Designing the ‘Things’ in the IoT

Designing the ‘Things’ in the IoT

As part of our exploration of adoption and acceptability, we interviewed two leading IoT consultants, Claire Rowland and Mike Karliner on the process of designing things in the IoT.

You’ve had a great idea for a new IoT product. So, what’s next? How do you go from concept to reality?

We spoke with two experts in the field to understand the process and challenges. Claire Rowland is an independent user experience (UX) and product consultant focused on the IoT, and lead author of the O’Reilly book Designing Connected Products: UX design for the consumer internet of things. Mike Karliner has advised many young technology businesses over the years. He is the co-founder of ThingStudio, a platform for building and delivering user interfaces (UIs) for the IoT and connected devices, and technology mentor in residence at London-based accelerator programme TrueStart.

Both agreed that the very first step – before you even start to thing about designing the product – is to reconsider and thoroughly research your addressable market. Karliner says, “You may think it’s a good idea but you’ve got to be absolutely ruthless in proving that other people think it’s a good idea and would pay for it.” Rowland agrees, “If you haven’t got a solid value proposition and business model behind your product, you’re not going to be able to do a good job in the design. It is not going to be clear who the product is for and why they might want it.”

The key takeaway is not to create a product you think others will want, but to develop something that provides a credible solution to a real need.

Once you’ve nailed the product strategy, it’s time to get down to the product design, and that is where things get tricky. IoT products are complex with multiple devices combining hardware and software, as well as multiple users and UIs. The UIs encompass web and mobile apps as well as interfaces on the device itself, which are increasingly moving beyond screens and buttons to more advanced audio, visual and haptic communications.

The design must therefore span functions and skillsets that have until now never needed to meet: mechanical engineering, environmental engineering, electronics, industrial design, software development, web design… The list goes on. Karliner says, “Design in the IoT is hard, because there is a much larger and more cross-disciplinary stack of ‘things’ to work with. People don’t tend to have many cross-disciplinary skills these days, so there’s a gulf of understanding and no integrated design processes.”

The design must ensure that all the components work well together and deliver, not just the benefits the product promises, but also a great UX. Rowland explains, “Creating a well-designed product is about getting the entire experience right. It’s not just about putting UIs on ‘things’ or hiring someone to make an app to work with the ‘thing’ you’ve already made. It’s about figuring out how users experience interactions around the whole system.” The product must be easy to understand, as well as simple and intuitive to set up and use across all the different parts.

The user must also be aware of any limitations the product might have, for example delays in responsiveness due to intermittent connectivity or latency issues. Rowland uses the example of a home thermostat: if the user doesn’t appreciate that the new temperature they have set on their smartphone may not instantly register on the thermostat, they may be frustrated and, potentially, a dissatisfied customer.

A great example of a good idea gone wrong lies with a colleague’s grandmother, an Alzheimer’s patient whose GP was concerned she wasn’t drinking enough fluids. The GP recommended a device that would track Gran at home and give her a verbal alert every time she moved by to remind her to have a drink. The family bought a product they thought would help keep her healthy and give them peace of mind. Gran resented “being told what to do”, and found the device so irritating and intrusive that she threw it out of the window within a couple of weeks!

Even if it hadn’t delivered such a poor UX, the device could still be deemed to have failed in its core purpose, because it had no means of measuring and monitoring how much liquid the patient was actually taking in.

UX is critical and plays into other design considerations that must be taken into account, such as where the different functionality of the product resides. Karliner also uses the example of a thermostat to explain the challenge. The basic product is pretty straightforward: a temperature sensor, some electronics and a WiFi connection. But it needs a human interface so it can be controlled. The UI can be baked into the hardware, but that would be a relatively expensive and clunky piece of kit. Or it can be delivered via a smartphone app with the additional benefit of flexibility to upgrade the system over time, but if the internet connection goes down the device could be rendered largely useless.

Technical considerations such as battery life or the connectivity type also drive design, and may in fact mean the product cannot be built to fulfil its function. Rowland highlights the potential trade-offs with the example of a pet tracker, which needs to have enough battery power to be able to broadcast the pet’s location frequently enough so it can be found when lost. A large battery could support this but would be uncomfortable for a small pet such as a cat to wear. A smaller battery might run out before the animal is found and would require frequent charging, which would be inconvenient for both the pet and its owner.

The physical context must also be taken into account. For example an in-car system needs to have minimal distraction for the driver, while a street sensor needs to blend in with its environment as well as use appropriate materials so it is robust enough for outdoor use.

The moral of the story is that a good idea and a whizzy new product are not enough for the IoT. Products need serious, in-depth consideration from the initial concept right through to the final design. Even if your product is well designed and delivers a real solution with great UX, if it doesn’t deliver a solid ROI within a reasonable timeframe, both for you and your customers, you may not see any fruits from your labours.

If you want to know more about designing things in the IoT, you can follow Claire Rowland on Twitter here, and Mike Karliner here.

We’re always Tweeting on @IoTUKNews.

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IoTUK Staff
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