Antifeatures: big mistake that location app developers make

This week I got a press release from Gowalla. It went on and on about how much better its feature set was than Foursquare, a point of view backed up by one of my favorite tech writers, Zee, so I gave it a second chance.

Why did they claim it was better?

Because their app forces users to use the GPS in their phone to check in. Foursquare does not, the press release says. That is all true.

If you read that you’d think that Gowalla was going to run away with the prize, right?

But, sorry, it won’t work out that way.

Here’s why. This “feature” is actually an anti-feature.

“What in heck’s name are you talking about Scoble?”

Well, they didn’t do their homework. On the Gillmor Gang last week Kevin Marks of British Telecom nailed it. He told us that people are freaked out by location-based applications.

Every time I show these apps to people they invariably respond with freaked out replies like “I would never use this.” Or, “stalkers would love these.” Or “something nasty is going to happen to someone because of these.”

This is a completely different response than those who I first showed, say, Twitter too. They responded merely with “that’s lame.”

You can get over being lame. You can’t get over your potential users being freaked out.

So, here’s why this is an antifeature for these apps, and probably lots of location apps (let’s talk about how Twitter is handling location troubles later):

1. Both of these apps are location games. You check in. You get virtual points. Your friends know where you are. This freaks people out. But only one app FORCES you to tell people exactly where you are when you check in: Gowalla. This is going to turn off a lot of people, plus it makes checking in a LOT harder. While staying in Sequoia Hospital I was able to check in with Foursquare, but not Gowalla (because my GPS didn’t work inside Sequoia).
2. Most people, when they play location games, want to add some “fuzziness” to their location. For instance, I am at home right now. The closest address to me is the Ritz Carlton in Half Moon Bay (I’m walking distance away from it). On Foursquare I check in there. Which lets me “win” mayorship of the Ritz, plus it lets me add some fuzziness to my actual location. On Gowalla it forces me to check in at my real address, if I want to let my friends know I’m in the neighborhood. My friend Luke, who lives nearby, could use this to know when I’m home and available for going surfing, for instance.
This makes Gowalla considerably less fun, too. One part of a location-based game is presenting people as you’d like others to see you. It’s a lot more interesting to check in at the Ritz every night than my actual home address, which, to tell you the truth, I’d be a little freaked out to report to everyone (and if I’m freaked out, imagine how freaked out the average user is).
3. These two games have two significant challenges and Gowalla’s approach will cripple them in both. The challenges? 1. Get users. 2. Get those users to add locations.
Why are those challenges? Well, if you are a normal user, try to use these systems, and you try it in your home town and no locations are there, you get pissed off and leave. Even I behaved this way, ignoring Foursquare until just recently, despite it being hot at SXSW with lots of my friends. I checked in this afternoon at Rite Aid, a pharmacy in Half Moon Bay. Both systems didn’t have that location. I added it, but adding it in Foursquare had fewer screens. Why? Because of the GPS requirement. And, Foursquare has a LOT more users. Why do I think that is? Partly because it was out earlier, but also partly because it is, well, more fun to play because it doesn’t require exact use of the GPS. The people I’ve shown both systems to tell me they are more likely to join Foursquare. Oh, and I got a nicer reward for adding a new place into Foursquare than Gowalla, which made Foursquare more fun and made it more likely I’ll add the other weird places in my town.

The more I look at it, the more I’m convinced that the strict use of the GPS in Gowalla makes it significantly less likely to gain users than Foursquare will get.

That’s why I call this feature an “antifeature.”

Now, I do admit that there will be disagreement with me. Zee, for instance, thinks that Gowalla is hot because of this feature. I think he’s misjudged it and time will tell who is right.

Oh, as to Twitter, did you see how they added “fuzziness” into the location? They are deleting location information after 15 days.

Twitter is also making the system opt in. User control is very important in getting users over their fears of revealing their location. Most users are freaked out by these features, so user control and fuzziness are the two most dominant and needed features.

What do you think?

About Robert Scoble

As Startup Liaison for Rackspace, the Open Cloud Computing Company, I travel the world with Rocky Barbanica looking for what's happening on the bleeding edge of technology and report that here.

62 thoughts on “Antifeatures: big mistake that location app developers make

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  2. Ouch, I am with everyone and this comment was a “self-goal” as they say in soccer.

    Robert was clearly offering constructive comments, not starting any flame wars.

    Is being childish prerequisite to developing augmented reality games? I hope not…

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  5. I play Gowalla, but not FourSquare (I'm not sure I can in the UK), so I'm not about to offer an opinion on which one is best.

    Gowalla, for me, is just a way of having fun when I travel around. I have no issues with the 'anti-feature' of GPS. I like visiting spots that other people have created, and picking up stamps and items. The social aspect is also a bonus – I've made some good friends through Gowalla that I wouldn't otherwise have met.

    Gowalla is, after all, an iPhone app that you can try out for free. You might like it, you might not. If you have concerns about it, then don't download it.

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