The app that solves your vacation issues

December 02, 2015

Handling payments, receipts, restaurant bills and debts is something you’d rather do without. Especially when you are on vacation and you just want to have fun.

This blog post is about a fantastic new app that helps you avoid both the practical hassle of dealing with debts, along with the guilt trips when paying for a round of drinks, borrowing money or splitting payments among friends while on vacation. I’ll start by telling you about a vacation not at all out of the ordinary…

Vacation headaches

You are going on a week’s vacation sailing along the Croatian coast with friends. The three of you meet up and share a taxi to Arlanda airport. You end up seated in the front. You usually like sitting in the front, but it’s a bit risky when it comes to taxi rides, as it increases the risk that you will have to shell out the money for the taxi fare. And like clockwork, when the cab pulls up near the terminal the all-too-familiar discussion begins.

“What are we going to do about the fare?” someone asks from the back.

“What the heck, I’ll pick it up and we’ll sort it out later,” you say, stuffing the receipt into your wallet.

A few of you decide to grab a glass of wine at the hotel bar. You’re on holiday after all! The bar is packed with people, but after some time milling about you get hold of a few seats that you do not want to lose. So one of you asks what everyone wants to drink, then goes up to the bar and orders a round of drinks. The classic conversation starts up as soon as she comes back.

“Hey, thanks! So did you pay for all of us? Wait, I might have some cash. Oops, no, I only have 3 dollars. But I’ll get the next round,” one of you says.

“It’s fine,” she says back.

You land at the airport in Croatia and are greeted by a welcome blast of heat. There at last! Now all you need to do is get to the marina – so you hail two taxicabs. Three members of the group jump into one taxi, and you and the last member of your group take another taxi. Typical. Now it will be more expensive for the two of you, as there are only two of you splitting the fare. Not that the sums involved are anything major, but still…

Before you can set sail, you need to buy plenty of supplies, so a few of you head over to a nearby supermarket to stock up. Splitting the payment at the till is a futile proposition, so one of you pays for it all, and you agree to work out the details later.

The usual conversation awaits when you get back to the boat:

“So you paid for all the shopping?” one of you says.

“We should probably write down who spent how much money on what so we won’t forget.”

The sailing trip was a success, and you go on the same holiday the next year. But this year you can’t stand the thought of going through last year’s hassle again, so you bring your computer and plan to enter the group debts directly in Excel. And although this is a much easier way to keep track of expenses, using a computer on a sailing boat is a somewhat complicated proposition. Only you have the password to the computer, so it is still difficult for all members of the group to enter costs as they arise. You and another group member who has been keeping track of payments start discussing different Excel equations that would make things easier, and after a while you say

“Imagine how nice it would be if there were an app that could take care of all this crap.”

After a few days of lovely sailing, you decide to splurge on a gourmet meal out on one of the islands. It ends up being a great evening with plenty of food and wine and good conversation. Then comes the bill, and along with it the usual discussion:

“How are we going to handle paying the bill?”

“Should we split it evenly among everyone? I suppose that’s the easiest way to do it.”

Everyone agrees, but the approach makes you feel a bit uneasy. Your budget is a bit tight, which is why you chose a less expensive main course and skipped dessert, so splitting the bill evenly does not feel quite right. But, not wanting to be fussy, you end up going with the flow.

Next day, before leaving the marina, you and a friend are walking around among the market stalls when you find a really nice-looking inexpensive sun hat that you. You are seized by the impulse to buy it when you realise:

“Damn, I only have large bills, and they don’t have any change,” you say.

“I have coins. I can take care of it!” says your friend.

“Hey thanks, I’ll pay you back as soon as I get some change,” you say.

As the trip goes on, the debts owed among the members of your group pile up. You have tried to settle some of them in the form of “a beer for beer” or “I’ll treat you to this ice cream,” while for others you have tried to keep a written record. Some people have mislaid the receipts, so a lot of guesswork is involved. It gets even more complicated when you realise that some payments were made in SEK and others in Croatian CZK. For example, one of you put the boat rental on his credit card several months ago. You try to figure it all out on the boat before flying home, but you realise that you will be making more outlays on the way home, so you decide to sort it out later. Once you get home you realise that the easiest way to make this work is to use Excel, but figuring out who should pay what to whom is a major hassle…

The above scenario was based on trips I have personally taken with friends. When I came home after the second sailing trip and discussed the money issue with a friend, he said the magic words: “You know, I think there is an app out there that does just that. It’s called Settle Up”. Which is why I want to use this space to introduce an app that in my view is simply superb. In the jungle of apps out there today, there are many that, while they may offer a feature or solve a problem, are hobbled by such a clumsy interface that it makes you wonder how they got off the drawing board in the first place. Settle Up, on the other hand, both solves a real problem I have experienced, and does so with remarkable elegance – given what a great user experience it provides, I would like to introduce it in some detail.

The app that solves the problem

Settle Up came out in 2011, and is available for iOS, Android and Windows Phone. It is designed to help you keep track of your expenses. In 2013 a new version was released for the iPhone - Settle Up 7. This version was spruced up considerably, with a sleeker design. The designers have integrated shadows, icons and skeuomorphic design to make the most of the new OS flat design concept and transparent styling.

So, Settle Up is an app designed mainly to help you split bills and handle debts among friends, but also to help you avoid the emotional problems caused by having to debate “who paid” and “who should pay”. Especially when you’re on vacation and just want to have fun while avoiding the tension, gossip and guilt trips that accompany such debates.

How does it work?

To explain the service I will refer back to the example I presented in the beginning – our sailing trip to Croatia.

The first step is to start a group. One of the app’s great features is that you can have multiple groups running simultaneously. Groups are created based on the metaphor of stacked cards. When you open up a group you will see all members as well as the group’s running tab. To return to cards (groups) view, you can either swipe the card back down to display the list, or tap the bottom of the screen to see the “stack”. A lot of attention has been spent on the details of how these views interact. The cards move naturally when you swipe, and small animations help reinforce the metaphor. My only negative comment is that it was not obvious to me how to get back to the cards view. But they have provided two ways of getting back to cards view, so it didn’t take long to learn.

Short view, home viewLeft image: Short view with my shared groups
Right image: Home view in a group

The next step is to add members. One of the most important features here is that you can share the group with all its members, so that everyone has the ability to enter and keep track of running costs. The app is available for iOS, Android and Windows Phone, making it possible for virtually everyone to join the shared group. This feature is an enormous help, as it relieves people of the responsibility for keeping track of all expenses – instead, everyone can enter just their own expenses. All members are assigned a colour, making it easy to distinguish between different payments.

MembersLeft image: Adding a member to a group
Right image: List of all members in the group

Once all members have been added, you can start entering costs. For our first cost, I enter the taxi fare to Arlanda airport. I select who paid, for whom, the amount, and finally the purpose of the cost. An important feature here is that not all members necessarily have to share the cost, but only the ones who should. It is this procedure in particular that the developers changed the most in the new version of the app. Here they make use of subtle animations to get the “balls” to move naturally, making for a more pleasurable user experience. Not only that, but simple yet clear approaches like grouping and colour coding are used to make it intuitive and simple for the user to understand what is happening in the various steps. As a left-handed user, it bothers me that iOS7 recommends placing the “Next” button in the upper right-hand corner (hard to reach with your left thumb), so I’m grateful they’ve made it possible to swipe between views.

When it comes to the taxi fares to the boat, what you do is enter both payments and include everyone in the group in the sharing of the costs, so that no one has to pay more depending on what cab they ended up in. A key feature here is that they have made it possible to choose what currency the payment was made in, as this payment was made in the Croatian currency CZK instead of SEK.

TaxipaymentLeft image: The first taxi fare cost, split among everyone in the group
Middle image: The second taxi fare cost, also split among everyone in the group
Right image: Currency view, with an option to configure favourite currencies

The next payment to enter is the shared dinner, which was a bit more complex because not everyone ate the same things. An important feature here is precisely this ability to enter different amounts for different people. Another great feature for this particular case (we all know that restaurant bills and bar tabs can get pretty messy) is that the app lets you take a photograph of the tab and save it as an image linked to the payment, making it easier to adjust any incorrect amounts afterwards, or in cases where you happen to be too tipsy to sort it out then and there (or simply if someone in the group thought it seemed a little expensive and wanted to scrutinise the bill in detail). This feature – the ability to enter a payment split unevenly among the members of the group – is one of the few features that I think has become clunkier in the new version, and where they put form over function. Clicking in and out of the balls is a bit difficult and it is easy to make mistakes, and for me, using the plus sign to enter the next amount was not intuitive.

Split paymentsLeft image: The view in the new version where you enter unevenly split payments
Right image: The same view in the old version

The home screen for the group is always a picture of the current debt status for the entire group. The screen uses colour coding, size and text to make it easier for the user to get a quick grasp of the situation.You can also view a list of all the payments that have been entered, which you can access to make changes, or just to verify that all the payments have been entered. This view has been made much clearer and easier to grasp in the new version. It makes it easy to see everyone’s debt position, and even though the app highlights group members who are most in the red, it doesn’t put users on the spot by writing “Next to pay”. You don’t necessarily want an even distribution of costs over the course of the trip. Often, it is almost easier if someone pays or a few people pay more than others – this way you avoid having to pay trivial amounts to many people at the end.

Overview, home viewLeft image: Overview of entered payments. Takes advantage of iOS7’s transparent design to liven up the list without annoying the user
Middle image: Home view for the group showing the current debt situation
Right image: The same view in the old version

When the trip is drawing to a close and all the payments have been made, click “Settle up debts”, and the app will calculate an optimised division of debts. This is particularly nice to avoid having to do yourself. You can also mark debts as paid to keep track of who has paid and who has not. One clever feature offered by the app is that you can ask it to round off debts using what is called a tolerance, so that people do not end up owing each other trivial amounts. If I set the tolerance to SEK 50, the app will ignore all debts less than 50.

View showing who should pay whomLeft image: View showing who should pay whom
Middle image: By clicking on the amount, you can mark all or a portion of the debt as paid
Right image: If the debt has been paid, it disappears from the view to reduce clutter

In summary

I hope this review has helped give you a better idea of how Settle Up works. For me it has been an extremely useful app that has considerably reduced money hassles when I go on vacation. And not only that – the redesign has even made it enjoyable to enter payments. A lot of this is thanks to the nice design, which is clean with plenty of white space and thin lines, yet still manages to be playful. One of the things I think makes this app so good is that they have really thought through real-world scenarios and flows, and have configured features and flows accordingly. One example is the ability to use different currencies in a single group (as many trips are taken at least partially abroad), partially settled debts (as it is not always possible to settle the entire amount right away), and the ability to export the “Settled debts” view to email or SMS, so that those who have not installed the app can easily access the content. Another thing I appreciate is the clear language used by the app. Sometimes the sentences run on a bit long, but that’s better than the meaning being left unclear.

I hope they keep developing this app, and that they add more features and nice touches. It’s not an app destined to conquer world, but for the target group it is spot on, and deserves to be noticed.