iBeacon UX Design Approach: Visible or Invisible?

Proximity-based experiences challenge mobile designers to think of the user experience in new ways.

iBeacon and Bluetooth LE powered beacons might be a simple technology – after all, the only thing they really do is broadcast a small radio signal. But that signal allows an app to, well, do stuff based not on a user’s location, but on their proximity to something.

The Gateway Drug to the Internet of Everything

We call iBeacon the “gateway drug to the Internet of Everything” for a reason: it’s easy to understand, it’s small and simple, and it gets a conversation going about how consumers apps and digital experiences will increasingly react to physical things.

Suddenly, the atomic world is part of your design interface. Things that move around (like a car, a dog, a product display or another person) can be embedded in an experience. And things we don’t need to worry about online such as ambient noise and lighting, radio interference, and signal strength become important.

We’ve preached before that if you’re thinking of beacons as coupon dispensers as you wander a mall or store then you’re missing the big news about Bluetooth LE: that your phone can suddenly “see” and can be attuned to the physical world in ways that weren’t previously possible.

iBeacon gets us started by introducing proximity to the UX equation, and is simple enough to understand (although not so simple to execute well). But once you’ve talked about proximity, the conversation easily shifts to what’s next – things like detecting temperature, acceleration, or your heart beat; and the larger challenges of security, privacy and mesh networks in a physical world that’s becoming, in itself, a digital interface.

User versus Business Value

As the ‘becosystem’ expands we’re starting to see that it isn’t just retail that will drive the use of beacons.

iBeacon and Major League Baseball: Image via Engadget

For example, Major League Baseball is using beacons.  While they’re taking a cautious approach, their focus might include special offers or seat upgrades but their larger plan is to create more value for fans (and perhaps remaining attractive to younger, more tech-savvy audiences). In San Francisco, Engadget reports that they’ll take it slow:

All told, 19 iBeacons are located at all of the fan entry and exit points of the ballpark, per MLB policy. That number will vary at other stadiums — the Dodgers, for example, are reported to have 65 installed, presumably due to the presence of more ways to get inside Dodger Stadium. They’ll be used to check fans in upon entry, assuming they have an iOS 7 device running the MLB At the Ballpark app and have Bluetooth turned on when they walk through the gate. The app’s available to both iOS and Android devices — and provides maps, concession info, video clips and the ability to upgrade your seat — but only folks with Apple devices benefit from the bespoke iBeacon experience.

The UN is using beacons to raise awareness of land mines. They recently partnered up with digital marketing firm Critical Masss  and set up beacons around the top floor of the city’s New Museum. When a person came across the virtual landmine, the app, called Sweeper ‘explodes’ on contact. Following this, information comes up through the app noting how devastating the injury might have been.

Design Tensions and Beacon Strategies 

With all of reality a new potential interface, there could become as many examples of beacon-driven experiences as there are categories of things – whether places, people, or moving objects.

But as the ‘becosystem’ evolves, we’re starting to see design decisions with decidedly specific ‘flavors’. We talk to dozens of people each week about what they’re doing with beacons (and, of course, have our own concepts and approaches) and there are patterns emerging which point to clear decisions that UX designers and business strategists are making as they come to terms with beacons.

The decisions aren’t binary. You don’t always choose one over the other. But you’ll usually end up at one end of the spectrum or the other.

Visible or Invisible Interactions?

One example of this design tension is whether a user “sees” the beacon? Not necessarily the device itself – but a tag on a counter, a shelf talker, or a mark on the floor? Or does the experience instead make the “trigger” invisible – and you focus on the consumer simply thinking that their app is really really smart.

Nomi believes that beacons should feel tactile to the consumer. They should spark a sense of consumer control, engagement and action – and in their model, the beacon is visible and the consumer understands the what, where and why of the interaction.

By bringing the customer into the equation, Nomi CEO Marc Ferrentino believes that the engagement levels increase because you take the mystique out of why an app is suddenly changing as you walk through the store.

With back-end analytics that help prove the point of the Nomi platform, they may have a point.

Nomi iBeacon Platform

Similarly, an amazing project called Iconeme turns a mannequin into a visible point of interaction – allowing users to order the goods they see in the store window:

But in other cases, like the UN Minefield exhibit mentioned above, the very point of the beacon is its invisibility.

So one design tension to resolve is the ‘tangibility’ of the beacon or trigger to the consumer: Will you make interaction points in the physical world clear? Or do you prefer a user experience where things just, well, magically happen?

Resolving Design Decisions

There will be as many solutions as designers for a world of beacons. And yet they’ll often be attempting to resolve entirely new decisions in designing a flawless and compelling user experience:

  • Will your experience focus on things ‘found’ in the world – a specific product, say? Or will they act as helpers, bringing in content from elsewhere to supplement an in-store experience?
  • How do you resolve the level of personalization, knowing that how someone feels about highly targeted content online might be quite different from in a store, where concerns about privacy might have a different context?
  • Are you after big data and analysis and the beacons play a minor role, or do you focus on the user’s enjoyment and experience? Both are valid, and both might play different roles at different phases of the evolution of an app or in-store experience.

The good news is that there’s an increasing pool of examples of how designers have resolved the decisions about how to design a beacon experience. The rest, however, is up to you.

Share Your Thoughts

Join our weekly e-mail list for more on iBeacons. Join the conversation on Twitter, or connect with me on LinkedIn.

What design tensions have you found in your work with beacons? What are the major decisions you need to make if you’re designing a user experience?

8 thoughts on “iBeacon UX Design Approach: Visible or Invisible?

  1. Unfortunately, MLB has not adopted the technology – only the SF Giants have. The MLB mobile app would help out a lot, but right now without the Giants app itself, the beacons in that ballpark won’t work. Broader reach apps are vital to the adoption of the technology, one of the main reasons I launched the Open House Management Platform (iBeacon Proximity) on Kickstarter. Businesses can have an Open House, and with the app installed, voila!


    • MLB.com At the Ballpark app By MLB.com Updated: Apr 08, 2014 on iTunes lists 20 ball parks/cities with iBeacon support for “iBeacon technology”, 15 for “Seat and experience upgrades”, and 6 for “Food & Beverage or Merchandise mobile ordering”. So if “Advertising is Believing”…


  2. Thanks Christian – great project, good luck with Kickstarter!

    My understanding is MLB has adopted the technology and each club has the option to deploy it. The Twins, for example, are using it:


    So, each club has the option to install or not, but they also need to follow guidelines from MLB to create a consistent experience across stadiums.


    • Thank you very much for the kind words! You are absolutely correct, MLB at Bat has it already built in – wonderful news, can’t wait until Marlins Park deploys it (awesome ballpark, BTW).

      I’m sure Macy’s and Nordstrom are planning similar implementations. I hope I can get small piece of the pie with Open Houses


  3. We are at the dawning on a new age of design decisions. Imagine you enter a retail store, and your mobile device notifies you that the retailer would like to give you a special coupon, just for you. In fact, their robotic concierge will deliver it to you in the store. Using some proximity optimizing technology (iBeacons?), the soft-robot concierge “hunts you down” in the store, to give you your special sales offer. Spooky as all get-out, but expertly finessed, the word-of-mouth re-messaging generated would be huge.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s