Where Are You Now? Design for the Location Revolution

Beautiful Information

Discovering patterns in knowledge spaces

A column by Jonathan Follett
October 22, 2007

Of all the digital information delivery systems people use, mobile devices offer the greatest opportunity for satisfying people’s wants and needs by providing context-specific, time-sensitive interactive experiences. But, in order to truly take advantage of this potential, experience designers need to transition from designing for a single, static space—the desktop—to imagining the broad possibilities of the geospatial Web. For digital products and services, the next dimension of user experience we should consider during design is location.

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Changing Our Perspective on Mobile Design

There’s no doubt that the mobile experience has the potential to be far more than just the desktop Web reformatted for a tiny screen and accessible on the go. But looking at many of the products that major wireless carriers in the United States are touting, you wouldn’t think so.

Much of the mobile industry is focusing on porting already existing digital content and services to the mobile environment, with a heavy emphasis on entertainment—for example, accessing Fantasy Football stats or viewing abbreviated video clips of network television’s latest and greatest shows. While it might be fun and convenient to check your favorite player’s stats while waiting in line or during a particularly boring business meeting, the experience is, at best, a pleasant distraction. There’s nothing wrong with these products—people will always enjoy entertaining content—but they do not take advantage of the power of the mobile Web as a medium.

The true power of the mobile Web lies not merely in providing remote access to data, but in letting users view contextual information relating to location and interact with that information. The mobile Web is poised to become the delivery mechanism for a new generation of location-aware applications.

Envisioning a User-Centered Virtual Geography

In a May 2005 article, “The Geospatial Web: A Call to Action,” Mike Liebhold, author and researcher at Institute for the Future, explains:

“...we can see the beginning shapes of a true geospatial Web, inhabited by spatially tagged hypermedia as well as digital map geodata. Google Maps is just one more layer among all the invisible cartographic attributes and user annotations on every centimeter of a place and attached to every physical thing, visible and useful, in context, on low-cost, easy-to-use mobile devices.”

When it comes to mobile user experience, location data is becoming the unique connector between the digital world and the physical one. Unchained from the desktop user experience, users can freely interact with their own and others’ virtual data in real spaces.

Where Are You Now?

For users, the most important location is where they are now—making the dimension of location perhaps the most important design element to consider when creating new mobile user experiences. Location-based services have been percolating for years, but as Global Positioning System (GPS) devices, Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags, and other geospatial technologies become cheaper and more readily available, such services are working their way toward mainstream adoption. Location data has two intrinsic dimensions: absolute location and relative location.

Absolute Location

Identifying a user’s or an object’s absolute location—the physical presence of a person or object—is a key capability of location-based mobile services. It follows, then, that the most popular and advanced consumer-oriented, location-based services are mapping systems. Personal navigation systems for drivers—for example, TomTom—provide interactive maps and turn-by-turn audio directions for users to follow. Verizon Wireless offers a similar service, the VZ Navigator, which is available to drivers via their mobile phones. Similarly, many tracking services use absolute location data to monitor packages in transit or find stolen or missing possessions—like cars, laptops, and even pets.

However, products can use this type of location data for more than just navigation and tracking. Mobile product innovator Apple showed in its Calamari iPhone ad how a person hungry for calamari can easily find a nearby seafood restaurant, demonstrating that contextual data delivery based on absolute location provides a compellingly simple and desirable user experience. For the iPhone user, the difference between this experience and, say, looking up the restaurant via a wired connection in a hotel room is immediacy, spontaneity, and specificity—all of which increase the value of the interaction.

Relative Location

Another useful dimension of location data is relative location—the relationship in physical space between two or more people, places, or objects. Relative location data makes possible the first wave of mobile social networking applications—dodgeball, Loopt, and even the location plug-in for AOL Instant Messenger (AIM)—which inform users when friends or colleagues are in their vicinity. The value of this kind of communication is immediately apparent. I enjoy keeping up with friends and colleagues using LinkedIn or Facebook, but often wish I could have more personal interactions with people in my network rather than just relating in digital space.

Of course, such social networking services can very quickly come up against the question of privacy. Clearly, social networking applications must let users control their online presence information and thus prevent other users from locating them, if they want to remain out of contact. But the problem remains that no controls or settings can guarantee users’ anonymity once they start using such applications. Will location-based services make real privacy even more elusive? The answer is probably yes. But these examples represent only the beginnings of location-based services.

Location Data As a Design Element

Soon, UX designers must grapple with the problem of integrating location information into applications and bridge the physical and digital worlds.


Location can serve as a powerful filter for data—either delivering specific information or removing unnecessary options depending on location. Some enterprise-level business applications already take advantage of location-based contextual data. For instance, UPS drivers can access data relating to a specific delivery address, so if a condominium association requires a pass code for a security gate, that code can appear alongside other information when a driver views the next address for a package delivery. Similarly, SAP has developed a context-aware sales order-entry system that streamlines a customer’s selection of products based on location. I can imagine a construction company using site location as a filter for their collaboration software. When a project manager arrived at a job, the correct blueprints would already be queued up on his PDA.


Even more powerfully, we can tag content using location data. In the article “A Design Approach for the Geospatial Web,” Julian Bleecker, head of the Mobile Media Lab at the University of Southern California, shares this vision:

“By tagging content and data with geographic metadata—effectively giving content a location in the real world—it is possible to imagine new metaphors to describe experiences in geographic space. We’ll stumble across lost pet notices on our way to work; freeway exit ramps will have indicators for a quicker route to the beach on city streets during a busy weekend; standing in front of a local theater will enable you to find movie reviews left by previous patrons. It’s incredibly exciting to think of the possibilities. Perhaps our metaphors for managing content will change as the geospatial Web grows in consequence. It may be that someday in the near future, we’ll be talking about leaving our files, rather than saving them.”


Consumers are already anticipating such user experiences. A recent television advertisement for Lowe’s, a chain of stores that markets home improvement products, features a man who, while shopping for an appliance, converses on his mobile phone with family members who are strategically located at competing retailers, while a Lowe’s salesperson patiently waits. The man’s question to his family: “How much does it cost there?” He is comparing pricing data in real time. While the point of the ad is that Lowe’s has the best price, the challenge, from a user experience perspective, is to figure out a way to provide the same data, without requiring family members to drive to different locations. Of course, Lowe’s might not like actually having their washing machines geotagged with competitors’ pricing information.

The power of online shopping, arguably, is customers’ ability to do product research and compare pricing at a variety of retailers. Conversely, with the bricks-and-mortar experience, customers benefit from actually being able to touch products, look them over closely, and assess their quality and craftsmanship. The mobile experience has the potential to enable customers to bridge the online and offline worlds—allowing them to access pricing, reviews, and other valuable data while in a physical store examining a product.

The mobile space is still the Wild West of interactive applications. A host of competing platforms, nascent standards, and carrier restrictions make the medium a challenging one for designers to work in. Balancing technical requirements with imaginative design possibilities is no easy task. But the potential and the need for location-aware services is seemingly boundless. 

Principal at GoInvo

Boston, Massachusetts, USA

Jonathan FollettAt GoInvo, a healthcare design and innovation firm, Jon leads the company’s emerging technologies practice, working with clients such as Partners HealthCare, the Personal Genome Project, and Walgreens. Articles in The Atlantic, Forbes, The Huffington Post, and WIRED have featured his work. Jon has written or contributed to half a dozen non-fiction books on design, technology, and popular culture. He was the editor for O’Reilly Media’s Designing for Emerging Technologies, which came out in 2014. One of the first UX books of its kind, the work offers a glimpse into what future interactions and user experiences may be for rapidly developing technologies such as genomics, nano printers, or workforce robotics. Jon’s articles on UX and information design have been translated into Russian, Chinese, Spanish, Polish, and Portuguese. Jon has also coauthored a series of alt-culture books on UFOs and millennial madness and coauthored a science-fiction novel for young readers with New York Times bestselling author Matthew Holm, Marvin and the Moths, which Scholastic published in 2016. Jon holds a Bachelor’s degree in Advertising, with an English Minor, from Boston University.  Read More

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