App review: Starbucks

Ever been to a Starbucks and wonder why people are flashing their phones at the baristas or cash register? If they’re like me, they’re using the Starbucks app to pay for their food and drinks. Whether you go to Starbucks occasionally or have a table named after you there, I highly recommend the app. I’ve been using it for a couple of years, and I find it easy to use and very convenient. For this app review, I’m going to look at how the app works, and give you some tips I’ve learned over the years on how to get the most out of it.

How the Starbucks app works

Starbucks app home screenBefore you download the Starbucks app from the App Store or Google Play, you’ll want to go to their website first and setup an account (if you don’t have one already). I know it sounds painful, and yes – you’ll have to manage yet another password, but in order to take full advantage of the app, you need to have an account.

Once you get your account setup, you’ll need to have a Starbucks card available to load into your account. Usually, you’re prompted to enter a card when you setup your account, but it’s pretty easy to do later if you don’t have one available. Once you have a card loaded into your account, you’re ready to head over to the App Store or Google Play to download the app.

After you have it installed and open, the app will ask you to login using the account you created on the Starbucks website. After the login is verified, the card you loaded at the website will show up with its current balance. (see picture right)

To use the app, you can go to any Starbucks. After placing your order, pull out your phone, open your Starbucks app, and press the “Pay Now” button at the bottom of the screen. Then show the barista the bar code that pops onto the screen. The barista will scan it (or have you point it at the scanner), and you’re on your merry way. Now you can look cool just like the rest of us – at least that’s how I like to think I look while I’m paying with my phone!

Other features of the app

In addition to paying for your coffee, the app also allows you to do the following:

  • Track your rewards
    I don’t go to Starbucks often enough to bother tracking my rewards, but the app makes it way too easy. Turns out, I went more than I thought and made gold status last year!
  • Find stores
    If you’re in an unfamiliar location on vacation or business, the app can help you find the closest store to get your fix. You can also see the hours of operation, what services are available, and get directions from your location to the store.
  • Card reload
    I know you’ll find this shocking, but Starbucks makes it easy to reload your card with the app. You can do it in manually or have it set to reload automatically when the balance gets low or hits zero.
  • Use offers, discounts and rewards
    Any special offers, discounts or reward drinks you earn are auto-magically transferred onto your card. No more searching around for emails or printing out coupons. Just show the barista the code in your app. In some cases you can just tell them you have a reward available and the app will do the rest!
  • See recent transactions
    If you’re curious just how addicted you are to Starbucks or how often you go, you can see a list of your recent transactions.

Starbucks app Store FinderStarbucks app My Rewards

A couple of tips and why I like it

Aside from being a cool way to pay for my drinks and track my rewards, here’s a couple of tips and why I like it:

  • It’s convenient
    It’s faster than paying with credit and even cash. Plus, no more fumbling for cards or loose change. Just “show-and-go” at the register.
  • You can aggregate old cards
    When I first loaded the app, I had a bunch of orphaned cards that I had received as gifts over the years. Each card had a balance of under $2 that basically made it useless. The app let me enter all of those cards and transfer the balance onto one card. I had enough spare change on my orphaned cards to buy almost 3 drinks!
  • You can control your habit
    It’s not a “feature” of the card, but here’s how it works. If you’re trying to tame your coffee habit or reduce your Starbucks spend, try this trick. Load a set amount on your card at the start of every week (or month, or day, depending on how severe your addiction has become). Once you spend your budget, no more Starbucks until the next week!


For Starbucks regulars, the app is an absolute must have. However, even if you only go to Starbucks once in a while, it’s still a great app given its convenience and effortless reward tracking capabilities. It has helped me to use up the remaining balances on a bunch of cards I had lying around, to make gold status even though I don’t go that often (2-3 times a month is all it takes), and to look super cool when checking out (or super-nerdy, depending on your point of view). In short, I highly recommend it.



App review: FloodMap Mobile

FloodMap Mobile splash screen - framedI normally don’t review or recommend paid apps, but this month I’m going to make an exception with FloodMap Mobile by Atkins North America. The app is available for both iPhone and Android devices and costs $1.99, which is very reasonable given the functionality. In fact, I’d consider it an essential app for any agent or real estate professional.

As you would expect from the name, the app tells you the flood risk of a property address based on FEMA flood maps. You either enter the property address or use your location, and the app will show you the flood maps for that area. By entering some additional data about the address, such as the value of the property and its contents, the app will provide risk and insurance estimates. I wouldn’t recommend using the app as the official word regarding flood analysis, but at least you’ll have preliminary information when reviewing properties with buyers or discussing property risks with sellers.

In addition to maps, risk and insurance estimates, you can also access more detailed FEMA Flood Mapping Information including the FEMA Region, Community Number, Map Number, and Flood Zone for future reference. There is also a share button (labeled “Email”) that lets you email a report, post it to social media channels, or create notes through other installed apps on your phone.

Below are a few screen shots showing how the application works. In the first screen shot, you will see that the app is displaying my current location using the blue dot, which is our office (click image to enlarge). It allows me to quickly see if I am in a flood zone, which is shown by the red/orange crass-hatched areas. Thankfully, it appears that we are safe!

FloodMap Mobile - Office Location

If I want to get more information, such as flood risk and insurance information, I can choose the Location option and enter my address. In this case I entered our office address. If I want to get more information, I simply touch the property icon that appears on the map, and then the “i” (or information) icon on the pop-up display.

FloodMap Mobile - Request Info

The application then asks me for some property data, including the estimated value of the property and its contents. Then it will tell me the flood risk and provide an insurance estimate. I can also email this report to myself (or others) if I want to reference it later when talking with an insurance professional.

FloodMap Mobile - Property Report

These are just the basic features. There are options that let you compare properties and access additional map information through the “Layers” menu. Layers include Base Flood Elevation, Flood Hazard Structures, Coastal Barriers, Dams, Bridges and Non-FEMA Floodplains.

For anyone who is a real estate professional, FloodMap Mobile is an essential tool and a $1.99 well spent. It gives you an initial look at a property’s flood risk so you’ll be aware of any possible issues should you proceed with a transaction. Just be sure, as mentioned above, to validate any information you receive from the app with an appropriate professional to insure its validity and accuracy.


Introducing the Surterre Properties mobile application

Surterre Properties logo

We are proud to announce the release of the Surterre Properties mobile application. Based in Newport Beach, CA, Surterre Properties is Orange County’s leading luxury real estate brokerage. Surterre strives to provide their clients the best of both worlds. On the one hand, they employ experienced, successful, locally based agents who are dedicated to delivering personalized client service and results. On the other hand, Surterre possesses the strategic vision, marketing acumen and global reach one would expect to find at a much larger company. We were engaged by their in-house marketing and design team to transform their mobile presence into an engaging, interactive and visually attractive experience that would represent their brand’s commitment to the highest levels of quality and service that their clients have come to expect from them.

Goals and Approach

Surterre places a heavy emphasis on branding, particularly the look, feel, and treatment of their brand elements. Their attention to detail is a competitive advantage and one of the things that makes them unique. Our challenge was to bring that same approach to the mobile application while at the same time providing a deeply engaging and interactive experience. It required us to work closely with them to define the user interface and overall user experience while giving them the flexibility to provide significant input into the process, particularly the visual design of the application.

Here were the goals we had for the project development:

  • Represent the Surterre Properties brand effectively
  • Create a deeply engaging experience for the end user
  • Use the mobile web to provide application availability across iOS and Android
  • Improve site usability and lead generation capability over their existing mobile solution
  • Incorporate gestures and other mobile design patterns into the user interface
  • Provide an architecture that allows expansion of site content over time
  • Make use of context as appropriate to improve the user experience

Partnering to represent the Surterre brand

Our first step in the development process was to review Surterre’s online presence to determine how they differentiate their services and what makes them unique. Real estate is still a local business with each region having its own characteristics that need to be represented in their marketing materials. Also, each brokerage further differentiates itself by offering services or features that are not available from other firms in the area. For example, Surterre Properties dedicates a section of their website to Best Buys, which is a carefully compiled collection of exceptionally valued properties in coastal Orange County communities. It was important that in addition to covering basic features such as property search, agent search, and contact points, that we were able to incorporate specialized features such as Best Buys.

After determining the key features of the site, we worked closely with their marketing and art department to let them incorporate their own visual elements, brand and styling. To make a long story short, we provided the expertise for the mobile UI and UX, and Surterre provided the visual identity to make it look and feel like a Surterre product. Our partnership allowed them to have full control over the visual styling to make sure the look was unique to Surterre and presented the brand properly, especially since a mobile device is often the first interaction a client has with the company. A poor experience there could have a significant impact on the user’s overall perception of the brand.

Surterre Mobile Application Home Page

We went through a number of iterations to evolve the site from the first mock-up that we developed, which provided the foundation for the key features and flow of the application. Then we had them apply their brand elements on top of the foundation. Like building a house, we provided the blueprints for the site, framed it and applied the drywall. Surterre provided the interior design and added the soft touches like paint colors, furniture and the odds-and-ends that made the site their own.

The end result is a mobile application that incorporates a significant amount of visual imagery, which is an important part of the Surterre brand and reflects their commitment to taking care of the environment. As a certified Ecobroker®, they operate with sustainability in mind and donate a portion of their profits to local environmental organizations to preserve the beautiful environment along the Orange County coastline.

Key features of the application

After evaluating their existing online presence, there were a couple key features that we wanted to preserve in the mobile application. We also wanted to make sure that we included other features that have become important pieces for all of our projects. Here is a short overview of the key features.

  1. Best Buys (see right)
    Surterre Properties Best Buys

    Best Buys mobile page

    As mentioned above, Best Buys is a unique service that Surterre provides. We made sure that it is included as a dedicated page that is accessible within the property search section as well as from the main application navigation via the slide out menu. Users also have the ability to sign-up for Best Buy notifications through the application without having to go to the desktop site.

  2. Open Houses
    Surterre puts a significant amount of effort into open houses. The application has a dedicated open house page that is accessible from the home page, through the property search navigation, and through the main application navigation. The open houses are presented in a unique format and can be filtered quickly by city and day.
  3. Direct Linking
    We provided deep linking into the application via the desktop URL structure. It permits Surterre agents and marketing staff to share property links or agent profiles via email and social media. When the user accesses the link, they are directed to the proper view whether they are on a mobile device or desktop/laptop computer. Even dedicated pages of the mobile application, like open houses, can be linked to directly. You can try it by clicking on the following link on a mobile device,, to see a mobile view of the Surterre Properties Best Buys (or you can read the QR code below with your phone).
    Best Buys QR code
  4. Mobile web application with a native user interface
    Users can access the application using the browser on either an iOS or Android device and get a native experience. We don’t compromise the mobile experience that users have come to expect on the phones just because they access the site over the internet. I feel this is one place where responsive design comes up short, especially in real estate, but I digress. This is a much bigger topic for a different time.

Incorporating mobile design patterns and functionality

Our design of the application also incorporate many mobile specific features and design patterns. Here’s a sampling of some of the features that we included in the Surterre mobile application.

  1. Location
    Location is such an important piece of real estate, so it is only natural to include it in the mobile application. We use location to aid in property searches and to help users find open houses.
  2. Native application integration
    Surterre Properties Slide Out Menu

    Slide out menu for app navigation

    The phone, after all, is a contact device. We make use of the native dialer and email applications so the user can contact Surterre or an agent directly from the application. We also include access to native applications such as maps so users can get directions to properties or Surterre offices with the click of a button.

  3. Gestures and animations
    We’ve included the ability for users to activate features with touch events and gestures, such as slide to access the site navigation menu or to advance through property photos and/or details. We also use animations on page transitions to give users more of a native feel when using the application over the mobile web.
  4. Slide out menu navigation (see right)
    Providing a slide out menu has become more or less of a standard for navigating through a mobile app. The Surterre mobile application has one which allows the user to quickly move from one page to another within the application, and it is accessible from any page in the application. Plus, it provides the ability to expand the application’s content over time.
  5. Context
    In addition to location, we are also using other information provided by the device to aid in property and open house searches. Context is a critical piece of mobile design, and one we plan to use more in future revisions.

Early results

We are still in “pre-launch” mode, but the early results have been very positive. We are seeing strong usage numbers, and engagement statistics such as bounce rate, pages/visit, and time on site are well ahead of the numbers from their previous mobile solution. Surterre Properties is also reporting a dramatic increase in the number of leads being generated. The initial numbers indicate an 8-10x improvement.

We’re working with Surterre on an official launch to the public and their agent team. We plan to work closely with them to present the application at office meetings, perform in-person training sessions for agents, provide Surterre-specific support materials, and create a Surterre-specific newsletter to highlight important features of the application and use cases. We have found that the agents are the most effective marketing and promotion vehicle for our client’s applications and that investing the effort pays off in increased usage and lead generation. It’s the most cost-effective way to generate the best return on the investment in the application development, and we expect it to further enhance the initial results we’ve experienced.

Future goals and direction

We plan to continue working closely with Surterre Properties to evolve and add features to the mobile application. Given how mobile usage continues to grow, we want to make sure their mobile presence keeps up with the growing expectations of their clients and provides them with a best-in-class mobile experience. Here are a few of the features that are in the planning stages:

  • Packaging for native distribution
    The native design of the application will allow us to package it for distribution in the application stores for iOS and Android. It will also allow us to incorporate additional features by accessing device properties that are not available through the browser.
  • Improved property searching
    We are working on mapping functionality so users can search for and view properties using a map interface. We’re also looking to add lifestyle search functionality such as commute time searches, which are important for the often congested Southern California freeways!
  • More context awareness
    Doing more context analysis by combining device information with the user’s site interaction to aid in property recommendations, open house searches, site navigation, and more.
  • Incorporation of video
    Video has become an important part of the real estate search experience, whether it is virtual tours, neighborhood overviews, or company information. We want to make sure that the video library that Surterre has developed is available on both desktop and mobile devices.

As we incorporate these and other features, our overall goal for the application will remain the same – to effectively represent Surterre Properties and their commitment to the highest levels of quality and service that their clients have come to expect from them.

Check out the Surterre Properties mobile application by opening the browser on your iPhone or Android device and going to You will be “auto-magically” directed to the mobile application and can start searching for properties in Orange County, view their agent roster and individual agent profiles, learn more about Surterre Properties, or contact them for more information.


App review: GasBuddy

Have you ever found yourself in an unfamiliar neighborhood with your gas gauge on empty? I have, and when I do, I like to know where the closest, cheapest gas is. That’s where GasBuddy comes in. It helps you find the cheapest gas prices. You can search for gas prices (and stations) by your location, city or zip code.


How does GasBuddy collect all of this information? Its data is crowd sourced, which means that users enter the data whenever they fill up at a station. You can see the last time a gas price was updated by looking underneath the listed prices, which are updated by GasBuddy members. From what I can tell, anyone can become a GasBuddy member by signing up on their website or through the app. Once you become a member, you are rewarded with points for reporting prices. The points you earn can be exchanged for tickets that you enter into drawings to win free gas and other prizes.

GasBuddy mapIn my experience, I have not had any issues with inaccurate gas prices. I’ve found that the prices for most stations are updated daily, usually within the last few hours. I’m certain this varies by location with more frequent updates occurring in populated areas.

Since I’m familiar with prices in my immediate area, I don’t really use the app on a daily basis. I find it most valuable when I need to fill-up in an unfamiliar area. Using the location feature, it’s easy to see what the prices are around me, and the map feature shows you which stations are closest and how to get to them. It’s really useful when you are on a business trip or vacation and need to return a rental car. The app can help you avoid those high-priced stations around the airport that feed on uninformed tourists.

In addition to the mobile app, GasBuddy has a good website. It won’t win any design awards, but it has all kinds of useful information such as a trip cost calculator, average gas prices for various regions over time, and fuel saving tips.

Practical mobile applications are the best ones, and those that can help you save money are at the top of my favorites list. That’s why I really like GasBuddy. Even if you’re not interested in becoming a member, I still highly recommend using it. And why not? If the app can help you save a few bucks to fill-up your car, you should take advantage of it.

You can get GasBuddy for your phone by visiting their mobile download page here.


App review: Expensify


When tax season rolls around, I don’t mind visiting my accountant. She’s a nice gal, and I enjoy catching up with her once a year. What I hate is preparing to go see her. Finding old receipts, collecting documents, and remembering business expenses is such a hassle. It’s so much of a hassle, that I finally decided something had to be done and turned to my smartphone for help. I figured there had to be an app that would let me track expenses in real-time.

After a bit of investigation, I settled on Expensify. While I was attracted by the their tagline (Expense reports that don’t suck!), it was the functionality that hooked me. I like that Expensify uses your phone as an input device to capture expense data and receipt images, but that it also provides a clean web interface that allows you to organize your expenses, which is quite useful during tax time.

Getting started with Expensify

Getting started is easy. You simply go to their website,, and sign-up for a free account. You can start using their web interface immediately to load in expenses, organize expenses, and even fill-out expense reports if necessary for company reimbursements.

Most importantly, you’ll want to download their mobile application. The mobile application gives you the ability to take pictures of receipts for uploading to your account. You can either enter your receipt data manually, or you can use their SmartScanning service to have them enter the data for you. Best of all, according to Expensify, the digital receipts are accepted by the IRS. Finally! No more hunting through shoeboxes of receipts come tax time.

I could continue to go on about all of the other cool features they offer, such as tracking mileage, direct bank imports, and third-party integrations, but it’s best to head over to their site for more details. They have a great overview of the features as well as an easy-to-use getting started guide.

Using Expensify

Expensify home screenExpensify is very easy to use. Here’s a quick example of how I use both the mobile app and their website to manage expenses.

Step 1. I open the Expensify app on my phone and tap “Add Expense”

Step 2. I enter the merchant name, the amount, adjust the date (if necessary), fill-out any advance information, snap a photo of the receipt, and then upload/save it my account.

Step 3. When I get home, or at the end of the week, I log-in to Expensify on the web. Once in my account, I add-in any other information for tracking purposes and categorize all of my expenses for the past week.

That’s it, it is that simple to use it to get organized with your expenses.

Using Expensify in real estate

Here are a few more ideas on how you might want use Expensify in your real estate business to help you stay organized throughout the year so tax preparation goes much smoother:

  • Track overhead expenses
    Use an expense report for each month to keep track of the overhead expenses in your business such as office expenses, desk fees, license expenses, and technology expenses.
  • Track car mileage
    With Expensify, you can track mileage via a map interface, odometer entry, or your phone’s GPS. It’s a great way to track the miles your car is used for business activities, such as driving between showings, going around on caravan, or tracking trips back-and-forth to your property listing.
  • Track expenses per listing
    Setup an expense report by property listing so you can track all of the costs associated with a particular listing such as marketing, advertising, and maintenance.
  • Track transaction expenses
    Track all of your expenses associated that you incur associated with helping a client purchase a property. These expenses may include any closing costs, home warranties, or closing gifts provided to the client.

These are just a few ideas to get you started on your way. Once you start using the service and application, I am sure that you will come up with lots of other ways to track and organize your expenses.

So remember, it’s never too early, or too late, to get organized. Employing an expense tracking service and application into your daily workflow can be both a time and life saver come tax time. I’ve found that Expensify certainly has made my life a lot simpler come April 15, and hopefully it can do the same for you.

There are many expense tracking mobile apps available. If you have a favorite other than Expensify, please tell me which app it is along with what you like about it in the comments. Thanks!