How and why you can use beacons to enrich experiences

We look into how beacons are used and what the future applications of them may be.

Beacon technology has shown great potential in improving user experiences across industries such as retail, airline.

However, this case study on the use of beacons in museums reveals that creating an experience around beacon technology is not as straightforward as it seems.

Beacons are wireless sensors that send signals through Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE). They usually come with an adhesive surface and can be easily attached to walls and objects. People have to download an app on their devices to receive and read signals transmitted by beacons. Notifications are then pushed to those devices when they are within close proximity to the beacons.

The interaction is simple but there are diverse ways to deploy it. Retailers have used beacons to push promotional content to shoppers while hotels have deployed it to streamline the check-in and check-out process. Ultimately, beacons offer businesses opportunities to deliver seamless, customised and contextually relevant experiences to their customers.

Museums and beacons

Museums, for one, have greatly benefitted from the implementation of beacons in their spaces. The visitor experience in museums was, and still largely is, one-dimensional; description labels beside artwork often fall short of providing full context, while brochures or audio guides can feel cumbersome. As such, many museums have started to explore the use beacons to improve the visitor experience.

The Rubens House Museum in Antwerp, Belgium is one of the early adopters of beacon technology. As you explore the exhibition, beacons placed near each artwork push additional information and media to your device in lieu of brochures or fragmented audio files to help you gain a fuller understanding of the art piece. Beacons placed around the museum also locate your current position and update the guided route in the device as you move around the space. Finally, the beacons trigger interactions with the artworks by allowing you to zoom in to details or view x-ray scans of the works.

On the other side of the world, the Canadian Museum of Nature has used beacons creatively by designing a gamified museum experience. Through your device, a creature is assigned to you and each time you locate a beacon, the creature evolves. This added layer of interactivity makes exploring a challenging concept easier and more enjoyable. Visitors also shared that they were more motivated to walk around the entire museum space so as to advance in the game.

The realities of using beacons

Although both examples demonstrate great potential of using beacons to enhance experiences in museum, implementing beacons is not without challenge and they may not be suitable for all types of exhibitions. I learned this the hard way after producing an exhibition for a project at university.

Our class had ten weeks to plan and execute an exhibition that took place in April this year at the Singapore ArtScience Museum. As the exhibition showcased students’ interactive media projects, we thought it would be a cool idea to provide visitors with an interactive experience through the use of beacons. As visitors walked past a beacon, a notification would be pushed to their smartphones, prompting them to rate and comment on the project near the beacon.

The three-day exhibition attracted close to a thousand visitors. However, there were merely 87 app downloads, 121 ratings and 81 comments gathered from visitors. In short, it was a wasted effort. Not only did we spend a great amount of time and effort developing the mobile app, we also spent countless hours installing and testing out the beacons.

Deciding where to place the beacons turned out to be a huge challenge as anything from walls, objects and people could easily disrupt signals. Some visitors also encountered glitches in the app when they stood between beacons. We were disappointed by the end result and realised that we should have conducted user research even with our time constraints. We had failed to ask these questions: Why would visitors need beacons? What problems did they face when visiting an exhibition and how would beacons help to resolve that?

The opportunity to adopt new technology is always tempting. However, since interning at Foolproof, I’ve learnt that it is important to answer the ‘why’ and ‘how’ before deciding whether or not to use new technology like beacons. Be it retailers, hoteliers or curators, an evaluation of the current experience is required to identify problems that your customers or visitors face. Beacons should only come into play if they can help to satisfy real needs or improve existing problems.

Start by evaluating the current experience

The first step is to reach out to existing customers or visitors to gather feedback on their current experiences. Field observations, shadowing, surveys and interviews are great methods to collate feedback. Compile the findings to identify patterns in the current experience. Also, consider creating various personas to guide the designing of experiences for different types of audiences.

Designing the new experience with beacons

Ensure that beacons are implemented to meet the needs of your customers and are not merely for novelty’s sake. A great user experience need not be revolutionary. For example, Brooklyn Museum chose to use beacons simply to indicate the visitor’s position so that art experts gained better context of the visitor’s question that had been posted via the museum’s ASK app in relation to the exhibits, enabling museum staff to provide visitors with better assistance. Although the use of beacons was simple, the approach was successful in meeting visitor needs.

Delivering the new experience via apps

As mentioned earlier, beacons need an app to work. This poses another challenge as people may be reluctant to ‘opt-in’ by downloading the app. From my previous experience, many visitors did not download the app as they were new to the technology and had yet to see the value of it. Visitors weighed the download against factors such as storage space in the device, inconvenience and incurring extra data charges.

As such, an introduction to beacons may be necessary to highlight its potential and attract more downloads. The technology may also be integrated into existing apps so that users do not need to download another app to enjoy the experience. Furthermore, those who choose not to opt-in should also be afforded a complete experience, i.e. features supported by the beacons should be supplementary or alternative means should be made available.

Testing, testing and more testing

Finally, test the experience in the actual physical space, i.e. bodystorming. Bodystorming requires us to physically walk through the experience with our own bodies, ideally in the actual space where it would take place. Initial rounds of testing could take place internally, but it is necessary to recruit actual customers or visitors to try out the new experience with their devices as end-users may have a different understanding of the new features and use the interface in unintended ways. It is only through testing with them that potential issues and new insights may arise. In addition, adopt an iterative design process – there should be continuous communication between designers and users to identify and resolve potential problems that might affect the final experience.

Although beacon technology brings new and exciting opportunities to build innovative experiences, its implementation is futile if no real value is brought to its users. Deploying beacons to create significant impact can be arduous and time-consuming, so conduct customer research before deciding if beacons are the best solution for your product, service or space.

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