Piers Fawkes: How I’d Fix Foursquare

PSFK founder considers how the dynamic use of context to provide better in-venue data, could drive mainstream adoption.

Readers of this site will know that PSFK has always been a great supporter of the social location service Fourquare. The vision of founders Naveen Selvadruai and Dennis Crowley has been groundbreaking. Their work has changed the way we think about geo-location and the sharing of data — it’s also been revolutionary in the way it’s allowed its data to be open source and therefore leveraged by other apps and systems.

But to me anyway, there seems to be a problem. I don’t see many people using Foursquare.

Open up the Foursquare app on your phone right now. I’m guessing that if you look at the venues around you and who’s checked-in then you’ll see that it’s a bit of ghost town. If I’m wrong then your probably looking at 8pm on a Friday night in New York’s East Village.

The PSFK + FRIENDS office is 400 meters from where the Foursquare team started up. Last Tuesday afternoon at 4pm there were only 40 people checked in across 30 locations — and if you removed the top 2 locations, the number of check-ins was just 13 across 28 locations.

When I used the map feature and looked across Manhattan only 8 people were appearing. Trying the service outside the US can be pointless. In Europe membership seems tiny. On a recent trip to Germany, only 6 people were checked-in in Munich airport as I passed through it — and only 2 were in my layover airport–Frankfurt. How can a user really benefit from a service when there are so few other users to interact with?

It begs the question, how does an app for early-adopters take the leap and become relevant to the mainstream if it can’t reach a critical mass of current users?

A couple of months ago, I interviewed Dennis Crowley about his ambitions. I think by the end of the conversation it became obvious to the Foursquare founder that I was hardly using the service. As we left the coffee shop on St Mark’s Place, he asked me, “What would get you to use Foursquare more? I’d like to know.”

For a socially mobile community of urbanites with frequent occasions and venue options, Foursquare is set up to offer a fun way to connect with other people in real-time. But I think that the way it looks and the way it works inhibits the company from growth.

In all my time using Foursquare I have only had one interaction as a result. Someone I knew who was ‘testing’ the system saw that I was in a pub in San Francisco and met me there. Apart from that one occasion, I’ve never met or heard from someone as a result of using Foursquare.

My feeling is that Foursquare can’t jump to the mainstream because its development seems to be fixed on broadcasting where people are rather than providing a utility that allows users to get the most of where they are at.

Sure, the service can provide added value when you’re at a venue but this tends to be the offering of coupons and tips about venues that people have previously checked in at. I’m not too sure these really are strong enough content features for a service with global ambitions.

I’ve been thinking long and hard about Dennis Crowley’s question — and after all that time I’d argue that the team needs to concentrate on two aspects:

* Who’s Here & What To Do
* What Later?

The first theme concentrates on ‘Maximizing the Now’ and the second is about ‘Optimizing the Next.’

Maximizing The Now: Who’s Here & What To Do

Checking-in remains the most critical interaction of the service even though there are plenty of other options available on Foursquare. This remains the most important moment because it’s when someone begins or reestablishes their interaction with the system, PLUS it’s also the most fun!

Checking-in is the moment you roll the dice and play the game. But when the dice stop rolling the user doesn’t get a count to move forward. The Foursquare system fails to help them do what’s next.

The screen that a user sees after checking-in is probably one of the biggest roadblocks to mainstream adoption. This page seems pointless. It’s a relic from Foursquare’s city-game legacy — and gives little value to a broader audience.

The current screen shows you what users are in a venue and from there you can drill down to see a profile page which shows the number of badges and friends that a user has.

I think users do want to know who else is where they are right now, but they also want different and dynamic information about those other users. The capabilities to match social data to people has evolved since Foursquare’s launch, but the service doesn’t seem to have mastered it. Right now the user gets a couple of badges and friends and some contact options. However, these stats are insignificant. The current badges are legacy relics and say very little about the person. The number of friends means what exactly? Everyone with a Facebook account knows that number of friends can be gamed. (And isn’t it the guy with 1000 friends who is likely to be the most socially inept at the party?)

So what should be on that screen?

When I look at the screen after check-in, this is what I really want to know:

1. How am I connected to these people? Even if they’re not directly connected to me on my current social networks. Who are these people to me — think of the LinkedIn tab that shows you which people you know who also know a contact outside your primary network

2. Who are these people to me? Are they a potential friend, lover, teacher, sales-lead? Have we worked at the same company, just not at the same time or in the same department? Do they support the same sports team as me — or my team’s arch-rivals? Do they come from the town I grew up in? Did they go to the same conference as me? The list goes on…

The development team at Foursquare needs to think about how conversations start when you’re in a room with strangers — how you start to talk with them. I think back to the Likemind coffee mornings Noah Brier and I first instigated where many strangers would come to meet each other and share. When we introduced ourselves, we would build off each other to find common ground: What do you do? Where do you live? Did you go to SXSW last year? You went to London recently?

People make the place. Foursquare misses the opportunity of in-venue social interactivity. It still seems to be too busy concentrating on the game of navigating the city, but I wonder if it needs to pause and make sure it offers tools for the game within a venue.

So much social data is readily available without me shaking hands and going around and saying hello to everyone. Through social networks, it can be mined to help me instantly understand who in a room I could approach to say ‘Hi!’ to.

This data could also be overlaid with information that focuses my search to meet strangers. Could I at least know their Klout score? Maybe this sounds like a corrupt way to meet people — but this is how real life works. People game a room so that they end up with the people they think are interesting, knowledgeable and influential.

And, I almost forgot — users want to know what to do in a venue. Right now that is provided on Foursquare if someone leaves you a tip, but I feel there’s room to replace this theme with contextual recommendations about what to do in the venue.

In a cinema, the film you should be recommended should be based on the recent movie going behavior of your friends — or even the movies they’ve been tweeting about. When dining out, users should be able to find out what meals are popular at this restaurant within your social network. Maybe this could be cross tabulated with Seamless, to simple ‘Like information.’

Optimizing The Next: What Later

At some moment during a visit to a venue, it becomes more important to know where to go afterward. I feel that the Foursquare team have been spending a lot of time providing recommendations on what to do next — but I feel that systems like Foursquare must have access to social data which helps them tell users where people similar to them went next. Of course, this recommendation needs to be overlaid with context about the specific day, time and weather.

Right now there are suggestions for places nearby. The system should instinctively know that a user is out on a date and react accordingly by both recommending the type of food and drink he/she should be ordering, and suggesting the next place to take the date if dinner works out well. The system should even know if it’s going to be a beautiful sunset and recommend the river bar for an after dinner drink.

Final Point: Dynamic Context

I feel that making the service hyper-relevant by changing it through a superior understanding of context would make it far more relevant to people, and could help Foursquare leap into the mainstream. A contextually adaptive service would allow people to get the most out of their trips in a very personal way.

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