Record audio? There’s an app for that. An iOS app (Part 1)

Apps to Catch Stories or Record Audio What is the best app for recording a conversation? If you’re a family historian and have an iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch, keep reading. This is the first of a multi-part series looking at iOS apps — apps that just record audio, and more complex apps to help the family storycatcher ask questions and record stories for family history.

At the iTunes store, there are so many apps to choose from. How do you know which one to use? What app can you trust to help you collect important stories from your family?

Before I get into evaluation of specific apps (which will come in Part 2, Part 3, Part n…), I’ll lay the groundwork here for the criteria I use to make that evaluation. You may find that I touch on some of your pet peeves about why you don’t like some apps as well as others.

Two flavors of apps

Audio recording apps for the family historian come in two major flavors: apps to record audio only, and special-purpose story-catching apps. Both of these work for face-to-face conversations. (A third type of app, to record phone calls, won’t be covered in this series. It’s on my To Do list, though.)

Recording apps are straightforward. Record Audio only.

Flavor 1: Record audio only. All audio, all the time.

This category of apps has a simple purpose: Record audio. Capture sound into a digital audio file. Transfer from device to computer.

The purpose for the recording doesn’t matter — it can be an interview, a musical session, a meeting or lecture. The app does not care. Just launch, check your settings, press the app’s record button, and go.

Because of the simplicity of the task, it is straightforward to judge whether an app should go on the “Use this!” list.

Flavor 2: Story-Catching Apps: Apps for capturing and preserve stories.

Story-catching apps serve a slightly different purpose than a basic audio app.

Recording audio is only one section of the app. A story-catching app is geared to accomplish a sequence of tasks.

  1. Select a question or topic or set of topics
  2. Identify people being interviewed
  3. Record audio
  4. Arrange your recordings into a collection
  5. Upload story (or collection) to website service
  6. Manage recording; share with others
  7. Archive, download recording

(Not every item on this list appears as part of every story-catching app.)

Story-Catching apps provide prompts, record audio, upload the audio to a server/service, and manage sharing with others.

A story-catching app is more complex; it has more jobs to do. My review of these apps will weigh whether the app succeeds at all the tasks.

Failure isn’t life-threatening, but it IS high-stakes

What makes for a successful app? What makes for an app that fails? Here, dear reader, are my assumptions and evaluation criteria.

I look an app from the perspective of a person who wants to collect stories from family members. Failure to do so is not life threatening. We are not talking about say, a faulty gas or brake pedal in an automobile— where bad design results in car crashes that kill people. 

However, the price of failure is high. Some of these conversations take place in high-stakes settings where there are no do-overs if there’s a problem with the product.

I previously described the recording that got away at the family gathering right after my Dad’s memorial. When the product design for a portable recorder (must press the record button twice) encountered a tech savvy person worn out by the mental and emotional fatigue of producing that family memorial, the result was epic fail. The story that changed everything got away. It would have been totally inappropriate to say, Oh, Uncle, I was recording that but I missed it. Would you please repeat the story? No. Epic Fail.

Another “high-stakes” scenario I saw described on the internets recounted how the family tried to use a product to record a parent’s stories. That parent was days from death. The product failed. Sorry, no do-over.

Bearing in mind the high stakes for failure to successfully capture a recording, the other perspective I use to evaluate an app is from a usability design.

User Interface and Workflow

In order to be an app you can entrust to capture stories from family members, the user interface (UI) and workflow must make you successful. Failure is not an option. How does a well-designed UI do that?

TL;DR (Too Long; Didn’t Read) All evaluation criteria can be distilled into this: Does the app make you a success? Does the app help, or does it get in the way?

User Interface and workflow: Is it helpful, or does it get in the way?

First launch of the app. The app introduces its purpose, workflow and mental model at launch. A good first launch successfully introduces you to the “Here, dear user, is why I — the App — exist. This is going to be a good experience. You’ll like it. You’ll be a success.”

A good first launch experience will take you past the “Why bother?” barrier.

Success is Easy.  The app swiftly takes you from first launch to successful accomplishment of the task. When you first use the app, how many steps do you need to go through to get from “begin” to “done?” A good app gives you an easy win. If it takes too many steps or the process is too fussy, the app gets relegated to the “Why bother?” pile.

Orientation, Predictable Choices, Current Status.  A good UI provides you with a clear sense of “you are here” and “here’s where you can go” and “this is what I (the app) am doing right now.” The app is clear and predictable.

Orientation = you are here. The screen and interface elements clearly indicate to you where you are.

Prediction = Here’s where you can go. You can successfully predict what will happen if you touch this or swipe that. (Examples: If I tap this button, I’ll be led to a menu of topics to select from. If I tap that control, the app will start recording. Bad UI: Though this looks like the other buttons, when I tap it, nothing happens.)

Status = App: this is what I’m doing right now. Progress bars tell you how long the process will take. Numbers counting up tell you the elapsed time on your recording in progress. Spinning spokes indicate the app is at work on a short task.

A good UI does all these things so you know what’s happening. A bad UI will lose and confuse you.

Flexible, not rigid.  A flexible app has good navigation. You can go forward, or move a step back if you want. Flexibility offers you more one way to accomplish a task. A rigid app imposes itself on you, forcing you to accomplish a task in one — and only that one — way.  Did you change your mind about something? Sorry, loser. It’s my way or the highway.

My data.  What does the app do with the recordings it creates? How do you export recordings from the app? What destinations does the app provide you? An online service? Your computer? Your cloud storage space? How much control does the app give you over that recording?

Docs. Is the product documented? Is the documentation clear? Is it helpful?

Audio Recording App Must-haves

What does an audio recording app need to have in order to make it onto my shortlist?

Apps for Recording Audio

There are four Basic “must haves” in order to be considered a good audio app.

  • High-quality, uncompressed audio format. The app must be able to record at CD audio quality. It must be able to save the audio file in an uncompressed audio format. WAV file format (16 bit, 44.1 kHz — CD Audio Quality)

    Why does this matter?

    • CD audio quality WAV file format is accepted as an archival standard for digital audio. (note: AIF or AIFF file format is not as widespread as WAV, but it is uncompressed, so it is also suitable)
    • Uncompressed is a better starting place for audio editing.
    • You can always make a compressed copy from an uncompressed original, but once you’ve thrown away audio data in the act of compression, you can’t get it back.
    • The price of flash storage media is no longer an obstacle to storing uncompressed audio.
  • Audio Level Meter.
    The app must display some visual representation of the sound levels going into the app. You need to know that the app is “hearing” the sounds around the device.

  • Recording Time elapsed.
    The app must display how long this current recording has lasted.  Bonus: The app should display how much recording time remains on the device, given the amount of storage space available.

  • Good basic UI (User Interface).
    Does the app enable you to complete your chosen task, or does it app get in the way? How does the app meet all the criteria I set out earlier in the UI and Workflow section, above?

In addition, if that app offers more features and functionality do those features make sense?

Story-Catching App Sorta Must Haves (Yes, Sorta)

Since the story-catching app has only recently appeared on the scene, creating a new app genre, it’s harder to put together a list of must-haves. The field is still emerging and evolving. So here are my sorta must haves.

I’ve already stated that the story-catcher app seeks to complete more tasks. For me, “simple” trumps “complex,” and the story-catching app has more challenges to meet. The bottom-line question I’m asking myself when I look at these apps: What does the story-catching app provide that merits its use more than a simple recording app with a list of interview questions?

I’ve grouped my evaluation criteria into the major phases of the app’s workflow.

  • Story prompts, Question topics. How easy is it to preview questions or topics? Can you easily navigate through the prompts?
  • Quality Questions. Does the app provide good quality questions and topics? Is it a good conversation sparker?
  • Ask your own. How does the app enable you to add or ask your own questions?
  • Recording controls. How does the app handle the actual task of recording?
  • Recording Time Elapsed. Is there a meter that counts up how much time has elapsed?
  • In-app Playback. Can you play back the audio and listen to it in the app?
  • How much compression?
    Since story-catching apps upload the audio to a service, the audio recordings are created as compressed files. (Alas, compression!) Does the amount of compression strike a good balance between high quality sound while decreasing file size?

I’m stretching the definition of upload to handle all aspects of how the audio file gets transferred out of the app to other places — your computer and the online service.

  • Do you control your own data? In addition to uploading to an online service, can you directly transfer to your computer in iTunes?
  • TOS/Legal Agreements.  If the app is tied to an online site or service, how does the app and service handle the Terms Of Service (TOS) and user agreement for storing your stories on their server?  Do they tell you what they do if they go out of business?
  • Online Service: Value for the Money? For the paid service provided by the app/service developer, is the service offered a good value for the price? Does the “what you get for the price” make sense?
  • Upload to the service from your computer? Are you able to upload audio (or any other type of) files from your computer to the service?


Sharing your file with trusted individuals is the central task of file management.

  • Easy to share How easy is it for you, the primary story-catcher, to share the file with others?
  • Easy to be shared with How easy is it for the share-ee (person invited to visit and hear the story) to do so? What does share-ee need to do in order to have access to your stories?
  • Share with yourself, on your computer. What tools are provided for you to download or otherwise create a local archive on your computer?
  • Additional File Management Are there any other tools that provide you with additional ways to arrange, display or sort your stories on the hosting service?
Overall User Interface

All the User Interface (UI) and workflow criteria I mentioned earlier apply for story-catching apps.

Simpler is better. It is possible to get the job done with a straightforward recording app. The bottom line question, then, is Is this app a better alternative? Does the app offer so much more than a standard recording app? Does it do the job well?

What’s next

Thank you for making your way through my evaluation criteria. Seriously, thank you. The next post in this series will skip past all this TMI (too much information), and jump straight to “I know you don’t have all day, so here are the good apps.” Somewhere, though, it’s good to state for the record what standards are being applied for product evaluation.

Let the record state it. And lo, it was stated. Right here.

Next up: Audio recording only apps. I’ll quickly narrow the field to the apps that meet my minimum criteria, and review them from there.
In a subsequent post (or set of posts), I’ll cover the the story-catching apps. 

Got Something to say?

What do YOU think makes for a good app? (This can be for any type of app.) Do you have any pet peeves about apps and their usability?

Agree with my standards? Disagree? Say so below in the comments.

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Posted by Susan A. Kitchens on January 31, 2014 in • AudioAudio: SoftwareInterviewingiOS
5 CommentsPermalink

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I am very interested in this topic. I have an iphone and an ipad and i have a sweet neighbor who is trying to write her history. I offered to help and am looking for an app I can use on one of my devices. However… I can’t find parts 2, 3, etc… Help?

Jessica  on 06/03  at  07:30 AM

Jessica - Take a look at StoryCatcher for iPhone - this app was designed as a direct solution to your inquiry: Enjoy!

April Bell  on 06/16  at  08:03 AM

We have a new iPhone app called - Soal (Sounds Of A Lifetime).  It was inspired by an audio interview of my grandparents.  There is a label for “Audio Ancestry” where you can also attach a photo.  It’s also good for narrating old photos.  We just launched in September 2014 and will be adding longer recording times.  So far, there the longest time is 1 minute 30 seconds.  A unique feature is a horizontal timeline that keeps your recordings neatly organized.  Did I mention it was free!!

Nathan Brakke  on 11/05  at  09:03 AM

Would love to read the follow-ups to this post—it looks like exactly the info I need.

Elizabeth Co  on 11/14  at  09:19 AM

I would like to record some of my grandparents’ stories, and wondered where to find your specific app suggestions. You refer to parts 2 and 3 of this post, but I don’t see them…. Thanks!

Liesl  on 01/04  at  08:45 PM

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