Bringing Foursquare to the iPad

Early this September, just a month after shipping the new Foursquare, we set our sights on a new platform from which we’ve always been absent: iPad. After August’s big launch, we knew it was the right opportunity and the right time. Right opportunity because 100mm Americans use a tablet, more than half of them iPads, to plan and research. Right time because, with the new Foursquare, we have a simple use case that fits naturally on the tablet platform: finding (and saving) great places.

Building Foursquare for iPad was an exercise in minimalism. We set out to plan, build, and ship the app in a mere three months to validate that the market demand exists before investing more heavily in the platform. In the end, the tight timeline led us to greater focus and a better app. This short post highlights how we got there, and what we learned along the way.

Foursquare’s entire design team mocked up what an iPad app could look like.

We kicked off the project with user research and a blue-sky design exercise. The exercise took us in a distinctly editorial direction. We have a unique opportunity on the tablet to build something that feels as curated as a magazine, but also scales with our wealth of location data and gives every user a personalized guide to the world.

Meanwhile, our research team trekked out to NYC’s five boroughs to run a series of field studies: in-person interviews of iPad owners who don’t use Foursquare. The studies confirmed our intuition that the bulk of tablet usage takes place at home, on Wi-Fi networks. The most universally loved apps are those that take advantage of the tablet’s large screen to flatten the view hierarchy and let content, and especially photos, shine through.

Armed with that knowledge, we made a handful of decisions that shaped the product and its design:

  • Cut out everything that doesn’t directly cater to our core use case. iPad is a new platform, and we get the luxury of picking our battles. Here tab? Doesn’t make sense without mobility. Tip feed? Gone. Tip compose? Not critical for a v1.
  • Focus on planning. Planning on the tablet is more future-oriented than on the phone, and much of it is aspirational. That observation led us to tease a row of travel destinations at the very top of the home page. We also placed prominent save buttons on every venue, and promoted “Saved places” to the nav bar. And we decided to default users to a city-wide “Top Picks” view, instead of the more timely options we show on the phone.
  • Moving fast means making compromises. We asked ourselves whether a direct port of the mobile venue page (as a modal) was likely to hurt the experience. The answer was no, so we didn’t spend any more time on it.

As the user scrolls down the home page, we fade in search tools: query text, filters, and view toggles.

Generally, designs guide the prototype. But at times, the opposite happens, and the prototype drives the evolution of the design. During a product review, someone asked why we don’t show more places on the home page. The distinction between the home and search results pages is an arbitrary one, we realized, and we set out to unify the two. We didn’t know whether we could make the transition from search suggestions to results feel truly seamless, but we knew we’d have to build it to know for sure. Success! We now fade in filters and view toggles as the user scrolls down the home page, for a faster and more engaging search experience.

The launch button — a Foursquare tradition.

On a rainy December morning, we (literally) pushed the launch button. We’ve been so excited with the response since. Apple featured the new app over the holidays, and our user community’s feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. Early data validates our investment: The majority of our iPad users are completely new to Foursquare. More importantly, they search and save more than their phone peers, and they’re more likely to use the app to travel the world.

As a team, we’re taking a few lessons forward with us. Maybe there’s a place for them in your workflow too:

First, take the time to establish your anti-goals. Getting everyone to agree on what you’re not going to build is hard, but it spurs healthy conversations about trade-offs and leads to a more focused vision.

Second, now’s always a good time to take a hard look at what could be simplified in your app. (And not just when porting to a new platform!) Ignore what already exists. Sketch your app’s core flow with a fresh set of eyes. See how it differs from your existing product, and how everything else in the app follows from that first design. Repeat. Your users will thank you for it.

Wonder what it’s like to build search products millions use? Come and find out.

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