NEW YORK — After the bombings at the Boston Marathon, Denise Brown wasn’t sure if she felt safe letting her 17-year-old son go on a school field trip to Washington, D.C., in May. So she turned to a new app called Polar for help.
“Would you be nervous sending your child to Washington D.C. landmarks?” Brown asked via her iPad.
After one week, she had her answer: 31 people voted “Yes, after Boston bombing,” while 122 chose “No, security tightened.”
“I’m a worrier by nature, so just the fact that more people felt that it would be safe and wouldn’t be worried gave me the peace of mind,” said Brown, a homemaker and mother of four from Virginia.
Polar is just one of a new wave of decision-making applications that were designed to help people reach conclusions quickly by enabling them to get instant feedback from hundreds of friends and strangers. They were initially designed as shopping aids, but creative users have turned them into instant polls and mini chat rooms about popular topics such as current events. And businesses are beginning to harness them to collect input from consumers.
“Our initial target was anyone that needed advice from friends while shopping,” said Dan Kurani, the CEO and founder of Thumb. “However, it turned out that the usage was of a much wider breadth and people preferred getting unbiased opinions from people” outside their existing circle of friends.
Polar and another app called Seesaw are among the newest on the scene. Both launched within the past six months. Seesaw, which was featured on the Apple App Store’s New and Noteworthy section on April 25, saw its rolling 30-day average number of downloads and posts rise at least 200 percent the next day, said co-founder Jesse Engle.
As of April 28, Thumb, which was founded in 2010, had around 2 million registered users, according to its website. Active users spend an average of about 4.5 hours per month on the app. Polar and Seesaw are currently free and ad-free, while Thumb offers a free version with ads and a paid ad-free version.
In all three apps, users simply ask questions. For Thumb, the available replies are yes, no or neutral; for Polar, you input two options; in the case of Seesaw, you can list up to four responses. Photos are used to illustrate the options, which you can either snap on the spot (useful for those questions about which pair of socks to buy), or search for online.
In a quandary over what to cook for dinner? Just post pictures of the dishes you are considering and ask people to weigh in. Seesaw allows users to send individualized links to people in their phone books. People can vote and chime in by commenting as well.
Dr. Elisabeth Brauner, a professor of psychology at Brooklyn College, said that one reason for the popularity of such apps could be the desire for social comparison – comparing our opinions and abilities to other people’s. “Particularly on choices that there is no objective criterion, then you want to have social feedback,” she said.
Also, she added, in this age of hyper-connectivity, people want to have instant feedback, rather than wait a couple of days to ask their friends.
Users say that a big part of the draw is the fun of answering interesting questions and seeing what is popular. Brown, the Virginia homemaker who has been using Polar since the end of last year, said that she gets between 100 to 500 responses to her polls.
The apps are also being used by professionals to make decisions that better cater to their target audience. Andy Akins, 23, a designer and social media director at a church in Fort Branch, Ind., used Seesaw to ask which color scheme reminded people of Easter. Users chose the pastel one over purple and cyan. “I used that decision to brand a whole Easter service,” he said.
Thumb’s Kurani has been quick to take advantage of this market. Earlier this year, he launched Thumb Pro, which provides features aimed at larger-scale data-gathering for a monthly fee.
Engle of Seesaw said that while they are still working toward a critical mass of users, the plan for monetizing the app in the future would probably be targeted advertising. “You can imagine the value of knowing at the very moment when someone is deciding between two dresses at Nordstrom,” he said.
Most users said they would not base serious life choices on the opinions of strangers, although Florida student and Thumb user Deondra Stanley, 18, said that weighty questions do come up on topics such as relationships and family issues.
Sometimes seeing so many different viewpoints can sow more confusion. “I have asked personal questions before, but I always end up on the fence by the time I read through the comments,” said Nathan Hair, a 19-year-old college student from Pennsylvania who uses Thumb.
Increasingly, users of the apps are coming up with creative questions that are simply about discovering public sentiment. This came as a bit of a surprise to the developers. Luke Wroblewski, CEO and co-founder of Input Factory, the company that created Polar, said that “where we see a lot more activity today is people really talking about things that are of interest to them, like current events.”
Polls about popular culture, entertainment, sports, news and media tend to garner the most votes, with the average user voting a whopping 50 times a day, Wroblewski said.
Users are also forming interest groups, with regulars commenting on various polls. Stanley said she has made many friends on Thumb, which allows users to continue private conversations with people who comment on their questions.
At the end of the day, decision-making apps are probably not going to tell you whom you should marry or whether you should quit your job. Nevertheless, said Akins, the designer from Fort Branch, they are “especially and surprisingly helpful at choosing a lunch spot.”