photo credit Huyen
Suzana joined before her plane took off
Like many tea enthusiasts I first considered this tea app theme related to looking into timer functions long ago, and re-considered it when My Tea Pal came out, adding more of the functions that Steepster had, and still has. Steepster just wasn't ever converted into an app form, as far as I know.
The Tea App theme was never of so much interest, because I didn't need a timer, I could keep notes elsewhere, and could already use Steepster (and did, a little). But it's interesting to consider what other directions a tea app might take, which is exactly what we talked about. Per my impression Steeped isn't in that complex and fully functional form now; the early version that exists provides some background information about tea brewing, and serves as a timer. Per input from the developers that’s not quite the extent of it, since that makes it sound like a parameters table:
Steeped currently is a tea brewing app that goes beyond providing background information and a timer, onto including full step by step instructions for five brewing methods - Western Style, Gong Fu Style, Grandpa Style, Cold Brew and Matcha Brewing. The timer supports different steeping times for multiple infusions and automatically calculates the correct brewing parameters depending on the tea type used, water amount, brewing method, and intensity preference.
capture from their website
All the rest here will be about planned changes and developments, I suppose some of which are pretty far along in development, and others ideas that won't ever come to life. We didn't really press Tristan about which were which, and I didn't keep track when any distinction was made.
One of the next two forms will add tea experience note taking functions, pretty much what one would expect a tea app to be. Per my own expectations it would be hard to develop all of the product and review sorting and communication functions already on Steepster, messaging, the ability to follow people, and a forum function, but they wouldn't need to, depending on the intended range.
The other planned range, some already well under development, goes way beyond this, to include a marketplace function. There has to be a commercial angle of some sort, right? I like this idea of leaning into it, not just adding a subscription service (as I think My Tea Pal does), or some ads, but expanding light reviewing and informational functions to include a sales portal. How would that work? It's not finished yet, so what we heard of was development work, and current direction, not a final form, but I can explain my understanding.
Vendors would sign up to participate, to sell through that channel, basically, and then they could list products there. In some form this could link to user reviews, so it wouldn't just be like a sales page listing. This isn't functionally so different than Amazon including product reviews (or any vendor doing that). The point came up that one main online tea vendor screens all negative reviews entered as product listing comments on their site, just not showing them below a certain score level, and reviewing them before posting them at an intermediate level (anything not highly positive). Of course this would be a concern for Steeped too, not the screening, but people entering overly positive or negative comments or ratings for reasons beyond offering genuine personal experience feedback. This is surely what is being restricted in that other case, beyond some genuine negative feedback. I won't stall on that point here; it's probably familiar ground.
It must be a challenge to set up such a thing, since it would either be a central, unified, physical processing system (like Amazon), or else it would mirror external vendor functions, with plenty of drawbacks to both. They're now setting it up as the second. It would really be impractical for them to be holding on to dozens of vendors worth of product stock, or setting up a two stage order process, shipped to them then shipped to the customer.
All of this would be complicated enough to set up within one country, but that much worse dealing with international shipping and import restrictions, with taxation and such. It can be workable for them since they limit it to within the EU, at least initially, which narrows down such complications considerably. As I understand it that means vendors who participate could only be within the EU; maybe that wouldn't necessarily apply to where they could ship to.
We talked a lot about how they could adjust the form to optimize the experience, to add real value for users, but since the version is being developed it's all really about what is still being designed, or not under development yet. There's a lot of potential, right? And also a lot of potential for plenty to go wrong, for bad-faith participants to make app user input worthless, on both the positive and negative sides, related to artificial self-promotion or destructive campaigning. Or it might not result in much more than a way to look at ads, which isn't a high-demand function. Plenty of diverse feed algorithm potential we discussed would offset both risks, but there would be lots of extra challenges that come up.
One participant, Jan, who we've also met with before, is a German app developer based in the Netherlands, so his discussion input was especially interesting. Or at times technical enough to be hard to follow, but that stayed limited. Suzana was just about to fly, so we heard less from her, and Huyen could catch almost all of it but was out traveling and experienced some connection issues. It is nice how those meetups don't necessarily require someone to be sitting in a meeting room type environment in their house, though. I've never completely adapted to joining from a car but it came up often last year.
I should mention something about Ralph for completeness; he expressed the concerns that plenty of vendors aren't selling high quality teas at good value, that their own descriptions might be misleading, and keeping the core site content about tea themes complete and accurate might be difficult, about types and brewing parameters and such. Presumably an effective user feedback function could help with the first, product reviews.
It makes you think through what other forms of communication channels or technological tools might support tea interest and experience. Or why people intentionally don't connect the two, beyond online group discussion, in lots of social media forms, with most people who love tea not even into that.
We talked about how tea experience seems to divide into people exposed to what is in grocery stores, and people who take it the next few steps, exploring more and more types, other brewing processes, cultural issues, making social connections, and so on. Maybe new forms of online channels and tools can help people who wouldn't even consider joining a Facebook group to connect in other ways. Back when I was starting out exploring tea discussion online it all seemed simpler, with Facebook groups barely getting started, and Tea Chat a main discussion channel, with Steepster entering in right about then. Before all that text blogs played a larger role, a role that is quite diminished at this point.
I think it makes sense to explain why I'm "pro vendor," why I don't see a problem with so many people thinking they could make money off a theme that many of us tea enthusiasts try to keep as simple and removed from complications as possible, like commercial gain and social status issues. Tea is only "in the West" because vendors are buying it in Asia and selling it there, with very few exceptions. We definitely don't need tea apps to appreciate it, or to support that sales, but people exploring new forms and channels I see as a good thing. Those that don't work, that don't help consumers, will fade away, and promising approaches that actually work in practice will be taken up and developed further by others.
It's interesting considering why Steepster became inactive, since it probably included a range of functions and built on a base of uptake My Tea Pal and Steeped probably won't match any time soon. Of course I would only be guessing if I tried to explain that. Social media channels just seem to experience a natural lifespan; there's that. Tea Chat was never obsolete, but it went quiet long before controversy over management of the site shifted it from relatively inactive to very inactive. Quora, another site I wrote answers for and started a tea space on, is on the declining side of such a curve. For a limited range theme, like a Q & A site, somehow that makes more sense. Or when a social media channel never draws a critical mass of uptake to gain momentum, as Google + didn't, that also seems understandable. Other social media life-span themes are harder to place.
It will be interesting to see how far Steeped gets with these directions, and how they deal with the challenges, and developing a broad range of potential. Tristan said that their next app version will come out within a few months, so some of that next range of functionality will be available soon. It's possible to check it out now but at this point it's mostly just limited background information, brewing instructions, and a timer function.
I feel as if this doesn’t reflect just how positively I interpret the potential we discussed, which they’re working on developing into later finished app version functions now. I think app marketplace forms like this will change how tea is accessed and sold, so it comes down to whether or not their version will become functional and adopted enough to fulfill that role.
There’s another part that relates to people reading text tone based on biases and expectations; everything is expected to be positive or negative. What we write ourselves seems to naturally leave those out, from our own point of view, and cover a neutral and objective take, but of course that's just those being transparent to us. I'm biased against timer and tea background apps being helpful, probably, because I don't even use a timer, and I'm more likely to write brewing advice content than seek it out. Far more people are closer to the beginning of a tea experience learning curve, and this could be a novel way to present brewing information.
Since brewing preference is subjective related content is always about starting points, and maybe this app form is a much better way to convey that than a brewing parameters table. Then I would have to review the advice they’ve included to critique or praise that, and my own impression would have to be subjective too, related to matching or contradicting my own brewing preferences, so it seems as well to not go there. People could download the app to see where they stand on that, and in relation to the form being helpful.