Mar 19, 2010

What Location Based Services Need To Do Next

While location based services like FourSquare and Gowalla have been all the buzz this past year, their continued success is likely going to depend on how easy they make it for consumers to “check in” and interact with their service.

Checking in with your LBS of choice (or, for many, your LBS’s of choice) is currently a somewhat onerous act: you need to pull out your phone, find and open the app, find the check-in tab, wait till the app loads the geolocator, find your location from a list of nearby locations, figure out if your current location is in there or if the geolocator has messed up (again!), select your location, decide whether to write something for twitter and hit enter.

Which is all well and good if you’re alone, but if you’re with people, it’s pretty awkward.

LBS’ are great for conferences and large events like SXSWi, where everyone has a vested interest in finding each other, which is why those events are many people’s first encounter with LBS apps. Upon returning home, however, they quickly discover that it’s both inconvenient and socially awkward to whip out the phone and check in everywhere they go. And features which may seem useful down in Austin don’t really translate to the daily grind back home.

But all is not lost.

As the FourSquares and Gowallas grow, they’ll need to figure out ways to make it easier to check in. That can be anything from auto-check in alerts you set yourself (e.g. “You are at Starbucks again? Do you want to check in?” to sponsored auto-check in alerts (e.g. “You are at Starbucks again. Do you want to check in and save 50 cents?”)

Accuracy is another issue: GPS is still really awful in many parts of the country and it’s not clear how long these services can keep relying on their users to make up for that. (Or not: one of Gowalla’s big downfalls is that unlike the scrappy FourSquare, it relies exclusively on GPS and so winds up stopping people from checking in at home or at work because the GPS insists that they’re at some place a quarter mile away.)

But GPS is only going to improve and in the interim, the services may consider making broader use of maps, the way Minnesota-based upstart Toodalu has done or increasing the radius of the check-in as my friend C.C. Chapman has suggested.

And of course, LBS’s value as a teenager-tracking device for parents have yet to be fully appreciated.

Circling back though, it’s the ease of use thing that the people who make the apps are going to need to figure out. Make it as close to one-touch as possible, and you’ll get all the people outside the tech/media world, people who are more likely to be at the supermarket on a Sunday afternoon than at some trendy restaurant enjoying brunch.

And give them a reason to want to check in that goes beyond "because it shows I'm social media savvy" and/or the whole mayor/gameplaying thing (it's going to be next-to-impossible to steal the mayorship away from early adopters, or collect more Chinese lanterns, given that many of them have a year or two's head start.)

Otherwise, it’ll just be one more toy no one’s really sure what to do with.

UPDATE, AUGUST 2010: Thanks to an app called Future Checkin, FourSquare users will indeed be able to check in automatically. TechCrunch gives the details here.

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