Finding your way around proximity technologies (& improving user experience)

Introduction – Usability comes before technology

“The best user experiences are enchanting. They help the user enter an alternate reality, whether it’s the world of making music, writing, sharing photos, coding, or managing a project.” – Kathy Sierra

Proximity technology is a term that loosely brings together location-based technologies such as Bluetooth Beacons, Geofencing, QR codes and Near Field Communication (NFC) devices. It’s often called proximity advertising but, rest assured, it has so many exciting applications beyond nefarious marketing deeds. Proximity technologies can be a great way of enhancing user experience in public spaces – particularly when used in a responsible and user-centric way.

We’ve been experimenting with various proximity technologies over the last 18 months both in our own projects, with clients and in our workshops (like this one at Deptford Lounge).

If you’re interested in implementing ways to make your space more engaging for visitors, this article is a whistle-stop tour of some of the options now available.

In the beginning there were QR codes

Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity. – Charles Mingus

Quick Response (QR) codes are those square two-dimensional bar codes that you see around the place. They get a bit of a bad rap for both their ubiquity and their under-use but they’re an affordable way to share digital information and one of the few cross-platform options currently available. And they don’t seem to be going away anytime soon.

QR codes can store up to a maximum of 3Kb of data. What this means in terms of the amount of text or numerical data you can store depends on 3 parameters: data type, size and error correction level.

A simple contact QR code

If you have a large QR code (determined by the number of rows and columns) with a high error correction level, you can store less data within the QR code. But if you set the error correction to the lowest possible level, you can store up to 4,296 alphanumeric characters.

But, of course, error level exists for a reason, and many QR code scanners really struggle with complex codes. You can use QR codes to encode different types of data including:

  • Contact Information
  • Calendar Events
  • Email Address
  • Geo Location
  • Phone Number
  • SMS
  • Text
  • URL
  • WiFi Key
Ode on a Grecian Urn by Keats in a QR code. Most QR scanner apps will fail to read this one

The main issue with QR codes is that they require the user to have a QR code reader app on their mobile device. This proves quite a barrier when you’re looking at ways to frictionlessly share content and information with users (and tends to take the quick out of quick response).

Despite their limitations, they’ve continued to evolve in interesting ways – from the recently-announced built-in QR code reader in Chrome iOS to payments solutions to. … ummm… [Juicers](http://Silicon Valley’s $400 Juicer May Be Feeling the Squeeze – Bloomberg) . Facebook Messenger now supports inApp QR codes (Messenger codes) as does Snapchat (Snapcodes).

Twitter also recently added QR codes so maybe Google, Facebook, Snapchat and Twitter know something we don’t — another possible reason to not throw out QR codes with the shiny new bathwater.

Our favourite current use of QR codes is probably the Pokémon Sun and Moon QR codes but the social media QR codes for friending/following people are also handy.

Near Field Communication tags

Clear content, simple navigation, and answers to customer questions have the biggest impact on business value. Advanced technology matters much less. – Jakob Nielsen

Near Field Communication (NFC) is an extension of the Radio Frequency identification (RFID) format that’s widely used for circulation and theft-prevention (among other things) in libraries. You also find it in tap-and-go payment cards.

It was designed to build on RFID by allowing the exchange of more complex data formats.

NFC tags are a natural successor to QR codes- removing the barrier of needing a specialist app. Many smartphones now come with built-in NFC support. But the main limitation of NFC tags is that they aren’t currently supported by iOS devices. Sure, iOS devices use NFC within Apple Payments but unfortunately this hasn’t been extended to allow for tag reading. Some NFC proponents remain hopeful at every iOS upgrade announcement (this time for sure!) but the wait has been long and patience is running out.

While it varies between different types of tags, NFC tags can generally hold up to 8kB of data. An off-the-shelf, rewritable NFC tag will generally support the following types of data:

  • Business card
  • Website URL
  • WiFi
  • Bluetooth
  • Email
  • Telephone number
  • Geo location
  • Launch Application
  • Plain text
  • SMS

The London Museum used NFC tags as part of their exhibitions to allow visitors to access additional information as well as to engage with them by liking or following the museums social media accounts or by checking-in to the location.

Bluetooth beacons

“Being playful is of huge importance for being innovative. I mean if you go into a culture and there are a bunch of stiffs going around, I can guarantee you they are not likely to invent anything.” —David Kelly

Bluetooth has also undergone quite a transition. It used to be the kinda clunky technology that you could use on your phone but it really ate up your battery so most people kept it switched off.

Beacons come in all shapes and sizes

The advent of Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) meant a second wind for Bluetooth as a wireless technology. The main benefit was the low power consumption that gives it its name – BLE uses less power which makes battery-powered devices last much longer and made it a perfect fit for IoT devices.

Bluetooth Beacons are one of the devices that make use of Bluetooth LTE. These are devices that can share ‘context-aware’ information with users via Bluetooth on their mobile devices. They do this by broadcasting a BLE signal at regular intervals.

There are 2 main BLE-beacon technologies currently available: iBeacon (launched by Apple in 2013 ) and Eddystone, an open protocol launched by Google in 2015. Unlike NFC tags, beacons are a broadcasting medium. But user experience is key and there are clear issues with technology that can be too… well… pushy.

Despite what advertising companies seem to think, nobody wants to to be inundated with marketing announcements on their phones just because they wander within reach of a particular shop. This doesn’t mean these aren’t exciting technologies to use, just that they need to be used responsibly – a worth mantra for all technology use really.

Out in the wild, many museums have adopted Beacon technology. Brooklyn Museum have helpfully documented their experiences implementing iBeacon beacons.

Eddystone is the open Bluetooth low energy broadcast format developed by Google that lets you broadcast URLs to nearby devices. And Google have really doubled down on their beacon support with the Physical Web.

The Physical Web is a particularly pivotal development as it removes the need to use specialist apps for Eddystone beacon broadcasting. While it is currently available on Chrome for Android and iOS and via Google Nearby Notifications (though it thankfully remains opt-in), things are looking hopefully for additional integration in the future.

There are some amazing, innovative applications of Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) Beacons out there too, such as Wayfindr, an open protocol developed to help “vision impaired people to overcome isolation, through audio based navigation”.

But it starts and ends with user experience

“Findability precedes usability. In the alphabet and on the Web. You can’t use what you can’t find.” – Peter Morville

While this is a look over some available technologies, the main takeaway is that there are different ways we can use emerging technology to help remove barriers to information and deliver better user experiences.

As a starting point, it’s always infinitely valuable to talk to your users and find out what barriers to your services they currently experience. What are some ways you can reduce the steps from A to B? How can we improve how users access our content or how we welcome new users?

It’s an exciting time for location-based technologies. These are just some of the technologies that are available to help improve user experience and engagement in public spaces such as libraries, museums, galleries and archives.