Foursquare’s new app Swarm is location sharing done right

Swarm Foursquare Bee logo App Foursquare today launched its brand new social location and check-in app, Swarm.  It’s available now for iOS and Android with WP support due later this summer. I’ve been testing the iOS version for the last week, and so far I have been very impressed. I discussed in a previous post about why I thought the decision to split Foursquare in half made sense and, when you start using Swarm it is quickly apparent why they are doing it. The company have created a user experience that would never have been possible in the current Foursquare app where search and discovery are also vying for your attention. Swarm is 2010 Foursquare, rebooted and reimagined for 2014.

Essentially, Swarm is a buddy list for location – it lets you see your friend’s current proximity to you. Opening the app shows you instantly which of your friends are nearby, creating a sort of “manufactured serendipity” – a chance to meet up with someone who you may not otherwise have known was around.

Launching this summer, a redesigned version of Foursquare, will focus solely on local search and discovery, positioning itself in direct competition with Yelp. While Foursquare and Swarm will serve two different use cases, they will be tightly integrated with one another. As you explore the world with Swarm, it automatically learns the places you like to go, and this data is then used to personalise your recommendations and local search results in Foursquare.

Swarm lets you see which of your friends are nearby

Swarm lets you see which of your friends are nearby

Look & Feel

Swarm is lean and focused by comparison to the current Foursquare app. It shows you where your friends are in one tab, where they have been in the next, and a third tab gives you a way to make plans to meet up with them. A fourth tab handles notifications. The app has an elegant, clean interface with some lovely design touches like the honeycomb shaped profile pictures. I’m also a big fan of their bee logo that cleverly factors in the Foursquare location pin.

Checking in is lightning fast – almost instantaneous in my experience – taking only two quick taps in some cases. Swarm pre-emptively guesses your current location before you even press the check-in button. If its suggestion is wrong you can search for more nearby venues, but in my experience Swarm’s predictions have proved correct more often than not.

Swarm - Checking in friends

Swarm lets you check in your friends if you are together, or simply mention them to let them know where you are

Swarm adds the ability to both mention a friend in your check-in, and also check them in. Start typing a friend’s name in the check-in window and a menu appears of possible matches. Tapping a name highlights it in the text, and also adds the their profile pic to a ‘Here with:’ section at the bottom of the check-in window. If you don’t want to check them in with you, and just want to send them a notification, you simply tap the little ‘x’ by their name to remove them.

While its nice to be able to both mention friends and check them in at the same time, having to type each name individually is rather time consuming. I’d like to see a little ‘Add people’ button added to the “Here with:” section so there is a quicker way to check in add friends to check in.

Stickers, Emoji and Mayorships

Stickers add flair to your check-ins

Stickers add flair to your check-ins

Foursquare’s gamified elements have also been reworked in Swarm. Badges and are gone, although their spiritual successor will apparently be part of the redesigned Foursquare. Points are also gone, but they had sort of become redundant anyway. A new feature called Stickers lets you add tiny pieces of visual flair to your check-ins – little images that convey what you are doing or how you are feeling. Swarm comes with a few to get you started, and as you begin to check in to different places, you will unlock more. It’s a nice idea, and differs from Foursquare’s badges which, once earned, were never seen again except on your profile. In contrast, Stickers you unlock actually become part of the check-in experience, so you can show them off to your friends.

Swarm will also display emoji as stickers too. Put one in your message as you check-in, and it will display just like a sticker (make sure you haven’t also added a sticker as well). It’s a really nice addition and gives you myriad ways to express yourself each time you check in.

Mayorships have also changed. In “Mayors 2.0”, you now compete amongst your friends for mayorship of a venue, rather than with every other person on Foursquare. More info on this hereI personally liked them as they were, but I’ll reserve judgement on the Mayors 2.0 experience until I’ve had a chance to properly try it – something tells me that it might be more fun in the long run, since they should change hands more often.

‘Neighbourhood Sharing’

Swarm’s biggest new feature is called ‘Neighbourhood Sharing’ – a technology that can update your location in the background even when you don’t open the app, and most importantly in a way that doesn’t cause battery life to suffer too much.

Foursquare have clearly spent a lot of time thinking about privacy. ‘Neighbourhood Sharing’ never shares your precise location – instead your friends simply see your approximate distance away from them, and the name of the neighbourhood or area you are in. If you want to share your precise location you can check in to a venue as you did with Foursquare. ‘Neighbourhood Sharing’ can easily be switched on or off whenever you want, and Foursquare have done an excellent job of making the privacy controls simple and accessible.

In the original Foursquare, knowing someone’s location was reliant on them manually checking in to a venue. In Swarm, ‘Neighbourhood Sharing’ means that checking in is no longer required, and this brings an unprecedented level of accuracy and immediacy to Swarm.  It is now possible to see if friends are nearby at any given moment – not just when they check in.

Neighbourhood Sharing  goes a long way towards making Swarm more accessible to a mainstream audience, especially those people who were put off Foursquare because having to manually check in every where they went was too intrusive. Neighbourhood Sharing makes Swarm works for anybody, whether they choose to check in or not.

It's easy to turn Neighbourhood Sharing on or off Previous attempts to build experiences around persistent location sharing, such as Google Latitude or Apple’s ‘Find my Friends’, were never popular since they offered too much transparency – constantly pinpointing each user on a map at a precise lat/long position felt creepy. It is unlikely that even a husband and wife want to constantly share this level of location detail with each other, so its hard to imagine two friends wanting to. Swarm’s experience works brilliantly because rather than emphasising location, it instead emphasises proximity, an arguably more useful metric to the user, and one with fewer privacy implications.

Swarm and the etiquette of location-based communication (or Why Swarm needs built-in chat)

With any new technology that changes the way we communicate, there often needs to be a paradigm shift while society gets comfortable with it – the rules of etiquette need to establish themselves. With Swarm, Foursquare have done a brilliant job building a way for us to easily share our location with friends, while ensuring that we have full control over our privacy. However, even though we have chosen to do this, there can still be something slightly unnerving about someone using that information to contact us out of the blue. While there are times when this experience can be fine, even rewarding, it is also possible that it can provoke a negative reaction. It can feel like an invasion of privacy.

Where Swarm stumbles slightly in its execution, is in how it enables this communication. Currently, it provides links for Facebook Messenger and SMS to let us message our friends. If Swarm had built-in messaging capabilities, it would provide a superior (and potentially less creepy!) experience for the recipient. There are two main reasons for this:

  1. The context of location is lost from the message outside Swarm If you receive an SMS or Facebook Message from a friend saying “I see you’re at Starbucks. Can I come join you?”, it may not be immediately apparent how they know where you are (maybe another friend checked you in without you noticing) – it’s a little creepy. However, if the same message came via Swarm, you would be instantly reminded how they know your location, since it would come directly from the app that shares it.
  2. The location awareness is one sided outside Swarm. The other problem of receiving your friend’s message via SMS or Facebook Messenger is that, while they already know your current location from Swarm, you do not necessarily know where they are. This makes the communication unbalanced (and creepy). If the message was received via Swarm, you would immediately be able to see the senders location, as you opened the app to read their message. The notification could even include their location alongside their message. (e.g. John at Starbucks (1 mile away) says “Are you free for lunch?”) What this distinction means is that, the moment you start to reply, both you and your friend are already aware of each others locations, without having to ask, and since the chat is happening within an app that you have both agreed to share your locations, it doesn’t feel creepy.

The other reason that Swarm should have built-in chat, at least from Foursquare’s point of view, is that it would lead to increased user engagement. People would open the app more often to chat with their friends (and possibly check in at the same time). This would turn Swarm into a location-based chat client, an altogether more useful tool than one that is solely concerned with location sharing. If Swarm had a way to tap on a nearby friend to immediately start chatting with them it would make the experience completely seamless.

[As an aside, I should perhaps mention that currently, it is possible to chat with friends by commenting on their check-in, but this functionality is not really suitable for prolonged chat, since, when a user checks in somewhere else, the conversation is no longer visible on the main screen.]

‘Nearby Plans’

Another new feature Swarm adds, that I previously mentioned above, is called ‘Nearby Plans’ (more info here) and is designed to hep you plan activities with your friends. It is essentially a virtual message board where you can post and discuss future plans with friends who are nearby (i.e. in the same city). You can post messages like “I am heading to x bar later tonight, does anyone what to join?” and it is shared with all your nearby friends, who can then discuss it and RSVP. It is intentionally open, and there is no way to decide which friends are invited – all your nearby friends on Swarm receive the message. At this stage, I haven’t had a chance to really play with it, but it does feel a little restrictive. You may not want to invite all your nearby friends to an event. It seems like, at very least, it needs a way to limit sharing a plan with a select group.

Nearby Plans help you find out what friends are doing next

Nearby Plans help you find out what friends are doing next

Historical Check-in Search

Lastly, Swarm adds a way for you to search your past check-ins – a particularly useful feature if you like to use Foursquare to track your whereabouts. It’s a great way to recall where you’ve been, long after your memory has forgotten. You can use it to find out things like the date you last visited the dentist, or the name of that restaurant you visited in Paris, or how often you hang out with a particular friend. It’s a great feature, and one that I already find myself using a lot. More info here.

What’s Next?

While I have highlighted a few issues, Swarm is a great first step at reinventing the social elements of Foursquare, and it is already an amazing tool for sharing location with your friends. I see plenty of room for Swarm to grow, and it will be interesting to see how the app evolves over time. I for one, am already a big fan.

Swarm, of course, is only one half of the equation. Arguably the bigger, and more important part of the company’s future is the new version of its discovery and recommendation service that will launch this summer. It will be interesting to see how this reimagined Foursquare app tackles local search when untethered from the check-in experience.

A lot of people have questioned the wisdom of unbundling the Foursquare app into two experiences – Swarm for check-ins and Foursquare for search. It’s worth considering though that, an app that can provide a quality recommendation for a restaurant in an unfamiliar town is something that everyone can see value in, while checkins and sharing location with friends may be more niche. Until now, mainstream users have been put off using Foursquare because of the latter. With the emphasis on check-ins removed from the equation, one of the major barriers to Foursquare’s adoption is removed.

There are of course risks: it’s possible that each app may end up feeling incomplete on its own. The company must ensure that both apps work as individual self-contained experiences – users must be able to use only Swarm, or only Foursquare or both apps together, based on the features that appeal to them. If either app fails to do this, then they are likely to lose customers rather than gain them.

My view is that, Swarm stands to be an extremely popular app in its own right, irrespective of its sibling app. If the company can bring the same great user experience and clear focus to the new Foursquare app, then I think Yelp will have a serious threat on their hands.

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