"You don’t even need to search."
That’s the promise from the team behind Foursquare’s newest release, a completely redesigned version of the popular check-in app that goes live today on iPhone and Android. The service, which boasts more than 20 million users and 2 billion check-ins, has been stripped down for its latest iteration: less text, fewer buttons and wasted pixels. But as Foursquare search head Andrew Hogue tells me, the simplified UI is basically a byproduct of the limited screen real estate on mobile phones, which, for what’s essentially a mobile search service, means more reliance on visuals than text, and a shift from active search to passive discovery.
"The overall visual design of the app was the big thing we thought about when taking this thing apart and putting it back together," Hogue says. "The goal for any search engine is to help people find the things they’re looking for—that’s the simplest definition of search. Obviously, pictures give you a real visceral feel for what’s going on—so this allows you to very quickly skim through a set of results, and understand very quickly the gist of a place, whether it’s a dive bar or a nice fancy restaurant, or whether they serve beautiful food or just a burger on a plate. Pictures communicate that in a way that raw text just can’t."
Even as search engines migrate to more mobile devices, many still rely on traditional means of displaying information, namely text and blue links. But Hogue says Foursquare’s design team was concerned with information density—that is, either delivering too much data to the user or displaying it inefficiently. The startup, for example, got rid of 50% of the buttons displayed on its home screen, going from 10 buttons (that included radar, nearby, worldwide, maps, lists) to just five. The team nixed addresses and cross streets, instead replacing more wonky location data with visual cues: simple icons for venue types—bar, restaurant, grocery store—and larger pictures hugging below check-ins with comments laid on top.
But more important than the redesigned way data and search results are presented within the app is the way users are now interacting with them. Traditional search engines don’t do enough to take advantage of mobile data: your past personal preferences, the neighborhood you’re in, the time you’re searching. In other words, if it’s 3 a.m. in the East Village, it’s doubtful you’re looking for a brunch spot or a dry cleaner; inversely, if you’re looking for places in the morning, it’s unlikely you require a nightclub or a beer garden.
"People don’t always have a well-formed query in their head—a search engine should almost be able to read your mind," Hogue says. "If you were talking to a good friend, who knew the city, you wouldn’t walk up and suddenly shout a query at them, like, 'I need free Wi-Fi, or I need a bar.' You’d ask, 'What should I do in Soho tonight?' And that person would say, 'There’s a great bar, or there’s a great place to get dumplings, or there’s this park to hang out in.' In other words, he’d give you a whole bunch of ideas without you having to specifically ask for each one."
That’s the aim of the new version of Foursquare: to provide results without having to search for them. Sure, if you need the blank search box, it’s still there. But when you’re in a particular neighborhood, Foursquare is smart enough to know what you like and give you suggestions before having to ask. Compare that to Yelp, which in its equivalent of Foursquare’s "Explore" tab, called "Nearby," is forever suggesting I might click "Gas & Service Stations." This despite the fact that I live in New York City, don’t have a car, and have never once asked for a gas station. Foursquare says it’s trying to distance itself from this "one-size-fits-all approach to local search."
"Foursquare Explore is trying to be much more like talking to a knowledgeable friend than querying a database—which I think is what the old search engines tend to be like," Hogue says.