Alex Rainert: Head of Product at foursquare
Alex is Head of Product at foursquare. Alex brings 12 years of product development experience and a multidisciplinary background to his work, with a focus on mobile, social and emerging technologies. Previously, he co-founded Dodgeball, one of the first mobile social services in the U.S., which he sold to Google in May 2005. He is a lifelong New Yorker currently living in Brooklyn with his wife, daughter, and dog. Alex holds a master's degree from New York University's Interactive Telecommunications Program and a bachelor's degree in philosophy from Trinity College.
How did you find your way into the mobile user experience space?
I started getting interested in mobile when I attended New York University's Interactive Telecommunications graduate program. I went to ITP in 2003 and 2004 when, believe it or not, Friendster was still en vogue. At that time, mobile technology was still super frustrating, but just starting to turn the corner to be a little bit more consumer friendly. ITP is an environment where students are encouraged to play around with the newest technology as part of the curriculum.
I've always been interested in the idea of mobility and presence and how you can alter and enhance the way people interact with the world around them through technology in a non-intrusive way. At ITP, I started working with Dennis Crowley on an application called Scout. When students arrived at school, they had to swipe their ID cards to enter the building. We designed Scout around that core interaction. When students entered the building and swiped their card, Scout would drop them into a virtual space and then other students could query that space with questions like, "Is there anyone on the floor right now who knows action script?" Scout used the idea of presence and social connection to enhance the way students were interacting with each other based on space. In a lot of ways, foursquare has been a natural extension of that idea. We've tried to take something simple like a check in and build a rich experience around that.
One thing that has been challenging - both with the early version of Scout and now foursquare - is that when you're designing mobile experiences, it often feels like you're trying to build things that help pull people over that hump to appreciate the richer experience that can come from designing around the intersection of mobile, social, and place.
How do you pull people over that hump so that they can realize the value of the types of mobile experiences you're designing?
Part of pulling people over the hump is staying focused. The foursquare team is a group of people who have an incredibly active relationship with our phones. It's easy to forget that not everybody has that type of a relationship with their mobile devices, and we have to always make sure we're designing for those outside of our power user set.
foursquare has always been a social utility at its core - find out what your friends are doing, tell your friends what you're doing. We use levers like game mechanics (encouragement though points, the leader board, badges), recommendations, and specials to encourage engagement with the app. The challenge is tweaking all those different levers without losing site of what is central to the app's experience - social and place.
Now that people can carry around these powerful devices, and have access to rich content like maps, images, and video, it's easy to think, "Oh, you can watch videos on it" or "We can create an augmented reality lens to enhance people's view of the world." We don't want people to open up foursquare and be buried in there or force people to look ridiculous waving their phone in the air to see things. That's definitely not the kind of experience we're trying to create. We want to build something that people can pop open anywhere in the world and provides a quick, valuable interaction, and then it's done. They can close it and get back to enjoying what it is they were doing.
From day one, we've been building the foursquare experience for people to share things in the real world - to share rich experiences - and everything we've done has gone into building towards that vision. We feel that's our beachhead - to keep plugging away and being able to focus on that area is our competitive advantage.
There seems to be a theme in your professional history. Dodgeball, Scout, and foursquare all combine mobile, a sense of place with a social layer. Where does that interest come from?
I think part of it is my personality. I'm personally drawn to things that bring people together. I love that a big part of my job is building the team that builds the product. I've been managing a softball team for 12 years, and I run a football office pool. I know the latter two are sort of trivial examples, but it's coordinating groups of people around a thing, and that thing can be a fantasy baseball league, or that thing can be going out for happy hour. That's something that's been true about me my whole life.
Do you think the fact that you have spent so much time in New York City has influenced your thoughts about mobile design?
Definitely. New York is a unique place to design things around real-time place-based social interactions. Designing mobile experiences in New York is very much a gift, but it's also a challenge not to get too swayed by that. Currently, foursquare has over 20 million users. We have to design for the next 40 million users and not the first 20 if we want to build the type of experience that I think we can, and a lot of those 40 aren't necessarily going to be urban dwellers.
What Mobile design topics interest you the most?
I'm really interested in designing experiences that leverage mobile devices as location-aware sensors. There's something really powerful about the idea that the phones people carry with them can act as sensors alerting people about interesting things in their environments. Devices can know about the people you've been at places with, the things you've done and shared... even the speed at which you're moving. That opens up the opportunity to build experiences that are even less disruptive than the experiences we have now. Now, it's still very much like, "Let me open up Google maps and get directions to go do such and such."
Granted, this all has to be done with the user's privacy always kept front of mind, and I think the technology is finally getting to a point where we can find that balance and design an incredibly engaging augmented experience while respecting a user's privacy. Ultimately, I think we'll settle into some place where people will feel comfortable sharing more information than they are now, and I'm interested in seeing the kinds of mobile experiences we can create based on that information.
It seems weird to think that in our lifetime, we had computers in our homes that were not connected to a network, but I can vividly remember that. But that's something my daughter will never experience. I think a similar change will happen with some of the information sharing questions that we have today.
There's a weird line, though. Those kinds of experiences can get creepy super fast. I think the important thing to remember is that some problems are human problems. They're problems a computer can't solve. I'm definitely not one of those people who says stuff like, "We think phones will know what you want to do before you want to do it." I think there's a real danger to over rely on the algorithm to solve human problems. I think it's finding the right balance of how you can leverage the technology to help improve someone's experience, but not expect that you're going to wholeheartedly hand everything over to a computer to solve. It's a really difficult dance to try and be the technology in between human beings. However, no matter how far the technology goes, there's always going to be that nuance that needs to be solved by people.