A scavenger hunt for the world's most fascinating conversations

My favorite part of traveling is conversing with the locals. I'm visiting family in North Carolina for Christmas, and today we stopped to ask a hotel employee for restaurant advice. I enjoyed listening to his unique Southern drawl and the idioms he used to describe Asheville ("More barbecue spots than you can shake a stick at"). I started thinking about an app for collecting records of these encounters.

I did a quick comparative analysis of existing apps for travel storytelling. Dozens of beautifully designed apps exist, but most of them focus on your experience. Let's explore an idea for curating the stories of characters you meet on the road. I would consider these goals as a starting point for the user experience:

  1. Give travelers a greater sense of purpose. The app should make you feel as if you have a mission in each city you visit.
  2. Create opportunities for interacting with locals and hearing their stories. The app should take some of the awkwardness out of starting conversations with strangers.
  3. Highlight and celebrate cultural differences. Curate images and audio of people around the world discussing issues that matter to them.

My target persona — let's call her Jane — is an American between the ages of 23 and 40. Jane lives in a major U.S city and travels domestically (for business or pleasure) at least once a month. She enjoys using her phone to record the places she visits. (I'm focusing on the U.S. simply to limit scope for now, but I would eventually roll this out for all marketplaces.)

This may sound silly, but my initial inspiration came from Pokémon. I like how the Pokédex — a sort of journal for keeping track of the virtual characters you discover — motivates players to keep exploring. I imagine a similar concept, but instead of Pokémon, the user would collect snippets of conversation.

Conversation prompts would appear as Jane traveled through different areas. They would be topics of local relevance. The traveler would tap the prompt and record a 30-second video clip of a local discussing it.

Here are the biggest design and user-experience challenges:

  1. Social awkwardness. Most people find it very difficult to converse with strangers. How would the app put both the traveler and the local interviewee at ease?
  2. Finding appropriate topics of conversation. Ideally, the app should display topics that are interesting, but not overly controversial. The app might solve this problem by letting the user set preferences for what she feels comfortable discussing. To ensure that prompts were culturally appropriate, it could also allow local interviewees to submit and curate them.

Developing a "conversational scavenger hunt" would be challenging. The biggest issues have to do with curating content and helping users overcome shyness. If the app solved these problems, it could enhance the travel experience, giving users an excuse to meet new people and record interesting mementos of different cultures.