5 UX Predictions for a World of iBeacons in 2014

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User Experiences with Bluetooth LE Beacons Don’t End at Coupons

Bluetooth LE powered devices will inspire a new generation of smart apps that slip you coupons as you shop, point out sales on shoes at Macy’s, or book you appointments at the Genius Bar.

But the kinds of experiences we’ll have that are facilitated by Apple’s iBeacon technology (and its rapid adoption by Android devices in 2014) will go far beyond taking a store flyer or wallet full of coupons and turning it digital.

GigaOm gave us a nice summary this week of use cases beyond retail for a world of beacons – and how they’ll drive different ways for brands to engage with their customers:

Beacon technology will significantly enhance the customer journey – from discovery and research to payment and reviews – and we will see savvy marketers bringing beacons into their physical environments early next year. Brands across multiple industries need to start experimenting with proximity marketing and getting creative with engagement campaigns that hold the key to personal and profitable customer relationships.

They point to restaurants, hotels and real estate and places where beacons are a natural fit.

Beyond the Market is the Experience

Early Days for iBeacon UX Design

We’re at the starting stages of imagining iBeacons beyond retail. But we’re also at the very beginning stages of designing new experiences using iBeacon technology – of figuring out the interfaces, conventions and visual language.

I’m in love with the earliest iBeacon apps and think there’s a ton of value in this approach for consumers. I have no critique – they’re often perfect for the consumer use case.

On the other hand, they haven’t yet inspired us to imagine the ways that iBeacons will start to create something entirely new.

So in the spirit of sharing some of what we’ve learned, the challenges we’ve faced, and the opportunities ahead I thought I’d jot down a few predictions for user experiences in 2014.

Actually – maybe the best word isn’t predictions its “wishes”…and a desire to be inspired by the kinds of things you’ll create in the year ahead.

Prediction One

iBeacons as Pins, Drop-Offs and Bulletin Boards

In 2014 we’ll see the first beacon-based experiences that treat the physical world with the same design conventions as a Pinterest board or a Facebook wall. These experiences will be based on a simple observation: with beacons, we can create digital artefacts that are tied to a very specific place or object.

Right now, these artefacts are things like the coupons that a retailer delivers you when you’re in the shoe aisle. But if a retailer can tie a piece of digital content to a place, why wouldn’t consumers want to do the same thing?

  • In an art gallery, you can leave a comment attached to a specific painting that other gallery-goers can browse and see
  • In a community centre, you can post announcements near a beacon which would act as a digital bullet board for the neighborhood
  • In a retail setting, you could tag items for a friend who could then ‘find’ the shelf (or beacon) where you left the note the next time they’re in the store
  • A coffee shop could become the equivalent of a private social network where the content you share in the venue can only be viewed by others who visit the store.

In fact, this idea of ‘locking’ content to a specific beacon might do the equivalent of Snapchat private messages by attaching content to physical world locations. Put a beacon in a childcare centre and you can share notes with other parents knowing that the messages aren’t available in any location other than the physical venue.

Prediction Two

Experiences Where The User is the Beacon

PKPKT Game: Users Are the Beacons

Most people are still associating beacons primarily with physical devices that you attach to a wall. But the truth is that a user’s phone or tablet can be a beacon too. (Even some of the later-model Android devices have this capability, but it’s much more limited than Apple).

So in 2014, we’ll see an explosion of games and applications which use the capacity of your phone to act as a beacon.

Already, PKPKT is out of the gates with an example described by The Verge:

PKPKT (pronounced “pickpocket”) is a new iPhone game that uses Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) to simulate digital pickpocketing. Each player starts with $1,000 dollars in fake money, and can make more money by stealing from nearby PKPT users even if the app isn’t open, thanks to the technical wizardry of BLE and iOS 7. Once you’ve stolen from someone, you can boast about it by messaging them, which also works over Bluetooth — a refreshingly local twist on the cloud-based messaging apps we use today.

But this design approach won’t be limited to games. Phones can act as beacons in social settings and venues (concerts, galleries or malls) or can help tour guides or on-site staff act as visible ‘help desks’ even when there’s no desk visible.

Prediction Three

Beacons Will Tie to Physical World UX

One of the more intriguing challenges of iBeacon experiences is that app developers can’t just be thinking about digital – they need to think about how their experience will work in a physical space. This will open the door to interesting partnerships between display companies, point-of-purchase specialists and signage experts.

But beyond just placing beacons, there are limitations to both Bluetooth LE and how Apple has deployed it in iOS: namely, signal interference and delays with receiving local notifications.

We'll see ideas borrowed from the world of QR codes and NFC

In 2014, we’ll start to see ingenious solutions to this challenge – tying physical world cues to let the user know that there’s a digital ‘signal’ within a specific area of a store.

These might be interactive (screens, signs projected on the floor, or kiosks) or they might be printed (shelf talkers, end-of-display signs or posters). We’ll also see the beacons themselves as both invisible and highly visible – prominently displayed so a user knows they can expect some kind of content at that physical point in space.

Prediction Four

Most Beacons Will Be Invisible to the User

Yes, I know, this one’s in direct contradiction to prediction three. But it speaks to a point I made a few days ago about concerns over being ‘tracked’ by iBeacons: that, mostly, consumers won’t even know that they’re there.

In this case the design paradigm is to create experiences that don’t even notify the consumer that proximity technology is being used. And my guess is we’ll see a lot of this in 2014: retailers who use beacons to supplement existing apps but who only tie content and messages to beacons in a way that seems generalized to the user.

You might be standing in or near the cookie aisle and you might get a coupon for cookies, but for the most part users won’t even realize that it’s a beacon which has powered the experience. In perfect conditions, this kind of experience could give the consumer a sense of delight, a sense of having personalized attention, without the app needing to draw attention to proximity-based beacons as the reason that the content was so ‘smart’.

Prediction Five

Some Beacons Will Glow

One of my first dreams of an iBeacon experience was a device that responded to my presence. Approach the cash register at Starbucks, say, and a beacon would glow certain colors to let me know how much cash I had left in my digital Starbucks card: red for empty and green for full of cash.

In 2014, we’ll see a flood of products started-up on Kickstarter and by imaginative hardware developers where beacons give out visual clues through their combination with other technologies.

Airfy: Hybrid Device That Glows

Airfy is a great example, and one we’re really excited about: a WiFi station for your home that includes IFTTT support.

Whole some beacons will be invisible, others will glow, chirp or respond to user presence – turning physical objects into responsive design elements in a larger beacon experience.

The Future is Bright

It’s going to be a fun year ahead – and these five examples are probably meant to provoke thinking more than anything. I purposefully ignored the impact of wearable devices, tags and other types of sensors – a subject worthy of a full post on its own.

What I can safely predict is that 2014 will be the year of the beacon, that developers will do some amazing things, and that Bluetooth LE is the tip of the spear for a new generation of smart, contextual and device-driven experiences.

What kinds of design paradigms do you expect to see in the year ahead? What kinds of beacon-based experiences would blow you away? And remember: Be the Beacon(TM).

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11 Responses to “5 UX Predictions for a World of iBeacons in 2014”

  1. Kartik Sanghavi

    Hey Doug,

    As always a great post from you…we have been developing some solutions around beacons and are trying to get past user behaviour off keeping bluetooth off most time. Have you covered any bluetooth usage stats?

    Reply
  2. Yes, like their approach. Haven’t spent a lot of time digging deeper but I should – especially since they’re just around the corner!

    Reply
  3. Hi Doug,following up one a earlier email,have you done
    any more digging into Isign Media and if yes what are your thoughts?

    Reply
  4. This was a great read! My mind is churning with possibilities relevant to my space (electronic payments) and personal life. Book and product reviews octant lay come to mind as it’s one of the first things we do when consudering a purchase. I can see simplifying the bill Pymnt experience at a retail location by pinging a user’s phone and letting them finish their Pymnt by mobile rather than waiting for an agent to assist. The list goes on…thanks for the post!

    Reply
  5. “One of my first dreams of an iBeacon experience was a device that responded to my presence. Approach the cash register at Starbucks, say, and a beacon would glow certain colors to let me know how much cash I had left in my digital Starbucks card: red for empty and green for full of cash.”

    Just a minor correction here as people don’t quite understand what beacons do. This isn’t how beacons are supposed to work necessarily. They don’t collect information about you, but rather advertise their own existence, then your application on your phone makes a decision on what to do with the beacon data it’s received. If the beacon is getting data from you, then that’s a different entity where the beacon is a minor part of the system.

    Reply

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