The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has partnered with Harper Collins and the folks at Aimer Media to develop an app which is a comprehensive pocket reference guide to the 911 World Heritage sites. Based upon a book between Collins and UNESCO, the UNESCO World Heritage app allows you to search through these sites by alphabetical index, year inscribed, country,  or the classification of the site (Cultural, Natural, Mixed). The user can also add sites to a list of favorites, review a list of the last 20 sites the user has viewed, or tap “Random” allowing the app to pick a site for the user to view. When the user selects a category to search by, say sites classified as Cultural, the user can then search within this subset either alphabetically or via a search field. The strength of this app is the ease of use by which one can navigate and explore the UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Each site has an individual screen which provides a dashboard overview including criteria for selection, a brief text introduction, a map of the site’s location, usually a thumbnail picture, and a tab for “Extra Information”. Prominent “+” markers in each area clearly indicate that tapping one of these fields will yield more related information. Tap the map and the user gets a Google map view of the site. Tap the thumbnail picture and the image fills the screen allowing the user to zoom and pan. Tapping the brief text description and the screen flips revealing a fuller description. In a very user friendly manner the developers have even included a settings screen within the app (as opposed to having the user uncover this under the device’s settings–how many users even think to look there?) which allows the user to set the font size for the expanded text views.  You can choose from 8 point font to 49 point font.  User patience for text within a museum or culture app on a mobile device is limited (And this observation is limited to mobile phones. Tablets represent a different experience and set of expectations). Tools such as this contribute to a better user experience and demonstrate thoughtfulness on the part of the developer.

Tap the “Extra Information” tab and the user receives additional text and links to “read more about this site” and “view related site photos” which take the user to the World Heritage Convention website. Aimer Media did a good job here in designing the viewport so that the user can take a look at this extra information on the website without leaving the app or opt to view the information in Safari.  If the user chooses to stay in the app a navigation button in the top header allows the users to return to the “Extra Information” page.  This is the way apps should reference resources external to the app itself. Allowing the user to peek at the resources and then have the option to proceed, in this case to the web via Safari, or return to the content within the app. The claims the developers make in the description are true: the UNESCO World Heritage app couldn’t be easier to use. In this app UNESCO, Collins and Aimer Media have a solid foundation upon which to build future versions of the app.

Perhaps the most intriguing element of this app is its $7.99 (US) price (See 2/10/11 update on price below).  Intriguing because of the nearly 140 iPhone apps now listed on Museums2Go the UNESCO World Heritage app has the highest price point. From one perspective the analog book version retails for approximately $32, although Amazon has it for about $16.  So as a reference ebook relative to the analog version the app falls within the expected price range while providing an easy to use navigation format and a single tap away to additional online resources.  The question of price though centers around what are the users expectations for a cultural heritage app versus an ebook on the same topic.  This is an open question. The average price on Apple’s App Store for an ebook is twice that of a regular paid app. As apps go the $7.99 price point of the UNESCO app places it within realm of the highest average price for an app which is within medical apps. Still as apps and ebooks converge what will be the best way for publishers to navigate this uncharted terrain?

Also relevant to the UNESCO app are the other apps on the App store related to UNESCO sites.  World Heritage Sites is available for $4.99. World Heritage is available for free.  And World Heritage for iPhone is $1.99. These are unofficial apps which rely on Wikipedia, Flickr and other online resources. Although I’m not going to review the unofficial apps here, users will. Developers of official apps face a challenge to include content of such substance, quality and uniqueness that it is apparent to all the value the app provides relative to the unofficial alternatives.  Does the official UNESCO app provide a definitive edge in user experience over the unofficial alternative apps? How a user answers this question will be critical to the success of the UNESCO app.  In following up with Harper Collins and Aimer Media they note the reliance of the aforementioned unofficial apps on web-based information not checked or authorized by UNESCO.  Not to mention that with the official app the proceeds actually go to support UNESCO. Additionally the developers of the official UNESCO app note the advantages of the official app working offline such as when traveling to the World Heritage sites.

Or does it?

It doesn’t take long for the UNESCO World Heritage app user to begin to interface as much with the UNESCO World Heritage website as with the app.  And there’s the rub. The app undoubtedly offers an easier to navigate in-the-palm-of-your-hand experience than does navigating the website from the same device. The app also doesn’t rely on the speed of the network connection for navigating among the dashboards for individual heritage sites. But does the app offer $7.99 in value over the freely available resources on the UNESCO World Heritage site to which it frequently links? That, in essence, is the question the potential user must decide.  The easy to use navigation of the app sets up the possibilities for an exclusive user experience but presently the app doesn’t offer anything over the website in terms of content.  And with the iPad this absence is even more apparent. Whereas with the iPhone the app provides a much more user friendly interface than navigating the website in Safari on the iPhone, the iPad user doesn’t experience the same degree of compromise and therefore the value of the app as an interface is diminished.  Once the iPad user navigates to the UNESCO website there is little reason to return to the app except regarding network access and speed. The text content on the app and on the web is in most cases either verbatim or an extremely close proximity of each other.   Admittedly the experience of navigating the 911 World Heritage sites is facilitated by the easy to use design of the app but is this feature alone worth $7.99 to the user? This comparison assumes an internet connection but then so do the links on every heritage site dashboard within the app. The navigational design of the UNESCO World Heritage app is excellent but the content needs to be enriched a bit before being able to command what in the app world is currently a premium price. This is not meant to detract from the value of the content within the current version of the app only that the value would be more substantially underscored by richer, exclusive to the app multimedia content.

The UNESCO World Heritage app is available for $7.99 from the Apple App Store. Compatible with iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad. Requires iOS 3.1 or later.

UPDATE: February 10, 2011. The UNESCO app is now available for $4.99 from the Apple App Store.