Tags: physical



Tuesday, January 24th, 2023

In between

I was chatting with my new colleague Alex yesterday about a link she had shared in Slack. It was the Nielsen Norman Group’s annual State of Mobile User Experience report.

There’s nothing too surprising in there, other than the mention of Apple’s app clips and Google’s instant apps.

Remember those?

Me neither.

Perhaps I lead a sheltered existence, but as an iPhone user, I don’t think I’ve come across a single app clip in the wild.

I remember when they were announced. I was quite worried about them.

See, the one thing that the web can (theoretically) offer that native can’t is instant access to a resource. Go to this URL—that’s it. Whereas for a native app, the flow is: go to this app store, find the app, download the app.

(I say that the benefit is theoretical because the website found at the URL should download quickly—the reality is that the bloat of “modern” web development imperils that advantage.)

App clips—and instant apps—looked like a way to route around the convoluted install process of native apps. That’s why I was nervous when they were announced. They sounded like a threat to the web.

In reality, the potential was never fulfilled (if my own experience is anything to go by). I wonder why people didn’t jump on app clips and instant apps?

Perhaps it’s because what they promise isn’t desirable from a business perspective: “here’s a way for users to accomplish their tasks without downloading your app.” Even though app clips can in theory be a stepping stone to installing the full app, from a user’s perspective, their appeal is the exact opposite.

Or maybe they’re just too confusing to understand. I think there’s an another technology that suffers from the same problem: progressive web apps.

Hear me out. Progressive web apps are—if done well—absolutely amazing. You get all of the benefits of native apps in terms of UX—they even work offline!—but you retain the web’s frictionless access model: go to a URL; that’s it.

So what are they? Are they websites? Yes, sorta. Are they apps? Yes, sorta.

That’s confusing, right? I can see how app clips and instant apps sound equally confusing: “you can use them straight away, like going to a web page, but they’re not web pages; they’re little bits of apps.”

I’m mostly glad that app clips never took off. But I’m sad that progressive web apps haven’t taken off more. I suspect that their fates are intertwined. Neither suffer from technical limitations. The problem they both face is inertia:

The technologies are the easy bit. Getting people to re-evaluate their opinions about technologies? That’s the hard part.

True of progressive web apps. Equally true of app clips.

But when I was chatting to Alex, she made me look at app clips in a different way. She described a situation where somebody might need to interact with some kind of NFC beacon from their phone. Web NFC isn’t supported in many browsers yet, so you can’t rely on that. But you don’t want to make people download a native app just to have a quick interaction. In theory, an app clip—or instant app—could do the job.

In that situation, app clips aren’t a danger to the web—they’re polyfills for hardware APIs that the web doesn’t yet support!

I love having my perspective shifted like that.

The specific situations that Alex and I were discussing were in the context of museums. Musuems offer such interesting opportunities for the physical and the digital to intersect.

Remember the pen from Cooper Hewitt? Aaron spoke about it at dConstruct 2014—a terrific presentation that’s well worth revisiting and absorbing.

The other dConstruct talk that’s very relevant to this liminal space between the web and native apps is the 2012 talk from Scott Jenson. I always thought the physical web initiative had a lot of promise, but it may have been ahead of its time.

I loved the thinking behind the physical web beacons. They were deliberately dumb, much like the internet itself. All they did was broadcast a URL. That’s it. All the smarts were to be found at the URL itself. That meant a service could get smarter over time. It’s a lot easier to update a website than swap out a piece of hardware.

But any kind of technology that uses Bluetooth, NFC, or other wireless technology has to get over the discovery problem. They’re invisible technologies, so by default, people don’t know they’re even there. But if you make them too discoverable— intrusively announcing themselves like one of the commercials in Minority Report—then they’re indistinguishable from spam. There’s a sweet spot of discoverability right in the middle that’s hard to get right.

Over the past couple of years—accelerated by the physical distancing necessitated by The Situation—QR codes stepped up to the plate.

They still suffer from some discoverability issues. They’re not human-readable, so you can’t be entirely sure that the URL you’re going to go to isn’t going to be a Rick Astley video. But they are visible, which gives them an advantage over hidden wireless technologies.

They’re cheaper too. Printing a QR code sticker costs less than getting a plastic beacon shipped from China.

QR codes turned out to be just good enough to bridge the gap between the physical and digital for those one-off interactions like dining outdoors during a pandemic:

I can see why they chose the web over a native app. Online ordering is the only way to place your order at this place. Telling people “You have to go to this website” …that seems reasonable. But telling people “You have to download this app” …that’s too much friction.

Ironically, the nail in the coffin for app clips and instant apps might’ve been hammered in by Apple and Google when they built QR-code recognition into their camera software.

Sunday, October 18th, 2020

List of Physical Visualizations

A timeline showing the history of non-digital dataviz.

Wednesday, December 20th, 2017


An interesting Xerox-PARC-like project dedicated to making a programmable platform out of paper and other physical objects.

A humane dynamic medium embraces the countless ways in which human beings use their minds and bodies, instead of cramming people into a tiny box of pixels.

Monday, October 9th, 2017

FriendChip Beacons - With support of Eddystone and Physical Web

I quite like the idea of broadcasting my URL from a friendchip bracelet.

Monday, September 11th, 2017

Betting on the Web

Along the lines of John’s recent post, Henrik makes the business case for progressive web apps.

He also points out how they can be much better than native apps for controlling hardware.

They can be up and running in a fraction of the time whether or not they were already “installed” and unlike “apps” can be saved as an app on the device at the user’s discretion!

Essentially they’re really great for creating “ad hoc” experiences that can be “cold started” on a whim nearly as fast as if it were already installed.

Monday, September 19th, 2016

Physical Web Beacons - Snook.ca

Jonathan takes a look at the physical web. Like me, he’s excited by the possibilities. Although he says:

Sadly, my mind quickly devolved into the annoyance of numerous notifications, like popup windows and other distracting adverts, vying for my attention.

This is a common worry with the physical web, but it’s unfounded. All a beacon does is broadcast a URL. You have to actively look for the URLs being broadcast—they can’t send notifications.

It all just feels like QR codes. They’ll be all over the place and most of them won’t be very useful.

I understand this concern, but whereas QR codes are completely opaque to humans, at least URLs can—and should—be human-readable …so, unlike QR codes, a URL can give you some idea of what awaits.

Tuesday, September 13th, 2016

Thursday, July 21st, 2016

Exploring the Physical Web (Without Buying Beacons) — Medium

Well, this is interesting! It turns out you can turn your laptop into a beacon for broadcasting a URL to devices that support The Physical Web.

Wednesday, June 22nd, 2016

City Objects

A catalogue of objects and observations from cities around the world.

Thursday, October 2nd, 2014

Physical Web by google

This is what Scott Jenson has been working on—a first stab at just-in-time interactions by having physical devices broadcasting URLs.

Walk up and use anything

Saturday, April 12th, 2014

Designing in the Borderlands by Frank Chimero

This is a wonderful piece of writing and thinking from Frank. A wonderful piece of design, then.

A personal view on generalists and trans-media design

Monday, May 13th, 2013

On Thingpunk

Perhaps we are fetishising physical things because our digital creations are social media junk food:

It’s easy to fetishize Brutalist buildings when you don’t have to live in them. On the other hand, when the same Brutalist style is translated into the digital spaces we daily inhabit, it becomes a source of endless whinging. Facebook, for example, is Brutalist social media. It reproduces much the same relationship with its users as the Riis Houses and their ilk do with their residents: focusing on control and integration into the high-level planning scheme rather than individual life and the “ballet of a good blog comment thread”, to paraphrase Jane Jacobs.

Friday, March 15th, 2013