February 02, 2018

User Experience Needs to Be a Bigger Part of the IoT

By Special Guest
Hunter Jensen, CEO, Barefoot Solutions

While the launches of Ford Motor Co.’s Edsel and the Juicero occurred nearly 60 years apart, they stand a good chance of being linked for all eternity. These bewildering examples prove that, no matter the era, products must be designed according to customer need rather than CEO vision/obsession and unbridled hype.

In 1957, Ford released the Edsel. It spent $250 million ($2,208,342,392 in today’s dollars) creating and touting what the company called the “car of the future,” only to shut it all down in 1959 with huge losses.

As for Juicero, on Sept. 1 it announced it was closing its operations and suspending the sale of its products. This company, too, came into the world to cheers and high hopes. Claiming the device to be “magical,” and “app-enabled” but also “farm to table,” and “organic,” many believed it could be the “magic bullet” for the American on-the-go population that has little time to slice veggies. At one point, Juicero founder and CEO Doug Evans told The New York Times, “Not all juice is equal. How do you measure life force? How do you measure chi?”

The Juicero is a juicer that presses individual packets of chopped fruit and vegetables into single servings of juice. Evans claimed the juicer uses up to four tons of potential pressing force, or “enough to lift two Teslas.” The great Google itself and many other venture capitalists poured roughly $120 million into the hope that the $400 (initially $700) juicer and its weekly delivery service of juice packets (up to $8 individually or $36 for a five-pack) would become the Keurig of fresh produce.

But everything can change once boots are on the ground and a product is in the hands of consumers. 

First, two investors weren’t thrilled with Juicero’s large size. After all, the company’s target audience already has Blendtecs and other devices taking up kitchen counter space. Then Bloomberg employees got crazy and squeezed the juice packets themselves. The results: a cup of juice just half of an ounce less, made in less time, than what the machine delivered.

 “There are 400 custom parts in here,” Evans told Recode. “There’s a scanner; there’s a microprocessor; there’s a wireless chip, wireless antenna.” Custom, in engineering speak, means the parts had to be engineered in a machine shop specifically for Juicero. Custom parts can be expensive individually, so you can only imagine the impact on the total cost of the device.

Ben Einstein, a product designer and general partner at venture capital firm Bolt, didn’t disagree with Evan’s “magical” claim in his extensive review on the internal mechanics of the Juicero. In fact, Einstein calls Juicero an “incredibly complicated piece of engineering. Of the hundreds of consumer products I’ve taken apart over the years, this is easily among the top 5 percent on the complexity scale.”

Still, Juicero is being squeezed in the press and held up as an example of Silicon Valley greed, and disconnection with reality. Members of the media are using words like “fiasco” and “debacle,” and accusing it of creating a “fake problem it purports to solve.”

That has exposed a problem all too common in Internet of Things development – a lack of consideration of the user experience, and a misreading of how the end user will use your product.

How to Avoid Being the Next Juicero
So when did Juicero execs realize the four-ton press was completely unnecessary? Specifically, when did one of their product testers say, “Hey, I can do this with my hands!”

It’s possible Juicero was focused on the internet aspect of its device instead of the hardware. The QR code printed on the back of Juicero juice packs contain expiration dates. If the machine reads an expired date, it won’t press the pack. This feature allowed Juicero to claim membership in the IoT and the confidence to consider itself a viable technology “platform” for delivering juice.

It’s possible that the machine’s internet-connected features (“services”) were simply place-holders for future iterations that would include as yet unknown but possible new services transacted via the internet. After all, despite all of the press, the IoT is still emerging and even heads of technology companies struggle with how to jazz up their products with sensors and apps.

Internet of Things thought leader Paul Weichselbaum explains in The Harvard Business Review, “our interaction with devices is profoundly changing – they are becoming more like interconnected services than products. Soon it will be common to drive up to one’s house – which has adjusted heating or cooling in anticipation of your arrival — and have the garage door automatically open, the security system disarm, the doors unlock, and lights come on.”

Context-aware, learning devices that interact with the cloud, smartphones, and the manufacturer or a service hub means customer service will be responsible for more than troubleshooting. Reps will become product concierges, interacting at many points of setup, use, and even integration with other devices.

Companies that put customer experience front and center and embrace this new, closer relationship with each customer will likely win out over those that resist. App design and the interface that users interact with must be easy to use, even when dealing with a difficult integration. Service models will be transformed. Companies ready to be their customers product concierges will incorporate more nuanced key performance indicators like increased customer lifetime value and churn reduction. Customer service reps will have to be technologically adept, integrating apps with every touchpoint. Training, too, will be continual.

The good news in this scenario is this: User experience will trump hardware and price as the primary brand differentiator. This is a huge paradigm shift.

What Juicero failed to understand was the extent of what users needed and how they would use the product. In the end, they needed far less than what Juicero engineered into its product, to use its service. And the app-enabled QR code that would prevent the machine from pressing given an expired date was unnecessary.

That’s because the expiration date was printed on the package for users to read all by themselves.

User Interface – the Critical Hinge
Not every product needs to be connected to the IoT via sensors and apps. In fact, these upgrades should be considered only when networking the item solves consumers’ problems and makes their lives easier for real.

Taking $400 for an unnecessary device and charging $8 for a single glass of juice when two liters of something comparable goes for $4 in the grocery store doesn’t address a problem that the IoT is uniquely positioned to solve.

An optimized user experience requires developers to focus on a finding a real need and then designing a product with an intuitive user interface. If companies can design an app so that users get an amazing experience before abandoning the process, they have a win.

In The Atlantic, senior editor Derek Thompson summarizes just why Juicero is getting all the hate when there are crazy kitchen contraptions (sous-vide ovens, vacuum marinators, corn kernelers) coming out every day.

“None of these products or their manufacturers are subject to a withering, or even financially threatening, round of mockery, because they didn’t attempt to differentiate themselves in a crowded market with a gratuitous and easily falsifiable narrative about platforms, aircraft-grade machines, and the life force of diced vegetables,” Thompson says. “Juicero’s product may be delicious. But its bogus-sounding story about converting a beverage company into a technology company has revealed itself to be just that – bogus.”

In designing IoT products and apps, be humble and consumer-centric. In this frenetic day and age, making lives incrementally easier with products that are easy to use, will make your customers happy, and they will love you for it.

The Internet of Things Will Be Here When You’re Ready
When building an IoT device and app, it’s important to take the time to study how your consumers use your products and services in daily life. Explore what kinds of communications can save them mental and physical energy, as well as time. A milk carton that sends an email or text to the consumer when there isn’t enough for breakfast tomorrow? A dog collar with a locater? A device that notifies your smartphone when your plants need more water, sun, or nutrients? Now these current products prevent irritating hassles and (in the case of a lost dog) disasters! With proper customer focus and research, your products, too, can become personal butlers, at least in their space. 

About the author: Hunter Jensen is CEO of Barefoot Solutions (www.barefootsolutions.com).

Edited by Ken Briodagh

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