Taking Car Insurance iPhone Apps for a Spin

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This post comes from Clare Kaufman at partner site Insure.com.

When a car problem strikes — like an accident or auto theft — you count on your car insurance company to be there. A new generation of iPhone apps strives to keep your insurance company by your side at all times: A virtual agent is available 24/7 to direct you to emergency roadside assistance, walk you through accident protocol or display your coverage details.

Here we’ll guide you through the highs and lows of today’s top car insurance apps. Ratings are provided by Insure.com and are based on the following virtues:

  • User interface: An interface should be easy on the eyes and fingertips, with an intuitive navigation and layout.
  • Accident claims: Car insurance apps really prove their value in a crisis. A good accident app offers a clear path through the process of collecting information, getting help and initiating a claim.
  • Services: Car insurance services tap into the iPhone’s 3G-powered information network. Access emergency roadside assistance, find the nearest gas station or view key stats on cars you may consider buying.
  • Account administration: Manage your existing account from your phone or shop for new coverage. You can pay your bill, view your coverage details or get an insurance quote.

Overall, your smart phone should put you in touch with key resources when you need them. Car insurance apps should strive to make the most of your 3G connectivity, GPS, camera and graphical navigation tools.

State Farm Pocket Agent ★★★★☆

Highs: State Farm’s Pocket Agent goes the extra mile with visual media tools for accident reporting. Sketch the scene, pinpoint vehicle damage on a car diagram and take photos.

Lows: The app falls short in the account-administration department, which lacks standard features such as “bill pay” and policy details.

The view from the driver’s seat: State Farm’s Pocket Agent brings the wow! factor to car insurance apps with its use of graphics and drawing tools for accident reporting. The home-page menu stumbles, with oddly redundant fields for “after an accident” and “document an accident.”

Once you drill into any of the five sections, however, the capabilities are clear and impressive. “Find a repair facility” uses the phone’s internal GPS to automatically call up a list of service stations near you. “Document an accident” brings together all the details in a single interface, which functions as a straightforward checklist for accident-stressed users. GPS-defined location? Check. Photos? Check. Robust multimedia tools let you check off areas of damage on a vehicle graphic and even draw the accident on a street map complete with trees, trains, bicycles and other features you can add with the tap of a finger.

There’s room for improvement in this ambitious reporting tool; the vehicles can’t be oriented on the street map, there aren’t guidelines for photo shots and the damage can’t be marked precisely. The Yes-No checkbox for fatalities exposes technology’s tin ear for tragedy (at least it isn’t a drop-down box). But overall, Pocket Agent wins for setting a high bar and, for the most part, achieving the desired functionality.

GEICO GloveBox ★★★☆☆

Highs: GEICO GloveBox does a good job of harnessing the phone’s full range of data-management capability. You’ll find your phone, e-mail, GPS, camera, Internet search and navigation tools all put to use in a comprehensive menu of features.

Lows: Administrative functions fall short of most customers’ expectations, while overloading the phone’s data resources. Sluggish upload of the ID card and account information reveals gaps and limited features, especially for users accustomed to online account management.

The view from the driver’s seat: GEICO’s GloveBox hits all the right notes, with accident reporting, roadside service and account features such as Bill Pay. Some users also enjoy GEICO’s friendly cast of mascots (the gecko, the cavemen, etc.), who reside in video links to GEICO commercials.

But GEICO’s car insurance app really wins in its accident-reporting interface, calibrated to the needs of a traumatized user. The app takes you through a decision tree to help you determine whom to call, what to do first and what information to collect. Where other apps simply link to the camera, for example, GEICO specifies which shots to take: the accident scene, damage to the car, and the other driver’s license plate. The Accident Helper’s interface is optimized for an accident scene, but victims of theft or vandalism can repurpose the photo tools for non-emergency reporting.

GEICO also adds a section of useful instructions to help you out of a jam: Learn to jump-start your car, change a tire or pack an emergency kit. If DIY is not your style, use the easy navigation bar to link to tow trucks and service stations.

However, the GEICO app falls short of the competition in the account administration department. Several features are missing or unreliable — ID cards are slow to load, for example, and motorcycle insurance accounts aren’t available. Accident reporting doesn’t allow you to initiate a claim or e-mail accident information to GEICO.

The Hartford Mobile ★★★☆☆

Highs: A sophisticated design and thoughtful “roadside” manner distinguish The Hartford’s Mobile app.

Lows: Aiming for competence rather than excellence, The Hartford’s app doesn’t make full use of the iPhone’s navigation and information networking capabilities.

The view from the driver’s seat: The Hartford is a solid companion at the roadside, with emotionally astute accident copy (“take a deep breath …”) and straightforward reporting navigation. The app wins extra points for its accessibility features, such as a large-print option. It covers all the bases, with base-bar links to accident reporting, services and account administration and solid navigation within these tools.

The app isn’t quite optimized to mobile technology, however. Despite solid use of the GPS, checklists and drop-down menus for accident reporting, the app quickly reverts to web links and 1-800 numbers for other services. The app misses an opportunity to make full use of real-time customer information updates, preferring links to extensive general policy information (see “service details” for example) that require the user to scroll down into infinity. The word-packed copy is reminiscent of a paper handbook; it’s out of place on a website and unusable on a mobile device.

Nationwide Mobile ★★★☆☆

Highs: Nationwide hits all the bases in this comprehensive app, which includes an easily navigable menu of links to emergency assistance, accident reporting and claims, account administration and more. The app’s user interface puts functionality ahead of flashy branding, creating a pleasant experience.

Lows: The devil is in the details: Reporting tools fail to integrate the collection of information, creating an erratic data-entry experience.

The view from the driver’s seat: Nationwide’s app is one of the most comprehensive, with an accident tool kit, auto claims feature, “my insurance” info bar and search tools for locating a repair shop or car insurance agent. The app even includes a “Flashlight,” which turns up the iPhone’s bright white background (beware the battery drain of this feature, however, which could deprive you of a phone in case of emergency).

A separate Nationwide app, Cartopia, does justice to iPhone-enabled vehicle-buying assistance, going miles further than Progressive’s cursory Car Buying Tools with vehicle specifications, monthly payment estimation and fair third-party pricing data.

But the user experience hits a wall in accident reporting and claims. While other apps offer an integrated interview experience to collect key information, Nationwide splits up information collection. With no flow-chart questionnaire to keep you on track, it’s up to you to remember to hit the menu back button and choose the next item on the reporting menu. It’s unlikely that the accident victims for whom these tools are designed will have the presence of mind to dip in and out of each information field to create a full report. Key information available only at the accident site — photos, the precise GPS-defined location and the other driver’s information — risks being lost in the mix.

Allstate Mobile ★★☆☆☆

Highs: Navigation is a high point of Allstate’s app, with a clear menu and base-bar access to key tools and features.

Lows: The technology itself drags this app down. Each page uploads stored data individually, disrupting the user experience with constant page loads and slow system performance.

The view from the driver’s seat: You’re in relatively good hands with Allstate’s user-friendly app. The flow chart accident reporting format, interactive reporting checklist and the ever-present base bar navigation make for an intuitive information management tool. Features cover the basics, with a couple of noteworthy extras. For example, the app includes a direct link to send your insurance info to the other driver involved in an accident. But the basic functionality falls short in some key areas. The app does include an accident-reporting interface, for example, but it doesn’t use the iPhone’s capabilities to create a full record. The app doesn’t link to the camera, and there’s no way to record detailed information about the accident scene and vehicle damage. The claim form is really designed to initiate a claim rather than collect information, with fields covering just the basics. Account administration also aims no higher than basic functionality, omitting access to account information (deductibles, etc.) and online bill payment.

The real problem with the app, however, is its sluggish performance. Each move in the menu requires a time-consuming data upload — even if it’s not linking to personal information. For example, the claims section takes you through two steps, a disclaimer requiring an “OK” click and a “loading” screen to call up a standard “claim type” menu, before you can select “auto” and begin entering information. The constant stalls and “retrieving information” or “processing request” notices are likely to frustrate users, especially at the scene of an accident.

Travelers Auto Accident Help ★★☆☆☆

Highs: A versatile and thoughtful accident reporting app gets the job done with minimal flashiness and robust use of the iPhone’s data tools.

Lows: Despite a solid performance in accident reporting, the Travelers app falls short (or fails to show up at all) in critical areas such as service information and account management.

The view from the driver’s seat: Travelers’ accident reporting tool is firmly focused on function rather than form. Some unique features include the dual-level reporting forms — one for detailed information, one for quick reporting — and the multimedia reporting interface. The multimedia form offers a central interface for taking photos, writing a description and, best of all, recording your audio account of pertinent details. The app prompts you with talking points such as weather, your driving speed and road conditions. This no-nonsense accident tool rivals State Farm’s flashy visual interface — it’s more accessible, if less cool. At a time of crisis, photos and voice recording are likely to be better ways to record accident information than line drawings with props and typed answers on a miniature mobile screen.

Unfortunately, the strong accident reporting tool can’t make up for the limited or nonexistent functionality elsewhere. As the name suggests, the app is designed to showcase the accident reporting tool. Gestures toward broader functionality such as account management and services, however, only serve to draw attention to the app’s omissions.

The major absence is integration with Travelers car insurance accounts. Travelers promises to add this feature in the future, but at present it’s impossible to access any account information via the app. With other apps offering bill pay, a virtual insurance card, policy information and online account management, the absence of real-time account information puts Travelers behind its peers. The “services” function also falls far short of the competition. Where other apps offer one-click access to services near your GPS-determined location, Travelers catapults users out of the app and into Google maps to search for roadside assistance and service stations on their own.

Progressive ★☆☆☆☆

Highs: Progressive earns a star for its non-emergency claims-reporting tool. For non-injury accidents and damage, the app provides a detailed claim-reporting questionnaire designed to help you record the pertinent details on the spot, when your memory and the evidence are fresh.

Lows: The app merely skates on the surface of what the iPhone can do — no camera, no GPS and scarce use of navigation tools. The design of Progressive’s app, meanwhile, ranges from unintuitive to scary (like the close-ups of commercial-star “Flo”). It’s clear that the app was developed as a marketing tool first, with some high-flash, low-value tools added as window dressing.

The view from the driver’s seat: Progressive’s car insurance app announces its priorities in the opening menu. Branding trumps functionality in this screen, when a manic close-up of Flo pushes the three links to the bottom bar of the screen. Other than a tiny help icon at the top-right corner, nothing else on this critical navigation page is live.

The app’s standout features — a detailed non-emergency claims-reporting tool and vehicle-buying information — also sacrifice usability. The “car buying tools,” for example, promise useful data such as crash test ratings, recall notices and a feature to compare costs of insuring different cars. But the section is heavily skewed toward Progressive’s marketing pitches. To find crash test ratings, you’ll have to weed through offers to call for a car insurance quote, find a local agent, watch the latest commercials and find a local Progressive “concierge.” Once you find your way to the ratings, you’ll discover they are up to date through 2005 — not too useful for the majority of shoppers who are considering a new or lightly-used vehicle. The cost “comparison” tool similarly fails to deliver — after collecting detailed information about the make, model and year of your intended purchase, the app simply ranks “cost to insure” on a scale of 1 to 10.

The non-injury claims page offers somewhat better utility but also fails to make good on promises. The app is unique in its specificity, offering five questionnaires to cover every possible damage scenario: glass-only damage, accident, fire, theft or vandalism and weather. The “who-what-where-when-why” format covers all the bases but makes you work to record the answers. Rather than pressing the phone’s GPS, camera and navigation tools into service, the app requires you to type in the pertinent information. When it comes to recording evidence of vehicle damage, a photo is surely worth more than a thousand words typed on the iPhone’s tiny keyboard. Ultimately, the claims page does little with the mobile phone’s 3G technology, sending you straight to the phone to report injury, and straight to the keyboard to report damage.

The road ahead

Mobile iPhone apps offer a new means for car insurance companies to provide service where their clients need it most — on the side of the road. Emergency assistance, accident reporting and insurance claims make the most of mobile voice and data technology, connecting users and the insurance company with the right information at the right time. At their best, auto insurance apps support the driver and facilitate the claims process — all while delivering extras such as online account management and car-shopping tools.

Here’s a story from Money Talks News about how to shop for car insurance.

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