The iBeacons Experience Layer

When Apple announced iBeacons last year my team and I were a buzz with the potential. But a year later, I have to say that I’m disappointed at the experiences most companies are dreaming up. Retailers haven’t moved passed what is essentially the digital version of someone handing you a coupon/flyer on the way in. These kinds of ideas seem to be great for the company, but offer no utility or magic for the user. Consumers don’t get excited about new ways to market to them. iBeacons are just waiting for designers to dream up more contextual experiences.

Just imagine if your lights, stereo and Nest had beacons in them. You could use beacons to adjust your lighting ambience, temperature, and music simply by you walking into a room. It can also make that room more energy efficient by detecting when it’s unoccupied for 10 minutes and shutting down unused devices.

Or what if you had a beacon on your dog’s collar? What experience might you be able to design?

Estimote is trying to make things easier with beacons they’ve turned into stickers they call Nearables. They’re nearly weightless and just millimeter-thick (about the size of a postage stamp).

Estimote Beacon Stickers

So how do iBeacons work?

iBeacons are simply Apple’s version of Bluetooth LE beacons. These beacons send data, but don’t receive any. Generally beacons broadcast a micro-location (in a radius as small as 10cm) to your phone. Not just your iPhone, they work with Android and other smartphones as well (Am I the only one who has a hard time putting Windows & ‘smart’phone in the same sentence?).

Here are a few important lessons I’ve learned this year:

1. iBeacons Are Not Intelligent, Just Contextual

iBeacons just broadcast their identity, which in turn offers an opportunity to act contextually. All the intelligence comes entirely from the device and the apps running on it.

2. iBeacon Detection Is Not Instant

When your application is active, detection of an iBeacon can take anywhere between 5-10 seconds (longer when exiting the region). When closed this can take considerably longer. The reason for the variable delay is that the discovery requires the broadcast and search to coincide with each other–affected by how frequently the iBeacon advertises itself and how often the receiver scans, and there is an obvious trade-off between responsiveness and demands on the battery.

3. Impact On Design And Implementation

Previously when designing apps you had a relatively linear user experience. In contrast, the essence of context-aware computing is about adapting and behaving accordingly to different scenarios–even a simple prototype requires complex decision trees and a fair amount of code to handle the different states.

4. Users Still Want Control

You can’t just automate everything. It’s important to ensure you expose enough functionality to give users a sense of control. At least let them take over when they want.

In Conclusion

Designing context-aware experiences that delights users remains elusive for most companies. iBeacons by themselves are not that interesting but you can add an effective environmental signal that can be used to better understand the user’s current context. It gives those of us who design and build digital experiences an opportunity to start building simple contextually aware interactions and figuring out what works and what doesn’t.

So get out there and make some magic.

A Smartwatch I’d Actually Wear

iWatch Concept

Looks like Nike was close to a great smartwatch with their NikeFuel band. Just add a curved touch screen and a slightly modified iOS and voila, the first smartwatch I’ve seen that I’d love to own.

This concept was was created by Todd Hamilton, complete with a demo video (below).

No one knows what the long awaited iWatch will look like if/when Apple ever announces it, but let’s hope Jonny Ive is pushing in this direction.

iWatch Concept

iOS In Your Car

I’ve always wanted a ‘car mode’ app for my iPad mini. Imagine just placing your iPad in your dash (magnets?) and it knows you’re driving. Then boom, it switches to car mode, allowing you to get to your music and maps with a UX made just for driving. Perhaps it could even alert anyone trying to text you that you’re en-route to a destination, and when you’ll arrive and can safely respond. (You’re welcome Apple.)

Looks like someone is working on that dream, minus the iPad mini. In this video above, a developer is playing around with a version of iOS made just for your car.

Yes, please.

Coin-One Card To Rule Them All

coin_card

Imagine trying to reinvent mobile payments. After brainstorming all kinds of innovative new ways to use modern tech and methods you realize how difficult adoption is going to be.

You have merchants, banks and customers who all have embraced certain methods, technologies and habits that they’re comfortable with. Your solution would have to be so amazingly simple, that it eliminates friction for at least one of the groups involved, and doesn’t add any friction for the others. Your solution would need to fit so comfortably in the established conventions that adoption is a no-brainer.

Coin is a new smart card that reaches that balance well by attempting to simplify all those cards we carry. And it’s based on a decidedly low tech framework, the good ol’ fashioned magnetic strip.

Coin replaces most of the cards we carry around everyday (credit cards, gift cards, loyalty cards, & membership cards), storing them all in a single card. Users toggle between cards by pinching a button (pinching avoids accidentally hitting the button when sat on or when used by a waiter). A small screen displays letters to denote which card is active, as well as the last digits and expiration date of the credit card.

Developed by Kanishk Parashar, he’s been iterating on his concept for a while. He says he’s lost track of the number of prototypes he’s built, but each iteration has focused on bringing the size down while lowering battery consumption. The battery of the current prototype is expected to last about a year with regular usage.

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Users add new cards to Coin by swiping them on a card reader and manage them with a mobile app. Using Bluetooth low energy, Coin will deactivate itself and send a notification letting users know they left their Coin behind when the connection between it and the phone is broken. It’s a security protocol, but it also means the card won’t work without a paired phone. Coin also uses 256-bit encryption and follows the same compliance as other online wallets, Parashar said. “We have some secret projects in place to wow consumers, but we want to make sure we can achieve them first,” he added, referring to possible security features.

Coin began taking pre-orders Thursday, aiming to raise $50,000 to cover manufacturing costs. I don’t think their going to have a problem raising the funds. Early backers can preorder the device for $50, though the card is expected to retail for $100. Parashar expects manufacturing to start in the middle of the first quarter, and he expects to begin shipping Coin in the summer.

Prototypes

Order Pizza By Pushing One Button

PiePal

In terms of the user experience design of ordering something, getting to a single interaction (taps/clicks) or at least as few interactions as possible reduces friction, therefore making the experience easier. So what if you could order something with just the press of a single button?

PiePal will allow you to instantly order you’re favorite (pre-programmed) pizza with just the push of a button.

PiePal is from Washington, D.C.-based iStrategyLabs, a digital strategy firm that has previously rolled out “social machines” — devices rigged for a social media hashtag or Foursquare check-in to trigger a purchase or other action in the physical world.

Of course, there are a few downsides with a device so simple. What happens if someone just bumps into the button, or baby presses it again and again? Buttons can be irresistible.

And while it’s a simple concept, the computing behind PiePal is actually pretty complex. The hardware uses a combination of an Arduino circuit board and Raspberry Pi — a credit-card-sized computer. The software written to make it work is powered by JavaScript, using Node.js, and the team set up a way for its system to pull in Domino’s online ordering choices so users can pre-program the order they’d expect to show up at their doorstep — their “emergency pizza” order.

You can’t purchase a PiePal for now, since it’s just a working prototype. The company is weighing interest and demand to decide its future. The most exciting thing about this is the idea of a connected button that automates shopping or tasks you do often. You could tie this to anything.

In the meantime, you can be a Beta “Taster”. (find the signup link on the page)

Watch the video to see the PiePal in action:

Apple’s M7 Coprocessor

M7

I see amazing potential for location aware and predictive interactions with Apple’s motion processor.

From Apple.com:

“M7 knows when you’re walking, running, or even driving. For example, Maps switches from driving to walking turn-by-turn navigation if, say, you park and continue on foot. Since M7 can tell when you’re in a moving vehicle, iPhone 5s won’t ask you to join Wi-Fi networks you pass by. And if your phone hasn’t moved for a while, like when you’re asleep, M7 reduces network pinging to spare your battery..”

Now to dream up some app magic.

iOS 7 Makes More Sense Now

iPhone 5c

Apple’s July preview of iOS 7 drew a fair amount of criticism. Designers took to sites like Dribbble and Behance to show off their “improved” versions of the iOS, with common complaints including typography, iconography, and transparency. I admit, I too was less than thrilled with some of the design choices.

Three months and six betas later, Apple is gearing up to ship a pair of shiny new iPhones with iOS 7. Although it looks like some of those questionable icons will make it in the final release, a few things have been improved, and a few design choices make a bit more sense.

Matching Background

All those transparent effects in iOS 7 really shined when Apple demoed them on the iPhone 5c. Apple picked matching backgrounds for each color, and that color comes through all those transparent moments making the UI match your phone color. This also means you can give your phone a new look just by updating your background color.

The typography has been refined. One of the biggest complaints was the use of Helvetica Neue Ultra Light. The font was dramatically thinner than in iOS 6 and some found it tough to read. Apple listened and revised the type to Helvetica Neue (Regular) and made it a bit larger in places. If you still have trouble with legibility, you can now set your fonts to bold in the accessibility menu.

The font choice is super important, because it plays a bigger role in Apple’s design language than ever before. Many interface elements that used to have icons — such as the “answer” and “decline” buttons you’re presented with when receiving an incoming call — are now entirely text. It’s especially noticeable in applications. Pressing the top arrow button has always taken you back, whether it says “Inbox,” “Settings,” or something else. With iOS 7, buttons are gone. Everything is flat, with the button arrangement replaced by a “less than” symbol, followed by plain text.

The icons that did make it in iOS 7 were all redesigned back in July, despite the outcry across the inter-webs. The incoming call screen has changed slightly as well; initially a totally flat, squared-off design, it’s been given some character in the final version of iOS 7, with distinct buttons with rounded corners. Control Center has also seen a visual rework, with a few minor spacing adjustments and a big shift in transparency effects. Essentially, the Control Center is much darker now, which makes its white text far more legible.

Your apps will update in the background now (finally!). You’ll know when an app is updating thanks to a nicely done circular dial animation that replaces the old progress bar. Once it’s updated, the app is given a neat little blue dot to indicate there’s new stuff waiting for you inside. This replaces the blue-ribbon indicator from iOS 6.

Still waiting on the final version, but most of these updates are a welcome addition.

Google Glass Mini-Review

Glass

I’ve been waiting for some time to really dive into my experience with Google Glass, I’ve also been waiting to settle into how I’ll use it everyday. But it’s clear that neither of those things are coming any time soon. So here’s my abbreviated take on Google’s leap into wearable tech.

You should know up front, I really want to like Google Glass. From the outside looking in, it looked like the future.

For the first twenty-four hours, I was really jazzed about it. It was new and shiny and the experience of picking it up in New York and using it was wholly unique. Taking pictures and recording video hands free using only voice commands was novel and fun. Walking around with it on your head garners instant, mostly positive attention, from both those who know what Google Glass is and those who just want to know what the heck you have on your face.

But then the new gadget high wears off, and I start to wonder where this fits into my life.

I’m still wondering.

In short, this is its biggest failing. I don’t think anyone really knows when and where in their day Google Glass is a natural fit.

I’m not sure Google started with “What do we want the experience to be?”, or “How do we want to improve people’s lives?” Instead, It feels like they started with “What if you could wear your computer on your face?” or maybe “What if you had 24×7 access to Google search (but couldn’t see or use the results very well)?”

I’m not sold on Google Glass being the future. Maybe a stepping stone to something bigger. But this is not how I want to interact with the digital world, or how I would bridge the digital and physical world, nor is it how I want to consume digital content.

macro-glassI know I’m going to catch grief from fans for this, but most honest reviews end with something like “Once Google changes the form factor (maybe makes it a contact lens) and adds a better interface, then this is going to be fantastic.” So…the argument at large it seems is that after Google completely redesigns it, and someone dreams up a killer app, then it will be great. Well… I guess I agree with that.

Update: In the spirit of full disclosure, I have an iPhone with an unlimited AT&T data plan, which presents a tethering problem. Google wants you to call up your cell provider and have them enable tethering on your account. For someone like me, with a grandfathered-in unlimited data plan, this is a non-starter as I’d lose all the benefits of my plan—and pay more. Most carriers charge about $30 extra a month for tethering, which means over the course of just one year, you will pay an extra $400 just to have it work outside your home or office.

So these observations have been collected in wifi friendly places like home, the office, Starbucks, etc.

Glass has a companion app for Android (not currently available for the iPhone) that allows Glass to do two very important things—give you turn-by-turn directions and read/respond to your text messages. This companion application is only available for Android users. So as an iPhone user, I’m out of luck and I’ve never seen these features in action.

My Google Glass Adventure Begins

Glass Explorers Welcome

Glass is Google’s vision for the next wave of wearable computing. For now it isn’t easy to come by. Only about 8000 people have been selected by Google to purchase Glass early (mid 2013). Google selected myself and 7999 lucky folks by asking “What would you do #ifihadglass?”. Anyone in the US could tweet or submit over G+ what they would do if they had the opportunity to have Glass. (Here’s a full list of all the accepted submissions.)

Once selected, I had to wait for an invitation from Google to schedule an appointment at either Mountain View, Los Angeles or New York to pick-up my Glass. (Shipping options were not available).

I finally got my invitation last Friday (June 21, 2013). It took about 12 weeks from the time I was accepted into #ifihadglass till I got my appointment invitation. Not too terribly long for all you Explorers still waiting for your invite.

After receiving an invitation, Glass explorers are directed to a special site where you select your color, choose your pick-up location, book an appointment, and purchase Glass.

Glass costs Explorers about $1,500. Most reviewers found the price pretty steep considering the product is in a closed beta with a relatively small feature set. But if you consider the research, design and development investment, it’s price seems reasonable. Though I’m not certain consumers would be willing to pay so much for a device that gets all its connectivity from your smart phone.

I chose to pick-up Glass next Friday in New York. I’m thinking about getting the blue (sky). They look fun. And I’m told I own enough black t-shirts/accessories.

Glass Colors

The New York location is on the 8th floor of Chelsea Market and isn’t technically in Google offices; those will probably be a different experience entirely. This store is just for Google’s Explorer program.

How does Glass work? In this video, Glass How-To, you get a little demo that goes through the basics of wearing Glass.

This video shows users how to adjust the Glass lens, and how to use a touchpad on the side to scroll through messages or other information and share it with friends. It doesn’t remotely cover everything we’ve seen about the Glass interface, but it makes it seem understandable and approachable, going over extensions of standard touch gestures. I’m looking forward to testing Glass in real world situations where I might feel strange talking to Glass.

For now I’m going to spend the week with the Google Mirror API in preparation for my-pick up next Friday. Let’s see what fun Glassware apps & services I can dream up.

The Unpolished Begining of iOS 7

Yesterday Apple announced iOS 7 at their World Wide Developers conference and released a beta for developers. The keynote began and ended with beautiful videos highlighting Apple’s passion for carefully crafted design.

Opening video:

Closing video:

The closing video begins with “This is it. This is what matters. The experience of a product. How it makes someone feel”. I agree.

And iOS 7 feels a little unrefined.

I was excited to dive in after the keynote. Apple had done exactly what we were hoping they would. They hit reset on their skeuomorphic approach and made dramatic sweeping changes. Most of the functionality you know is still there. But they’ve essentially taken the last six years of refinement, tweaking, and honing and wiped it all away to begin again.

Here are my first impressions…

ios 7 home

The icon illustration styles in iOS 7 vary wildly from app to app. Game Center is now a collection of 3D blobs against a white background, while the Camera icon looks like clip-art. The settings icon looks more like an oven burner. The Calendar icon is “live”, showing you todays date, but the weather icon can’t manage todays temperature. Everything looks oversized and shockingly basic. It doesn’t feel elegant, it feels kind of childish.

The experience is full of small inconsistencies. You’ll find several camera icons, varying interaction metaphors, even different keyboard styles as you move from Apple apps to others.

Overall the typography is gorgeous (Helvetica Neue), but in a few places the layout is crowded, with too many font weights. I miss the separation between the status bar and apps.

There are several hidden new gesture based interactions that will confuse some folks. To find search you have to pull down, just not from the top. And because swiping from left to right is the new global back button, you can’t swipe right in your app for other interactions… like delete.

crowded-type

There’s also completely new iconography that isn’t readily understandable. Apparently a box with an arrow pointed up means Share. Maybe we’ll get used to these quickly…? But considering we still use file folders as icons, I applaud Apple for pushing in new directions.

Hiding apps in white folders that contain multiple screens means you’ll be playing a game of memory every time you try to find one. Why don’t folders open close to full screen?

ios 7 folders

It was said that you could hand an iPhone to a 2 year old and they could use it right away because it was so intuitive. I’m not sure that’s true of iOS 7.

All in all, an uncharictaristically rough visual start from Apple. But I’d be complaining much more if they hadn’t walked away from real world metaphors.

In case you can’t tell, we designers are a hard bunch to please. We like to complain. It’s a carefully developed skill that helps us discover areas that could be improved and makes us good at our craft.

And now we’re complaining that this completely reimagined beta version of iOS7 isn’t perfect. Take it as a compliment Apple. You’ve taught us to expect perfection. You’re stepping in new directions and in all honesty, it’s better than any one of our best betas.

There is some undeniable genius behind the visual clunkiness. And some visual updates are for the better, like the Notification Center. It now splits your notifications more intelligently and gives you a day-view look at your to-do’s, Calendars, Weather and Stocks.

The upgraded default apps are so much better. Weather is more beautiful and offers more info. Calendar is a giant leap forward. Photos are auto-sorted and grouped, making them much easier to look through. And Air-Drop is a new fun way to share pics with other iPhones without having to wander around bumping phones (take that Android).

My favorite innovation is automatic app updates.

Little details like the subtle gyroscope controlled parallax background, and elegant animations give you a great sense of dimension and place.

We’ve spent the last few years teasing Apple for its over use of felt, we’ve accused them of falling behind, questioned their ability to innovate. Well question no more, with all the bold new approachs and products announced at the WWDC, it’s safe to say that Apple is still innovating.

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