Foursquare Now Knows Where You Are, What To Do There, Even If You Don’t

Foursquare CEO Dennis Crowley talks to Fast Company about what he calls the app’s new “sixth sense”–smart notifications, which resurrect an old feature he tried to introduce nearly two years ago.


Starting today on Android you don’t have to tell Foursquare where you are–it just knows. And it will send push notifications recommending what to do while you’re there or after you leave.


It’s the culmination of a “magic” feature Foursquare founder Dennis Crowley and his team have envisioned since 2011–one influential venture capitalist Fred Wilson regaled then as a “game-changing feature.” Recounting the first time Foursquare CEO Dennis Crowley showed him how it worked: “I said, ‘Dennis, this is the feature we’ve all been waiting for. This is what I’ve wanted Foursquare to do since the day I put it on my phone.'” The feature was called Radar.

And myriad reasons–poor battery life performance, inaccurate geofencing on both iOS and Android, and not enough good check-in data–kept it from becoming, as Crowley described it, “magical.”

So Radar faded out, but the team never officially killed it. Today, nearly two years later, they’re resurrecting it in a new update the Foursquare team has been working on for nearly a year. Crowley shared this update with Fast Company earlier this year, when it was still a stealth operation known as “Pilgrim.” Crowley had it on his iPhone back then, and after sitting at sushi restaurant with Fast Company‘s Austin Carr for about 10 minutes, Foursquare buzzed the device, guessing with 30% confidence that Crowley was at Ryoko’s. It was right. There were still problems to solve months ago, but Crowley said at the the time, “It’s at that Frankenstein moment: ‘It’s alive!'”

Today, Crowley isn’t calling the feature “Pilgrim.” It’s “just Foursquare,” he says.

In its newest form, Foursquare works like this: New push notifications will send a recommendation to your phone whenever the app senses you might want one. Whether you’re landing in a new city for the first time or walking into a new sushi restaurant, the new notifications will try to slip you the right details at just the right time. Foursquare might let you know how many of your friends are also in that city, for example, or show you a tip your friend has left at the sushi joint.

Push notifications are a relatively high-stakes feature for any smartphone app–one too many irrelevant or ill-timed pings is enough to lose a user forever. But Crowley says Foursquare is now smart enough to discern some context about your life, like when you’re walking to work versus when you’re sitting down to dinner. So Foursquare can use push notifications strategically, in a way that makes the user experience more frictionless, because now it can surface recommendations to you based on your implicit actions, without requiring you to tell it where you are first.


“The move is no longer opening up the app and pressing a couple of buttons,” Crowley says. “The move is just walking into a place and spending a couple of minutes there.”

Foursquare is bringing the new feature to 2,000 Android users today, and if the team is satisfied with early results, it will continue to roll out on Android and iOS through the end of the year. Crowley says the number of notifications a user can expect to receive varies depending on how active they are and where they live, though he says initially Foursquare is keeping that number “pretty conservative.” Even in the densest areas, he says, users will only be getting a handful of notifications per week.

At one point, I have to ask Crowley whether all of this emphasis on notifications is foreshadowing future Foursquare apps for wearable devices, whether that means an app for Google Glass or for a smartwatch. He’s coy in his response–he says the team is tinkering with stuff that hasn’t been released yet. All he’ll add is “everything we’ve mentioned in this conversation, we’ve played with.”

Hearing Crowley talk about all of this, you get the sense this is his dream for Foursquare being realized, at last.

“The dream for the longest time has been how do you enable these types of interactions?” he says. “All the stuff we’ve done in Foursquare up to this point, like check-ins and tips, all that stuff has been designed to get us to this point where we have just the right amount of signal and we feel confident we’re going to send you the right message at the right time.”

[Base Image: Flickr user NASA]

About the author

Christina is an associate editor at Fast Company, where she writes about technology, social media, and business.