Foursquare Turns Three – A breakdown of some recent features + Suggestions for the future

Disclaimer – This post is in no way related to the blog that was posted with a similar topic on TechCrunch a couple of days after I started writing my post. Clearly, laziness got the better of me. The insights provided in that blog are great and I encourage you to read it. However, my post is a result of some long pending ideas and a small tribute to the three-year anniversary of a service that I love and use everyday.

Update – As correctly pointed out in the comments, foursquare day is 4/16 and not 4/4. I have changed this accordingly.

This post again comes after a long time, but truth be told; there are a whole bunch of posts where I started, wrote a bit and just never got around to finish completely. I promise to finish them and publish soon (if they still are relevant in these ever-changing interwebs). However, for this post; first and foremost, let me start this by congratulating foursquare; one of my favorite startups (for the work they do and the people in it), on completing an awesome 3 years. At the 3 year anniversary, I spent some time looking at the progress they have made over the past few years and what might lie ahead for them. I have also previously commented about some of the features that make foursquare the essential navigation tool in today’s world. I got a lot of “Oh, now I see what you mean when you keep asking me to use foursquare” type of reactions; which is always nice to hear ! This post will look at some of the latest innovations from the foursquare team and also highlight a couple of features that I think will be logical future step for this ever-evolving product. (If you are an avid user like me, maybe you want to skip the recent feature break-down and just scroll to the bottom of this post to see my ideas about new features ?)

I have spoken a few time on how the constant updates that the foursquare team does to it’s product, is highly admirable. Every time I listen to Dennis(Crowley) or Alex(Rainert) talk about their vision for the product, I am more convinced that foursquare will eventually become the one-stop-shop for exploring and navigating the real urban world. This quote from Tim Falls on Tumblr perfectly sums up my feelings about foursquare and it’s value.

i absolutely love the story behind foursquare. it’s an awesome app, yet it has had its fair share of critics from day one. and despite the doubters, the company keeps innovating, developing new features and improving on a product that has attracted millions of active users. in my opinion, foursquare will continue to prove the critics wrong, as their team continues to build a service that provides real value in a mobile, smart-phone connected world.

-timfalls

Out of the many updates that the Foursquare team has rolled out, here are the big ones and my 2 cents on each of them. I won’t get into the details since these have been well documented already. (check out the associated links for more details)

1) Lists on Mobile – The last time I wrote about foursquare, I mentioned how one of my favorite feature was the ability to create lists for things I wanted to do. I can create lists by myself, follow lists that others might have created or collaborate with my friends to create a weekend full of activities ! The biggest problem for me at that point, was that the only way to create these lists effectively; was to go on the web, and even then they would show up on my “to-do lists” on the phone (not the best way to navigate). A few months ago, the foursquare team finally brought lists to the mobile. This is great since, I can save any place I might discover; to an existing list or create a new one directly from my mobile. This post about using more of lists is worth a read.

Suggestions for lists - The only thing that I would like to see change with lists is how I can share them. Right now, I can share lists via twitter, facebook, email or text. The message that is sent via email or text is a link to my list on the web, and clicking on it brings up a full-blown web page that is not the easiest to navigate or follow. It would be great to send an in-app message. Let me share via foursquare and receive a notification in my notification center when someone does this. From here, I should be able to directly bring up the list and follow it, edit to create my own or make suggestions to it by searching for other places.

2) Radar – One of the biggest features that was launched post iOS 5 has been Radar. Radar is fantastic tool, that; when turned on; reminds you of some of the things around you that you might otherwise miss. The radar feature leverages iOS 5’s new “region monitoring” feature that allows it to monitor your location in the background much more effectively than the background location features that were introduced in iOS 4. Effectively, if I have a place that I might be following as a part of my lists, or if there is something interesting going on near me (3-4) of my friends are checked-in to the bar next to me, ill get notified ! I also got notifications reminding me to check in to places that I visit often, when I am around them and have not checked in. (This can be awesome or annoying depending on how you feel about checking-in everywhere you go.)

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Disclaimer about Radar – This is great, but seeing the location icon always turned on makes me super paranoid about my already fickle iPhone battery life. I tried searching for some answers about this on Quora and found this post reassuring me a bit. I would also suggest checking out this FAQ abt radar if you are considering using it. (I have tried using it over a whole week and find that the alerts are non-intrusive; but I did see my battery drain just a tad more than usual)

3) Explore (On the Web and New Explore on Mobile) – Explore was where the magic of foursquare was unleashed for everyone. Being able to search for “pizza” around me, was what made me switch from yelp to foursquare for all my “exploration” needs. There was one drawback always though, I could only search for a specific radius around me and even though I could create lists, I could never pre-plan on the web. These two issues have both been addressed in the latest releases of foursquare.

Explore on the web is the perfect tool to look up places, add them to lists and load the lists on my phone for an entire day ! The fact that lists allows me to search by specific places or even search lists is great. (Pro Tip – Visiting a new part of the town or a new place ? Look for a list of things to do! So much easier than creating one. Copy and modify one if needed) .Another feature that was recently launched is the ability search any place on explore by defining a radius and looking for anything on the phone. The design of the new explore on mobile is something that I think a lot of apps will eventually copy and this article in fastcodedesign gives a good breakdown of why this might be a future for all location-based apps.

4) Menus, Restaurant Prices and Timings – I have already said a few times, that I have made a very conscious effort to move away from Yelp for exploration, but I sometimes find myself going back to see what dishes to eat, how expensive the place and when it is open till. In integrating with SinglePlatform, foursquare has solved 2/3 of that problem – by bringing menus and pricing range to the mobile and web experience of foursquare. No longer, will you need to browse through reviews, launch the venue’s web only interface on a mobile, or switch between yelp and foursquare every time you have a friend who is strictly vegetarian or if you are not sure about the price of the restaurant. Juts launch the menu section and figure it out from within the app. ( check out Morgan Misen’s post about this feature to learn a bit more).Foursquare also has added timings, but these are available only onc the venue owner decides to populate them.

5) Foursquare Everywhere on the web ! – As more and more users start embracing foursquare, the number of brand curated content and the places where you see foursquare on the web will increase proportionately. As an evidence to the above statement, here is a look at how foursquare is growing its presence beyond the mobile – A recently launched feature (my favorite of the new lot) is the ability to take any place or list on the web and add it to a foursquare list. This includes installing a bookmarklet that allows you to do this.

Foursquare has also tied up with various publications to create recommendation lists that you can subscribe to. And to top it all off – you can also directly search for places on foursquare using the chrome address bar. Here is how.

Having looked at the some of the existing features, the future of foursquare is very exciting. Over the last two years, they have always tested and launched some great features at SXSW and though this year was not so much about making a bang, it was probably one of the most used apps at the event ! However, here are three features that will probably make their way to the user directly through foursquare or via a third party app that leverages the foursquare API; though I prefer the first option.

  • Future Check-ins/ User created events
  • Check-in with your food.
  • Events for small venues

Why do we need these features you ask ? Aren’t there already apps in the Market that perform these very functions ? There are, but at the end of the day foursquare has become a location-based platform and integrating these features with its app; makes them available to their huge user base, without the user’s having to use a different app for everything. Along with this, there is also the added advantage of gathering valuable relevance data with each check-in and leveraging this to further enhance the experience for the user.

For the below features, I’ll start by quickly explaining a few of the existing players and things that they do. We will then look at what these features should do and their benefits. Detailed feature breakdown will be available for you to view and use in the Trello boards that I have created. I will also provide some basic mockups of the initial flow of these features, explaining my vision. (I used Balsamiq for all my wireframes – if you do any wireframing, go get it now !)

Share what you are eating –

The first reaction I got when I mentioned this to someone was “Wait…why would I want to do that ? Share what I am eating ? What next ?” Clearly food is a sensitive topic for some, but it is as relevant as a picture , a status message attached to your location. With more and more sharing, reviews of restaurants and so on; sharing what you are eating at some place is just the next step. A few companies have already made a foray into this and have had a reasonable response. The biggest one is Foodspotting that encourages users to click pictures of things that they eat, allowing other users at the location to see them. A recent entry that has been gathering some traction is Forkly, which is indeed very well thought out and is vying to become “The Platform” for food. Unlike foodspotting, that forces you to take pictures of food, Forkly lets you choose a location, see if a dish exists, else add it and then rate it to share with your friends.

Forkly is great, however; I am not as passionate about explicitly launching another app to share a dish unless I want to explicitly leave a tip of some sort. Also, it is very hideous to add the right dish if it is not present. Forkly works off user-generated data. Foursquare, as mentioned ; already pulls menus for all dining places, and if it could leverage this to allow me to check-in with my food; I would do so ever so often; allowing my friends to learn more about my tastes and also coming to a place and learning more about the food there. This is how it would work -

I locate a venue, and it happens to be a dining place (Cool Bar as shown in the mockups below). When I view the venue, I can see the menu, tips etc or check in. While viewing the menu or checking in; I get prompted to select a dish or item with my check in so people can know what I am eating here. (French Fries !) I can also easily add a tip, hence making it much easier to leave tips. My friends can learn what I ate, when they come there and I can also maintain a list of what I eat where.The detailed list of features are available on this board. Feel free to add ideas or comment.

A basic flow of how this would work is shown below. (The screens are in order and the yellow highlight over an area indicates where a someone would possibly click. Also, click on the image to enlarge it!)

Small Venur created Events

Foursquare introduced events a while ago, and I was a happy customer since I had been talking about the need for foursquare supporting events for a long time. This is a great way to learn about what’s playing at stadiums, movie theaters, concert venues etc. However, one key use cases of events I see, and which is yet to be implemented; is allowing small venues like bars and comedy clubs to create events in order to attract customers and spread the word. There are different services like Plancast, EventBrite and Meetup that let me learn about conferences, talks, meetups that my friends are going to; but what about a local band playing at a bar ? This is where allowing small venues to create events has it benefits.

This Feature allows small Venus, like bars, restaurants etc; to create events and advertise them to users when they check-in at the place. Users can use this to learn more about the place and use it to plan activities in the future. Simple use case, I come to my favorite Cool Bar and see that there is a band playing at this bar (3 Monkeys). I check in with this event, hence automatically letting my friends know that there is a great band playing here. I love this bar and want to know what other events are happening here; which is what I can see in upcoming events. I can save this event as a future check in (more on this feature below), share it with my friends and maintain a list of all events I want to go to. I can be reminded of this event, and choose to subscribe to events from this venue; hence increasing interaction with this venue; benefiting both the merchant and the user. (As someone points out on my Quora post, though rather crudely; music events in foursquare are powered by SongKick and one can easily events to venues as they please; I still see an added value of doing this through the venue owner’s page). Details of feature are in this board. Mock-ups can be found below -

Future Check Ins/Plan a Check In

With SXSW just having passed, there was a whole army of location-based apps designed to do a ton of things – with the highlight (yep, pun intended) being on serendipitous discovery of people with common Facebook interest, LinkedIn connections and so on. That is all great, but what about all the times when I want to plan a small get together with some close friends? Simple use case being I’m at a game and want to meet up with some friends for drinks after at the only one and only Cool Bar. Sure I can send them an email, I can also just send them a link to the place via Google Maps, Yelp or even Foursquare ? Facebook Event or Google Calendar anyone? Why not leverage a great navigation tool that I use for everything else; to also make plans with my friends. I would love for foursquare to let me plan my basic events and get-togethers. The only company that comes close to doing this as far as I know is, European based startup called Hangout. But then again, I am forced to use a different platform, I can share events with the public via Twitter or Facebook but not with a set of specific friends.

Continuing with our Cool Bar example from above, I can choose to check in now at a venue or Plan a Check In. This allows me to pick a date and time; and invite specific friends or share the event with everyone. My friends who get invited to this can accept or decline. Once accepted, the Planned meeting shows up in my Planned Check Ins List, and I can be notified of the event via foursquare or iCal. Below is the design, for what I think the foursquare implementation should look like. Detailed features, as usual; can be found via this board.

Final Thoughts

I realize that this blog is a bit long, but this is something that I have been thinking for a while and I am glad I have managed to overcome my laziness and actually pen this out. Trello and Balsamiq are great tools that I had been dying to use; and this blog post gave me a perfect opportunity to use them. I used the trial version of Balsamiq and might just shell out the cash for the paid version so I can continue experimenting with some designs for potential features. Trello is an app I see myself using for simple workflows. Boards, lists etc are a very well though out implementation and would be perfect for any Agile team.

Foursquare itself has evolved more since I first started writing this post. Naveen Selvaduri is no longer a part of the team and with Foursquare making move from Google maps to Open Street Maps on the web, it will be interesting to see how things evolve. Foursquare, as I understand now; uses the following mapping solutions – Google Maps on the iPhone, Open Street Maps on the web and Bing Maps on Foursquare posts on Facebook (though the overall display of foursquare posts is so much better on Facebook now). Will this fragmentation be noticeable to users in any way ? How will this adaptation impact the growth of Open Street Maps? (Maybe Open Street Maps’ growth as result of Google Maps’ change in pricing policy is a good topic for my next post ?) Foursquare itself is a repository of crowd-sourced data, so I don’t see how Open Street Maps could not benefit from this partnership. Regardless, I can’t wait to see how Foursquare further enhances my city navigation experience. Hopefully, the next blog post is a lot sooner. Until then, Happy Birthday Fourquare and may everyone continue to “explore” !

PS – Foursquare Day is coming up on 16th April ! (4 squared – get it ?). There will be meetups and events throughout the globe for it’s celebration. I will be attending the Foursquare day meetup in NYC, so give me a shout if you do decide to drop by. For the rest of you, find out more about events near your area here.

11 thoughts on “Foursquare Turns Three – A breakdown of some recent features + Suggestions for the future

  1. Everyone of your suggestions are awesome, but I would like to make a suggestion on what I think is a better way to implement.

    Instead of Foursquare building out many of these capabilities in-house, would they not be better off opening space on the venue panel to third party services so that they can create cool add-on’s while benefiting from the scale of Foursquare.

    Same would apply to the mobile app as well/

    • Hi Mordy, Thanks for the comment.

      I agree with you to a certain extent, although I think Foursquare itself is a product that is going through it’s evolution and these features would fit the bill. How do you see add-on’s working on mobile ? Foursquare have an open API and I know the team works hard to help various startups in creating some cool apps, on top of their services. Some of the services I mention on this blog, like footspotting; already leverage that API for location. I just think you get better implementation and more data if you can include it as a part of the primary app in way that encourages users to use and benefit from the service.

      • The relationship between the developer community and a platform is always a delicate line to balance. So yes, If we took events as an example. Foursquare should create an event platform where venue managers can add their own static events for any venue to fill, but that same event platform can have an API set for any third parties to add in their specialized events that can integrate natively into the event display. When a venue manager logs into their management site under events they should find app icons that are suggestions of relevant services for their venue type, and if they are not registered to that service Foursquare can on-ramp them to this new service and acquire ongoing data from it to be exploited in a variety of ways.

        Now the difficult part of how does this work in the mobile app? the simple answer is that now that the venue manager added that data via the 3rd party, it can be displayed like any other venue specific events such as time or menu.

        A user should have the option to customize their apps with the types of experiences and add-on’s that are of interest and relevant to them. This same customization should apply across Foursquare in features like explore.

        While I am discussing events for the purpose of this conversation this applies to any services that can be classified and provides relevant structured data.

        This obviates the need for many people to install a myriad of apps for specific purposes and instead can have a truly custom experience within the Foursquare app. While this also makes it easier and cheaper for developers to develop cool tech without the standalone app overhead and benefit from the existing Foursquare user base.

      • That is a very unique way of looking at it. The only question that comes in with regards to such a model is monetization for developers who build such things. Creating an in-app developer ecosystem (similar to maybe what Facebook has done) is always a challenge. Obviously, having access to the wide user base is a given benefit, but there are whole companies like TimeHop etc which have been built by leveraging the Foursquare API in an effective manner. Do you think both can co-exist ? How do you deal with duplication ? Staying with the events example, if the functionality you describe is built out as an add-on; do you explicitly prevent other developers to use the API and build a stand alone app that does the exact same thing ?

      • I have to start a new thread due to the limitations of wordpress comments.

        The question you bring up is a really tricky question of how to define the developer relations strategy, whereby a company needs to decide how open they wish to be and what is the purpose of the developer platform in the first place. If the purpose is simply to filling holes in the product then its a more limited environment which looks more like a partnership arrangement, while on the other hand if its is to drive the ecosystem and gather the data then a free-for-all approach with proper controls is a better fit.

        If one chooses the latter which is what it appears Foursquare has mostly chosen (although the SinglePlatform integration appears more like a partnership) then duplication is a non-issue as the market will decide which product has the better model.

        Moving on to your first point regarding the monetization question. There are tons of ways to extend the basic capabilities I suggested to make money that can be embedded into Foursquare’s own monetization policy which can range from a piece of advertising dollars for the location to any other approaches they may be exploring, but clicking on a third party event item can show a a more detailed page from the particular event provider or it can even open a companion app or a linked web page from the event provider with a fuller experience or more detail. In all it’s a mix and match approach whereby the in-app and standalone apps are a unified and complementary capability that enhance each other.

        These are my thoughts in general on the need for an in-app developer approach that I personally think is desperately needed and needs a company to show the way.

        All this is fine preaching , but seeing as I don’t work for Foursquare I don’t know what other considerations they have when they are looking at their product design, so for all I know they looked at this years ago and dismissed it for good reason :)

  2. To me the biggest hurdle to foursquare getting to the mainstream is the check-in process. You need at least 3 taps to check-in, possibly many more (when the venue is not showing up in the list). I think that turns many people off.

    Also, while Explore is great, it is still based on the idea of “you give us data, and we’ll help you”. – Check in and we’ll give you better recommendations. That’s where Yelp offers a better value proposition – no need to sign up and you can get something out of it instantly.

    The reason I started using foursquare was to keep track of where I’ve been going, as what Timehop is trying to do. I think it’s no coincidence that Dennis Crowley invested in that service, and I think that’s one feature that foursquare should promote more.

    • Hi Ethan, I think what you are saying about Yelp is true. The fact that you can look up places and see a whole bunch of reviews already in place is great. But then again, this took time and happened over a few years obviously. I see foursquare being there soon, plus one step better; since this will not only have reviews, but personalized recommendations based on your history. You also make a fair point about the check in process. I think this is more of a hardware limitation though. With services like higlight and even foursquare radar, starting to leverage region monitoring; I think we are not too far away from optional auto-check ins. The privacy and battery issues with such a feature are a whole other matter.

  3. Thanks for the great feedback and thoughts here — always exciting to see users and the community pushing our thinking here at foursquare HQ. By the way, our head of product is Alex RAINERT

    • Hi Rafi,

      Thanks for taking time out to read and comment on this. I would love to discuss this further if you have specific thoughts/questions around the post.

      Also, sorry about the typo regarding Alex’s last name. Corrected now.

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