Introducing ‘Locate’

We make countless decisions in response to our location every day. Something so fundamental to being human seemed a fitting theme to add to the MEX user modes, not least because digital experiences in this area have hitherto been driven more by technology than by user behaviour.

This article introduces 2 essays with different perspectives on location and a set of questions for further exploration. The discussion continues at MEX in London on 19th – 20th March, where sessions include a talk by Peter Skillman, Head of Design at HERE – Nokia’s mapping business, and a talk and creative workshop on Locate facilitated by Rachel Jones of Instrata.

In the mean time, join the discussion by posting a comment below.

The Creative Industries KTN is supporting this theme as a MEX Pathway sponsor and will be at MEX to discuss the Technology Strategy Board’s upcoming £5 million funding competition for Location-based services.

Where it’s at

by Tom Fiddian, Lead Technologist, Design in the Digital Economy, Technology Strategy Board

In its short history, the digital economy has generated countless trends, buzz words and crazes, from content portals, viral marketing and virtual communities, through to social media and big data. But one of the latest has the potential to be more enduring than many. Location-based services (any information, entertainment, or transactional service available on a mobile device, and which makes use of the user’s geographical position) is by no means a new concept – the term was first used more than ten years ago – but in 2014 it seems to have come of age.

This is certainly the case in the UK, which is in a particularly strong position to grow the location-based services market. It has high levels of consumer readiness, with the latest figures from Ofcom suggesting that 40 percent of individuals use their mobile phone to access the internet, coupled with established strengths in the technologies underpinning such services: more than half of the world’s GPS devices are designed in the UK, and the country is a world leader in specialist geo-location systems, used in agriculture and construction.

Over the course of the next few years there are going to be significant improvements in the accuracy and timeliness of geo-location data. Location accuracy will be reduced to less than two meters and there will be better coverage in town centres where tall buildings encroach on the visibility of the sky. These improvements will lead to far greater opportunities in the location based services sector, going beyond basic navigation.

Although the market opportunity and technological infrastructure are coming into place, it will need more than this for successful new services to emerge. There are still important challenges that need to be overcome. Some of these are regulatory – there are understandably concerns around privacy and data use, while business strategies around proprietary systems, licensing and inter-operability will also be a factor.

But there also innovation challenges. These are not so much around the underlying telecommunications or systems software, but rather around design and development. It is at this point that the involvement of the creative industries will be crucial. As with all commercial endeavours, the defining factor in the success of location-based services will not just be whether they are technically feasible, but how well they meet customer demands and the quality with which they are delivered. This will require expertise in user-centred design, accessibility, strong interface design and compelling audio-visual content.

It is for this reason that the Creative Industries KTN has worked closely with the Technology Strategy Board on its forthcoming Location-based services Competition. Worth £5 million in total, and launching in April 2014, the Competition will provide digital and creative businesses the opportunity to experiment and innovate, to experiment with new ideas and technologies, and to develop the products and services that will shape this exciting new market.

Tom Fiddian (@tomfiddian) is Lead Technologist for Design in the Digital Economy at the Technology Strategy Board. You can find out more information about Location-based Services and other forthcoming Competitions here.

Local meaning

by Marek Pawlowski, Founder, MEX

The dip in the church wall

There is an old church set on a little rise above the water meadows, a mile inland from where the grey North Sea rolls against the shingle beach. Grave stones tilted by age lean at angles in the lawns of the churchyard. Away towards the eastern corner of the boundary wall, almost hidden beneath the spreading bows of a cherry tree, there is a place where the stone capping of the wall has been worn away into a dip, the surface smooth in contrast to the rough mortar and brick around it.

If you peer through this dip today, you might be greeted by the sheep which graze in the water meadow below, or a walker resting their back against the wall as they eat their lunch. It is a peaceful place, sheltered from the winds of the North Sea coast, and beautiful in the eyes of many who visit.

You can find it easily on a map as ‘Wiveton’, in the county of Norfolk. Indeed, today anyone with access to the web can find it, see what it looks like from a satellite orbiting above the Earth and even take a virtual walk along the road which runs beside the church. Without leaving the comfort of our chairs we can ascertain many things about places like Wiveton: coordinates, the volume of traffic which passes by, house prices or how long it might take us to get there from somewhere else.

However, what we remain unable to do despite digital progress is peer through that dip in the wall and understand why it is there and what it tells us about Wiveton as a place. Hundreds of years ago, when the stone of the church was young, before the sea and human endeavour reshaped the coast, a visitor looking over that wall would have seen boats bobbing in a wide tidal estuary. These ships would throw their thick mooring ropes over the wall of the church and, over generations, those ropes have worn the wall away and left the dip we see today.

The ships are long gone now and grass grows beneath the wall where once the tide ebbed, but a footprint of memory has been left. It is one of those intangible types of information which helps understand the human relationship with place, a nuance largely absent from location aware digital services.

Indeed, when we design for location, it is more helpful to think of it not as a specific place, but rather a set of relationships with a place:

  • Memories
  • Ownership
  • Function
  • Social role

By understanding these relationships we are better able to create digital experiences which fire users’ imaginations. This contrasts with the existing, technology-led approach to location aware product development, which has tended to result in services orientated primarily around a single, somewhat simplistic dimension of proximity.

Once we start to think about other dimensions of users’ relationship with location, we can move beyond apps which stop at questions like ‘what’s nearest?’ and instead allow us to consider nuances like ‘what does it mean to me?’, ‘how has it changed?’ or ‘how does it compare to things I like in other places?’.

Questions to consider

  1. How can experiences respond to users’ relationship with the concept of place rather than simply their geographical co-ordinates?
  2. How can we facilitate the discovery of physical resources based on location, from ATMs to cycle hire, and the emerging virtual layer of ambient data, such as air quality and traffic?
  3. Which interaction mechanisms are most effective for displaying such physical resources and virtual layers, e.g. visualisations, augmented reality and haptics?
  4. Are there elements of the user experience which should be ring-fenced from being location aware?
  5. Should location awareness be considered across users’ collections of digital touchpoints rather than being specific to a single device?
  6. How can location awareness become a two-way conversation which allows users to contribute their own data?

Join the discussion by posting a comment below.


Add yours
  1. 2
    Marek Pawlowski

    There’s a thread going in the MEX LinkedIn group with some discussion of this theme:

    Some highlights: James Taplin of Forum for the Future pointing to the way Strava identifies the location of pain points during workouts, an IKEA app to track the way users feel at different points in stores and referencing Jason DaPonte’s MEX talk about audience emotions in concert venues.

    Also, Ben Scott-Robinson was in touch to talk about a project trying to map ‘niceness’ of places for hikers – a wonderfully British notion of user experience design 🙂

  2. 4
    Doug Reeder

    I’m refining a note-taking app that allows notes to be tagged (and later found) by location: http: You can try it on-line at

    The blurb is: Have you taken notes on an important topic, and forgotten where you put them? Do you struggle to remember what was discussed at the meetup in February or the staff meeting last Tuesday? Did you have a good meal on High Street, but forget the restaurant’s name? Did you learn something at the conference in Amsterdam that’s only relevant now? Serene Notes can help! Just search for any words in your note, or where you wrote it, then skim the list by date.

    Currently, notes are tagged by the business or site name, street, neighborhood, city, county and state (reverse geocoding uses OpenStreetMap). I’d appreciate your comments on whether an ordinary user will be able to find his/her notes. It’s not clear that the geotags include the words a user would think of. For example, if you take a note at your friend John’s house, it will have his street, but not his name.

  3. 5
    Marek Pawlowski

    Interesting app Doug. Have you used ‘Moves’, recently bought by Facebook? It has a good implementation of this reverse geo-coding, where it makes a best guess about the name of a location, but also provides the user with the ability to change that name to something meaningful to them as an individual, e.g. instead of ‘Joe’s Ice Cream Shop’, I could easily change it to ‘Great Ice Cream Shop On My Favourite Bike Route’. It also has the simple, but satisfying, option of assigning your own icon to locations you edit, to help with visual memory. Take a look at the app – might give you some inspiration for how you could help the tracked locations in Serene Notes reflect your users’ relationship with places rather than just their geographic names.

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