What the Internet of Things introduces — or better said, unites — is data, interactions, and the physical world. But coordinating these to deliver great user experience (UX) is easier said than done.
Many manufacturers have struggled to bring connected products to market because of just how complicated development and management are, never mind the risks of botching customer relationships as a result.
Using a connected thermostat, for instance, is only a better experience than a regular analogue thermostat if it’s easier, more efficient, and offers something valuable the old version did not. The second it freezes, misfires, goes down, requires too many decisions or steps to use, or worse, threatens privacy, security, or trust, its value evaporates.
Connected devices and infrastructures introduce their own unique complexities that often create new friction to user experience.
First, connected products are not singular objects, but inherently require a system to function. They tend to exist within much larger networks of devices, many of which originate from different manufacturers.
- In consumer contexts, this might be a connected door lock interacting with other in-home products like lightbulbs, a security system, and smart thermostats.
- In industrial or municipal environments, this could include thousands of streetlamps which need to be integrated with parking meters, environmental sensors, traffic systems, and so on.
Even at the most basic level, most IoT services include one more devices, a gateway device, an associated cloud service, and some range of applications running on other devices in order to function as intended. When each part of the system is working, the system is invisible, but even when one part falters, the laps can significantly impact UX. The design of these interoperable systems is now synonymous with the design of the connected product.
Second, connectivity and networking can be tricky; reliability isn’t impossible, but it may be costly. Design configurations at the technical level can make or break integration requirements. Depending on the use case, different implementations require different types of networking (e.g. Wi-fi Bluetooth, Cellular, Zigbee, Thread, LPWAN, LoRa, etc.) as well as different connectivity protocol (e.g. MQTT, HTTP, XMPP, CoAP, DDS, AMQP, etc.).
The Alphabet Soup of IoT Protocols
From a user experience perspective, what this alphabet soup spells is a dire need for interoperability between devices, an enormous challenge in the IoT space today. During the development of connected products, engineers are tasked with making numerous technical decisions that will underpin the device’s ability to interact with other devices, networks, and systems, and so should be viewed as essential UX decisions.
This also means engineers and designers alike must view decisions as critical collaboration points. Some examples include:
- Application programming interfaces (APIs)
- Connectivity protocols
- Power/energy sources
- User navigation, user training
- Customer journey mapping
- Brand communications
- Mobile and web app graphical user interfaces (GUIs)
- Algorithmic decision-making
To take one example: APIs allow for data from one device to be used in applications for other devices. Interoperability isn’t just about data, it also carries design implications: if the design of the API doesn’t align with other UX requirements, the utility of the product can be compromised or altogether too limited to justify adoption. The imperative for interoperability nods towards another distinction when it comes to building for UX with IoT products.
Third, IoT products often lack precedent altogether. Developing user empathy is a matter of understanding current pain points. Yet, many connected product experiences lack real precedent, or what precedent exists does not include the characteristics made possible through sensors, actuators, screens, or integrations. Consider the Amazon Echo, far from just a music speaker, not quite a robot, can control other in-home devices, and gains functionality over time. There is no clear precedent for this product—both an opportunity and risk for manufacturers.
Fourth, connected devices are rarely a ‘set and forget’. Manufacturers’ work doesn’t end at the point of sale, but instead connected products require ongoing support, security and performance monitoring, and new governance structures to uphold customer expectations and trust. Since user experience is indeed the sum of practical, technical, and emotional interactions, the management and coordination across stakeholders is foundational to delivering effective UX in the IoT.
To learn more about how to approach UX design given these and other fundamental technological shifts, check out new research on the topic here.