Monday, November 8, 2010

Foursquare’s SMS interface is a festering heap of targ manure

Update: There's a new Foursquare SMS interface available, courtesy of DOTGO. The new interface addresses most of my complaints below; I've written up some intial impressions of the new service. Check it out!

I like the idea of Foursquare, but I don’t have a smartphone. That shouldn’t be a problem, because Foursquare supports checking in by SMS (text message). The idea is that you send a text message to 50500 in the following format:

@ location ! shout

Foursquare should check you into location. The optional shout is a message that's shown to your friends and included in tweets generated by foursquare.

Unfortunately, the SMS interface is a colossal failure. It’s as if they set out to develop the least useful interface that could be said to check the “SMS compatibility” box off the requirements list.

Reason Zero: The Mobile Site

Foursquare offers a mobile site,, which I should be able to access through the web browser in my phone. But it doesn't work, and Foursquare doesn’t care. It didn’t work on my last phone, a Verizon Samsung Alias, and it doesn’t work on my new phone, a Verizon LG Cosmos. The dysfunctional mobile website is the reason I have to use the SMS interface in the first place.

Reason One: Where you at?

To match the location you send with locations in the database, Foursquare needs to have an idea of where you are (e.g. the city you’re in). This idea comes from the location of your last checkin, or you can update your location explicitly on the website:


What you can’t do is update your location by SMS. So if you’re going out of town, you have to remember to update your location on the website before leaving home. If you’re going to be in multiple cities before returning to your computer, you’re pretty much screwed. How hard would it be to implement a syntax for specifying the city by SMS?

% city
@ location % city ! shout
@ location, city ! shout

Reason Two: I have no idea what you mean

The bigger problem is that Foursquare’s ability to match your stated location with locations in its database is abysmal. If it’s able to match, the SMS response will say something like this:

@ Marlene's pizza

OK! We've got you at Marlene's Pizza (+1 pts!)

The location has been rewritten to appear exactly the same as the database entry, and your points for the checkin are shown. The associated tweet will show the street address from the database, and the entry in your history will be linked to the location page. Your checkin will count toward mayorship and other awards.

But what’s more common is you get a response like this:

@ Marlene's pizza

OK! We've got you at Marlene's pizza.

That doesn’t look bad, right? But if no points are specified, Foursquare is just parroting your text back to you. It didn’t match it up with anything in the database, and you accrue none of the benefits listed above.

To have any success, it’s best to look up likely destinations before you go. That way, you can type them exactly as they are in Foursquare’s database. I try to do this, but it’s often not enough. The problem is that Foursquare is paralyzed by ambiguous checkins, and makes no effort to disambiguate. Let’s consider my recent trip to State College, PA, for a Penn State football game.

Before we left, I updated my location to State College, PA, and researched some locations. Our first stop was lunch at Otto’s, an unplanned visit. I hoped for the best, but came up short:

@ Otto's

OK! We've got you at Otto's.

Let’s do a little post-mortem, and search the website for Otto’s:


(Click this, or any other, picture to embiggen.)

OK, so there were three things that it could have been. What I typed wasn’t exactly the same as any of them. But why couldn’t I get a response back like this?

Hm? Reply 1 for Otto’s Pub & Brewery, 2 for Otto’s Cafe
(in Kern/Grad. School Building), 3 for Otto’s Pleasant View
Farm, 4 for other

I realize that Foursquare is only valued at $95 million, so its engineering resources are admittedly limited, but I don’t think this approach is too much to ask.

The next stop was the game. I researched this in advance, so I figured I nailed it:

@ Beaver Stadium ! WE ARE

OK! We've got you at Beaver Stadium.

Well, damn. Another generic response. Even though I exactly matched the name in the database, there are other, longer, names and Foursquare still considers it ambiguous:


Well, I can’t type it any more precisely than I did. I’d suggest favoring exact matches, but if there’s some reason that’s not a viable solution, there’s the disambiguation response I proposed above.

Penn State came back from a 21-0 deficit against Northwestern to win 35-21 and give Joe Paterno his 400th victory. Time for a celebration dinner at The Tavern downtown! I hadn’t researched this one, either. Here we go:

@ The Tavern ! Waiting by the pig

OK! We've got you at The Tavern.

Generic response #3. Post-mortem reveals 35 matches, with the intended one being the second:


Only the first two are within an hour or so of State College. So we ended up 0-for-3; compare the unlinked locations for the day with the linked ones earlier in the history:


I’ve already proposed 2 solutions for Foursquare:

  • Fix the broken Mobile Web interface
  • Send SMS responses requesting disambiguation

If these are impossible for the technical minds at Foursquare, there’s a third possible solution, which is also not implemented at this time:

  • Allow retroactive correction of the checkin locations using the website

My guess is that Foursquare doesn’t care enough about non-smartphone users to do any of this. Foursquare’s main competitor, Gowalla, does not support non-smartphone users at all. But at least that’s an honest approach. Foursquare’s half-assed lip service to SMS is just obnoxious.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Matthew, we just revamped foursquare's SMS experience. Take a look. We would love your feedback.

    Cheers, Michelle @dotgo


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