The popularity of The Internet of Things (IoT) has soared over the last couple of years. More and more vehicles, buildings and home appliances are being fitted with sensors and software that allows them to collect, store and share data, and to be controlled remotely.
As exciting as the Internet of Things may be, it is far from perfect. A quick online search will reveal a large number of gaffes involving interconnected objects. Some of them are hilarious, others seem right out of Black Mirror. Most have one thing in common: they could have been avoided by applying basic good principles of UX design (user experience design)
UX design used to be a concern only for software or web design companies. With the growing popularity of the Internet of Things, it’s becoming important for any organisation considering producing a connected device. So how do you ensure that your device delivers a killer UX? Here are five points to get started.
1. Design for users’ needs
Designing to address a need could seem obvious, but many companies fail to acknowledge this. While successful products put users’ needs first, many companies focus on jumping on a technology bandwagon without considering users’ needs, which can result in unsuccessful products. An example of this are the mobile apps to unlock cars.
Thirty years ago we used to unlock cars by inserting a key in the lock and turning it. Then radio-controlled cars came along: it’s now the norm to unlock cars by pushing a button on the key. Then apps came along. There’s millions of them, so of course there are a few that can be used to unlock vehicles.
Using an app to unlock a car is far from a breakthrough, as it involves several additional steps and makes us more reliant on our smartphones and their agonising batteries. Employing a new technology therefore makes a rather simple process more complicated. Designers should address genuine needs and problems, instead of using technology just because it’s available. For instance, cars could be locked or unlocked by proximity, a solution that many manufacturers have already implemented. Using an app is not always the best solution.
2. Have a back-up mode
Developed countries rely on a very stable supply of water and electricity. We expect taps, heating, washing machines and lights to work. We get considerably annoyed when they don’t, up to the point of switching providers. Unfortunately, Internet connection is not as reliable as water or electricity yet, particularly when the connection is wireless. It can often be slow or not work at all.
This is a mere nuisance if we are playing a game, but if we own appliances that perform key tasks the results could be disastrous. If we rely on a smart feeder to provide food four our pets, they may be left hungry when the connection fails. Devices that perform this type of tasks should always have a back-up mode, otherwise we risk having angry and disappointed customers.
Image 1: credit Unsplash
3. Include a manual mode
In one of the most compelling moments of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A space Odyssey, the AI of the spaceship refuses to obey orders from the crew. “I’m sorry, Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that”, says Hal with his calm, metallic voice. AIs as sophisticated as Hal don’t exist yet, but Dave’s problem does: In some instances, the internet connection may be working but the system just won’t do what the user needs. This is the case of some smart lighting systems and thermostats.
All internet connected devices should have manual modes that override the automatic ones, particularly for home appliances. We are not used to not being able to control the lights or temperature of our homes, and not being able to do so can be extremely frustrating, as many owners of the Nest Thermostat can attest.
Image 2: Nest Smart thermostat
4. Handle data ethically
Companies on the web often request too much information from their customers without explaining why they require it. Another extended bad practice on the web is to feature obscure marketing opt-in/out options. This often results in customers getting unrequested e-mails from “selected partners”.
The Internet of Things takes users’ data collection to a new level. Its nature involves collecting, sending, storing and exchanging vast amounts of information. For instance, Amazon’s Echo voice assistant learns what customers are purchasing so they can sell more products via the device. This may be convenient to many of their customers, but business needs should not get in the way of users’ rights.
These smart devices are embedded in people’s homes and lives, therefore the data they handle can be extremely sensitive. To learn from users, Amazon Echo and other voice assistants like Google Home actually listen to and record fragments of conversations.
Manufacturers should put extra care in collecting only what they need and obtaining users’ informed consent. This includes making explicit in which case, if any, the data collected can be shared with the authorities. If doing the right thing does not seem like a good enough reason, there are other advantages to being transparent: building and keeping customers’ trust –and their business.
5. Implement appropriate security measures
The United Nations recognises privacy as a human right. Manufacturers have to protect customers’ privacy by implementing appropriate security measures to protect the data collected by the Internet of Things devices. Many companies are failing to do this as they rush to get their Internet of Things products to the market.
There is a search engine that allows users to search all sorts of Internet of Things devices connected to the Internet. These include vulnerable webcams, from car parks to baby cameras; all of them connected to the internet without even requesting a password. Data losses can have disastrous consequences: not only they can break customers’ trust, they can cost millions to an organisation.
Products are not used in a vacuum and they should be designed taking the environment into account. There’ll always be someone trying to exploit systems’ vulnerabilities. Sometimes they’ll get away with it, but it shouldn’t be easy for them.
According to a 2015 McKinsey report, the Internet of Things could be worth from 3.9 to 11.1 trillion dollars in the global economy by 2025. Great opportunities breed competition: there will be numerous companies fighting for a share of the market. Many will get it wrong, as they will keep rushing to launch products without considering users’ needs and their circumstances. In a context where it’s still hard to rely on internet connections and data breaches are frequent, companies that want to prosper will need to take these into account. It’s hard to predict what will be successful in ten years’ time, but organisations that follow user experience best practices will be better positioned to thrive in the Internet of Things world.
If you would like to learn more about how to ensure your IoT or digital products adhere to best user experience practices, please do not hesitate to get in touch via firstname.lastname@example.org or +44 (0)117 929 7333.