Saturday, March 29, 2014

Strava Scores with Latest Mobile Upgrade

I’ll be honest – I’ve wanted to blog about Strava ever since I joined the online athlete community over nine months ago, but have always hesitated to hit the “publish” button on my review. It’s not that I eschew the digital invasion of my nature-soaked trail runs; on the spectrum of no-electronics-purist to near-cyborg, my Silicon Valley roots definitely pull me towards the latter, quantifying my life with bpm’s, vertical feet, digital red lines scribbled across Google maps, and playlist soundscapes. The hesitation came instead from an unwillingness to expose my critical internal voice of a mobile app designer (my trade for the last decade) that is direct and intent by definition, and ruthless by nature in its relentless pursuit of simplicity and perfection. Unless you’re in a similar vocation, my well-intended words will sound mean and tort to the lovers of Strava, a community so passionate I would likely catch one or two snot rockets on every group ride for the rest of my life should I breach insult. But Strava’s latest March update to their mobile app is marvelous in a few simple ways, and approaching that Holy Grail that both trail runners and mobile app designers desire - unexpected daily delight. That, my friends, is worthy of mention.

(This pretty much sums up most Strava addicts I know)
For those not familiar with Strava (based on the Swedish word for "to strive"), the company was created by two endurance athletes (Michael Horvath and Mark Gainey) in 2006 as an online community of cyclists who could upload their GPS records of rides and keep score of the fastest ascents/descents, even declaring a King Of The Mountain (KOM) for the fastest recorded ascent times. It quickly became a haven for the craziest, most dedicated, and data-hungry athletes in the cycling world, pros and amateurs alike. The pursuit of a coveted KOM even led to a publicized death (and lawsuit, later dismissed), which along with their Tour de France advertising in the Armstrong era heyday, made it more popular than ever. Strava clearly isn’t for the cycling masses – you’re not going to find couch-to-first-century-ride plans on here – it’s for only the truly passionate and dedicated.

(Strava cyclist Chris P. gets creative on his 60-miler to kick off the Giants baseball season)
This is why I was fascinated when Strava expanded into the running in 2011. Would the running community have the same faction of obsessed speedsters that would sprint on command to top a leaderboard? Unlike my cycling buddies who love nothing more than go balls-out to the next street light until the tunnel vision seeps in, my running pals prefer to keep an even tempo for most runs, so I wasn’t sure. But it didn’t take long to find out that even running has its KOM moments (dubbed CR's for runners), whether it was competing in Hawaii for the fastest run up Diamond Head Crater (and having all the locals come out the next day to beat whatever time I posted), or finding that kick when I knew I was on a timed segment and hoping I could take down Leor Pantilat, Gary Gellin, or the other speedsters who seem to own every top slot in my Woodside stomping grounds. Although it never became an obsession at the cyclist levels, it did mix up my usual trail runs on fartlek and tempo days, encouraging me to run harder than I normally would.

The real “hook” of Strava came once I connected with a bunch of ultrarunners from around the globe. I’m not one to post training runs to Facebook and confuse/pseudo-brag to all my non-runner friends, but here in Strava, it’s all running, all the time (and me likey!). On rest days, I was captivated by epic runs of friends, soaring through mountain ranges that brought back memories or urged me to add new locations to my bucket list. When I found myself in a new town (which happens often), runners would find me and steer me to routes I would never have found, and the kudos would pour in from people back home, giving me that comforting sense of a global community. There were no ads in the app, no coupons or level-up buy ins, and the purity of the experience helped me stick to Strava while my Fitbits, Nike Fuelbands, Jawbone UP’s, RunKeepers, and other experiments ended up back on the shelf or last page of my iPhone within 60 days.

(Bruce Lee would have made an excellent mobile app designer)
But the app was…how should I say it as nice as I can…clunky. There’s one app for cyclists and another app for runners (wha?). Giving kudos to other runners took lots of steps, and my fingers would tire of swiping long before I reached all my friends activities (which is a bit sad, really). I would forget where the timed segments were on a route, and sometimes a hard effort wouldn’t count because of “GPS drift”. The mobile app designer in me would count how many finger motions it would take to do my normal daily things…10, 15, 20, inexcusable. This cognitive overload would cause me to flame up on any other minor detail, and God forbid something like my PR at Boston didn’t count as a marathon PR because it’s a “net descent course” (which did happen), it would take significant restraint not to unload my rage on the nearest social network. It’s a testament to Strava that I could build up this much emotion over a free app, but also shows what a high bar committed people will set for anything touching their passions. Endurance athletes have got to be some of the toughest critics out there.

The new upgrade to Strava turned the corner for me by doing a lot of small things that help give the app a touch of elegance and fun. No mobile designer is ever 100% happy with a design, but like an artist who never finishes and only abandons their work at some point, I feel this version of Strava has finally met a minimum delight threshold I have been holding it to (unfairly) for months. Here are a few of the upgrades that really caught my eye:

First, there’s finally one app for both running and cycling. Check.


Upon looking at your feed of other runners now, the maps are huge, and it puts the imagery right in your face. The previous feed was a bit too clinical for me (miles, time, etc.) when the truly inspiring parts of my fellow trail runners’ exploits are the maps, the attached photos (auto-sync with Instagram), and the things that make me feel like I was there. Now you get that front and center.



It’s also easier to scroll down the feed and give lots of kudos and comments. Giving kudos, of course, is not a requirement in Strava, but I’m big on it. It reminds me of that high five/hug that you get after a great run with a friend. Speaking of friends, Strava now links together the maps when your friends run together, making me endlessly jealous of the San Francisco Running Co’s weekly Mt. Tam adventures.

Strava added some great little features for knowing where timed segments are (Premium members only, which does require a paid annual subscription of about half the cost of a race entry). You can now turn on an audio voice to tell you (1) when a segment is approaching, (2) your halfway split, and (3) your finish time. I’ve enjoyed how the French female voice (one of a dozen languages to choose from) interrupts my playlist to get me revved up to sprint, even throwing in mile markers too. I also like seeing who is else is out running at the same time – not a new feature, but a Premium feature I have come to enjoy.


I can now add run descriptions and my shoe choice for each run (among inov-8 models, natch), which previously required going online to modify after you posted a run (a serious no-no in the mobile app world). The shoe choice may sound superfluous, but I’ve found it helps me keep tabs on shoe mileage and replacement schedules slightly better than my default method – how bad they smell. ;-)


All in all, the app is quite fun to use now and flows considerably smoother. The uber-critical designer in me would love to see the new look and feel spread to the feed detail pages and emails, and I think features like “give kudos live to other runners out running at the same time, and they get an audio message” could completely redefine what is possible here and enable Strava to growth hack their way to higher percentage penetration of Premium members…see? That mobile app designer voice just won’t shut up. But that’s because there is delight to amplify, which is the designer equivalent of an eight-year-old with a big box of crayons, a table-sized blank sheet of paper, and a grand story to tell.

So maybe it’s just best for me to say thank you Strava, for staying on that relentless journey of mobile app consumer delight. This Strava user gives it two thumbs up! And to my fellow runners, if you haven’t checked out Strava yet, it’s time to do so. I hope to see you pop up on my feed!

 - SD

17 comments:

  1. What did you find lacking about Runkeeper?? That's what I started with and ever really felt the need to change. That and at the time the gps seemed to be more accurate than Starva.

    From the article I'm guessing the UI. But it's gotten better in the last iteration I feel.

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    1. RunKeeper is a perfectly fine app, honestly. It flows well and is easy to use. If it works for you, that's awesome. Particularly if you use their built-in training plans to help structure your training - that's a unique feature you wouldn't find in Strava.

      Looking back, I think there are two reasons I stopped using RunKeeper. First, it just doesn't feel like it's geared for hard core runners (or however you would describe a runner like me). All their training plans are for 5-hour, 4-hour, 3:30 marathoners, for example. Nothing wrong with that, of course. It just doesn't fit how I'm currently training.

      Related to that, there are pretty much ZERO of my running friends using it, and no pros I can watch vicariously. So the social part of it isn't there to keep me coming back. Strava has that in spades and it really does help motivate me to go a little harder, a little farther, and take down some mountain tops. But I suspect there are many runners who would say just the opposite (all their friends are on RunKeeper), and that's the source of their inspiration. To each their own.

      All the mobile phone GPS stuff is not particularly accurate, no matter what the app. I wouldn't worry too much about it. t always use my Garmin 910XT watch for races and runs where accuracy is more important.

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  2. I think the social aspect of Strava is what makes it stand out, and the history of who ran particular segments and on what sort of runs they did it. Strava's value is their data, and the more time goes by, and as more people use it, that value increases. No other app can match that.

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  3. I generally like Strava as well. It's important to point out that Strava the service and Strava the app are two wholly separate things. The Strava app is for people who run with their smart phone, and use its GPS to track their runs. But all the owners of Garmin Forerunners and similar GPS watches will never have any need for the app -- everything's done through the Strava web site.

    As a Forerunner owner myself, I'm disappointed that the interface and features of the web site seem to lag those in the app. For example, try finding where you can search for other runners to add to your friends list! And the enticements to become a Premium subscriber for web site users are weak. It enables a pace and HR analysis similar to what you get for free with Garmin Connect or pretty much any other training tool, ability to filter leader boards by age group, and a few other small things that aren't very compelling.

    I agree with djconnel that Strava's best feature is the social connection. The whole course records / king of the mountain aspect is sort of interesting, but it's antithetical to training! I don't really want something that encourages me to attack a 2 mile hill at 100% effort in the middle of my weekly long run, as that'll just leave me too tired for my next hard workout. That's what races are for. As a once in a while fun thing the CRs are OK, but I normally ignore them.

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  4. I like the mobile upgrade as well for all the sentiments that you expressed so well.

    It's tangential to your focus on the mobile app, but I'd echo Steve's comments about the follow issues on the website. I too have been perplexed at trying to add folks to follow. I would think given all the data that Strava must get on it's servers it could use that to get a general estimate of your running abilities. Why not make follow suggestions of other folks around the world who are of similar speeds? That would be incredibly cool. Perhaps it's already in the pipeline. There must be some guy in Iceland who I don't know about who is hitting the trails at my pace. I'd love to go for a run with that fellow if I was ever nearby. It'd be awesome if Strava could help make that happen and I'd totally pay premium for those sorts of services.

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  5. What serendipitous timing -- I just signed up for Strava yesterday. After we moved here (south Bay) from Chicago in December, it seemed like the entire running world out here was on Strava and not dailymile, the norm in Chicago. I'm still trying to figure stuff out on Strava (after my 1 logged run on it yesterday), but I agree with everything that you've so eloquently said here. Really nice review. I'll have to look you up!

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  6. Scott - as one software guy to another ... which version are you talking of, the latest 3.x version or the 4.x version I see being mentioned in some forums? Just want to be clear. Thanks man. Looking forward to seeing you at Pikes this year. First round is on me.

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    1. I'm looking at 4.0.1. Just released on 3/17/14 for iOS.

      I'll be back for Pike's...you are ON for beers!

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  7. Scott, we have not communicated in a while. I see you are coming to Boston. Any interest in the Red Sox game Saturday? Let me know and I will see what can be done. When are you getting to Boston? I will be picking up my bib on Friday with friends so if you want to have lunch or dinner speak up. Hope all is well.

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    1. Hey, Steve! I've got my whole clan coming out for Boston this year (kids, grandparents, etc.) and we already have tickets for the Red Sox game on Saturday, so maybe we will see you there! I'm doing the bib thing Sat morning, since we're getting in late Fri. But will touch base once we know our plans!

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    2. Scott, what are your seat numbers for the Sox game Saturday. Deb and I will be there and I will come over and say hi. My email: fitzins75@yahoo.com

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  8. I love the social aspect of Strava and can take a large part of my training communication off other social networks where most of my audience probably doesn't care to see/read about. That said Strava has still refused to create a windows phone app and their site is impossible to browse/comment on from a smart phone. A little love to us window phone users would be nice! We'll even take the old IOS app if we could get it :)

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  9. If you're running with Strava on your iPhone, I'd encourage you to check out the Magellan Echo - http://magellangps.com/echo. It's watch that pairs with the Strava app, so you can leave the phone in your pocket, waist belt, armband, wherever. It acts as a remote display and remote control for the app. Imagine seeing your time, pace and distance just like a Forerunner but using the Strava app as the brains. You can start/stop and pause your run from the watch as well. Pretty cool, plus no more worrying if your watch is charged. The Echo runs on a coin-cell battery that needs to be replaced every 6-12 months depending on usage. Disclaimer... I helped build the Echo, so I'm biased.

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  10. Great review Scott!
    I'm a huge Strava fan too, but am running into a big problem with new app and hopefully someone can help.

    I use my iPhone 5S to track workouts via the new app, and ever since I've upgraded, I get an "Autopaused-Start moving to resume" message about 15 seconds into the run.

    Here's the hitch: I place my phone on the tray of my running stroller and get that message each time--including when I use my iPad mini. However...when I put the phone in my pocket, it tracks the workout just fine. ("Well, why don't you just keep it in your pocket, smarta$$?"...It's too big. I can't.)

    Strange, huh?

    I spoke with LR at Strava about it, and that's the first she's heard of the issue. She recommended I turn off auto pause, but with kids, it pretty essential. Stops for bottles, fighting, snacks, diapers, etc, really wreak havoc on an avg pace.

    Any ideas what this could be, oh all-knowing app geeks?

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  11. My biggest issue remaining with the iPhone app is the tendency to accidentally shut it off with the start/stop button prominently on the display. Best practice is to shut off the display after looking at the screen every time, but when running it's easy to make mistakes. I've lost a significant amount of run data this way. It's good to periodically check to make sure it's on, rather than just put it in your pocket and forget about it.

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  12. You created some excellent tips at this time, please keep us posted when you post again something like that!

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  13. I'm seriously signing up for this service. I'm still relatively new to running and I'm getting the Strava or go for Garmin.

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