Foursquare has evolved from a game of check-ins to a search and discovery service. Its Explore search engine is becoming one of the startup's most compelling assets, powered by the social and location data its users feed the app. And, as Fast Company outlined in our extensive profile of the company's cofounder and CEO Dennis Crowley, it could represent Foursquare's future.
Today, with a little help from Microsoft, Foursquare unveiled what its next generation of products could look like. Its new app for Windows 8, the elegant (though oft-maligned) operating system Redmond designed for laptops and tablets, shows how the Foursquare experience could extend beyond smartphones and other mobile devices. The service is centered around search and discovery, helping users find restaurants and bars. But the app's most significant feature is perhaps what isn't there: Foursquare's activity feed, long a staple of the social service, has been removed. "This was a very conscious product decision—we wanted to put the attention on finding great places," says David Ban, Foursquare's mobile business development lead. "It's indicative of the latest thinking of the company—of what our strengths are and what we want to present to the user."
Foursquare's Windows 8 app is a highly visual experience. The platform's tiled design is perfectly geared toward Foursquare, which prides itself on bite-size nuggets of data: check-ins, tips, lists, and so forth. When users open the app, Foursquare populates the screen with images of nearby venues—recommendations that show what's trending or recently opened. Users can search for coffee shops or dive bars, and see basic information such as ratings, hours, and tips. Venue photographs appear in a beautiful grid, a collage of dishes and cocktails that make for a good visual representation of what you're searching for. "It's very different than what you've seen from the native Foursquare experience," says Ban.
The app is a significant departure from the traditional social Foursquare experience. The company has long been distancing itself from check-ins and badges, but this is a new leap forward. Users can check in, but it's a secondary use case. The primary function of the service is search; social is a back-end layer. "All the social aspects that Foursquare is known for—they're baked into powering the recommendations," says Ban, who adds that the missing activity feed "is really only one small component [of Foursquare]. It's a matter of simplifying it to the essence of what's going to help people find places the quickest."
The company made a similar shift last year, when it redesigned its smartphone apps to bring search to the forefront. While the activity feed still exists there, it remains beneath the search box. The rejiggered hierarchy helped double search usage in months. The company also refreshed its web listings to make them more accessible to users searching for venues. Foursquare soon saw its referral traffic from Google skyrocket.
The question now is whether this focus on search and discovery—not as a complement but a replacement to the traditional social feed—will spread to the company's other apps.
"It's been something we've been kicking around here for a while: What does an Explore-focused version of Foursquare look like? And is that something that we might want to double down on across a whole bunch of different platforms?" Dennis Crowley says. "It's an interesting, alternative style of the Foursquare experience—and something we may want to consider."