Connectivity’s Influence on Product Controls and Aesthetics
Much has been written about the impact connectivity will have on the features and benefits of current products, but there has been little discussion regarding the impact on the controls and aesthetics. The current emphasis is on the technical aspects of implementation and financial considerations at the device level, and creating a robust backend infrastructure. Attention must be paid to these fundamentals, along with product safety and data security. A satisfying end-user experience, beginning with initial device commissioning is equally important as it represents a new paradigm for many users. Finally, the underlying value proposition must make solid business sense.
As significant progress is being made on all of these fronts, it’s important to begin imagining the shifts in how we will physically interact with these products along with their resulting aesthetics. Today’s generation of connected products often treat the user interface as two separate entities, and in some cases, operate and function like they were developed by two completely separate development teams. Most likely they were. The physical product controls on a connected product today really look no different from standalone, non-internet connected product. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to walk up to any traditional consumer retail product and know whether it is capable of connectivity or not. The only identifier may be a small graphical mark or logo on the product or through point-of-sale material. Once connected, the user interface on the mobile or web-based application frequently bears little relation to the product itself in terms of look-and-feel and navigation techniques. Some manufacturers will place usability second to the marketing opportunities. This is hardly the user experience desired by the customer.
Approaching the connected-product user experience as a fully integrated system, rather than two separate modes of operation provides three main benefits to the manufacturer. First, it unlocks new opportunities for innovation in product usability, appearance and cost. Second, it’s a platform for creating a delightful customer experience, a positive brand experience, and long-term customer retention. Finally, it fully enables new services, delivering on the promise of new services-based business models.
With that background, here are some design considerations to keep in mind as you work through an integrated connected-product user interface:
Determine what controls belong on the physical product and what controls transfer to the remote device (in this case, defined as a mobile application). There will always be a need for some redundancy should one control system not be available, but there are benefits in terms of product cost and a simplified aesthetic by reducing the number of physical controls on the main device. Today’s panel TVs are a good example. The remote control is the primary control UI for the TV, which creates a pleasing picture-frame semantic for these large, often wall-mounted displays. A small set of basic controls, typically mounted behind or below the screen, minimize viewer distraction and provide a reasonable back-up solution should the remote be temporarily misplaced. Imagine the resulting aesthetics if this same control architecture applied to the complex control panels found on a high-end front-load laundry pair. None of the functionality would be eliminated; the less frequently used functions could be relocated to the mobile device, with the remaining controls on the appliance becoming more accessible, meaningful and certainly less intimidating.
What control technologies are appropriate when the user interface is divided between a mobile device and the core physical product? Before considering higher-cost control technologies such as large format, high-resolution displays with haptic control surfaces, consider the lifecycle of the products themselves. What is new and novel today may look dated or be difficult to service five to 10 years down the road. Of course, while connectivity offers the promise of over-the-air upgrades and maintenance, the embedded hardware and firmware systems remain in place over the life of the product.
Consider the resulting walk-up appeal and presentation of the product on the showroom floor. Historically speaking, the best way to define a product in the good-better-best ladder was the number of features as described by the controls. The more feature-laden a product the more sophisticated—and complex—the control surface became. Simplifying and reducing the number of controls on a product may suggest a lower-value product not worthy of a high-value price tag.
Successfully addressing these considerations while delivering on the overall business opportunities of connected products and services requires close collaboration between the product development organizations and the marketing, after sales and service organizations. Such collaboration will deliver benefits for the manufacturer in the form of differentiated products and services, long-term customer retention, and business growth through new services revenues.