Summary:

In the iPad app StockTouch, the team at Visible Market has created a genuinely useful tool for understanding at a glance how the stock market is doing over any period of time from the mobile device that more and more workers are carrying around: the iPad.

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“Finance is not a very sexy category,” according to the designer of the iPad app StockTouch. It’s a somewhat ironic statement from Steve de Brun, since he’s designed the best-looking finance iPad app on the market. StockTouch, which provides interactive visualizations of current stock market information, is about more than just looking good. The three-person founding team at Visible Market, the company behind the app, has created a genuinely useful tool to understand at a glance how the stock market is doing over any period of time from a mobile device that not only consumers, but scads of workers are carrying around: the iPad.

StockTouch debuted at the iOS App Store in June 2011 for $4.99. By year’s end the company had spent many weeks as the No. 1 downloaded paid finance app in the App Store, and was named Best Finance iPad App of the year by Apple. To date, there have been about 30,000 downloads, according to de Brun.

What’s so great about it

StockTouch is visually very pleasing, and the ease of interacting with it makes understanding complicated financial information a snap. It’s also successful in its ability to present users with the big picture of the world of finance at any given moment. You get a grid of 900 of the largest U.S. companies, separated into the nine main industry sectors: finance, tech, healthcare, consumer goods, utilities, etc. The layout acts as a heat map, showing you the winners and losers of the moment, in real time (provided you’re connected to the web). Red indicates a stock is down, green indicates it’s up. A touchscreen slider lets you view the changes over the last day, week, month, three months, six months, a year or five years. The transitions are smooth, and as you bring up different screens, you get a pleasing audible feedback “ding.”

What StockTouch does is tap into an important trend we’re seeing with tablets — and that for now means the iPad — using the touchscreen device to create beautiful data visualizations that become interactive (subscription required) with a few taps or zooms. With StockTouch you can zoom in to see specific industries or companies. As you dig into the app and more data fills the screen, you get more information about the company or stock. You can also customize how you view the data: you can view the heat map in a spiral of largest to smallest companies, in descending order of best-performing to least, by stocks with the most activity, or alphabetically.

How they did it

The stock market data powering StockTouch comes from a fellow Silicon Valley startup, Xignite, which provides data as a service. The data from Xignite is slurped up in raw form by StockTouch, which then does historical analysis, compresses the information and sends it to their own Amazon S3 server, and the app gets the information from there.

The team that pulls this off is pretty lean: de Brun is the designer and person in charge of user experience. His background is not actually in finance, but he has a history of working in digital media and other tech startups that dabbled in information visualization over the years. And he sees a new opportunity with the sheer amount of data we can have access to right now.

“The finance side is out of curiosity and a desire to get information into people’s hands in a more democratic way,” he said. “For many years on Wall Street, people who were in the know had access [to information] that people in the general public didn’t have access to. And we believe with what we’re doing … that it’s more healthy for the markets the more you democratize any type of information, let alone financial information.”

The developer of the app is John Morris, an iOS app maker with a gaming background. You wouldn’t think gaming and finance go together, but for creating new ways of interacting with data, StockTouch is inspired by physics-based iOS games like World of Goo, that employ more natural user-interaction modes. “Games don’t have a lot of data [visualization], but they have cool ways of manipulating [information] and are ergonomically advanced,” de Brun explained. “It’s much more human in terms of response times and sensitivity.”

Jennifer Johnson is the CEO of Visible Market, and she’s made sure they’ve been able to rise to the top of the iOS charts, with the help of friends and family angel investors, who’ve thrown in some $700,000 toward the company so far. StockTouch is just the first of a cluster of planned finance apps for iPad.

What’s next

Right now, the people that are most excited about the app are “retail investors,” says de Brun. “But people in financial institutions really like what we’re doing,” so Visible Market is working with companies to help them figure out ways to present and visualize their own financial information in a similar manner as StockTouch — making StockTouch more of a platform than a one-off app.

What the interest level in this app and dozens of other mobile data visualization apps that are hitting the market tell us is that people like to be able to look at raw data in ways that are visual and fun. And they like the ability to dive into the information themselves and draw their own conclusions. Luckily, there is so much more to come in this area, de Brun believes.

“We are just at the very beginning of the cool stuff people are going to be seeing. Whether financial info or business intelligence or data visualization on a consumer level, we’re just seeing the first seedlings of ideas,” said de Brun. “In three to five years everything will be built on these early ideas. People will have the expectation that you can move manipulate and dive into data.”

For more about iPad-based data visualization apps like StockTouch, see my GigaOM Pro report, 4 iPad apps to wrangle data (subscription required).

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