Design thinking

The quest for contextual relevance

Anders Arnqvist

Last year I wrote an article on Indoor Navigation and the possibilities it brings. Since then, much has happened within the field and I’ve followed the developments closely. In order to further explore the technology and investigate how it may be harnessed to benefit users, I created REC, a prototyping app that makes it easier to build customized indoor navigation systems using Bluetooth sensors.


Mobile services have been growing and evolving ever since the release of the first smartphone. Users happily adapted to new interaction languages and came to expect that they could access services through their mobiles. However, many businesses got so excited about this marketing opportunity that they drowned users in content, ads, and notifications – with little thought to context or the personal nature of mobile devices. The result is that many consumers have grown skeptical towards mobile services.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Mobile services have the potential to be exceedingly useful just by being a little more contextually relevant. We need to help designers ensure that they build services with the intention of adding value so that the user feels helped rather than overwhelmed by too much information in the wrong context.

We can do this by answering two questions about the user and then tailoring communications accordingly. The first question, “Who are you?”, explores demographic elements and personal preferences such as what they’ve liked on social media or their age. The second question, “Where are you?”, places the user in a spatial context that indicates whether or not they may benefit from interactions with services. The second question can be answered by creating indoor navigation systems. Over the past year, small, cheap Bluetooth sensors (called “beacons”) that interact with smartphones have been adopted as the way to build these systems. The technology is constantly changing and becoming more tailored to the task, however, so what is interesting now is not the technology itself but how it may be used.

Bridging digital and physical experiences

With the internet of things we are transitioning to a world where physical products are expected to come with a digital aspect – for information, for added experiences, or for administration and configuration. Today, in many cases, there’s a frustrating disconnect between the digital and physical experience of a brand, service or product. Take a home furnishings company as an example. The time you spend surfing their website while sitting on your couch gives nothing in return when you enter the store – not in the structure of the merchandise, the display of the offers or in the signage. There is, in short, no communication between the two experiences.

Bridging this gap could greatly benefit users. For example, I’m sure most of us recognize the aggravation of shopping in a grocery store other than the one we’re used to. Suddenly the aisles are a maze and the milk is impossible to find. In this case, specifics about the groceries we frequently buy combined with the knowledge of where they are shelved in the store would create a great opportunity for relevant communication. I’ve discussed these possibilities more in-depth in my previous article, but the interesting thing about indoor navigation is that its uses are endless and may be tailored to suit any business.

The result

In order to explore the possibilities, I wanted to create a tool that would let us freely test the technology in different situations to see what works best. It’s important to understand where to draw the line for mobile interactions: what’s too obtrusive, what’s enough, what are we willing to do for convenience, how and when are we willing to receive contextual notifications.

I made a quick and easy prototyping tool to accomplish this. Having done the first round of sketches I began to work with two creative developers over at Prototype. We created our own beacons and linked everything to the software Invision, which made it possible to test out an unlimited number of contextual scenarios just by changing a few variables.

Used in creative workshops with our clients, the app has already proven to be an invaluable tool when it comes to deciding how beacon technology best suits different contexts and brands. By using REC to test scenarios with real users, together with our clients we explore how increased contextual awareness and personal relevance can make their offerings smarter and more attractive to customers.

Being contextually relevant means customizing one’s offerings to suit the user’s needs – based on who they are and where they are. My hope is that REC will make it easier for services to figure out how to do this, and to harness an exciting new technology to make it possible.