UX Magazine

Defining and Informing the Complex Field of User Experience (UX)
Article No. 1195 February 26, 2014

The Game-Changing Nature of Beacons

Bluetooth Low Energy (or Blutooth Smart) beacons have the potential for enormous influence on digital services. Utlilizing micro-location triggers to deliver new experiences and interactions, they will likely trigger the emergence of a new paradigm of applications and digital services for various industries.

Businesses will be able to interact with their users across iOS and Android devices in more meaningful ways, and offer contextually rich experiences and services. Beacons have the potential to bring transformative innovation to industries like retail, marketing, advertising, healthcare, banking, and transport, to name but a few.

For end users, this will bring multiple benefits, as services will evolve to become more contextually intelligent and powerful and provide an enhanced user experience. It will also eliminate many traditional problems that we face when designing digital services in today’s environment. For example, “I forgot to bookmark that Italian place where I ate last week?”—beacon technologies can automatically check you in, or prompt you to do so, if you have stayed in one place for more than 10 mins, and this type of interaction is just the tip of an iceberg.

What are Beacons?

Beacons are wireless devices utilizing Bluetooth 4.0 (BLE- Bluetooth Low Energy) protocol to broadcast tiny radio signals around them, allowing Bluetooth 4.0 enabled devices to “talk” to them within proximity of three inches to 150 feet.

Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE or Bluetooth 4.0) is the next generation of Bluetooth, and has a negligible impact on your device’s battery life. This means that BLE can be turned on pretty much all the time without draining your power. BLE is on the edge of mass adoption, and many technology and product companies have already started adopting this new Bluetooth standard including, Apple, Google, Fitbit, Jawbone, Nike+ Fuelband, and Basis Band.

Evolution of real-word operating system

The most revolutionary aspect of beacons is that they can create real-word operating systems: a mesh of devices, smart objects, and beacons with the ability to talk to each other with contextual intelligence. This real-world operating system with connected objects communicating can capture huge amounts of data about users and our actions while also putting that data into context.

Beacons can precisely capture our proximity and tell us how much time we spent in our office, at our desk, attending meetings, at a bus stop, or in a gym. It can even tell you with precision how much time you spent with your significant other last month, as your smartphone will be able to detect your proximity to that person via location information.

If we harness the power of proximity detection and objects’ ability to communicate, there is no limit on how the world can be transformed. Beacons will open-up endless possibilities for innovative and transformative experiences. Below are few illustrative scenarios of what you can expect to see much sooner than you think.

Retail

The retail experience is set to dramatically change with BLE enabled beacons. Big retailers like Macy’s and Apple are already testing beacons in their flagship stores to create immersive retail experiences for the users. Apple’s recently launched iBeacon pushes product info and recommendations when you are browsing products in a brick and mortar Apple store. Now that Apple has formalized the iBeacon Bluetooth spec, wider adoption is around the corner.

This technology can transform the way we shop. Imagine being empowered with all of the online shopping tools in your local retail store. For example:

Browse and search: As you step into a retail store, a beacon enabled app can immediately prompt you with a store catalog that will allow you to quickly browse and search all available products in that specific store. This will help you quickly spot what you're looking for without having to search the aisles of a big store.

The most revolutionary aspect of beacons is that they can create real-word operating systems

In-store navigation: Once you have found the product you are looking for, or if you already have a shopping list created, the app can help you map those items and navigate you to it’s exact location within the store.

Beacon technology in a retail setting

Photo by midorisyu; background image blurred from original

Product details: Imagine you are shopping for a table at IKEA; simply by being within close proximity of the table it will prompt you with all of the product details (e.g. colors, product name, delivery time, price, discounts, loyalty points, interior design inspiration, and suggested accompanying products).

Proximity marketing and recommendations: Based on your retail profile, past purchases and product interests based on what you have liked or shared on social media platforms. Beacon can take all of this into account and provide contextually intelligent recommendations. For example: “The backpack you pinned on Pinterest is available with 15% discount in this store.”

Contactless payments: This will allow customers to purchase and walk out of the store by simply approving the payment in an app, and the transaction will automatically be completed. PayPal is already pushing for such contact-less payments with PayPal Beacon. This will soon become a norm in all retail stores.

Museums

Your experience in museums or similar inspirational or cultural spaces will be dramatically transformed. Beacons will offer a rich-experience that will allow you to not only understand about the art in front of you, but beyond. Imagine you are looking at a painting and iBeacon prompts you with information about the painting and the artist in rich media (text, audio, and video) including works done in a similar style and artists with similar style. The possibilities are limitless.

Beacon technology in a museum setting

In addition, you’ll be able to leave comments and like the painting, thereby  adding digital content to the physical world  that is tied to that painting or location. People in that space will be able to see this digital feedback, thereby bringing virtual interactions and experiences and integrating them into the physical world.

Public Transport

With beacons you’ll be able to enter a bus and sit down without worrying about taking a ticket. As soon as you reach your destination, you just walk off the bus, with your app recognizing your boarding and disembarking location. With this information the beacon-enabled app will auto deduct the money and give you a notification. For example,  “San Jose to San Francisco: $5. Thanks for traveling with us, see you soon.”

Banking/ATMs

Imagine all the clunky ATMs that could be transformed into simple and sleek beacon money dispensers. As you come in the proximity of a Beacon-enabled ATM, your smart phone prompts you with an app that offers you an interface where you can input the amount of cash you want to withdraw. Simply select “Cash Withdrawal,” identify the amount, and collect the money from the ATM.

Conclusion

There is no doubt that Bluetooth Low Energy enabled sensors will open up millions of possibilities for developers and designers to create truly innovate experiences and services. The key to success will always be to think of users and their needs, and how to tailor content and experiences for a specific location. In the age of beacons, random, impersonal, and contextually irrelevant content and services will become annoying and may deter users.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)

User Profile

Rit Mishra is a service design lead at Fjord, where he leads projects out of San Francisco office. Hailing from an interaction design background, Rit has extensive experience in designing playful. desirable, and rich user experiences for convergence-driven products and services. He has designed elegant and simple service solutions for clients including Adidas, PayPal, Nokia, Turkcell, Telefónica, Ericsson, Mattel, and Samsung.

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Comments

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Rit et al,

Glad to see UX folks starting to pay attention to what is indeed likely to be game changing...in the same way that iOS and the advent of iPhone and iPad altered our field, but perhaps even more so. One thing missing from your article, though, is the sophistication required behind the scenes to deliver on these scenarios. Excuse the self-promotion, but my firm CapTech just hosted a webinar on iBeacons last week. During the presentation, we make sure to delve into various issues related to iBeacon that UX, CX, and Service Design folks should be aware of:

- The distinction between iBeacon (iOS) and beacons on Android.
- That beacons are part of a larger set of location-based, peer technologies.
- The complexity of the backstage systems needed to deliver compelling customer experiences.
- Some of the trade-offs involved with bespoke vs. 3rd party implementations (a la shopkick and inMarket).
- The security implications (or not) of iBeacon, and its inherently opt-in nature (no wild spamming).

As noted in our webinar, a fundamental distinction of iBeacon is that the meaning of the location data facilitated by iBeacon is provided by companies and brands, rather than being (arguably) objective. Google, Apple, and others certainly provide layered information on top of the more objective GPS data upon which their map apps are built, but beacon implementations inside of facilities and buildings are inherently subjective data: the beacons themselves have no location awareness, they simply send IDs (and range information) to the app which then has to figure out what those IDs mean (usually, major ID = facility, minor ID = location inside that facility).

Anyway, I hope folks find this helpful: http://captechconsulting.com/blog/mark-badger/ibeacon-demystified-recapping-the-webinar

I look forward to seeing the interactions, experiences, and environments we as a discipline begin to design with this technology!

- M

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Great write up!

1) To help gain trust and end user participation, How can UX designers best illustrate the security practices being put in place here? How do we protect against someone creating "dirty" beacons to siphon our info when we walk near an ATM or enter a bus?

2) Like you mentioned, retail marketers could flood the landscape with very poor customer experiences (irrelevant spam). How can UX designers educate & persuade clients NOT to use this approach when dealing with Beacon Marketing? Its hard to say "no" when someone is ready to write you a deposit check;)

3) The main buzz for this technology has been focused almost entirely on retail...its great you mentioned alternatives such as museums & healthcare. Should UX designers be reaching for that "low hanging fruit" (retail) right now, or should they start defining new experiences for other industries...now...while beacons are still in their infancy?

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There are a few issues with iBeacons though. 1. The app must be open to receive notifications from iBeacons. 2. They're not very good for locating your location as the signal drops through walls, people and other obstacles. 3. You need to have Bluetooth turned on (albeit hopefully the uptake of having bluetooth on will change in years to come.)

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Since iOS 7.1, the app doesn't have to be open.

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That's a great article. Here's an example of Qualcomm’s Gimbal Proximity beacons being used for learning: http://www.worklearnmobile.org/articles/is-this-the-first-ibeacon-app-for-learning/

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Thanks for sharing the link, looks really interesting.

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Thanks for sharing the link, looks really interesting.

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As far as I've heard http://underlabs.ca are the first to offer a Beacon Platform for retailers.