Location, location, location - Eight Inc.

Location, location, location

By Hector Moll-Carrillo Jun 18, 2013

A new iWord has been added to our vocabulary: iBeacons. The tech blogosphere and mainstream media buzzing about retailers, museums and sports venues adopting this latest Bluetooth-enabled innovation. So designers and our clients may rightly ask: ‘What’s an iBeacon and why should I care?’

The new technology, Apple explains, allows iPhones or iPads to ‘alert apps when you approach or leave a location with an iBeacon’, and carefully describes it as ‘an extension’ to their suite of Location Services (in other words is not a complete solution but a building block, part of a system). It tell us you have arrived, are lingering in, or have left a particular place so we can trigger events to give you just-in-time information, amenities and options. This ‘hello’ and ‘good-bye’ messaging is key for using iBeacon effectively in work, live or play spaces. Detecting and responding intelligently to these ‘entry’ and ‘exit’ events let us support and provoke old and new behaviors in a variety of environments.

In spite of iBeacons’ buzzword status, consider that users do not need to —indeed should not have to— be aware of iBeacons at all. iBeacon is different from WiFi. Your favorite café advertises ‘free WiFi.’ But WiFi remains a ‘visible’ feature only because it’s not yet ubiquitous. It’s not part of the expected infrastructure. Once upon a time businesses advertised the fact that they offered air conditioning.

iBeacon instead works best when the technology is invisible but the actual features it let us implement are obvious and opportune, and users can benefit from features in the environment they did not need to think about, plan around, or even expect. It lets us give users pleasant, useful and usable surprises. Surprise is the keystone of delight. Delight creates positive brand perception, repeat visits and enthusiastic word of mouth.

But if you want to wield the new technology successfully, first relinquish your Hollywood-inspired conception of location tracking. Forget Enemy of the State, Body of Lies or Siriana and their single, high value targets. There is still no way to track a significant number of people or objects with great accuracy. But do not despair! iBeacon offers great advantages and many new capabilities, especially when used with complementary technologies and the right design mindset.

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Our work with iBeacon quickly remind us of the basic need to establish a ruler or grid to determine boundaries in the experience space. The key is in the counterparts to the beacons: the receivers. Where exactly does iBeacon functionality resides? It is distributed over a dynamically created network of stationary and moving elements. But it’s in the iOS devices, running iBeacon-aware apps, where detection happens —where design, intelligence and manners may be added.

The technology components are in principle dumb. No problem there. They only need to work as triggers and relays, detecting events and reporting the approximate locations. It’s the human nodes — the users — we want to capture in a web of convenience and delight.
At Eight Inc. we often use three modes to describe the behavior of people moving through an environment: Promenading,Considering and Engaging.

As designers, we must interpret our users’ need states but also their changing motivations and states of mind. Small retail shops, large museum spaces or even objects people carry around in their person, such as mobile phones and the apps that change the phones’ behavior, all depend on embracing users’ changing attention and intention.

In the short span of time your iPhone or Galaxy will be a mobile phone then become a camera then become a navigation instrument as you drive then become a web browser then become a book then become a portable game console… and so on.
Each of those ‘gadgets’ has a different ergonomic footprint. Sometimes your iPhone will be central to the task (when reading a book) but often peripheral (when driving using GPS navigation). Designing the experience within a space, we use iBeacon to infer your location and provide contextual value but we must correctly guess each ergonomic footprint you are in or transferring into.

When you switch among apps you are consciously transferring from one ergonomic footprint to another. If your mobile phone and your apps are well designed they will follow you along in beautiful synchrony. But when you move through an environment, whether a sports venue, a retail store, a museum, a workplace, or the streets of San Francisco or London and we try to follow you along and help you have a great time, our main difficulty is that you will not be so explicit about your intentions, needs and expectations.

Visiting a museum, for example, a basic user behavior is promenading. You simply walk about the space, absorbing the architecture and the contents of the space without committing to engage with anything. If this sounds like unproductive behavior it is most definitely not. Promenading is like falling in love — it’s what couples do — it quickly establishes whether there is chemistry or not and, if I may shift to a culinary metaphor, let the ingredients simmer.

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Considering connects Promenading and Engaging. It’s a branching pause where and when you make a decision about which way to continue your promenade or whether you will focus —engage— on a specific activity or item. A promenade is biased mostly by peripheral vision, at-a-distance gazing and a state of awareness somewhat between daydreaming and deep, unfocused thought, along with a degree of suspension-of-disbelief similar to what the cinema or theater induces —great retailers understand this very well.

But suddenly you come to a place or see, hear or smell something that shifts your attention into a focused stance. Or we could gently bring something to your attention via your iPhone or an iBeacon-aware element in the environment. Will you stop at this painting by… Picasso? Will you look from where you are or approach and look closely? Will you have the patience to wait for other visitors to move away from the painting? Will you lean in to look for and read the caption? Will you take a photo of the painting and are you allowed to do so? Have your family or friends lingered behind you, or moved ahead?

Engaging starts when you answer those questions and act on the answers. A smart iBeacon deployment can enrich our understanding of your context and help us decide how to assist you elegantly. Instead of Art at the National Gallery in London you may be contemplating brands and clothing at Bloomingdales in San Francisco. Using iBeacon, we can assist you with your promenading, considering and engaging via your mobile phone. At Eight, however, we like to offer something richer than a single channel.

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For us it’s very important to avoid creating a tunnel-vision effect. Your mobile phone can easily become a funnel for all experiences, forcing you to wield it like a flashlight or torch that instead of illuminating the space around and opening up your experience of it, creates a small viewport and channels all messages from the environment and your actions on the environment through a small screen. Many so-called augmented reality apps suffer from this, unintentionally reducing reality by constraining your ergonomic stance and mediating everything through one small device. Tunnel-vision will derail and limit, not enhance your user experience.

As designers, at Eight we want to preserve and enrich, not flatten, the dynamic range of your experience. So we use iBeacon to also send messages to the app not directly intended for the user. Everybody pounces on the obvious: to bombard you with ads or coupons. We look for more subtle and engaging effects. It’s alarming and annoying to notice you are being tracked as you browse the web; imagine what an experience killer that will be in the real world. People quickly turn off location-aware apps that ignore the actual daily behaviors of people and so disrupt their informal switching between the three modes of inhabiting environments we described above. What if instead we use apps as relays to control objects in the environment, subtly soliciting your attention without disrupting your enjoyment of the environment itself?

iBeacon has the exciting advantage of not being a generic tripwire. Beacons are detected by your device. We know you are here. Instead of scaring you away with apps that lack social graces, discernment and discretion, we want to make you feel welcome and delighted.

For us omni-channel does not mean we will call/fax/text/email/tweet/facebook/banner/tumblr/pinterest and pester you, welcoming you to The Shoe Department ten times in one visit, each time forgetting we said ‘hello’ already. Along with detecting your location we will remember your path and modulate our conversation with you accordingly. Good design makes intelligence, thoughtfulness and intention available to you by the simple act of venturing into the designed environment. At Eight Inc. we look at technologies like iBeacon as welcome extensions in our quest to fine-tune your experience closer and closer to perfection.

Hector is Director of User Experience at Eight Inc. He writes from our San Francisco studio.