On the possibilities and challenges of BLE beacons: Part 3

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In our last post, we broke down seven realities about designing with BLE beacons. There are certainly challenges, but things aren’t all doom and gloom. In the third and final post in this series, we offer some considerations around how to best implement BLE beacons for an exceptional customer experience. 

BLE beacons are a great tool for the right job. The overarching purpose of our research was to discover the technology’s real capabilities and find ways of using it successfully. With that in mind, here are some guidelines:

Capitalize on behaviors that cause users to take phones out of their pockets. 
Well-designed user experiences anticipate the audience’s existing behaviors. Ideally, an experience that connects a smartphone to a beacon will arise around a designed incentive that brings the phone out of the pocket.

For example, take a major sporting event (one of the biggest areas of experimentation with BLE beacons). If you have a digital ticket to the game that requires you to take your phone out of your pocket, it’s a natural extension to capitalize on that behavior. You could immediately use beacons to lead the sports fan to their seat and offer tips and information from how busy the bathrooms are to what deals are available at the concession stands.

Designing a BLE beacon experience around situations where the user has phone in hand has a couple benefits:
1) The user is already attentive to their phone. There’s little risk of creating the disruptive “spammy” experience of your phone randomly buzzing in your pocket.
2) More practically, you get around all the (previously discussed) technical hurdles in trying to make a connection while the user’s phone is in their pocket.

To increase accuracy, think about installing LOTS of beacons.
If a single beacon makes it difficult to create a consistent and predictable zone, then a possible solution is installing multiple beacons per zone. More signals mean more data points that can be crunched by the system to determine a user’s location and activity with a greater level of confidence.

Amp up the power.
Relying on coin-sized batteries for prolonged, predictable beacon activity can be problematic. With a larger power source, a BLE beacon can transmit MANY more times per second than its small-battery counterparts. Again, that translates into a more predictable connection between the BLE beacon and the user’s phone.

But keep in mind: having a greater power source can mean the installation of a hardwired beacon or having to maintain the larger batteries.

Make sure data connectivity isn’t a problem.
Unless everything the BLE experience needs is going to be installed on the user’s phone, make sure there is good data connectivity so the user can reach whatever larger system is needed.

If it’s a residential experience, then you may be able to rely on Wi-Fi, but out in the retail world, it’s the Wild West. You might consider getting cell tower repeaters for local carriers to make sure there aren’t any dead spots in the store.

Have a smart backend.
Having a larger platform than just the BLE beacon and the smartphone app in the architecture feels like a requirement for most retail/event applications. A larger system can not only provide more powerful filtering and location definition algorithms and a great store of content, but can be constantly collecting data and feedback from users to refine its intelligence.

And finally…

Use BLE beacons in forgiving ways.
BLE beacons are an emerging technology. We’re still learning how best to use them and understanding their true capabilities. Technology companies like Apple are still nailing down how they will support BLE beacons, which affects how useful they can be. With that in mind, think about using BLE beacons as a supportive part of a customer experience that adds unexpected delight but isn’t mission critical. It shouldn’t be the only method employed to accomplish a task or connect to the larger customer/home experience.

Start with tolerances that require less precision. The designed experience should set the expectation that something should happen within a dozen feet of leeway, not a dozen inches. Be careful of having beacon zones right next to each other due to risk of confusion around which zone the user is currently in. Don’t have your experience require that actions happen at a precise moment, but rather create expectations that give the experience time to establish accuracy.
So that’s it. We hope that our experiences with BLE beacons will help you understand the limits of what they can currently offer. We believe the current technology has real potential as part of a larger experience but is not as precise or responsive as marketing materials may suggest. Chances are micro-location experiences will utilize many types of inputs (GPS, NFC, strobe lighting, WiFi, etc.) with BLE beacons just one of them.

What’s clear is that there’s a strong desire for designed experiences involving this type of precise location awareness, which means we’ll be on top of any developments as they come.

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