While planning for an upcoming vacation, I stopped at our local library and picked up a few guide books (yes, two anachronisms at one go: libraries and books, bear with me.) In this age of user reviews, freely accessible, is there still room for travel books? Well, the answer is yes and no. Yes in the sense that guidebooks still offer many benefits that online review sites do not, such as curated recommendations, serendipitous discovery, and priorizations. No in the sense that no one is going to lug around a guide book while walking around New York City. A smartphone should be enough.
In that spirit, I decided to put aside my New York City Zagat, the slim, red book that was the dining bible of any New Yorker when I last visited a decade ago, and try the Zagat app.
First and only onboarding step is to pick a location. Unlike Google Maps which swoops me to my current location every single time when I open the app (irritating when trying to plan a trip across the continent) Zagat, while recognizing that I’m close to San Francisco, allows me to choose a location. It recognizes that I may be in the planning mode, not a “find something now” mode. Both scenarios are valid use cases.
After selecting a location, Zagat opens up its Home screen: a split view with a map on top and the Feed on the bottom where both can be maximized. The Feed is a most-recent-first list of relevant articles for my location, New York City. After that it’s on to exploring.
What I love about this app:
- There is so much information and it’s all intuitively presented. The feeling is that all New York shops, nightlife, restaurants and hotels are listed and that’s a lot of valuable information to have while traveling.
- The “place pages” can serve as a lesson in good information organization and presentation. The place name, category, neighborhood, ratings across Zagat’s three categories, and cost are all clearly presented at the top of the page. Additional information and review highlights are below it yet don’t take up too much space. Below that is a map at exactly the right zoom in level: enough to see exactly where it is, but also to see nearby landmarks. At the bottom is all the practical information, links to directions, the website, a link to call (this is on a phone after all) and a link to add to a calendar. The calendar button can serve not just as a reservation reminder but also to add a reminder on a day when something is scheduled nearby.
- Favorites. It’s a “must-have” feature for any app and Zagat allows any place to be Favorited and those Favorites can then be sorted and viewed on a map.
Search. Seeing that Zagat is a Google company, it makes sense that the app does search well. By “well” I mean meaningful autocompletes for existing categories and actual locations. Results naturally list places, but also offer a tab with the latest “Buzz” meaning recent posts (curation again) and many filtering options. And by “many” I mean for Zagat scores, costs, “open now,” types, features, and neighborhoods. Exhaustive and definitely inclusive list of options!
- The “Notable” attribute when filtering locations. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of restaurants in New York City. A lot of them serve breakfast. Curation becomes valuable to filter long lists such as these and the ability to filter for Notable Breakfast is a great feature. Zagat offers these “Notable” curations for many different filters.
- Curated lists. Lists such as the “Best Noodle Shops in NYC” as well as recent openings and news. This helps with serendipitous discovery, something that guidebooks do a good job with and apps can struggle with.
What I’d like to see:
- Notifications for nearby favorites. Let’s say I’m two blocks away from a bakery I marked as a favorite and it’s open. Let me know, will ya?
- News for favorites. A favorite bakery has just started making it’s annual pumpkin scone or wants to tell me about a special deal on muffins. I would even be willing to see sponsored content from the places I favorited in my Feed.
- Colors for favorites. Enough with this one color only, in this case red, marker for favorites. There are four categories in the app, shopping, nightlife, restaurants and hotels, can I at least get a different color for each? I’d also like to add my own, say purple for bakeries, so that I can easily find my next carb fix when I’m walking around.
Finally, it’s interesting to compare Zagat with Yelp because Yelp is considered the definitive resource for the same businesses Zagat covers: restaurants, nightlife, hotels and shops. Yet Yelp is completely driven by user-generated content, which makes it very reliable in my opinion. I trust Yelp star rating and reviews, especially for cities such as New York and San Francisco where many locations have hundreds of reviews. Zagat does run a survey but the ranking is not as up-to-date as Yelp’s. That said, it is all a matter of usage. When I am in a certain location, I’ll open Yelp, run a search on Bakeries, and focus on an optimized combination of distance and rating. When I’m planning a trip and trying to discover new places, I’ll take Zagat any day.