With an hour to burn before a movie, MrLee Jun Kiat and his girlfriend thought they could grab some food at a nearby restaurant.
Instead, they were faced with long lines at a majority of eateries at Plaza Singapura.
After searching several levels, they finally found a place with no queue, but had to wolf down their food as they had spent too much time searching for a place to eat.
Upon sharing the experience with his friends, Mr Tan Junguang and MrChong Zi Xin, back in January, the trio decided to create an app to solve the problem.
Ticktok, available for Apple iOS devices, allows users to share waiting times at food places which they are at. This real-time feedback, which also displays nearby restaurants based on a user's location, answers the important question for foodies - how long is the wait?
Using the app, users can tell if the wait, say at a restaurant in the basement, is shorter than the one at an eatery on the fourth floor.
In March, when Ticktok was almost completed, the trio - all 25-year-olds from Singapore Management University (SMU) - realised they could not rely solely on input from users. So they did the next best thing. They gathered 10 friends who visited more than 12,000 food and beverage locations across the island. Each of them made multiple visits to each place and measured queue times during peak periods, such as lunch and dinner times and on the weekends.
This process took three months to complete. The data served as the backbone of Ticktok, with user and merchant feedback comprising the other two pillars of the app's offerings.
"I usually arrive before lunch to scout the area and visually assess the eatery and its layout. Then I start measuring queue times by tracking the number of people in the queue and how long it takes for them to get their food at different time intervals. The queue patterns from noon to 1215pm will be different from the queue patterns at 1pm to 115pm, for example," explained Mr Tan, who led the auditing process.
The trio estimated that about $25,000 has gone into the creation of Ticktok so far.
Still, their app is a work in progress as they claim coverage of only 67 per cent of the island's eating places.
But they have managed to include about 80 per cent of restaurants and eateries within the Central Business District, where they expect most of their users to come from.
However, they claim to have got the app's accuracy down pat. During their random tests at hawker centres and restaurants, the deviation between the listed time and actual waiting time was never greater than five minutes, claimed Mr Tan.
Users who want to plan their meals ahead can get a "forecast" of the waiting time at a restaurant at a specified time based on historical data. This means that users can find out the time they have to spend in line at, say, Crystal Jade Kitchen in Ngee Ann City on a Saturday night or how long it takes to get a table at Billy Bombers Classic at Cineleisure Orchard during lunchtime on a Tuesday.
If there is a sudden, unusual spike in queue times at a location, due to a special offer or event, for instance, the system will account for it in its real-time display. It also flags the event as an anomaly so that it does not affect the average timings.
Ticktok's developers also convinced 80 restaurants and eateries to come on board as partners for the app's reward system. Food vouchers are awarded to users who share the most waiting times. Partners can also update the app on queue times.
And this is a win for users and owners, said Mr Raj Patro, 46, managing director for the Kinara Group of Restaurants, which has four restaurants listed on the app.
"Customers get information about the restaurant and its promotions. It builds awareness and brings us a bit more traffic."
The app is free for users and the developers are looking at selling the data collected to restaurants and food review sites which want to better understand their customers and offer waiting time information on their websites.
Support for Android devices is expected in three months.
Download Ticktok on iTunes here: itunes.apple.com/us/app/ticktok/id543457906?mt=8
This story was first published on Oct 17, 2012 on StraitsTimes.com. To read more: http://sph.straitstimes.com/supplements/digital-life/story/smart-app-avoid-restaurant-queues-20121017