Location as a Layer
Every so often, new tools are added to a designer or engineer's tool belt that cause a dramatic shift in what is possible. These tools fundamentally transform how someone might interact with a product or service. In recent years, there has been a lot of attention given to mobile apps and, more specifically, location-based apps. Some see this trend as a fad, and I agree insofar as the check-in model of geolocation will only be popular in the short term.
But beyond the check-in, there are many other possibilities for improving a user's experience using location data.
In the age of smartphones, the map seems to be taken for granted; we power up our navigation systems in our automobiles and speed off without any worry that we'll get lost. But location is more than maps and navigation. It can be a communication tool, a filtering mechanism, and an aid to socializing. It's important to think of it in this way.
The use of location in our daily lives is increasing rapidly, with positive effect. Location data will become increasingly important as a required addition to nearly every app, website, or bit of data. I define "location data" (or "geodata," as some may refer to it) as any piece of information that has a location attached to it. This might be a photo that has been geotagged, or something as simple as a receipt from a grocery store on which a store address is associated with that purchase. The location can be as specific as a coordinate, or as general as a polygon or "area of interest" that draws the boundary of a state or province.
Redefining Existing Experiences
Hotel search has long been quite stagnant. Even with the advent of the Internet, many sites just replicated online what travel agents had done for clients for years. Seeing this as an opportunity, a company called Hipmunk decided they'd try to innovate within the stale space. They wanted to go beyond just listings of hotels ranked by price, rating, or distance from some landmark; they wanted to fundamentally change how people visualized what their options were.
Hipmunk came up with a series of data sets that might be interesting to users as they're searching for their hotels. A map of hotel locations can be overlaid with a heatmap of points of interest related to food, tourism, shopping, nightlife, and "vice." Now, instead of picking a hotel solely based on price, features, or distance from a location, users are able to choose a hotel near a concentration of restaurants, bars, shopping, etc. This use of location is about helping people make more informed decisions about where they stay.
The most interesting aspect of the Hipmunk story is their use of points of interest (POIs). In a time where POIs tend to only get used for check-ins, Hipmunk went after a radically different approach. They use POI data to provide visual cues to assist users in their searches. It's a great example of how raw location data—in this case, an address or coordinate associated with a set of POIs—can be used in new and compelling ways.
Location Can Make For Simple Features As Well
The use of location data doesn't always need to be imaginative. Who would have thought that just by adding some coordinates to a photo, the experience around organizing photos could be dramatically improved? The simple addition of a latitude and longitude to most anything can open up a world of possibilities.
As an example, products that have helped people organize their to-do lists have had pretty much the same feature list for a long time. But recently, location has become a new way of defining the items in a to do list. In conjunction with a smartphone's acquisition of a user's location, the to do application can now automatically notify you when you're near the place where you're supposed to accomplish a particular task.
Knowing where a user is standing can also eliminate some work for him. Whenever I would visit Weather.com, I always found it tedious to have to enter my ZIP code each time. I know this is a small complaint, but I figure that the site should be smart enough to know where I am. It's taken a long time, but Weather Underground had finally added location detection to its mobile site. The site is able to capture the location of whatever device is accessing it and automatically display that location's weather. This kind of automatic data entry could extend to any kind of form that deals with location. Imagine a future where signing up for an account somewhere didn't require typing in your address anymore, but filled out for you instead.
These examples may seem simplistic, but that's mostly the point. By virtue of knowing just one new piece of information—a user's location—an application or service can make users' lives a bit easier.
Location Is Context
There are two major types of location information that can be associated with data: points and areas. A point might be a coordinate, address, or business, whereas an area might be a neighborhood, park, census district, or many others. Understanding the relationship between these different location types can open up new possibilities in UX.
Uses for individual points have been played out pretty well already in the form of check-ins, geotagged photos, etc. But the use of points in aggregate, such as Hipmunk does, is an wide-open playing field at the moment. Aggregated point data has many interesting potential uses such as localized sentiment analysis, aiding in disaster relief, and massive sensor networks based on mobile devices.
One specific use of aggregated point data is Skyhook's SpotRank dataset. Skyhook provides a way for mobile devices to acquire location using a combination of cell tower triangulation, GPS, and WiFi network triangulation. Using the acquired location of a large number of anonymized individuals, aggregated together into one dataset, Skyhook is able to determine the near real-time density of a given area. There is a wide range of uses for this data. For example, imagine a Yelp-like restaurant recommendation app where users could set their preferences to find restaurants that have high ratings but are not in neighborhoods that are currently crowded. The aggregation of all of the location acquisition information by mobile devices makes this possible.
Additionally, there are types of location data that can provide context that might not immediately be apparent. Weather is one of those types. Even though it may not seem like it, weather is inherently location data because it's attached to physical areas. Using this information, one could imagine an app that simply reminds me to pick up my umbrella as I'm walking out of the house, or a game where a fire monster's abilities became stronger on a hot day.
Some of the data that's available for such things as neighborhoods, postal codes, and other boundaries, could provide a way for any bit of data to be automatically geotagged. With those tags in mind, many different ways of filtering, categorizing or presenting data can be implemented. Music apps that could show what's popular in the user's neighborhood, camera apps might re-sort photos based on the city they were taken in, or in-app language can be changed based on the country the user is logging in from.
Even in the absence of externally contributed data, a product can still use location to create new and interesting experiences. A simple news website or app could track where users are reading the articles and prioritize particular articles for other people in areas where are they tend to be popular. This same premise could be brought to coupons, concerts, restaurants and more.
Location data is abundant these days. Just about anything can be assigned a location to make the resulting data more powerful. From Twitter to Facebook to census data to news, the places where location can be introduced are endless. There are many companies, including mine, SimpleGeo, that are on a mission to make this data and the services that surround it more accessible to web and app developers. There are many possibilities with the treasure trove of data that exists today. Just keep in mind that it's just another tool in your belt. That is, an incredible power tool that has the potential of making yours and your users' lives better and easier.