Foursquare Founder: Our Drive To A Mainstream Audience

Dennis Crowley speaks to PSFK about getting friends to meet up even when they’re driving their cars.

Foursquare founder Dennis Crowley recently sat down with PSFK to talk about how the social location service has been developing. While Dennis spent time discussing the recent developments in the latest version of the Foursquare app he was very open about how changes still need to be made to truly create a system that is usable by a broader mainstream audience.

At the beginning of the conversation, the New York City based entrepreneur took us through the latest version of the app on an iPhone 4S and as he did he talked about the company’s drive to make maps more prominent. On the new version, you can find out where your ‘checked-in’ friends are across a live map. Dennis admitted that they wanted to make map view to feel much more like Twitter for places.

Another use of the map feature is for providing real-time recommendations for places to go. Dennis says that there already plenty of resources to get recommendations of places to go to–whether it be Google or Yelp, but the entrepreneur argues that Foursquare can leverage a far more interesting data set to make better suggestions.

Every time you check in you give us a signal about what you like. Foursquare knows that I’m a coffee drinker in the morning, I like going to steak restaurants on Wednesdays after work and I hit karaoke bars on Saturday nights.

On the current recommendation system on Foursquare, the system uses personal variables like Dennis describes to make a dynamic tailored experience:

When I’m in East Village on Friday morning I get coffee recommendations. When I travel to a different place at a different time and open a tab I get a different recommendation.

The system also adds your behavior to that of your friends to define popular places that you haven’t been to yet.

One of the challenges facing the location-based tech start-up is how to make the leap from urban users to a more mainstream base. In cities there’s a concentration of users and this abundance of networked friends helps make tools like Foursquare useful. Whereas, in the suburbs friends are spread out and therefore the system doesn’t offer the same benefits for these users.

Also on the development agenda is better friend-matching. There’s still room to grow, Dennis said. When places are recommended, he admitted that Foursquare needs to find a user’s friends and get them to meet up:

Finding friends is what we are really good at. We’re just not doing such a good job at telling you where to go.

Another aspect they’re developing at the Foursqaure offices is to not only help people on the street but also drivers and passengers in cars. That has it’s own implications, Dennis commented:

When someone’s traveling on the road, the recommendations need to be in-front of them–and when they’re traveling at speed down a highway recommendations need to be several miles ahead with an even more limited divergence of direction from the route they’re taking.

When I asked when we would see changes, Dennis explained how it wasn’t as easy as it looked to make changes they wanted on the fly. Serious programming has gone into delivering the current service on the iPhone, Nokia and Android devices and a quick change isn’t as easy as just throwing up another webpage.

It takes a lot of complex work to make the system simpler. Early adopters will test and test your system and deal with the way it works. But there’s a big struggle to adapt to the mainstream when it has to be easy to use within the first couple of tries.

In the few years that the Foursquare system has been available, the tech team there built systems but hadn’t had time to revisit it. Dennis admitted that they had hastily been trying to get in the right direction and building quickly. Now that’s a look to the mainstream, it’s time to rethink it and a moment to take the system apart and put the pieces together.

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