How UX Can Help IoT Products, Part 1: Strategy

Written by

Brian O'Shea

A photo of a Wild West building

From Wild West to Mainstream Adoption

Smart homes. IoT. Connected devices. VR. What happens when buzzy, emerging technologies begin to infiltrate the everyday? Will consumers face a frustrating gunfight-style showdown with new products, or will they discover a frictionless setup process and experience a product that enhances their life?

Eric Durr Vr Demo
A VR demonstration in a Blink usability lab

As many of us have experienced when new technology exits the early-adopter “Wild West” days, instead of a seamless and delightful experience we often find a frustrating barrage of partially completed services, broken ecosystems, and half-baked UX. This can cause migraines for even the most tech-minded early adopters and can cause mainstream consumers to hold off or even give up entirely.

But if you are working on an IoT product, fear not! In this two-part series we will explore the challenges of UX design for IoT. We will examine ways good UX can help best position your product to ‘cross the chasm’ from the “Wild West” of early adopters and move into mainstream adoption.

First we will look take a broad look at UX strategy for IoT – how best to leverage UX and User Research to get your IoT or smart home project headed in the right direction.

“Grab the bull by the horns”

Getting a handle on IoT

For those just getting up to speed, at its most basic definition, IoT is the addition of wireless connectivity and other sensors to physical objects – in effect, connecting the physical to the digital. It is a vague term for a big range of connected tools, devices, and services. IoT devices could take a wide variety of forms and perform any number of services for consumers or enterprises, from machine parts in a factory that can track their status and send an alert when replacement is needed, to connected stop lights that can alter their timing based upon real-time traffic flow data.

For our purposes we’ll be orienting towards the consumer and smart home automation space. These are products and services that make home life easier or more pleasant. Examples include a connected fridge that helps manage groceries and optimize freshness, to a door lock that enables you to unlock the door for a repair person while you are still at your office, to security cameras that can send alerts when movement is detected in the frame and you are out of town.

Regardless of the space, IoT products have a diverse range of system structures. Your IoT product system could consist of an app tied to a bunch of sensors, it could be hardware that has its own physical controls but also a corresponding app or website, or it could be multiple hardware sensors across a number of locations tied together through the cloud. Many of the UX challenges for IoT center on the diffused nature of the products and services themselves.

Because of this variance, users interact with IoT products in many different ways. These interactions could occur on a smartphone, on a website, via voice, or by using hardware controls. Frequency is likely to vary – users might receive intermittent messages from an alert-focused sensor but use other products like home lighting on a daily basis. The location could vary as well – users could be on the couch, in the car, or using your product to check in on their home from their office. That’s a massive range of potential design considerations, which presents some challenging (and fun!) UX design and user research opportunities.

Howdy partner!

Understanding your users

To get a handle on this and narrow your design scope, a critical early step in any solid IoT UX project is to understand the potential contexts for your product and the people who will be interacting with it. (This assumes you’ve already got a handle on the specific pain point or opportunity your IoT product is aiming to solve.)

  • Who are your users?
  • How are they tackling this problem without your product today?
  • Where will your users likely be when they are using your product?
  • How often are your users likely to use it?

Research is absolutely critical at this point in the product development cycle. The more you can come to understand who your users are and how your product may fit into their lives, the better your chances of building a product that will resonate with consumers. In-person interviews and field visits to gather research in the space with the customers you are hoping to reach are extremely valuable. Placing prototypes of both physical hardware as well as digital controls in front of real people early in the process is critical to challenge your assumptions and understand the contexts your product will live in. Be prepared to iterate – doing it all again (and again) as you learn more about what works and what doesn’t.With careful research to answer those questions, you’ll be much more ready to answer another critical question: What are the ways your users will potentially be interacting with your product? What kinds of interfaces will they need? What can be automated?

Using insights gained from your research, artifacts like storyboards and user journey maps can help you explore and expose these interaction contexts well before your team is burning hours designing or developing. We’ve found that these artifacts help bring various stakeholders across design, development, and business leadership onto the same page and united to keep your users and their needs top of mind.

Farmcredit Storyboard2
A storyboard for a digital product

Wrangling the herd

Taming multiple devices, screens, and controls

As you’ve probably figured out, one thing that ties together the big variety of IoT products is a physical component, and user experiences that span both digital and physical bring additional design challenges.

While many UX designers have wonderfully rich and diverse design talents, when moving into products with a physical hardware component, one ought to strongly consider partnering with an industrial designer. In an ideal IoT product development scenario, industrial and UX designers and researchers would collaborate up front (and throughout the development process), gaining an understanding of the users, their contexts, and designing both physical and digital aspects of the system in concert to best support user needs. That way careful consideration can be given to what controls are needed where and what interfaces and feedback mechanisms will best keep users moving.

How to connect these varying controls? The days of skeuomorphic design (where digital interfaces use tricks of texture and shadow to mimic physical controls) may be long over, but that doesn’t mean your software and hardware should feel disconnected. Controls should be designed to be usable and intuitive for the context and the device. We’ve found that having consistency between an app and hardware controls is helpful for many users. Your users will be more likely to give you gold stars if they can easily take action using a hardware control and then perform another action using controls via your app without headaches or an additional learning curve. Deeper research and usability studies can help uncover which controls need to be duplicated across your system and which are best left for the app only.

In terms of controls we can’t move on without acknowledging voice. Our research has shown that voice controls are of high significance to many IoT consumers, and voice-related services are most often consumers’ initial entry point into IoT and smart home products. So start thinking early on about whether your IoT product should be compatible with Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, or Google Assistant. It won’t make sense for every product, but it’s a big draw for many consumers once they become accustomed to being able to control things with their voice.

Voice controls can also be a means to bridge smart home product ecosystems. For example, enabling hooks to control your product with Alexa could potentially be more useful to a larger number of users (and therefore potentially more important) than building deeper, full-scale integrations with smart home IoT frameworks like Apple Homekit or Google Home. But the answer to what sets of integrations or compatibility your product needs will be unique to your users and your product direction.

Designing Alexa Skills 768X511
An Alexa skill being programmed at Blink

Look there, way over yonder!

Thinking big picture and prepping for the future

Envision the future early in the development cycle: assume things are going well! Early adopters gushed about your service and provided valuable feedback. Tech blogs gave positive reviews. Now mainstream consumers are buying your product. Sales are ramping up – maybe you even have a big consumer brand on the line for a partnership.

Great news! What happens now?

  • Will users be adding more devices?
  • Will you be making other products?
  • How (and how frequently) will you be delivering product updates?

Thinking through these questions will help prepare you to tackle success and build a product that consumers can feel good about integrating into their life for the long haul. Successful IoT product lines (like those from Nest) have set a relatively high bar for onboarding, support, and service updates. For example, make the addition of a second device even easier than the first by allowing devices to share setup information. The August line of smart door locks and WiFi doorbell cameras do this, making the setup process for add-on products painless.

Especially when hardware devices are involved, users don’t want to feel like they have to reinvest down the road, and you don’t want consumers to associate your brand with a drawer full of bricked sensors. In addition to app and web updates, carefully consider how you will update hardware firmware. Make sure you keep the user in mind here as well – we’ve learned that users prefer some level of transparency about updates. Most users want a balance, to enable delivery of critical security updates but not to be surprised with changed controls or deprecated features or even worse, not being able to use your product when they want to.

Lastly, in your success state envisioning, include the life cycle of physical hardware retirement and replacement. Imagine that your product has been so successful consumers have it embedded in their lives or homes for many years. Will there come a point when a hardware device wears out entirely and needs to be replaced? How can that hardware replacement or upgrade experience be made seamless or even delightful?

Image quilt of design concepts for B&O
Design concepts for a digital music player

Meet me at the round up

Concluding Part 1

While there are a huge array of things to consider while developing a product, you’ll be more likely to gain traction if you keep your users in mind. We’ve found through first-hand experience that adopting a user-centered approach early in the process benefits product development efforts and is of even greater importance when working with emerging tech.

As IoT begins to move from ‘next big thing!’ to something more and more of us are living with (and designing for), we hope these strategies help get your IoT effort aimed in the right direction and prepped to exit the early adopter Wild West with ease.

In Part 2 of this series we will take a deeper look at several critical areas of successful IoT UX design including user onboarding and support.

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