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We separate beacon dreams from nightmares when it comes to describing how these devices can impact the indoor customer experience.

In Becoming Steve Jobs, the latest biography of Apple’s co-founder, the authors remark on Steve’s use of his favorite word “magic” when he was promoting a new product. This got me thinking about iBeacon, which Apple launched after his death. 

Could it be described as magic?

No question, there was magic in the iPhone user interface. It created a completely new user experience and changed the phone industry as a result. iBeacons, on the other hand, are really just one part of what is required to create a user experience. Over the last two years I’ve seen beacon experiences that were magic and ones that were more like a nightmare.

Most large retailers are experimenting with beacons. What is it that they need to know to avoid subjecting their customers to the nightmare and create some of the magic that is clearly required? The Bluetooth beacon is like the tendon that connects the muscle of cloud services, big data, and the Internet of Things to the bone of their brick and mortar stores.

Here are some of the ingredients that I have observed when that has been done well.

1. Help me do less

Technology is often at its best when it’s invisible. Two of the first beacon enabled apps I saw did something so simple that users probably didn’t notice what was being done. The content in these apps was automatically sorted based on the triggers from nearby beacons. These told the wine buyer app that the customer was standing in the red wine section, so the information about those red wines bubbled up to be visible on the screen. In the C-Store, its offers for products that were visible to the shopper were sorted to “above the fold.” If you are standing in front of the snacks, you probably are more likely to respond to an offer for snacks than drinks.

Every time we ask a user to click, tap, or swipe, we loose a significant percentage of our audience. Beacons can adjust the navigation through a mobile app as the shopper navigates around the store in ways that mean the user has to do less and is more likely to see content that is relevant on their small screen.

2. Tell me once

Apple was one of the first retailers to use beacons in their retail-shopping app, but they took two steps forward and one step back when they did it.

Beacons allowed them to pop-up a welcome message and change the functionality (such as self checkout) based on your presence in the store a lot more accurately than was possible before. Prior to their use of iBeacons you could get your welcome message in the car park outside the mall, even when you had no intention of going to the Apple store. The backward step was when they welcomed you to the accessory section once, twice, three times. Precision is great but it needs to be regulated.

The iBeacon APIs are quite basic. To orchestrate a great user experience, another layer of software is required to add more sophistication and tools. Many companies are rushing to fill that gap. Examples are Rover Labs, Local Social, and Pulsate. These companies are providing APIs and widgets that capture the best practices needed to create apps that make sense of the low level inputs.

3. Personal service

The best beacon experience I’ve ever had was in a coffee bar. At Qualcomm, we created an app to enable cloud payments at the local coffee bar called “Perks.” With the Perks app, you loaded your credit card details into the cloud and that was the last time you had to bring out your phone or wallet out of your pocket in order to pay for your cup of coffee or sandwich.

As you approached the point of sale, a beacon was used to authenticate you — no user action was required. Your photo popped up on a tablet in front of the barista. They greeted you by name (first time that had happed in 6 years of my visiting the place), you asked for your beverage of choice, carried on your conversation, picked up your drink and walked off.

If you had a visited 10 times, you were told the drink was on the house. Removing the customer from the payment workflow resulted in shorter lines. The purchase experience was more relaxed. Customers smiled more at the staff and visa versa. I looked forward to my personal greeting. It was magic.

When we experimented with a tap interface the magic was gone. The illusion of being a regular with a tab evaporated, conversations had to be interrupted to do the tap. It was a bit better than a QR code, but not much. MCX (the merchant consortium aiming to compete with Apple Pay) take note. Ditch the QR code payments when you can. For small ticket items you have an opportunity to “out Apple” Apple.

4. Remote control

One of the coolest things you can do with beacons is enable your phone to become a remote control for other devices in an effortless way.

My favorite is the vending machine. This is despite having had a fully stocked vending machine in my office for several months (and fighting the temptation to eat everything inside it).

Vending machines are becoming wirelessly connected and a lot more engaging, with high definition screens and merchandise that ranges from candy bars, cupcakes, caviar and iPods. The choices that needed to be navigated on our high-end coffee machine are crazy: the cup size, the type of beverage, temperature, strength, and caffeination. Having the machine recognize you as you approach, greet you and ask you if you want your usual saves a lot of time.

5. Tell me something I don’t already know

We are social animals. That brings me to one of my personal nightmares: attending an industry conference and wading through a sea of faces that I recognize well enough, that I know I should remember their names — but not so well that recall of who those faces belong to comes as instantly to my mind as I’d like.

One of the hits at South By Southwest in their app was the ability to see the names of the people sitting in the session with you. I remember sitting at another conference seeing a rolling total increment as every new person arrived. This was useless information, but magical and engaging as a result.

SeeWho is an app that turns your phone into a beacon and taps into people’s LinkedIn profile to provide more information about the colleague in front of you who you should have recognized. Having that data pop up on an Apple Watch might actually inspire me to buy one.

High-end retailers are equipping their store associates with tablets that can pull up the names, past purchases and preferences of customers as they approach.

Some of the biggest excitement I have witnessed is from retailers seeing information that wasn’t available before about who is coming into their stores and where they are going in the store as a result of the offers and promotions they were provided before their arrival. This is the kind of information open to brick and mortar retailers that only Amazon was privy to before. Amazon’s click path analysis is now the retailers’ footpath analysis. They can map out a funnel and see how specific customers’ respond to the decisions that they make in targeting and promotion.

What would Steve have said?

Steve Jobs valued the integration of technologies with a strong aesthetic sensibility, to deliver an experience. Developing great beacons enabled experiences requires that same level of excellence in both technology and human factors. Teams developing them need to reflect that diverse mix of skills. Candidly, for every magical experience developed with beacons there are probably at least two that would have earned harsh words from Mr. Jobs. So once again the magic is in the art of how the technology is applied rather than in the technology itself.

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