How I Did It
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Foursquare's Dennis Crowley: 'Our First Instinct Was That We Broke Something'
 

The Foursquare co-founder describes how he adjusted the app in response to the way people used it (differently than he expected).

Foursquare's Dennis Crowley: 'Our First Instinct Was That We Broke Something'

The Foursquare co-founder describes how he adjusted the app in response to the way people used it (differently than he expected).

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Video Transcript


00:07 Dennis Crowley: Whatever way that we have in our head that we expect people to use a software, they'll find other interesting ways to use it that we didn't expect.


In 2009, Dennis Crowley co-founded Foursquare, a mobile app that lets users indicate their location to friends.


Users "check in" to venues, and Foursquare updates the network.


00:28 Crowley: We always knew that we wanted to make these recommendation engines for the real world. Like things that would recommend places and experiences to you the same way that Amazon would recommend books or Netflix would recommend movies. And in order to do that, we knew we needed to have a lot of check-in data, like which types of people go to which places and what are the places that your friends go to and what are the things that you like, what are the place that you've been to? And we knew the best way to get that was check-in data. We knew how valuable check-in data was. And I think a lot of people looked at earlier versions of Foursquare and they say, "Oh this is is a cute little toy that I can use to share my location and try to win badges and compete with friends", which is fine, because there's a lot of people that used Foursquare for that. But behind the scenes and one of the things that we knew from the beginning, was, if we do that successfully, it will generate lots of interesting data points that we can then feed directly into this recommendation engine.


In March 2011, Dennis noticed a growing percentage of people using Foursquare without checking in.


01:24 Crowley: When you look at the users' numbers and you see stuff that's unexpected, like our first instinct was to think that we broke something. If people aren't using this the way that we designed it, there must be something broken technically on the backend. Let's dig into it and see what's wrong. And when we dug into it, we realized it was just an emerging class of users that, the first thing that they would do when they came to Foursquare was that they would use it to search and they would use it to discover, and that the idea of checking-in was secondary to them. And that's something that, I wouldn't say, blew our minds, but it was just like unexpected. I was like, "Well, that's not the way the other people used it. Why do these people understand it differently?" And we have to... You have to listen to your users. You can't lecture the users and say, "This is not what you're supposed to be doing. You should do this instead". But instead it's like, "Wait, people really wanna use this for search first? Then we should maybe change the app a little bit."


02:11 Crowley: So we think, "Oh, well, maybe the story that we were telling initially, like every check-in makes the explore recommendation engine smarter. That's a good story, but realizing it might not apply to everyone. And that the story for new users might be, "Hey, come into Foursquare and use it for amazing search and discovery. And you should know that like once you go to these places, you should tell Foursquare that you've been there so that these results get better." But it's basically taking our story, check-in first, search second and flipping it upside down. It's like, start with search and then make those results better by using Foursquare to share some of the data.


On June 7, 2012, Foursquare released a redesigned app that focused more heavily on search.


Within six months, usage more than doubled.


02:54 Crowley: The first time that you end up building a product you think, "I made this thing and I make up the rules and everyone would end up playing by those rules". And really, what happens is, you end up making, instead of an entire experience, make like a sandbox and you let the users come in, and play with that sandbox and figure out things that they can do and what they can't do. And we've seen this all through Foursquare, whether it's search stuff, whether there's people that, we want them to check-in to places and sometimes, they check in to hurricanes and blizzards. And it's like, "That's not what it's intended for but that's what people want to do with it." And so, we would get our user community. We get a lot of feedback and a lot of ideas for how to push the product forward and then what direction to push it based off of what they actually do with Foursquare. And so we learn from them, probably more than we tell what they should be doing.


Today, more than 25 million people use Foursquare.


The app averages more than 5 million check-ins around the world every day.

Last updated: Dec 27, 2012