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May 22, 2017 | Updated Sep 14, 2021

How UX Can Help IoT Products, Part 1: Strategy

Smart homes. IoT. Connected devices. VR. What happens when buzzy, emerging technologies begin to infiltrate the everyday?
Brian Oshea


Brian O'Shea


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?

Many of us have experienced the moment when new technology exits the early-adopter “Wild West” days and enters the mainstream. Often, instead of a seamless and delightful experience, we 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 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.

A VR demonstration in a Blink usability lab
A VR demonstration in a Blink usability lab

“Grab the bull by the horns”

Getting a handle on IoT

For those just getting up to speed, by its most basic definition, IoT is the addition of wireless connectivity to physical objects – in effect, connecting the physical to the digital. It is a vague term for a wide 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 stoplights that can alter their timing based upon real-time traffic flow data.

For our purposes, we’ll be orienting toward the consumer and smart home automation space. These are products that make life more pleasant or simpler. Examples include everything from 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 challenges (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 set of critical questions: What are the ways your users will potentially be interacting with your product? What kinds of interfaces will they need? What can be automated?

With 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.

What are some of the business benefits of a good user experience?

  • Happy customers: One of the great benefits of focusing on refining the user experience is happy customers. When user experiences are intuitive and enjoyable, you're more likely to boost customer satisfaction with new products and increase customer loyalty.
  • Capturing user intent: One key to having happy customers is being able to predict and satisfy user intent. One of the great benefits of user-centered design is knowing what real users want. This knowledge forms the backbone of your user interface designs. UI and UX work together in this way — UI captures a customer goal, and UX is the experience the customer has of satisfying that goal. Precisely targeting UI by seeing what actions the user performs can lead to enhanced UX.
  • Returns on investment: One of the business benefits of UX is the tremendous returns on investment it offers. User research and thoughtful UX design can help product teams go to market with something that meets user needs.
A storyboard for a digital product
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 wide 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 upfront (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.

When you're working on developing user experience, you may end up having to wrangle many teams and partners as well. Here are some of the experts you may want to consider partnering with to enhance your user experience design:

  • UX researchers: A UX researcher's job is to make technology accessible to everyday consumers. They use the latest in product design and design tools to make new products easy and enjoyable to use. Thoughtful interaction design centered on UX and UI helps reduce frustration and increase consumer happiness.
  • UX developers: A good UX developer helps make your website beautifully designed and easy to use. Even if your product is a physical item, your users may need to use your website to set up an account or earn more about product features. They may also use your website for credit card payments, so elegant, intuitive web design is essential. For digital businesses, a good web developer is critical for enhancing those processes, especially one experienced with Ruby on Rails and with creating elegant, structured information architecture.
  • Software engineers: The quality of the software that makes your products run is critical. The development costs you incur here with a good software developer who understands UI/UX design will be well worth it.
  • Mobile application engineers: Your software developers will need to include quality mobile application developers. Customers will likely need to use your mobile app to interface with their products, so mobile development is essential. Plus, some customers use Android apps, whereas others use iPhone apps. Having a software development team that is fluent in both iPhone and Android app development through React Native will help you reach more customers with the best user interface design you have to offer.

Here are some of the tools you may want to use to help enhance user experience design:

  • Evaluative research: Evaluative research capabilities vastly increase data-processing ability. Evaluative research-based processes can help you analyze UX metrics like user location, session time and length, categories and products viewed, pages visited, and more.
  • Customer experience journey mapping: A customer journey map is a way to represent your users' customer experience visually. It allows you to track how users engage with your product. If your project managers see missed opportunities, you can tweak your user interfaces to streamline and enhance those features.
  • Usability testing: At the end of your design process, usability testing, or user testing, you'll need to test your product with a representative sample of users. Doing this helps with quality assurance. You can see how users engage with the product, make tweaks, and correct flaws based on customer interaction before rolling out the product more generally.
An Alexa skill being programmed at Blink
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 envisioning of success, 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?

Design concepts for a digital music player
Design concepts for a digital music player

Meet me at the round up

Concluding part 1

While there is 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 firsthand 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 day-to-day we hope these strategies help get your IoT efforts started in the best direction and prepped to exit the Wild Wild West of early-adoption 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.

Brian O’Shea is an interaction designer at Blink UX. Outside of work he loves time spent offline exploring the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest and is prone to taking lots and lots of pictures but forgetting to share them.