Update 2 April
This article was written on the 27th March based on the then Version 2.0.1 of the app. On the 1st April a Version 2.0.2 was released that has dealt to all of the issues in this post.
I am pleased that the company was able to respond so speedily to these issues which I judged to be significant. Clearly the development team is passionate and responsive, it is just a pity that inadequate testing lead to the Version 2 and Version 2.0.1 release without user testing. My opinion of this app has always been positive as in my mind it remains the best app for the iPhone on the market.
There is no doubt that Realestate.co.nz gained a significant advantage over Trade Me Property when it launched its iPhone app in November 2010. It would be another 2 years before Trade Me released their first dedicated iOS property app. That early advantage has been key to the brand’s development and appeal over these past 4 years.
So, more than 3 years after its initial launch and save for a couple of bug fixes and an upgrade to allow for synchronisation of favourites; Realestate has recently released a whole new Version 2 of its app and I have been naturally keen to try it out to assess the developments that have been implemented.
Quoting their own summation of the changes on the App store, the new app delivers these benefits:
As they also rightly point out one of the great new features is that there is now a true iPad version - something long overdue as Trade Me Property has been the only purpose designed iPad property app for nearly 2 years.
Mobile apps are critical for property portals as the trend is ever more focused to mobile usage when searching for property. In the US, UK and Australia, the leading portals attract well over half of all visitors via a mobile device, with the US portal Zillow claiming weekend mobile activity approaches 70% of traffic. With this as a backdrop, delivering the best user experience on the mobile platform is critical for any property portals.
Sadly I have to report that Realestate.co.nz appears to have let itself down with this V2 in what appears to be a 1 step forward, 2 steps back release. Whether it is a case of a rushed release or inadequate testing, this version has some serious weaknesses. This could have very serious consequences on the brand and the business especially considering how competitive this portal space is today in NZ. (By the way, I have deliberately waited a couple of weeks after the initial release of V2 to write this review to ensure that if they had spotted these issues, then I was prepared to allow them time to correct these issues. In fact they have already released an update with V2.1 a couple of weeks after the V2.0, however as I see it and detail below there remain serious shortfalls).
Let me work my way through the features, benefits and my critique of the this app on the iPhone, I will leave the evaluation of the iPad for another article.
The start up of the new app is in many ways cleaner and clearer than before. There is no home screen. Instead the first screen takes you immediately to a local map indexed to your location - great! exactly how the user wants to engage with mobile real estate “show my what’s for sale around me”. In the same way as before listings are signified by red pins with open homes and new listings using cleaner iOS7 icons than the prior flag icon - nice.
Touching a listing pin shows the address exactly as before. However I continue to maintain that this is a missed opportunity as most other property apps bring up a thumbnail image of the property or some details in brief vital to make searching easier, as it avoids having to move through to the listing to validate the property, as ably demonstrated by the example from Realestate.com.au.
When you do go through to the listing you do get the same details page with the great image viewer as smooth as ever. Overall the format is certainly cleaner, very reflective of the iOS7 template.
On each listing the key tabs of Details, Inspection, Affordability and Agent are arranged neatly and carry out the same functionality as previously.
Another missed opportunity in my eyes though is the enquire service. With such extensive usage on the smart phone of this app, why could the enquire service not include a text message integration with the phone - certainly there is a cost associated with sending what may be thousands of texts, but the value would far outweigh the cost. The only option is to type in an email which does not pre-populate with your details as a default.
Back to the map, and the first functionality change that frustrated me. In the original V1 version there was a clear ‘Refine” button which allowed you to filter your search on any chosen map area. At first viewing I found no refine button. Trial and error lead me to the search button which had the required filters. However upon making this necessary filter of beds, baths and price; I tap the search icon fully expecting to be taken back to the local map - no! I now get a map of the whole country filtered for my 3 beds, 2 baths $500,000 to $600,000 !!
This is a serious issue as all I wanted to do was refine my local search - I was after all doing a local search around me. After picking up my iPhone back from the corner of the room where I had thrown it… I thought to try the GPS location icon at the top of the screen and low and behold I am back to my local map. Why oh why do I have to jump through hoops now, to do what used to be so easy!!
This experience really concerns me as one of the beautiful user experiences I liked with the original version was to effectively “fly around the country” seeking out what is for sale based on the map search - how can I now do this now, when if I want to refine my search, I end up looking at the whole country?
After random trial and error sometime later I did notice that in the search options there is a filter that says ‘Current Map Location’ - but it is by no means easy to find hidden as it is under Regions! User testing would have highlighted this shortfall I am sure.
Another grumble in what I would have hoped would be an improved V2 of the app would be around the search filters of beds, baths and price. The ideal I would have thought would be to replicate search filters of the web on the mobile app - allowing for example to be able to search for properties having between 2 and 3 bedrooms. No - you can only choose 2+ on the app, which clearly gives you 2,3,4 and 5 bedroom houses. Also the website allows for 25 price segments, whereas the app you have to choose from just 16 - hardly a ‘mobile-first’ approach.
Synchronisation with Favourites
Some of these preceding issues may seem small and in someways they are, however the next one is a whopper. Where has the synchronisation between the web and mobile app gone if you have an iPhone 4 or 4S?
Simply put, the developers of this app clearly only tested on the iPhone 5 for as the screenshot below demonstrates the layout is optimised for the longer screen of the iPhone 5. On a 4 or 4S the bottom of the screen is cut off thereby effectively relegating owners of these models to a far inferior app! I thought that the V2.1 would fix this - but not happening. It’s like I can see where the function link is in the filter section but it looks to be hidden?
Another significant failure of the app is the ability to search by listing number. The search function has a classic search box as in the original version to allow access to a single listing by entering a listing number, so allowing you want to look up details on a property having seen it in a newspaper or street sign. Try as you might (as I have done) it does not work. Worse still some listing numbers take you to other places in the world - try 013 and you end up in northern Holland, 0555 takes you to Pensacola in Alabama!
I did after a couple of tries notice this small text below the search box "Start Property ID with a #"! - how bizarre, this was not a requirement of the original version of the app, why now do I need to add a # to the ID number? - sadly this advice proved useless as adding the # did not aid searching - the search by ID number seems broken - please fix!
The example below demonstrates the issue. Listing number BOT21586 is a 3 bedroom property for sale in Pakuranga, one of thousands of such properties for sale. Enter BOT21586 on the app and you get a notice "No location could be found", search #BOT21586 on the app and you get a notice "No listings with that number could be found" - but do a map search for 12 Elizabeth Street and the listing can be found on the app and the listing on the app has the listing number #BOT21586 !
Enough of the negatives I hear you cry! - so what can I praise ? - well the open home calendar sync is beautiful and super smooth. The open home times are laid out in a logical position and tapping the chosen time and adding it to your calendar is great. There you go.
Other than that and the above mentioned examples of issues, I still think this is a good app. I am just surprised and disappointed that the app does not seem to have been tested adequately. In my opinion technical developments of this nature have to take a significant step forward and add features that enhance the experience. I would have to say that overall this version 2 is a case of form over function, of a desire to create an iOS7 look driven by the need for an iPad app which then spawned a iPhone app as a secondary outcome with many resulting issues.
It will be interesting to see if these issues are addressed in the coming months.
Disclaimer: I was formerly the CEO of Realestate.co.nz from 2006 to 2012. I now have no relationship with the company, nor with its competitor Trade Me Property. I have written this review as an impartial objective analyst and commentator on the real estate industry in NZ and overseas. In my current role I do advise and assist other property portals in other countries on strategy and operations and thereby judge that I am in a position to offer such a review, for no other reason than professional advice.