After today, no one will be able to call foursquare just a “check-in app” any longer — in fact they’ll have a hard time even finding the word “check-in” within the app. With the launch of version 5.0 (and its related changes to the website), the service has completed its transformation from a “check-in game” to a full fledged recommendations service. They’ve taken their long-stated goal of “making cities easier to use” and made good on it with a complete and total redesign of the app from top to bottom.
The social aspects, the recommendation tools, the user profile, and, yes, even the check-in functions have all been improved in this latest update. The check-in button has been booted from its central position in the tab bar and moved to the top right of the app — in easy reach of your thumb — where it persists throughout the app. That leaves a much simpler tab bar with just three tabs: Friends, Explore and Me.
Explore is, of course, the focus here. Tap the tab and you’ll immediately be given suggestions for what to do right now — no searching required — based on foursquare’s newly enhanced Explore results. Explore now considers what people are talking about in the area when creating its recommendations. Open it in Chinatown for instance, and you’ll see it zeros in on “pork dumplings,” which it then runs through its algorithm — based on what you and your friends like, as well as other people with similar tastes — and comes up with a recommendation.
It’s also place-aware. It will return different types of results based on whether you’re near home or traveling. In the past, I haven’t bothered much with Explore results when I’m near home, but this change could make them more useful.
You’ll also find out from Explore where your friends are nearby and where you can save some money using foursquare specials. A map view combines it all together into one handy screen, showing friends, specials and recommended venues all in one place. If you’re in the mood for something specific, you can still search Explore to find whatever your heart desires using words or categories.
The friends tab is now much more visual and much more social. Content is king here, with comments and likes (yes, you can finally like check-ins) brought right in line with the check-in. Photos also feature prominently in the new design. They’re larger and “swipable” so you can see all the photos your friends have posted along with that check-in. Other activity, like tips friends have added, lists they’ve created and places they’ve saved will appear here, as well.
You can also now mention friends in your shouts and they’ll get a notification from foursquare. Inside the foursquare app, they’ll be mentioned by name, but if you push your check-in to Twitter, they’ll be @ mentioned — sorry, there’s no Facebook tagging yet.
User profiles also get a heavy visual refresh within the app. The old long list format is broken into six boxes where you can find things like a friends list, stats (including the leaderboard, mayorships, top venues, and categories), photos taken, tips, badges and lists.
Venue screens weren’t forgotten in the redesign, either. They boast a new look and, most importantly, new like and dislike buttons (in the form of hearts/broken hearts) that serve as a more refined input for foursquare’s Explore algorithm than just simple check-ins.
“We’ve done a lot with check-in data, but we also know we can do more to reflect the nuances of how people feel about places, so having a simple heart/broken heart allows us to get more interesting signals about peoples’ favorite places,” said Alex Rainert, foursquare’s head of product. “That just continues to feed right in to helping us get better with providing those personalized recommendations.”
As is fitting for a local search and discovery app, all the necessary information about a venue has also been brought front and center. You can call a place or get directions with just a single tap. Check-ins have been sped up, too.
Despite being rebuilt from the ground up, the new app isn’t so much revolutionary as much as it is evolutionary, building on a lot of the things foursquare has been doing in the mobile app and web for the last several months. With the exception of moving the check-in button, everything should feel pretty familiar to longtime users, but they’ll get all sorts of new functionality on top of everything they had before.
It’s new users who install the app for the first time that will be in for the biggest treat, though (they are, after all, the prime reason for the redesign). The simplicity of the tab bar lets them know exactly what foursquare is about. They’ll feel at home in the friends tab, since it mirrors so many other social networking apps, while the Explore tab will make it immediately apparent what it’s for — and just how powerful it is for recommendations.
Relocating the check-in button is a subtle signal for these users, too. It signals that there’s no longer any pressure to actually check in right away. They can come in, get comfortable with the app and its recommendation features and then, when they’re ready, check in to start making those recommendations even better.
This is finally the app that should have one-size-fits all review sites like Yelp and Urbanspoon worried. The social, personalized recommendations it provides are head and shoulders above anything they’re providing. It’s all based on the vast amounts of data foursquare has been collecting over the past three years as a “check-in app,” but regurgitated in incredibly useful ways.
The updated app will be available later this morning for iPhone and Android (UPDATE: both are now available). An update for Blackberry will follow in a few weeks. We’ll continue covering the launch and will provide more thoughts once we actually get our hands on it.