Startups

Surprise! Location App Highlight Actually Creates Serendipity

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The big promise of location-based mobile apps is that they can help you find something great in real life without you meaning to look for it. But that hasn’t usually been my experience. Instead, whether because of the friction of having to check in, the lack of adoption by friends outside of tech, or whatever else, I simply forget to use them.

That has changed with Highlight, a new passive location app for iOS that shows you when Facebook users with friends and interests in common are nearby. Since it launched last week, I’ve gotten in touch with an old friend/source who’s now at a big new company, discovered a couple previous acquaintances who happen to live or work near me, and got the heads up about a fellow blogger creeping behind me at work. My experience is more or less on track with what founder Paul Davison is hearing from other users so far.

But before I get into that, what’s different about Highlight from the million other location apps out there? At first, it doesn’t seem like much: you install it on your phone, sign in with Facebook, and continue your life as normal. But there is no check-in. Instead, you get notifications showing up whenever Facebook friends, friends-of-friends or just people  with shared interests (that is, Liked Facebook pages) are close. If you click through any of the notifications, you can see their Facebook profile photos, the specific shared friends and interests you have, and the option to message with them or leave a comment.

The combination of the Facebook social graph and the frictionless sharing experience makes discovery uniquely automatic. The closest app I’ve seen to it is Sonar, which lets you find Foursquare users with things in common, but still requires a check-in. Maybe everyone else doing location will evolve their products along Highlight’s lines, as Josh noted when he covered the launch, but for now the startup is off to a great start.

Here’s what its users are doing so far, as related to me by Davison:

Remembering names: Remembering names has been a pretty powerful use case. One of our users saw someone he knew at a coffee shop and initially avoided eye contact because he couldn’t remember the man’s name. Then Highlight popped up and told him who the man was and how he knew him, so he was able to go over and say hi.

Remembering other details about friends: People have been using it at dinner parties to remember where their friends work.

Discovering that friends are nearby: One user and her husband were eating dinner and Highlight notified them that their close friends were also at the restaurant, on the other side of the bar, so they joined up and ate together.

People are getting notified that friends are nearby all the time – when they are shopping, out at bars, or getting coffee in the afternoon.  Sometimes they’ll meet up with the friend, or other times they’ll just say a quick hi.  They say it makes it more fun to go out in the city.

Impromptu meetings (a quote from a user): “I have been emailing with someone about meeting up for weeks and today he pinged me on Highlight when the app said we were nearby, and we just grabbed coffee then. It was so awesome.”

Another example, from Davison: “I was in a coffee shop this weekend and one of our users appeared in my Highlight feed right as I was working on a feature she had requested. I pinged her in the app and it turns out she was sitting at front of the coffee shop, so we met in person and I showed her the designs we were working on. It even turns out she works with a friend of mine from college. It was really nice to randomly meet her in person like that.”

Getting to know coworkers: “We’ve had a lot of people use it in their offices to help people remember their coworkers’ names and learn more about them. It makes people friendlier and reduces the awkwardness. It’s tough to ask someone their name when you’ve been nodding hello to them in the hallways for three months.”

Connections from the past: One user crossed paths with a woman who knew a boy he used to mentor in Texas 10 years ago, who had recently passed away. They did not meet up in person, but they talked in the app about how they missed him and how nice it was to connect with someone who was feeling the same thing.

Seeing when visitors are nearby: When people are expecting a friend, they like getting notified when their friend is nearby.

Conferences: A lot of people are saying they’d like to use it for conferences, so they know where people work and what friends they have in common with them.

Asking questions: People have started using their Highlight status to ask questions to the people around them and get pinged throughout the day with replies.

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