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User guide

Safety first!

The app can be highly absorbing, particularly out in the city. To avoid bumping into people or things (or having them bump into you!), it’s best to stop to see notifications, read entries, and look at sites closely. If another notification interrupts your reading, consider it a good reminder to slow down. 

Along the same lines, take time to look up from your device to engage the world and to be aware of what’s around you. Looking at your phone doesn’t raise the “tourist” flag like fumbling with a guidebook or a map does, but don’t become a target for mischief by appearing out of place and distracted. Be extra careful after dark, and explore with friends whenever possible.

Please be respectful of the owners and occupants of the sites highlighted in the Guide. While there are wonderful public interiors that this guide can help you discover, most sites are private property and any exploration beyond what can be seen from the street or a public area is likely trespassing. Be judicious with photography. It is legal to take pictures if you’re standing on public property, but if anyone objects it is generally best to avoid confrontation and put your camera away.

Using the app

Allowing location services and notifications for the app is essential if you want to do more than simply read the content like a guidebook, as many of the app’s features rely on these services. With those services enabled, using the app is easy and intuitive.

The Guide includes over 1,000 individual “sites” of interest—buildings, structures, parks, etc. Entries for sites include text, photos, and sometimes links. Sites are collected into about 100 different “guides,” which organize sites by neighborhood, architect, style, awards, etc. Many sites appear in multiple guides; the Christian Science Complex appears in the Prudential neighborhood, Boston Concrete style, I.M. Pei projects, and Harleston Parker Medal winners, for example. Each of these guides has a cover photo, introductory text, and a map and list of the sites included.

There are three navigation tabs at the bottom of the screen. “About” is self-explanatory. Here’s how to use the “Discover” and “Active” tabs:

Discover. Use the “Discover” tab to find and peruse sites and guides. Tapping “Nearby” will reveal the sites closest to you—simply touch to open and view, and return to the list by using the back arrow in the upper left corner of the screen. All the other fields on the Discover screen lead to themed lists of guides. Tapping “Nearby Neighborhoods” presents the neighborhood guides sorted by proximity to you—open the first one or two to see a map view of the closest sites. Once a guide is open, simply touch the map to expand it, pinch or spread to zoom in and out, and touch any pin on the map to view the entry. Or just tap sites directly on the list below the map. In the map view, touching the arrow in the upper left corner of the screen will center the map on your location. Touching the pin button will reframe the map to show all the points in the guide.

The “Search” bar at the top of the Discover screen allows you to find sites by name. Note that sites are also tagged by decade—to see all the projects built in the 1880s just search “1880.”

Active. Use the “Active” tab when you’re out exploring the city. Each guide has an “Activate” button just under the cover photo, and touching that button makes that guide “active” on your phone. Shifting to the Active tab will show all the sites in “active” guides on the map, and you’ll receive a notification any time you pass within about 100 feet of any of them. You can activate multiple guides at the same time. For example, if you only want to be alerted to International style and Modern architecture, but nothing else, activate only those guides. You may notice a slowdown in performance when you have many guides active at once. To deactivate a guide, just open it and tap the Active button again—the sites will disappear from the active map.

Once a guide is active, the app will notify you only the first time you pass close to an active site, so you won’t get repeat alerts about the same place. To make all the sites “live” again, simply deactivate and reactivate the guide.

Battery and Memory Tips

Battery use. The app is designed to be as battery-efficient as possible, but using it intensively in the “active” mode will drain the phone battery faster than usual, just as with any GPS-enabled app. For all-day urban adventurers, portable chargers are recommended, as are rapid phone-charging stations in public plazas around the city. If your phone gets low on power, deactivate all guides to slow the battery draw and use the app in Discover mode.

Data and memory use. On the data and memory front, it’s all about the images. All the text loads with the app—it’s hundreds of pages, but doesn't use much memory. Since images take up much more memory, the app is designed to download them only when guides are opened. It will keep loading images into memory until it hits a set limit. When another guide is opened and the added images will exceed that limit, the app automatically deletes the images used least to make room for the new ones. This feature allows the app to present images quickly while not overloading the phone’s memory.

As with all apps, images load fastest with a strong signal. Using wifi to download images before use in the field will provide the best performance while also lessening the draw on wireless data plans.

As you know, smart phones aren’t infallible. If the cell signal is weak, it may take a few moments for images to download, or for sites to show up on the map. If you’re downtown amidst tall buildings, GPS may occasionally be (wildly) inaccurate. As technology continues to improve, so will performance of the app. In the meantime, using patience and careful attention is the best approach.

Maps of Neighborhoods

The Guide covers the Boston Metro area out to Route 128 and occasionally beyond, as shown in these maps. If you allow the app to use your location, it can present the neighborhoods and sites closest to you.

Metro Area

Downtown