Designing IoT Mobile Apps for Smart Appliances
IoT product design requires a holistic, integrated approach with mobile app considerations through the entire lifetime of smart appliances.
From the perspective of those using smart home appliances, the mobile app that controls the appliance is the product. Consumers judge smart products—meaning connected appliances that are part of the Internet of Things (IoT)—largely on the quality of their mobile apps. Grasping this simple but difficult truth means that manufacturers of smart appliances need to make a fundamental shift in perspective in how they design, manufacture, and even support their offerings.
Traditionally, of course, mobile application development issues never entered into the design of home appliances. With mobile apps taking a front-and-center role in smart appliances, here are some guidelines for how to think about IoT mobile app development.
Design Around People, Not Products
With smart appliances, the “center of gravity” for product design is no longer the hardware. In fact, users might rarely interact with the smart appliance hardware itself to set or change controls.
The mobile app replaces the hardware as “the product” in users’ eyes. That means from the beginning to the end of the design and manufacturing process, the IoT mobile app must remain the primary focal point.
It won’t work to view the mobile app as an add-on or afterthought in smart appliances. The mobile app can’t be separated out and worked on independently, or tackled only after the rest of the product design is completed.
Instead, IoT product design requires a holistic, integrated approach with mobile app considerations—and consumers’ needs—present through the entire lifetime of smart appliances.
It’s also important to recognize that consumers are very familiar with mobile devices, which will increase their expectations for IoT mobile apps. People expect a great mobile app user experience, which encompasses everything from the aesthetics of the app—its look and feel, its feedback mechanisms, its buttons and other controls—to how intuitive it is to navigate, how quickly users can do what they want to do, and how easy it is to install, register, and update the app.
Cutting corners on any aspect of the IoT mobile app’s user experience will lessen the perceived value of the smart appliance. On the other hand, building mobile apps for your appliances that people use enthusiastically can make products more attractive to customers.
Invest in Software Extensibility
Designing IoT mobile apps well requires considerable time and financial investments. It also requires making smart design decisions from the outset. One of those decisions is whether to use native code or hybrid code for the mobile app.
Developing mobile apps using hybrid code is less expensive upfront. That’s because hybrid code uses programming languages such as C++ and C# that even less-experienced—and therefore lower-cost—developers know. But using hybrid code can increase costs in the long run, because every future iteration to the mobile app becomes essentially a custom programming effort.
Native code costs more at the outset because it requires higher-priced developers proficient in languages such as Java, Objective C, and Swift. But programming in native code is faster, which can speed time to market. Perhaps more important, native code makes it easier to change and update the mobile app code later.
Such flexibility is crucial, because the state of the art of mobile apps—and the entire IoT marketplace—continues to expand and change. Even the definition of “product” in the IoT is up for grabs. Instead of appliances that are purchased, installed, and operate until replaced, smart appliances can be updated and enhanced continually throughout their lifetimes.
Investing upfront in mobile app extensibility means that manufacturers of smart appliances can add future capabilities as they arise, whether voice control, touch authentication, Bluetooth beacons, or as-yet-unknown features.
Plan for Lots of Mobile App Testing
In the Internet of Things, quality assurance testing is much more complicated than for traditional products. The IoT is a complex interplay among hardware, IoT clouds, software applications, and the networks and communications pathways interconnecting it all. Everything has to be tested in the context of everything else.
Quality testing for smart appliances needs to include device-level, cloud-level, mobile app-level, performance, reliability, scalability, security, data privacy, backward compatibility, lifecycle, and end-to-end testing.
At the mobile app level alone, quality assurance testing covers the overall user experience—everything from navigation, look and feel, responsiveness, and the subjective sense of ease of use—as well as communications, performance, and consistency between the mobile app user interface and back-end systems, cloud services, and hardware components of the smart appliance.
Most manufacturers new to the IoT greatly underestimated the time and effort it will take to test an IoT product in general and an IoT mobile app in particular. They also tend to underestimate the amount of time and effort required to correct and retest anything that doesn’t work perfectly the first time. And in reality, essentially nothing in the IoT works perfectly the first time.
Understand the Value of Minimum Viability for IoT Products
Appliance manufacturers are accustomed to differentiating their offerings based on how many new and exciting features they can fit into their hardware. They aspire to design appliances that have “VIP” status.
When designing mobile apps for smart appliances, however, a different mindset is necessary. A standard best practice for IoT mobile apps is to aim for a minimum viable product (MVP), especially for the first connected version of an appliance.
Users don’t need access through the mobile app to every possible property that a connected product offers. In fact, hardware features don’t always need to be offered as mobile app features. Each smart appliance’s features should be broken down into primary, secondary, and tertiary features. Only primary and perhaps a few secondary features should appear on the mobile app, with the rest handled through touchscreens or other direct interaction with the appliance itself.
Instead of trying to achieve VIP mobile apps, then, manufacturers are better served by getting to market quickly with an MVP version of the mobile app, then using actual customer usage data generated by the smart appliance to iterate and improve the IoT mobile app. That way, the mobile app can be improved in ways that are known to enhance its value with customers.
Consider Using a Comprehensive IoT Platform
Because mobile apps are such an important aspect of smart home appliances, designing a world-class mobile app and staying on top of the latest mobile app trends are essential for competitive success. Manufacturers lacking strong mobile app development teams, high-end programmers, and years of IoT and mobile app development expertise will likely benefit from leveraging comprehensive IoT platform technology.
A comprehensive IoT platform will include not only the technical underpinnings needed to develop mobile apps for the IoT, but also a robust ecosystem that includes software developers with specific expertise in IoT mobile app development.
The right IoT platform can save months of total development time—getting appliances to market faster and less expensively compared to mastering all the intricate technologies in-house. An IoT platform can also handle important issues such as security, interoperability, and scalability from a holistic perspective, end to end.
Ideally, choose an IoT platform that incorporates a framework for rapid IoT mobile app design. The framework should handle the bulk of the programming common to any high-performing, secure, and reliable IoT app, such as user registration and sign-in, device setup, wireless setup, schedule creation, and support for push notifications.
The IoT is the future, and mobile apps are key to consumers’ evaluations of the worthiness of any particular smart home appliance. Making IoT mobile app design a priority is one of the best ways to put the best face on a smart appliance.