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
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
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.
You’ve been involved in the mobile industry for quite some time now. What do you think have been some of the biggest changes you’ve experienced?
One big change is how easy it is to create experiences that use the social graph. With Dodgeball, there was no social graph to speak of. If you wanted to create a social experience, you basically had to rebuild it from scratch. There weren’t really graphs you could leverage like you can now with things like Twitter and Facebook. Now that it’s easier to bootstrap a friend graph, we can focus all our efforts on the experience we want to design on top of that. The fact that there’s a standard social graph designers can use to build social experiences is definitely a high barrier to entry that’s been removed.
Also, the sheer number of people with high-end mobile devices is another big change. When I think back to the days of Dodgeball, we decided not to build the experience for devices like Windows mobile phones or smartphones, because the reality was that not that many people were carrying those phones. Despite the fact that it was a bigger challenge to build a rich mobile experience on lower-end phones, we focused on SMS because it was something everyone could use and because we felt strongly that if you’re building something social, it’s not fun if it’s something that most people can’t use. Now, higher-end mobile devices are much more common and are becoming people’s preferred device. Now, even if people are given the choice of having an experience on their laptop or having an experience on their phone, people are starting to choose the experience on their phone because it’s always with them. It’s just as fast. It’s just as nice looking. That just really opens the door for designers and engineers to build great mobile experiences.
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.
Alex Rainert: Head of Product at foursquare
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