorist bombing attack, but somehow the cops think you are the terrorist. The bomb knocked out trains and cars and people started rioting. You have to cautiously but steadily walk from Inverness toward London, as you meet other people along the way.

There are different levels, which are sort of like chapters of the story. Each level is basically a make-believe map that shows where you’re walking (in the game). Every few minutes, you unlock the ability to listen to a new audio clip, which reveals the next little bit of the plot. Also, while you’re walking along, you can tap on little dots on the map on your phone to “collect” treasures along the way.

All this works fine. The app has never crashed on me, the voice acting is good, the visuals of the app are OK. But the problem is that the design of the “game” is just bad. It’s like the software developers were following a spec written by someone who couldn’t really imagine how the game would be used in the real world, and they did no beta testing. The “workflow” is all wrong, if that word applies to an app like this.

There are two basic use models you could use with this game. First, you could just let the thing run in your pocket or purse, and it’ll track how far you walked. This is how the app’s instructions encourage you to use it. The other way is to hold the phone in your hand; as you approach treasures to collect, click on them, and as you unlock audio clips, click on those, too.

But the problem is that the game design assumes you use it somewhere in between these two models. If your phone is in your purse, you can’t trigger the audio clips, and there’s no way to configure the game to play them automatically. Likewise, you can’t collect the treasures. And if the phone is in your hand, you have to look at it every minute or two to tap on the screen, which means you’re not watching where you’re walking in the real world. This is really awkward if you’re walking to and from the bus stop on the way to work, for example.

What the game needs is a use model somewhere in-between. You should be able to put in your earbuds and start a new level, and then put the phone in your pocket or purse. As you walk far enough to trigger the next audio clip, the app should quiet the music you’re listening to and play the clip, without any need for manual intervention. And they should just eliminate the whole business about clicking on the dots to collect treasures, because it’s not really interesting anyhow.

In my use model, the app would still track your minutes and miles walked, and if you had your earbuds in you’d get to be immersed in the story. But it wouldn’t take active attention and clicking. Do you have any idea how cold your hands get in the Colorado winter if you have your gloves off so you can click on a stupid iPhone game every few minutes while walking taking a 40 minute walk? The app designers apparently didn’t, but now I do.

My advice: Steer clear of The Walk. If anyone has a suggestion for a better designed app to encourage me to walk more, I’m all ears.

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