In the wake of Foursquare’s recent version update that includes badge leveling, I thought I’d take a look back at Foursquare’s early beginnings and how they beat out competitors in the space to become the number one location-based service for checkins.
The most important thing to consider when designing and building a mobile application is the experience; more important than design, more important than look and feel, more important even than platform. Before I explain, lets first look at the development of two very similar apps focusing on the gamification of LBS. We all know Foursquare and some of us probably even use it on a regular basis, but who has heard of and uses Gowalla? If we examine the Gowalla user base that number is far smaller, around 1.5 million users compared to Foursquare’s 10 million users. Why is there such a dramatic rift in the install base of two very similar apps? They both focus on gamifying check-ins, they both launched about the same time and they both reward users with badges for checking in and power use. With a feature set so similar you’d expect parity, but that just isn’t case.
I think it’s safe to say that at this point, Foursquare has emerged the victor with the biggest chunk of repeat LBS users. And the reason…? Because it provides a better experience. During the first iteration of both apps, before any major updates, they were both incredibly similar save for two major differences. Gowalla prohibits users from checking in to locations they are not in the immediate proximity of. Foursquare takes a more liberal approach and lets users checkin regardless of where they are located. This precipitates the second difference, speed of checkin. Because Gowalla’s backend is forced to work overtime confirming the exact location of the user, then matching that with the surrounding location, this inevitably becomes a longer checkin process. Foursquare only uses LBS to detect nearby locations but it’s not requiring users to be within a certain proximity of the place they are checking-in to. Foursquare checkins are a one step process and typically take half the time. Physical proximity and speed of checkin facilitate a better user experience and form the deciding factor in Foursquare’s victory.
Most people who have used both applications agree that GoWalla is better designed and has cooler looking badges. In an application that relies on gamifying the checkin and then rewarding users for it, you’d think design and badges would be everything – and although those are two extremely important elements, experience is going to win out every time.