Movie Search in Foursquare

Today I want to share a new feature that’s available on the Foursquare app and give a little background on how we got the ball rolling.

First – and I’m curious to see if any of you have different answers – where do you check movie times online? Maybe you use Google or an alternative search engine like bing. Maybe you use a service that specializes in movie times like Fandango or Movie Tickets.

What if you’re on the go? Normally when I want to check the movie times I only have a smartphone. Just opening Google works alright, though it’s a little clunky. It will show a map of each individual theater playing the movie, but you can’t get a map of all theaters and compare!

Fandango can’t seem to build a reasonable app for this – it’s full of popup ads which are horrible when you’re on a tight deadline. Again the maps are limited, and each page is full of flashy ads that really take away from the user experience. Now I’m no designer and I know this is subjective, but check out this train wreck:

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So I thought we could do better at Foursquare. I’m already using Foursquare to plan my time when I’m outside the apartment, and finding movie theaters is a part of that. Why not be able to check the movie listings when I’m already figuring out which restaurant or bar to go to?

Foursquare already has:
– A great interface for searching.
– A way to see all results on a map.
– No ads that get in the way of completing the goal
– Uber integration. Is anyone prone to choosing movies that start in 5 minutes? “Come on we’ll get there before the previews are done!”

We’re just missing the ability to buy the ticket – but who knows maybe we’ll get that one day!

My role in this is small, but I want give a little insight on how a demo can help. We’ve been importing movie times from an external data source for awhile, which allowed people to check in to movies on Swarm. We even had the movies listed in our search indices! All that needed to be done was build a page where you can search for the data.

When hack day rolled around (that’s a day where engineers at Foursquare pick up on these kinds of projects that are outside their main area of focus), Stephanie Yang (@stpyang, blog) and I decided that we were going to build this demo. It took us a little longer than the day we were supposed to use, but it came out looking like this:

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There were 3 key elements to our minimal product:

  1. Show me a list of movies and movie times in my area. We had pictures and descriptions lying around, as well as an idea of how popular each movie was (thanks Swarm checkins!) in order to do the rankings.
  2. A search box with autocomplete. This is so important! As you type, a list of potential movie matches comes up. This gets you to your search faster and prevents spelling errors and similar problems that can come up.
  3. A search results page that will show you the information for the movie you want.

The pages that we designed were usable, but Stephanie and I spend most of our time on data science and backend engineering, not front-end engineering and design. And we only had a day or two – so I’m really happy with the output.

Now usually these demos just kind of sit there and nothing comes of it, but the team working on search quality liked the demo and saw people actually searching for movies in the app (I bet they were really annoyed when it didn’t work!) So, they decided to put it in the app.

And the result is great! In my opinion, Foursquare is now the best app to use when you’re searching for movies. Here are some screen shots – note that when I start typing in a movie it immediately comes up on autocomplete. The search results are laid out on a list page that we’re all used to seeing. You can click through to see all the venue details for each theater, which Foursquare is already good at. And finally, if you tap the map icon, there’s your map of all the places you can go!

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In terms of total work, my role in this was pretty small, since the sequence of events looks like this:

  1. Years of engineering work and infrastructure by other engineers
  2. Our 2 day hack project
  3. Weeks of analysis, coding, and testing by other engineers

But I’m just glad we were able to get that feature up there! What are the takeaways from this experience? I’m not sure, but off the top of my head, here are some things that helped:

  1. We were working on a feature that we personally wanted to use.
  2. Most of the background work had been done (we just had to hook up the last 5%)
  3. The feature fits in well with our current product. It doesn’t distract from any of the other use cases and only comes up in autocomplete when we’re reasonably sure you’re after a movie.

If anyone out there gives it a try – let me know how it goes!

News Corporation Sells Amplify

I worked at Wireless Generation early in my career. It was the education company that was bought by News Corp in 2010 and became Amplify.

You can find some articles on it here and here, but the short story is that after 5 years at News Corp, the company wasn’t performing as well as they had hoped, and they sold it to private investors.   There were also massive layoffs.

Wireless Generation/Amplify is a data driven education company. A large part of the focus when I was there was helping teaching in the early elementary school years ensure that all of their students learn to read and learn basic math skills. It goes without saying that getting this right for kids is really important, and in the 2000s we were starting to see internet-scale data on this for the first time. Sometimes at Foursquare, we’ll improve some click-through-rate by 1%. But if you improve reading-rate by 1%, think about how many lives are changed for the better!

Wireless Generation also built some of the first open-source curriculum for the internet, and it looks like Amplify now has a really fun math game. The positive side of my experience there, along with some talented employees, was around the products we were building.  The downside was that despite rhetoric to the contrary, management style was much too top-down for my liking. Working on a large contract for the NYC DOE was particularly painful since decisions were made by government bureaucrats and were sometimes politically driven. I can probably write several posts on frustrating times at Wireless Generation!

I can only speculate on what went wrong, and even if the articles had gone into more detail I would be certain that the story from the inside is completely different. What is it that News Corp miscalculated? As far as I can tell, there weren’t any major setbacks.

It turns out that while the original sale was going on, I was taking a course on business strategy at NYU. I had emailed my thoughts to the professor, and I was able to find them. This is an excerpt from December 2nd, 2012, printed as is (along with some awkward phrasing!)

A lot of people are asking why news corp want to get into education.  Clearly, the newspaper business is not a great one to be in right now – maybe they feel like they need to do something.  I feel that they might might want the company because they want expertise in digital content distribution (I developed hand-held and web applications while I was there).  However, they’d probably be better off just hiring a much smaller team to do that.  Someone said this is just about Rupert Murdoch trying to build a legacy.  I don’t know.

Other people are asking whether it will work.  They’re keeping the same management team.  I have a feeling that Wireless Generation‘s growth is now going to be heavily subsidized by news corp.  But after Monday’s class discussion I’m wondering what news’ other businesses will get out of it.

Of course, I still didn’t mind getting a check for shares.

Because their products are so important, I hope that Amplify can refocus in the future. I can see a few things going for it:
– It will be under the leadership of the original founder, Larry Berger. He is a capable leader, knows what he’s doing in education, and I’m sure he’ll have big plans.
– It will have a smaller, more focused team. If it has 400, it’ll be the same amount as when I was there.
– The ownership will be private. There will be no parent corporation in an entirely different industry trying to steer the agenda.
– If they get to keep their amazing office space in DUMBO.. can’t beat that!
This is on the patio – taken by me in 2007.

It sounds like they are going to try to refocus on the original mission, this time with a much more experienced team. I’m feeling a lot more optimistic for them then I was 5 years ago – this could be the low in a turning point of sorts!

Also – I know this could be a difficult time for people who are still working there, so I wish you all the best. If you are a current employee or recently laid off and you need a new job, I’d be happy to meet up and show you a demo of what we’re working on at Foursquare. I have a lot of respect for anyone who is working through all the issues at Amplify, particularly the engineering and product teams.