iBeacon UX and Design: 3 Ways Beacons Will Reconstruct Reality

iBeacon Redesigns Reality

Reality is messy. That’s the secret challenge of iBeacon and Bluetooth LE proximity devices.

Think about it: we live in an online world where design has gone “flat”, where iOS7 took away all the felt and leather and extrusions so that the interface gave “deference” to content and where Google marches on with an improved design aesthetic tied up neatly into cards.

The Secret Challenge of iBeacon? Reality is Messy

But reality is a different beast. It’s messy, often overpopulated, and dense with visual and auditory information.

For a mobile developer, the iBeacon framework (and its companion Bluetooth LE detection on Android) is actually relatively simple.

Sure, you need to think about message frequency and capping, prevent multiple “calls” when a beacon is detected. But the code you need to use consists of very few classes. Compared to making, say, a mobile game, iBeacon is a piece of cake.

The problem isn’t in the software, it’s in the broader interface that the user experience exists: namely, physical reality.

Reality Isn’t Zoned

One of the common use cases for iBeacon is retail. Estimote used the idea of pushing coupons and special offers for shoes as a way to demonstrate the use case for beacons in retail.

But reality and beacons collide when you get them into the wild. Because even though you might think your shoe department is zoned off from dresses (and maybe it is!)…when you dive down a level or two physical space quickly becomes cluttered.

In fact, I’d argue that this clutter can be both a curse and a boon in a retail environment: allowing moments of serendipity, intentionally getting lost, and matching up related items even though they might not belong in the same department – a scarf with a jacket, say, or a jar of pasta sauce next to the spaghetti.

But in an omnichannel world, this creates a challenge: because creating an experience for a customer that bridges both the physical and digital requires a new way of thinking about design.

The metaphors you use online benefit when they carry over to a store (and vice versa).

If your online store has a section called rainwear but your physical store hides the umbrellas in accessories then you’re not creating a true omnichannel experience – you’re simply selling the same goods in two places.

How iBeacon Will Reconstruct Reality

It isn’t just beacons that will drive a change in how we think about physical space. Pop-up stores, for example, are inspired in part by microsites and interstitials – they’re the equivalent of media-rich banner ads for the physical world.

But beacons expand the UX tool kit. They force us to think about space design in the same way a museum might think about exhibits, or Disney might think about theme parks (both of whom are early adopters of proximity-based mobile experiences).

While we’ll still see physical stores that are crammed full of stuff with spillover and overlapping zones, I also think that beacons will inspire new ways of thinking about architecture and physical design.

Here are three:

Increased Hierarchy

More attention will be paid to hierarchy in design:

  • Larger zones will be marked by increased space given to ‘transition’ spots. Think of them like buffer zones – intentional breaks in the flow of a physical space to let customers situate themselves, check their apps, and do visual wayfinding. These spaces will be the equivalent of didRangeBeacons.
  • Increased attention will be paid to sub-dividing zones and giving better visual cues. I’ve been walking around stores lately thinking like a web designer – and I’m struck by how poorly the hierarchy is expressed between larger departments and sub-departments. It’s the equivalent of using an H1 header tag for “shoes” and a <p> tag for children’s shoes.

Digital Cues in the Physical

We’ll start to see signage, shelf-talkers and other in-venue signage that specifically references a mobile/digital interaction. While many beacons will be invisible, there will also be a generation of signage and point-of-sale displays with a digital call-to-action.

QR codes and NFC “tap here” were earlier examples of this, but required too much action for most consumers. Instead, we’ll see things like “Pin This” or “Like This” signs where approaching the shelf the content is loaded up for you and a big Pinterest button invites interaction.

The conventions of the digital, in other words, will start being more visible in physical places.

The Quiet Commons

Perhaps the most radical way that physical worlds will change, however, is in how we start to create space for exclusion from the digital. Many retailers will be focus on how to create more content, more offers and more ways to engage customers and up-sell them or retain them.

But the truly forward-thinking designers of physical space will also recognize the limits we have for information. We’ll see ‘spaces within spaces’ that signal escape from overload, escape from the digital, and ways to connect in more personal ways.

This doesn’t mean we need meditation rooms at your local Macy’s. In a retail environment, it can be as simple as blank wall space or a visual display without any products at all.

Even Disney, which isn’t exactly short on sensory experiences, builds “escape” pods into its theme parks – places where you feel like you’ve escaped the crowd and the noise.

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 do you think? How will the design of physical places change because of beacons and other connected experiences? Will retail lead the wave, or is the true innovation going to happen elsewhere?

7 thoughts on “iBeacon UX and Design: 3 Ways Beacons Will Reconstruct Reality

  1. Are there any good words to describe the concept of online+physical? Not omni-channel as that implies separation of in-store and online… but beacons are mostly about a digital overlay to physical. Need a good word(s) for this!


  2. Agree with Michael in that technology has outgrown the vocabulary we created to describe our digitally-enhanced world. Like cloud, big data, and IoT, we’ll need new terms to replace virtual reality in the overlaid digitally-enhanced world we live in and interact with. Check out what’s going on at Airvirtise for an example of what’s possible. Cheers!


  3. Other way finding solutions that dont require the buffer zones you talk about are available. Pathfindr.co.uk uses an optical method to give much more accurate positioning with the use of wifi or Bluetooth and allows users to choose not be bombarded by unsolicited messages. Worth a look.


  4. Howdy, i read your blog occasionally and i own a similar one and i was just
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  5. I love the ‘Digital Cues in the Physical’ concept as I’ve built an animated signage platform called SignBoard that incorporates a beacon. I’d originally envisioned a retail signage market but now I think event wayfinding is the sweet spot.


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