How Foursquare Has Changed, and What I Wish It Could Be

01 April 2014

Foursquare has just turned five years old and raised $35 million in a Series D round back in December. The company boasts an impressive number of users (over 45 million according to their About page), but it is clear that big product changes are still being tested, while the tech world is eagerly waiting to see how it will monetize its data and users. As a Foursquare user who now works on another consumer web product, I wanted to comment on some recent Foursquare product changes that make sense, some decisions that I wish I knew the data behind, and a couple different directions that I could see Foursquare going.

Foursquare is centered around a relatively simple idea: get users to "check in" at different places they visit, including local businesses, points of interest, or even private locations like a house. These check-ins are broadcast to one's Foursquare friends by default, and originally everything was heavily gamified, with check-ins earning points, certain patterns of check-ins earning badges, and repeated check-ins at one location granting a coveted "mayorship" over that venue.

Recent changes that make a lot of sense

  1. The experience is less of a game. Before, every check-in would be valued with points, with extra points for more unique check-in behavior. Badges were granted with great fanfare, and publicly displayed. These features still exist, but have become more subtle, and even hard to find sometimes. This feels like a good move for Foursquare - playing the game is fun at the beginning, but users need a better reason to keep coming back to Foursquare.

  2. There's less emphasis on "beating" your friends. Trying to get the highest weekly score among your Foursquare friends used to be a central part of the experience. Now, I'm not even sure that the leaderboard feature even exists. This is very much like #1 above - it was fun to try to beat your friends on Foursquare, but ultimately this got repetitive.

  3. Less emphasis on mayorships, aka I don't really care that you checked into your own house. Becoming mayor feels almost like becoming a "regular" somewhere, which is a great feeling. However, I would guess that one problem with mayorships is that they became a bit meaningless. I can become mayor of my apartment or my office, but is that data point really useful to Foursquare or to other users? Appropriately, the emphasis on mayorships has been diminished.

Interesting decisions that I wish I could hear more about

  1. Decreased emphasis on "tips" and recommendations about a place. Much like Yelp's "review highlights", Foursquare will highlight common phrases in a venue's user-submitted tips. This sounds like a good idea: for example, telling a user what's popular at a restaurant could be a very valuable service. However, it seems like these tips are now harder to find. Are users unwilling to write a lot on their phones? Was the distribution of tips favoring restaurants, putting Foursquare too much in direct competition with Yelp? Or were the recommendations not really useful for users?

  2. Auto-detecting that I'm somewhere new and asking me to check in. Recently, Foursquare was testing a new feature where the app tries to detect if you are in a new location. If it can do that, the app sends a push notification asking if you want to check in. This is clearly a way to streamline checking in, but the potential risks are plenty: users might be creeped out (I was at first), it could drain battery life due to its location monitoring, and it might even violate some privacy laws. I would love to learn how the metrics are responding and how Foursquare navigated the potential risks during development.

  3. It's hard to find information about a venue that I'm not trying to check into. Foursquare has an incredibly powerful database of information about venues, not just with its users' tips, but also with objective information like hours of business and special Foursquare deals that businesses are running. But, this information about a venue is not easy to find on the mobile experience if I'm not a) nearby or b) trying to check in to that venue. As a user, I'm not sure how to access the wealth of information on Foursquare when I want to. Is this a conscious user experience decision by Foursquare, and if so, why?

What Foursquare could be

Without knowing anything insider about Foursquare's plans or metrics, here are some different directions that I could see Foursquare taking as it attempts to attract new users and earn more money:

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