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GeolocationIf you ever saw the science fiction flick “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension,” you may recall the line: “No matter where you go, there you are.”

To tweak that somewhat: Wherever your customers and their mobile devices go, there they are. And wherever that is, you have an opportunity to deepen your relationship with them. 

In a recent blog, I wrote about augmented reality — a technology underlying the popular game Pokémon Go – and the power of augmented reality to help businesses outside the gaming and entertainment industry improve customer experience and brand loyalty.

There’s another technology used by Pokémon Go that merits attention: geolocation. Like augmented reality, geolocation carries great promise for businesses that seek to improve customer experience – no matter where the customers go. 

This blog discusses geolocation technologies, how they can improve the customer experience, how to select these technologies, and what limitations they present.

Latitude, longitude, altitude (or floor), and heading

Geolocation technologies such as GPS present information about the user’s latitude, longitude, altitude (or floor), and heading. While these data points are important indicators of customer behavior, they aren’t enough to enable you to engage the customer. 

If you have a customer’s current latitude and longitude and you want to guide her to the nearest Starbucks, for example, you’ll need contextual information in order to solve the problem. What is the location of the nearest Starbucks? What mode of transportation is the customer using (e.g., bicycle, bus)? And what is the optimal route to the store, given the mode of transportation?

Items of context might also include points of interest near or around the user, other modes of transportation, parks, roads, geographic features such as bodies of water, and impassable areas. Contextual items might even include past or future events associated with a location; for example, information to the effect that at 12 p.m. today, a men’s clothing sale will commence at the user’s current location.

One of the beautiful things about mobile apps is that they can change their behavior in response to changes in context and location. When the Pokémon Go app determines that the user is near a body of water, the app changes its behavior accordingly; it ensures that all the Pokémon characters that the user now has the opportunity to catch are water-related characters. For a retailer’s app, the user’s context should change the information displayed when the app starts. If the user is in Florida, close to water, the app shouldn’t show snow shovels. Instead, it should show beach-wear and other things your customer might want in Florida.

Although this capability clearly opens up a world of opportunities to engage the customer, it can also create headaches. With that in mind, one recommendation I often make to businesses is: Don’t make users provide you with information about where they are. Asking users to provide information that the smartphone – and your app – already knows will greatly reduce the likelihood that they will engage with you.

That said, in the event the user has blocked his or her location, you’ll need to set up an alternative way to get the information. When looking for a Starbucks, for example, the user should be able to open the app, enter a ZIP code and, based on that, obtain the location of the nearest Starbucks.

Other limitations presented by location technologies are discussed later in the blog. First, a little more about the value of these technologies.

Customizing the app for location

Customizing your app’s behavior based on the user’s location will enable you to improve customer experience in a wide range of situations. For example, you can design your app to behave differently if the user is in your store. It’s worth keeping in mind that when a user opens the app while in your store, this may indicate that the person is having trouble finding a particular product or aisle. This presents a great opportunity to engage the customer and improve his or her experience.

You can also customize your app’s behavior based on the customer’s being in a 
competitor’s store (and using your application). In such cases, you might let the customer know that your store is currently offering a special price on particular products that the competitor carries. 

While the locations of your stores and competing stores are key items of context, other locations may be of contextual interest as well. If you sell pet supplies, for example, you may want to change your app’s behavior when a customer uses the app at a local dog park. 

You can combine location and context with additional information; for example, details about the customer’s app usage and other aspects of customer behavior. The pet store may want to combine location and context with information about the speed with which the user is moving. A slow pace might suggest that the user is walking a dog, presenting an opportunity to offer leashes, collars, and other relevant products at a propitious time. A restaurant might offer different specials in the morning than in the evening. Or it may customize the app to do something differently if the user has opened the app for a fifth time in one day and is in a specific location.

Regardless, it’s critical that you respect customers’ privacy. Many customers react negatively to apps that follow them everywhere, even when the apps aren’t in use. 

Technologies

Mobile apps can draw on a wide range of technologies to obtain location information. These include GPS systems, cellular signals, and passive and active WiFi tracking systems.  

Active WiFi tracking is typically faster to get a fix than passive, as the WiFi access points actively triangulate the phone’s position within their coverage area. Passive WiFi requires the phone to listen for ambient WiFi signals and uses the pattern of signals to calculate its position. (For more about and passive WiFi, please check out the recent blog I wrote regarding the indoor positioning system that CapTech helped devise for a subway station in a major US city. 

Another location technology, near field communication (NFC), provides highly precise location information as well, but only at short range and only on Android phones.

The same motion detection devices that track your workout or let you use your phone as a tilt-able game controller also play an important role in geolocation. These are particularly helpful for apps that rely on GPS. A problem with GPS is that it offers a fix on the user’s location only once every 30 seconds. If the user is in a car, more frequent updates may be needed. Motion sensors help by interpolating the user’s movements between GPS fixes.

In addition to providing location information, most of the technologies I’ve mentioned here support “geofencing,” or creating virtual boundaries around specific geographic areas such as retail stores. As users cross the virtual fence and enter a store, for example, their mobile devices may download a localized offer from the store. When the user opens the app, the offer will be primed to go.

Choosing a location technology

A number of factors will influence your choice of a location technology. These include:

• Costs of implementing and maintaining the technology. These can vary widely. If you augment the location technology available in iOS or Android by adding your own WiFi system or installing beacons, you’ll face both installation and maintenance costs. When the batteries in the beacons die, they’ll need to be replaced. Installing a WiFi system capable of location tracking can be even costlier.

• Required precision. If you want an endless aisle application, which responds with great precision to the context of the user, you won’t be able to rely on cellular signals, GPS or active WiFi. You’ll need to invest in beacons or other technologies that provide greater precision. Endless aisle applications are frequently used to allow smaller retail stores to provide customers with in-store information about merchandise that isn’t in stock but can be obtained quickly from a warehouse. 

• User privacy. Active WiFi harvests the user’s location, whether or not the app is on or off. That can present privacy issues. Keeping privacy considerations in mind before you implement a technology will help you avoid alienating customers, the very people you hope to engage.

Limitations of location technologies

While location technologies clearly can help businesses gain tremendous advantages, these technologies do have limitations. To quote another “Buckaroo Banzai” line: “Nothing is ever what it seems, but everything is exactly what it is.” GPS may seem all-powerful, for example, but it won’t work indoors. 

Other important limitations of location technologies:

• Accuracy. Many technologies are far less accurate than vendors would like you to believe. Before you select a particular technology, ask to verify the results at an actual implementation in a real-world environment, or prototype the solution in your own environment. You probably won’t see the level of accuracy the vendor has touted.

• Battery usage. If you want your app to do long-term tracking and provide continual updates of the user’s location, that will impose a significant drain on the user’s battery. 

• Time to fix. It can take GPS up to two minutes to get an accurate fix on a user’s location. Other technologies can get a fix within seconds. Be aware that when the user starts the app, they may not immediately have an accurate position.

• Location-blocking. As mentioned earlier, you’ll need to establish an alternative way to engage users who block their location information; for example, allowing them to enter a ZIP code when they are looking for your store.

• Spoofing. As the developers of Pokémon Go can attest, the location of a mobile device can easily be spoofed. For some businesses this may not be important; for others it may be critical. For example, a US-based bank that allows only US-based customers to transfer funds via mobile device could face serious troubles if foreign users spoofed US locations. 

As Buckaroo Banzai might say, “Wherever your users and their mobile devices go, that’s where they are.” And your business needs to be able to respond accordingly. Knowing the user’s location and having relevant contextual information can help you understand and engage the customer while improving his or her experience. Selecting the right technologies and understanding their limitations can help ensure that you provide the right experience at the right time and place, whenever and wherever that may be.

About the Author

Jack CoxJack Cox has over a decade of experience helping Fortune 500 clients build mobile strategy through technology, security and cryptography. He is a software developer, systems architect, and a Fellow at CapTech where he is responsible for the firm’s mobile software practice. Jack’s love of software development and all things mobile has driven a career developing software for businesses of all sizes including large-scale transaction processing systems, embedded software, and smart-phone software. Jack co-authored the book ‘Professional iOS Network Programming’ (Wiley). He has been involved in several startups, holds multiple patents and frequently speaks nationally. Jack is based in CapTech’s Richmond, Virginia office and helps clients both locally and across the US.