Location Based Services should service Needs, not Opportunities

(I get yelled at a lot when I post something more than a couple of tweets long on Twitter, with people asking for a blog post that consolidates the thoughts. So here is one – let’s see how this goes…)

Location Based Services (LBS) are services that take into account the user’s current location (determined by GPS or similar technologies), and provide information based on this information. They are seen as the next big thing in the mobile applications world, but have so far failed to take off, other than a few check-in services (e.g. those obnoxious Foursquare tweets you see on Twitter).

Location based services haven’t failed so far because they don’t work – there just aren’t any useful LBS offerings that solve any real problem.

Almost every Location based service I have seen is more focused on themselves or vendors, rather than being useful to users – always a bad approach. Every LBS seems to be about ads, giving a heads-up to businesses in the area, advertising the user’s location, to be exploited by others (such as burglers ;) ), or “discounts”.

I talk to a lot of developers in the mobile space – for LBS, they all look at “deal based solutions” in some way or the other. If a product/service doesn’t address a user’s specific needs, then it is bound to eventually fail. “Discounts” are not a need, they are an “opportunity”.

To understand the difference between a user “need” and an “opportunity” that can be serviced by Location Based Services, imagine yourself in an unfamiliar locality, and asking someone for a location or directions. That is a NEED.

You rarely/never go around asking people “where will I get the cheapest toaster” – but could be interested if you saw a hoarding/ad. That is an OPPORTUNITY.

For Location Based Services to succeed, they must address a user’s needs NOW, and opportunities LATER.

An example would be an app that, when run, figures out the location via GPS, then tells them where they are, where the nearest bus-stop or taxi-stand is (and when the next bus or train is expected, and where it will be going), where the nearest restaurants are (based in order of pre-defined preferences), the nearest hospital/doctor, the nearest grocery store, etc.

The important factor here is HONESTY – don’t list restaurants in order of who has paid you the most ad money, but in order of the user’s preferences (vegetarian, preferred price range, suitable for family, serves beer, etc. This will cause the user to trust the app, and TRUST is a pretty major Unique Selling Proposition (USP).

You could still have vendors pay you for ads, but these would be shown against listings (maybe with a DEAL link) to alert the user that while this establishment may not match the defined preferences entirely, it may represent more value for money.

Don’t give in to opportunity-based temptation, such as showing a paid-for listing before one that matches the user’s preference more accurately. Once you gain their trust, users will use the app often and be loyal to it (i.e. The app will be “sticky”), while still providing you a revenue opportunity that will work.

This is a fairly simple example of an LBS app, and I can think of many others, and I am sure so can you, and if they follow the same guidelines (service a user’s NEED without compromise), they would represent Location Based Services that would succeed.


  1. I am not sure why you have dismissed that LDIS have not taken off yet. As much as I agree with catering to a user’s needs over providing opportunities, often the difficulty is to differentiate the two.
    Opportunities can often cater to needs. Eg: Backpacker has just landed in a new city, he might prioritize a fancy restaurant offering a 20% discount (an opportinity) over one that is (say) strictly vegetarian (which is what he might prefer if he was on a business trip).
    Assuming that you can come to a successful distinction between needs and opportunities by observing majorities and probabilities, I am interested in knowing why you look at HONESTY and TRUST as factors that have failed LDIS. These are factors that affect any commercial product where a revenue model is tightly coupled with the service being provided. Is there a reason you identified these factors specific to LDIS systems in particular?

  2. Abhilash says:

    I have the perfect example.

    Ford in the US equips some of its cars with Ford Sync or My Ford Touch. Apart from doing the usual things like connecting to the phone for taking calls and reading out your text messages, it uses your current GPS location in nice ways.

    For example, if you are running low on fuel, it will warn you, and then show you the nearest few pumps in your vicinity.

  3. I’m thinking public toilets. I’m guessing that’s a pressing need. Yes?

    • vivek says:

      Yes. That would be major driver for people to adopt to such a service
      Along with that some of the basic utilities like hospitals, drug stores etc., would immensely help in increasing the userbase

  4. Syamant says:

    While most examples of location based services are mostly urban, there is a need perhaps to look at LBS in the context of the non urban sectors. For example in remote areas helping crafts people with the information that is relevant. Sometime back, a colleague wrote a series of posts on Mobiles and the crafts person. Some questions she had in mind were…

    What if we were to get these organizations a support network in REAL TIME – Many organisations have helped the artisan externally but how can they help themsleves.

    Can they be empowered with information in their language and make decisions of thier own. Maybe
    Can they be empowered with information about different SHG’s (self help groups ) Maybe
    Can they be empowered with information about grameen banks and schemes. Maybe
    Can they be empowered with information about their craft and the related materials. Maybe
    Can they they be empowered with information about other artisans in their vicinity. Maybe
    Can they they be empowered – YES – what they do with the information and how they use it in the subsequent years is for all of us to see – but why should we be afraid to empower them

    The key element of location is also Context. Understanding the context will ensure relevant services.