Best Practices: How to Create Smart Spaces for Consumer Engagement

Five Ways Brands Can Design Interactive Smart Spaces

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The buzz about the internet of things often overlooks a key fact -- physical places are "things." Buildings are things. Rooms are things. If these spaces were made to be smart, it could redefine what branded environments are.

Microsoft 'Cube' creates an interactive dancing experience for users.
Microsoft 'Cube' creates an interactive dancing experience for users. Credit: Stimulant

With technology becoming more and more integrated into our everyday lives, the opportunities that interactive environments provide are limitless. Interactive or "smart" spaces allow brands to use various venues -- from airport terminals to museums, retail stores and more -- and utilize technology to create dynamic environments. Reaching people physically where they live, work or play can connect people to your brand in ways that are often impossible online or on smartphones. And, these often-surprising digital experiences in the real world can provide a greater emotional connection with consumers.

Creating smart spaces is an emerging field. However, there are some key principles that every brand marketer should know about designing smart spaces and what they can do for your brand and its consumers.

1. Design for different levels of engagement. When designing within a public space, consider that people have various attention spans. Everyone is in a different state of mind when they're outside the house, and it's impossible to predict or plan for any of them. If success comes only at the end of a 30-second interaction, your chances for success are slim. Shape experiences to deliver value at any level of engagement -- a casual glance, dipping a toe in the water or a thoughtful interaction. Interactive design studio Daily Tous Les Jours activated a disused strip of urban space to create a musical swingset for the city of Montreal. Swinging alone created a few musical tones, but swinging in unison with others created melodies and songs. Emergent behavior was revealed when users would engage with one another, creating bigger payoffs and richer stories to tell about the experience.

2. The barrier to interactivity should be set at ground level. If people have trouble determining if your space is interactive, or how to interact with it, they'll likely pass by rather than risk looking silly in public. Every interaction that a person has with your space should be successful, even if it's not the exact action that you would prefer. Microsoft designed a gesturally-interactive cube, and Stimulant created software to turn this cube into a collaborative dancing experience at the Decibel Music Festival in Seattle. Users had to do just one thing: dance to the music in the venue. The cube connected people through reactive, real-time visuals, starting conversations and creating authentic engagement with the brand.

3. Aim to mesmerize, not monetize. The most valuable thing people will give you in public space is their attention. Reward that with a more-than-equal exchange of value. Measure smiles and positive reactions, not conversions. That builds a strong brand. At the Cannes Lions Festival, design agency Hush created an immersive visual experience for Twitter around the World Cup, which was happening at the time. Hush used stunning design and football motifs to create a darkly futuristic jawdropper of an experience to appeal to an audience of brand marketers at Cannes.

4. Turn the environment into your canvas. Think outside the screen. Certain technologies can bring physical objects to life with playful simplicity. Larger arrays of kinetic objects create artful sculpture and powerful brand messages. Assume that anything can be an input or an output. Try crossing the wires to see what results you can get to attract attention. M Crown Productions took the form factor of a retail window and made a kinetic sculpture for Lacoste that was cheeky and celebrated the preppy nature of the brand.

5. Use familiar technology in unfamiliar ways. Traditional digital signage screens with a 16:9 format can feel like TVs at home, and non-interactive screens frustrate users who believe that everything that looks like a monitor should respond to touch. To win over even the most jaded audiences, play with non-standard form factors for displays, reward touches with delightful responses and use familiar technologies in unfamiliar ways. Australian media company Civic took one of the key visceral aspects of the TV series "Game of Thrones" -- swordplay -- and used it as an input method to create an amazing and poetic brand experience that connected fans with the show in a visceral, impactful way at Comic-Con.

Science fiction writer Arthur Clarke posited that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." In essence, smart spaces are a form of magic, but their real power comes from turning the users of the space into the magicians. Give users the wand and let them pull the rabbit out of the hat. This will help brands create deeper connections and authentic engagement with consumers.