utility_feature

No question: A lot of mobile apps are spending too much time worshipping at the slick design altar. That little yoyo that you could pull to opt into sharing your address book with Path? Yes, it’s gorgeous. But like a lot of the site’s beautiful touches, it doesn’t solve the fundamental problem that my close friends and families just aren’t on the site, and so I can’t use it as intended.

Sometimes mobile design can be so minimalist and easy that core functions are left out. There is literally no way to change your phone number on the Uber app, for instance. Never mind that’s the only way drivers can connect with you. More often they are too bloated with pretty touches no one wants.

Design for many apps has been elevated to art, when in some cases it needs to be just a bit more functional.

Livestar, which first launched at TechCrunch Disrupt last fall, went dramatically in the other direction. It has function, utility, and ease of use and is not very pretty at all, compared to the pack. Even the name isn’t too inspiring. While it’s clearly a nod to the site’s ability to rate things on the fly, it’s not particularly memorable and could just as easily be the name of a conference promoter.

I’m not just being a jerk. Founder Fritz Lanman admits as much. His frustration with discovery apps had to do with an overabundance of sizzle and not enough real functionality, so the early versions of Livestar prioritized the latter.

That said, the new version is bringing more beauty to an app that is genuinely a lot more functional than other review sites on the market.

Livestar is making a batch of announcements today. The first is the launch of version two on Android. The second is an extension of its Amazon gift card referral program. Taking a page out of PayPal’s early growth, Livestar has been giving users $30 Amazon gift cards when they refer 15 friends who download and use the app. That’s a lot of work for $30. So the company has upped it to $100 — just in time for the holidays.

In the case of Livestar, it’s less about buying sheer users, but buying your friends. The site is designed to be better when it’s social, and it has that same problem that Path, RockMelt, Trippy, and a million other apps that rely on social sharing to fuel discovery and conversation have: We already have that social itch pretty much scratched elsewhere.

Livestar’s third announcement is that it’s incorporating Instagram photos into the site, and here’s where a bit more beauty comes in, in addition to overall design tweaks in this version. People want photos on reviews, but the reality is a lot of people take shitty photos. Instagram’s entire value add is making shitty photos look great.

There’s a fascinating under-the-radar story going on about Instagram enabling mobile commerce and discovery — particularly as more apps seek to blur the line between content and commerce. Imagine how much better Yelp would have looked if it was started in a time of Instagram. Even more extreme: Imagine how much better eBay would have looked.

It’s the same “A-ha!” moment that Poshmark’s CEO Manish Chandra had when he first saw Instagram. He’d been agonizing over a way to get women to upload good photos of stuff in their closets, easily and without any special skills or cables or equipment. Instagram was the instant solution, and the use of creative magazine-inspired photography has since become a hallmark of the site.

Beyond the new touches, here’s the good and the bad of Livestar. Review-based discovery is a glutted category with everyone from Yelp to OpenTable to Foursquare trying to be the answer in your pocket to the question, “I’m in this place right now, and here’s what I want. How do I get it?” On the Web and in various verticals, everyone from Rotten Tomatoes to Amazon to Netflix to Hunch to Pandora have tried to solve it, with mixed success.

It hasn’t been done well in aggregate or on mobile, because it’s a really hard problem to solve. A laundry list of UGC reviews don’t really help. More than 30 percent of them are fake and the rest are written by people you don’t know. The real solution relies on one of two things happening. Either an algorithm needs to know you so well it can serve up the best movie, restaurant, or music based on what you would deem the “best,” or you need to have a robust social graph of people who know you making recommendations. The first tends to work better than the second.

Livestar is wisely trying to solve the problem with an “all of the above” approach. It knows that social is going to take a long time to get there (if ever), and the app needs to work now or people will download it once and never open it again. The bar for gaining a mobile audience is so much higher than it is on the Web. Without immediate usability, it has no chance of building a network effect.

Sure, Livestar has some clever ways to solicit your friends’ feedback — it texts them with options already pre filled in, should you ask “What’s the best place to get pizza in the Mission?” But there’s just such social fatigue and spam everywhere that there’s inherent friction in that approach. I’m not sure it ever takes off. If anyone does it, it’s probably Foursquare with its existing database of billions of checkins and social connections.

But Livestar’s other two ways of serving up recommendations are more compelling. It has aggregated some 900,000 professional reviews from vetted sources, many from local publications and newsletters you may have never heard of. It also helps match you to other user groups that have similar tastes to serve up suggestions. So like Netflix, the more you use it and rank things, the better it works for you. Between the three paths, there’s a better likelihood of actually getting a recommendation that works for you. I like that they aren’t dogmatic about an approach, because in reality, people go to lots of different sources for recommendations — sometimes an algorithm, sometimes a professional critic, and sometimes a friend.

But here’s where Livestar has really nailed it — and it goes back to the opening of my post: A focus on utility. There is only one reason I started using OpenTable’s mobile app to find a restaurant near me instead of Yelp: Because with OpenTable I can see availability now and make an instant reservation in about a minute. Should I find what I want, I can actually act on it. This is where any mobile discovery app needs to go, and Livestar has nailed this element. You can add a song to your Spotify play list. You can add an old movie to your Netflix queue. You can make a reservation via OpenTable. If it gives you a meaningful layer on top to actually find what you want, this is something special.

I haven’t used it long enough to know if that’s consistently happening. But forget the friends and sharing, that’s the reason I’ll give Livestar a few weeks on my first app screen to prove itself.