The Internet of Things – Designing a Product or an Experience?

Too many companies focus on designing an IoT product rather than designing an IoT user experience. These three design principles may help set you straight.

Many companies that are redesigning their existing products or introducing new products and services to take advantage of the Internet of Things fail to see beyond the complexity of the systems they need to design and maintain. This is particularly the case when the business is a product-based manufacturing company with little of no experience in adding software and services to their offerings. Many are confounded by how, when and where to apply sensors, software and data in ways that drive actual value for themselves and their customers. Even when they have experience designing-in sensors in an M2M (siloed) application, the technological advancement to step up to an IoT solution, with user services and apps, can be overwhelming. Hastily crafted digital strategies usually revolve around a single tactic (designing a mobile app, or building a connected product) which leaves the user experience wanting.

In a similar way to successful digital business transformation, the secret to success is far less about the technology than about design: build successes by designing user experiences, especially when it comes to the IoT user experience, not by being infatuated by any single technology or channel, but rather by considering the new role of design and user experience.

The following are three design principles derived from research into IoT deployments that apply not only to products and services, but to the broader user experience strategy.

User centricity is the heart of IoT UX

Everything starts and finishes with the user, especially as users have to deal with more devices, software applications and data. Every touch point must be considered: a screen; a flashing LED; a button; a camera; even a movement sensor. Companies must design with meticulous attention, or else risk overwhelming or annoying customers, or driving the user to abandon the product, perhaps to change allegiance to a competing product with less functionality but one that works as expected (by the user). In an age when customers expect personalized and (near) real-time service, designers at every level simply must account for more contexts.

The good news is designing for an environmental context helps inform optimal design decisions. Who and where a user is located when using a product or service offers useful cues for feature, form and interaction development. For example, the user may be driving a car during their commute, or in a noisy underground train, or just like time of day, season, holiday, news, social, health, safety or other variable, when sometimes sensitive dynamics impact the nature of the brand interaction.

Connected in-home products must, for example, prioritize data privacy controls, defaults, sharing, and child- and guest-safety given their inherent context. For obvious safety reasons, an auto manufacturer should deprioritize applications involving a mobile app while someone is driving, but not for their passengers. Wearable alerts sent while users are not moving may serve different needs than those delivered while walking or running, which are different again to when they are riding a bike, or even sitting in another mode of transport. Keeping the user’s context central to the design process also forces companies to deprioritize technology for technology’s sake. And rather than building a siloed device, as is todays wont when implementing techology-driven products, they should (start to) consider where leveraging partners and collaborators could extend value and even create new revenue streams.

Key questions to ask:

  • Who are our users? What are their unique personas, drivers, desires, vulnerabilities and psychographics? Are they willing to sacrifice privacy for utility?
  • If technology or business barriers ceased to exist, what are the ideal scenarios we would offer our users? What existing services can we leverage to enable this?
  • How does IoT user experience mapping inform integrated product and service design decisions? How important is it that our brand be centre stage, or does it suffice to provide services in the background or as an OEM?

Design products as service hubs through content and integration

Many companies struggle to transform from product-centric business models to data-driven, service-centric business models. To do this effectively requires businesses reimagine their products as platforms or ‘hubs’ for interactions, not as nodes or single endpoints. Applications become vehicles for services through content and integration.

Approaching product design through the lens of service design means plugging in the right content into the ecosystem context to support meaningful interactions for each unique environment. Because sensors and software enable data transmission between the data provider (the user-related device) and the consuming service provider (consumes the data to provide the service), connected products themselves become extensions of the brand message and value proposition (or failure).

Businesses designing IoT user experiences must assess how content and integrations support or enhance every brand interaction:

  • In-store and web-based experiences: can a following in-store experience match or exceed the user’s expectations whilst previously surfing the related web?
  • Marketing materials, targeting, resonance: is the experience consistent?
  • Sales materials and interactions: are sales materials consistent and provide positive affirmation of the brand experience?
  • Brand communications and notifications: is the user reminded postively of the brand, are notifications breeding loyalty or annoyance?
  • Purchase process and customer acquisition: are interactions that have been performed on-line needing to be repeated in-store, or is the interaction seamless across context?
  • Setup, installation, registration: as little and as quickly as possible without reducing security and safety, whilst addressing privacy concerns.
  • Connectivity support: through many devices sequentially or in parallel using multiple media channels.
  • Instruction guides, community access: allows users to get help from official channels of loyal users.
  • Integrations with other third-party products or services: to build on vertically or spread out horizontally – collaboration and partnership – to provide the best service to the user, rather than provide a monolithic, siloed approach that straitjackets the user experience.
  • Configuration, customisation, and automation: provide quick set-up starting points based on the detected environment that can be further individualised through customisation.
  • Customer support interactions: guiding a user through the interaction in real-time, via automated prompts or scripts, or even a human guide!
  • Loyalty development: reinforce positive experience through rewards (access to early release versions of the latest firmware or functionality), and feedback.
  • Software updates and new feature delivery: provide secure updates in the field, allowing the user to pick and choose which update to take, and when the update should be downloaded, and when it should be activated and installed.
  • Support for environmentally responsible discard/disposal/resell: these should allow the user to retain an interation history with the service provider but remove all personalisation and private data from the device, in an easy to manage, final interaction.
  • Service (provider) continuity over time: allow the user profile to be grown into each new device purchased, even allowing competing products access to the service provider’s services to enable this interaction.

Product and service designers need to work in a synchronised manner. As new technological opportunities are discovered or constraints found, the designers must work together to preserve the user centricity of the design. Orchestrating content release, supported platforms and configurations, and technology roadmaps, whilst understanding and building for such an integrated context is no easy task. Designing connected products and environments to support ‘right-time’ service delivery is essential to any IoT user experience strategy.

Key questions to ask:

  • Who are our users, the personas in terms of psychographics, technology experience, trend-setters (leaders) and -seekers (followers), etc?
  • Where, when, why, and how are users interacting with our products and services?
  • As different user contexts play out, does the individual user’s persona change?
  • What value are we providing (for example, problem-solving, education, optimization, assurance, social needs, etc.) with each user interaction?
  • How are we using these interactions to inform ongoing content and integration strategy and development?

Design to problem solve

One way to think about the IoT UX is to consider every data stream a voice. Through interactions, users are communicating their preferences, signaling intent, and even expressing needs through action, hesitation, inaction, or abandonment. Compared to traditional market research modalities like solicited focus groups or surveys, this real-time and in-the-wild information is gold for companies committed to serving and anticipating their customers’ needs.

By monitoring sensors attached to products, environments, or customers and analyzing interdependencies across data sets, companies can discover improvements. If a sensor on a coffee machine could detect if people are hesitating to select a paticular product (espresso vs. decaffinated) by tracking their eye movements or hand gestures, they could decide to update the user interface to be less confusing: if it’s just occassionally, maybe the user is internally weighing up which choice to take to their morning meeting! Products and services should be designed to offer continuous streams of data that will help inform improvement to both operational (internal) and user-facing (external) use cases:

Operational User-Facing
  • Through implementing IoT within an Industry 4.0 context, supply-chain inefficiencies
  • Effectiveness of hardware/physical design: are the users using all of the functionality – could the design complexity be reduced or the product split into higher- and lower-spec variants?
  • Training of sales and support agents: are all the functions and options exercised and demonstrated, are short-cuts and configurations made use of, etc?
  • Effectiveness of software design and intelligence (e.g. machine learning): are the users making consistent decisions and behaviour that can be learnt and used as a base for offering a effective user experience?
  • Partnership and collaboration value (e.g. channel, integration): is vertical- and horizontal integration providing positive economic results for the brand?
  • Monitor usage patterns across user, device, and environment types: which functionality is being used in the different configurations – could the design complexity be reduced or the product split into higher- and lower-spec variants for different uses?
  • Effectiveness of marketing collateral: are marketing campaigns having the desired effect on usage trends or patterns, are printed user guides or on-screen help guides being used (based on pattern of device interaction during initial use after sale)?
  • Solicit direct feedback from users in real-time: are the users using the device as foreseen or designed for, have they developed their own short-cuts or custom configurations?
  • Data utility and integrity: make sure the data sets are consistent, useful, and correct.
  • Offer iterative software updates to services and applications: users should have the choice to upgrade to the latest software if that software is inconsistent with the previous software, or if it provides new or changed functionality – otherwise, implement the update if the new version preserves user interaction and experience but simply makes the product more efficient.

Table – Effective IoT design should inform ongoing operational and UX improvement

With the advent of IoT-enabled devices, the company can now accompany the device through manufacture, distribution, sale and use by the customer. Hardware, software, and connectivity means companies are now able to experience and interact with their customers, constantly learning from them. With data collection, there’s a difference between short-term tactics and long-term strategy. Being strategic means constant curation and analysis, not just with an eye towards practicality, but towards ethical practice as well.

Key questions to ask:

  • Where are our current blind spots when it comes to users? (setup, preferences, integrations, troubleshooting, disposal, etc.)
  • What data will we collect from products or services to drive the development of our products or services? How will these data support key performance metrics?
  • How can we leverage emerging modes of interaction (for example, voice, artificial intelligence, gesture) to gather deeper insights?
  • How do we inform the user that this data is being taken?
  • How does the user consent to this data being taken?
  • How does the user remain in control of the data the product supplies to the company?
  • How does a resold product answer to the old and to a new user?


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