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Design Apps with Indoor Location Awareness the Right Way

 

Indoor location and proximity have been features of focus of many app developers, app designers and marketers since the launch of the iBeacon and Eddystone standards, but designing apps with indoor location awareness the right way is hard.  We want to spend some time dissecting the features of the successful location aware app.

Levi's Stadium: a documented case study for Beacons

It is worth starting this discussion with a relatively well documented case study *.  Back in 2014, the Levi's Stadium (home to the San Francisco 49ers) opened to the public: it came with an app (the Stadium's App) and 2,000 Bluetooth Beacons to enhance the services offered by the app.  Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) Beacons are small inexpensive transmitters that enable apps to locate the user in an indoor area.  Location awareness allows enabled apps to provide meaningful services to the users and, at the same time, collect user location data for the venue.  BLE Beacons can provide more accurate position than Wi-Fi based systems and are the only viable option to allow indoor location applications for iOS users.  There are a number of services that the Levi's Stadium app performs both for its users and the stadium staff, such as:

  • managing (virtualised) tickets;
  • showing game/player stats and videos (video content is restricted to people who actually are located at the venue);
  • listing nearby shops (food and merchandise);
  • alerting the user of queuing times at shops;
  • purchase food and merchandise from within the app and arrange a pick up or a delivery to the seat;
  • location aware maps;
  • letting the stadium staff estimate where fans are at any time and determine the most-trafficked areas;
  • directing a fan (e.g. to the nearest bathroom or to her/his parking spot);
  • sending "intelligent" location relevant alerts to the lock screen of a fan’s smartphone ("Be in your seat by 6:50 p.m. to enjoy the pre-game show!” or “Lines near you are short to order food and drinks before the quarter ends.");
  • much more.

In short, the app use of location information is highly relevant (for both the user and the Stadium) and is integrated with a multitude of other services in order o make them possible or simply enhance them.  It seems that the app had been very well received by the fans.  Don't take my word for it: publicly available Stadium sources claim that, around the time of launch, 30% of fans used the stadium app during a game (the stadium seats 68,500 fans).  How much is this app worth for the Stadium?  The same sources claim that Levi’s Stadium secured a $750,000 in-app advertisement placement, and the app processed $1.25 million in revenue from food, beverage, merchandise and parking in 2014 (no other public stats seem available for later years).  The app was also a valuable source of analytics: many of those fans who are not season ticket holders are downloading and using the stadium app, providing the San Francisco 49ers with data on those individuals.  Unsurprisingly, there are unconfirmed reports stating than more than 50% of large sports venues in the USA have already implemented beacons (or indoor location) technology (e.g. this one).  Incidentally, assuming correctness of public sources, the stadium has a BLE Beacon every 35 seats give or take.

(*) - All the information in this paragraph comes from public sources.

Indoor location or proximity features: app design learning points for venues

Moving from a case study to a more general point there are two question that almost certainly, at this point, the reader might have.

  1. How precise is this technology at locating people indoors?
  2. How can the user benefit from an app's location awareness indoors?

The answer to question number 1 is not the topic of this blog post but is nonetheless relevant.  In a nutshell, the answer to (1) depends on how many beacons there are in one installation and whether they are used to achieve geofencing or (the more complex objective of) indoor location.  Typically, managing a too large fleet of beacons can be a very expensive exercise for a too little marginal gain to be had.  For the sake of mentioning a number, let's say that we would be happy with a 10 meters precision.  Question number 2 is far more relevant because it's in the interaction between user interface and location technology leads to results.  If there is one take home point from the Levi's Stadium experience is that it pays off to focus on the overall value of the app for the user and for the venue, and use technology to deliver a smooth experience. Indoor location can significantly improve the overall experience and sometimes enable specific features but it's hardly ever the main functionality of a successful app.  Taking two examples from the Stadium's App:

  • Enabling feature: validating the user's presence at the stadium for delivering copyrighted material (videos).
  • Enhancing feature: filtering automatically the closest food stands (as opposed to asking for the user's seat number).

To reinforce the point, let's move to a slightly different context, an imaginary shopping centre.  Despite being a developer, I am the kind of person who would rather approach the information desk rather than downloading an app for the sole purpose of way finding.  I usually want to know where they sell (for example) denim or (sometimes) where I can find a specific brand of jeans, never a specific shop.  The right app for me would  be "smart directory" app (smart = with smart filters).  One of those filters happen to be location: I would start with looking for the closest shop and work my way to the furthest ones until I find a pair of jeans that I like.  This would benefit me (by lowering my search costs) and the shopping centre (by capturing my spare time and my attention to sell me something more - perhaps some food).  The shopping centre manager could collect data on my preferences and send me relevant discounts (while I am performing a search for example).  Such an app would most likely outperform the services of an information desk.

Even more generally, when brainstorming for a location aware app good starting points are:

  • Integration of existing services (digital or not digital) that have already proven successful with users. Would you as a user enjoy both the integration and the digitalisation?
  • Adding location awareness to existing apps.  Think of specific features.
  • Digitalise and add location awareness to existing non-app services.  What do you gain and lose from digitalisation?
  • Solve a specific problem: the bigger the better.
  • Blue sky thinking: invent an entire new concept without considering at all its feasibility and squeeze it into existing technology later.  Don't be shy.  There is a chance that your idea might not be feasible as is, but some version of it might, and it might even be good.
  • Combine all of the above.

I will make up an artificial example of digitalisation and integration in the following chapter.

Paper Island: the meta restaurant (a slightly artificial example)

Paper Island (Papirøen) in Copenhagen hosts a plethora of excellent ethnic food stands (collectively known as Copenhagen Street Food).  Eating at Papirøen is great for the food, but a bit of a disaster for the experience because you need to purchase food, drinks, coffee and cake at different independent stalls.  Say that on a Saturday morning you go the Paper Island with 3 other friends and each wants a different type of food, 4 different types of drinks and one person only wants a dessert.  That is 4 x 2 + 1 = 9 different queues.  Each queue will finish at different times: what are the chances that you sit altogether and eat a warm meal? But if gets worse: to browse the selection at the Paper Island you need to walk around, stand by stand.  What are the chances that each one of you start the queue at the same time?  You can get around many problems in life by getting organised differently but it's Saturday morning, getting organised = work (besides, I cannot think of a good way to coordinate the four friends).  By the time the four of you finish the meal and the first round of drinks, you are probably not in the mood for a second round of drinks and you might have dropped the idea of getting dessert altogether.  All of this coordination is easily solved by something called a "waiter" (very expensive) or an "app" (cheaper).  The app should let you browse the menu of the open shops, report waiting times at such shops, place the order, pay and alert when the order is ready for collection.  It should also provide you with directions to get to a specific stand or, at the very least, show you where the various stands are relative to your current position.  Working with the existing technology to approximate the experience outlined above is possible, and BLE Beacons are part of the mix. Depending on several other technical constraints and the budget at hand, beacons could be used for:

  • Validating the customer presence at the venue:
    • It might be technically unfeasible to integrate the various payment methods accepted by the stall in the app.
    • In connection with a reward scheme that rewards the user's frequent presence at the venue.
  • Showing where the relevant stalls are relative to the current position.
  • Directing the user to the correct stall.
  • Detect if a shop is open or not (on / off beacon).

The key thing to notice is that location awareness is part of the broader picture (set of objectives): we want to make the purchase experience more pleasant and efficient and, as a result, increase the spending per minute spent at the venue. This is how location awareness is done the right way.

 
Paolo Longato