Better By Design: Turning Connected Things Into Meaningful Experience


A couple of years ago, Quirky, a highly touted invention startup, created a connected Egg Minder. Built upon the basic finding that people don’t track the number of eggs in their refrigerator, the Egg Minder is a connected plastic egg tray, which syncs to mobile devices and alerts users when they are about to run out of eggs – or if they are expiring. With an inflated retail price of $69, limited utility, and debatable execution, the Egg Minder has become a well-publicized failure in the Internet of Things space. Combined with a track record of similar product mistakes, Quirky ultimately fired its CEO and declared bankruptcy at the end of 2015, despite nearly $170 million in venture capital funding and a major partnership with General Electric.

Quirky’s failure highlights the difficulties in attaining market success in the Internet of Things. Because IoT is a relatively nascent product category with few norms around patterns of use, a design approach that emphasizes understanding what users will value is especially impactful for breakthrough connected innovations. Starting with an understanding of the user, design helps companies contextualize connected technologies and things into meaningful experiences by solving three issues:

Defining target users and value propositions
The initial challenge of any new product experience is understanding the market and translating that knowledge into potential target segments and value propositions. For new product categories, like IoT, design methods, such as need-finding research and low fidelity prototypes, are especially effective in defining personas and unmet needs that lead to compelling value propositions. As a result, many leading edge companies in recent years have substantially increased their investment in design and UX research capabilities.

Apple’s efforts in the wearables space highlight the challenge of creating focus around a target set of users and value propositions. In seeking to appeal to the broadest array of potential users, ranging from self-quantifying athletes to fashionistas, Apple has created over 42 different versions of the first generation Apple Watch. With no clear focus or must-have feature, the first Apple Watch has since faded quickly into obsolescence as people have reverted back to activity trackers and analogue timepieces.

Transforming multiple objects into a single experience
Unlike other product categories, IoT requires a series of loosely related things to work cohesively in a seamless fashion. Whereas most products are standalone in nature, an IoT offering often has a broad ecosystem encompassing various embedded devices, passive objects, sensors, data points, and digital interfaces. As a result, designers are needed to define the overarching experience that orchestrates the pieces together, creating synergy across the digital interaction, physical product and visual components.

A few years ago, Tony Fadell, who founded Nest Labs, said: “There is a reason it’s called hardware. It is hard.” And relative to traditional hardware, the design challenges for IoT-based products are even harder due to the intensely physical-digital nature of the experience, which is then distributed across multiple components. Recognized as one of the fathers of the iPod, Fadell mastered building product at design-centric Apple. And, as a result, the Nest Learning thermostat seamlessly combines a great physical design with a compelling digital experience.

Prioritizing features into a meaningful product roadmap
At the start of any new product innovation effort, company leaders often get excited about many potential features and are frequently challenged to know which ones to focus on first. Through the lens of the user, design helps define the Minimal Lovable Product – what a first generation product must include to be considered worth having – and clarify what features to include in successive releases. The deep context and test-and-learn feedback that occurs during the design development process ensures a constant tieback to true functional and emotional user needs that traditional market research often cannot as easily define for new-to-the-world categories.

Several years ago, Berg Cloud created the Little Printer, a small desktop device with a smiling face that could print out daily news and messages from Facebook, Instagram and the New York Times. While the product was well considered and drew much press attention, the use case of printing social media feeds ultimately was only novel, attracting a few thousand buyers, as opposed to being a meaningful application that would entice millions of users. And so, despite some fanfare as an early Internet of Things product, Berg Cloud eventually closed its doors citing an inability to “reach a sustainable business in connected products.”

Don’t lay an IoT egg
With over 28 billion things connecting to the internet by 2020 and media darlings like Tesla and Nest thermostats in the news every day, companies around the world are building IoT products as a way of driving growth and innovation. But for every emerging success story about connecting an analogue product to the cloud, there are many cautionary tales, like Quirky, that demonstrate how expensive and challenging it can be to create a meaningful and profitable IoT experience. By leveraging designers and design methods throughout the product development process, companies building IoT products can improve their odds of enabling the right mix of consumer desirability, technological feasibility, and business viability in a very nascent space.

Gordon Hui is vice president of strategy for Smart Design, a design and innovation consultancy.

Edited by Ken Briodagh

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