The best smartphone apps meant for functionality rather than entertainment fill a need, are easy to use and provide appropriate functionality for the task at hand. The Harris County Sheriff's Department IWatch Harris County app delivers about one-and-a-half of those requirements.
The IWHC app for iPhone, Android and BlackBerry is actually a branded version of IWatch, an app built by Addison, Texas, tech company iThinQWare. Other versions of the free app are being used in the Dallas area as well. The app is meant to be an easy way for citizens who see a crime being committed to connect with law enforcement -- the Harris County Sheriff's Office in this case -- and file reports. This is a forward-thinking idea for government entities often woefully slow when it comes to adapting to new technology. It simplifies the reporting process and arms citizens with a tool to help law enforcement.
Unfortunately, this app falls short in some basic technological areas, particularly leveraging all the tools that devices like the iPhone have available, and has a couple significant flaws. While it does fill a need, the interface leaves a lot to be desired.
The app opens with a simple welcome screen and presents the user with a couple of options including watching a video from Sheriff Adrian Garcia and reading how to use the app.
The whole of the app's functions are contained in a drop-down menu at the top of the screen with options for calling the tip line, calling 911 and sending tips via different delivery methods including text and e-mail. There are options for anonymous and complete e-mail tips as well as a special link for Crime Stoppers tips.
All of these options are indeed helpful to have inside a single app. It makes sense that, in the heat of the moment, it might be easier for someone to hit an app button and click a link to dial 911 or send a message via SMS. Unfortunately, the app doesn't take advantage of any of the phone's built-in technology and, even worse, traps tipsters in an endless maze of forms.
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The "Email Complete Tip" is the cleanest function of the app with a simple, organized form to fill out. I've seen better ways at handling forms, but this is reasonable and works well.
Clicking on "Send Text Tip" or "Email Anonymous Tip" is a different story. Normally, when apps prompt such options, they engage the functions inside the phone, pushing the user out of the app and into a much more familiar area. This is standard practice, in fact, but the IWatch app instead brings up rather outdated-looking form fields to fill out and click submit. Why the designers chose not to use the simple e-mail and SMS functions of the phone is a mystery.
But, the worst offense of this app is the CrimeStopper tip section. Clicking on the link takes the user to a form that is too wide for the screen. I'm guessing that this is an online form that they forced into the app window instead of -- once again -- utilizing the phone's built-in browser. This would be mildly annoying if it were the only issue, but the most significant problem is that there is no way to get back to the app from this screen unless, I assume, you fill out the entire form. Since I didn't have an actual tip while testing it, I was forced to delete and re-install the entire app just to get back to the home screen.
Simply put, this app is a good idea poorly executed. I'd insert some joke about well-intentioned government programs here, but it's too obvious. The bottom line is that this app could be very good if the designers used more in-phone technology and cleaned up the overall interface. It looks like, instead, they took shortcuts to make the easiest possible outcome at the expense of the end user experience, which is the last thing people who are trying to help law enforcement need when reporting a crime.