Connected Product Design
Designing for the Internet of Things requires a new approach.
Thermostats, stationary bicycles and pedometers don’t exactly sound like exciting product categories. But by adding smart technology, these everyday items have become something much bigger. Today Nest, Peloton and Fitbit are just a few examples of the possibilities in connected devices.
Just as additive manufacturing has changed the design process, allowing for a broader range of designs than previous manufacturing methods, connected products have also changed the way we think about design. No longer does a product simply make coffee, brush teeth or keep food cold. Now there are a multitude of other functions to consider. Connected products have continued to grow, and they are an area that may require some new design ideas. Experts explain how these connected products should be designed in order to delight customers and streamline the design process.
“The best rule of thumb is: does it actually make life easier or not?” says Tucker Viemeister, president of Viemeister Industries. Designing smart products allows for more design freedom, creativity and overall possibilities, he says. Think beyond the product itself to the entire experience surrounding it: a cup of coffee as part of a morning ritual, or the entire dinner routine of shopping, cooking, eating and cleaning up. Aim high—and no, adding an app is not necessarily the answer.
Instead, understand how consumers are using the product in order to improve future versions, and generally upgrade the experience. Hint: it’s not about how much technology you can cram onto your device.
“Just because you can doesn’t mean you should,” says Brian Roderman, president and chief innovation officer at IN2 Innovation. “That’s a big thing we’re trying to work through. It’s a Wild, Wild West scenario right now.”
What Do Customers Want?
Designers—and design students—may get caught up in the technology available rather than what the user wants. Lou Lenzi, a professor of practice in the Department of Human-Centered Computing at IU’s School of Informatics and Computing, says, “Don’t get too enamored with the technology platform but rather focus on the end users’ needs.” He tells his students to slow down and remember that the age-old design techniques still apply: research and finding out what customers want.
Bill Horan, creative director, interaction design at Bresslergroup, agrees. “Connectivity should be a tool to solve needs that you’re uncovering,” says Horan. “Understand what their needs are in those spaces, take a step back, look at whether or not your product can solve those needs.”
In addition to designing with the user in mind, Paul Hatch, CEO of TEAMS Design USA Inc., suggests designing with the data in mind. Think about what data you want to gather from the IoT product. Collecting quality data can improve the next version of that product by allowing the design team to base their ideas on information instead of guesses.
“Any company that doesn’t do that falls one step behind,” Hatch says. “IoT products should be something that is a continued conversation with the user. You launch this object and you’re instantly getting information back on it.”
Hatch suggests designing ahead two generations, in other words, designing for version three when you’re designing version two. “Use version two to test out some things that will help us understand what version three needs. Version two is a live experiment. It’s a very different way of thinking.”
The idea is a big leap instead of incremental steps. Today Hatch says he often sees companies try to just dip their toes in the water rather than jumping in with both feet. They will add WiFi and an app to an existing product, basically the same product with a higher price tag. Not surprisingly, customers aren’t clamoring for this.
What customers do want are solutions to problems, designed so they are easy to use, and perhaps, to forget about.
“I think the best smart products fade into the background,” Horan says. “Don’t overestimate how much people want to interact with things. They don’t want to interact with things. The things that work well you don’t think about very much.”
A lawn sprinkler that can track moisture and weather forecasts, for example, is something that a customer would just want to work, he says. Same for thermostats. On the other hand, a lighting system that takes a lot of effort to implement is not a good replacement for flipping a switch.
Proceed with Caution
The timing for the Internet of Things is working out in the designer’s favor. According to Roderman, “The beautiful part about this is the timing is really perfect because the sensors are coming down to a level where we can embed them in everyday objects.” But having the technology is only part of the equation.
Making a product connected without customer interest while also charging more isn’t the best approach. Don’t just add these features for the sake of doing it. Companies may feel the need to do so to keep up with the competition, but that’s not the way to stand out or create a product that consumers love.
For example, the Peloton bike could have been just an app that records how much you use the bike. Instead, the company changed the idea of a home exercise bike, allowing a spin class experience at home.
“I think we’re only at the beginning of what the IoT can offer,” says Viemeister. “For designers, we’re the ones that need to work with clients to think beyond what their normal products are doing. It makes our job on one hand more difficult, but on the other hand, there’s more room for creativity.”
Collaboration can help create a seamless user experience. “You can’t design in a vacuum, you need to have other people around,” says Brian Donlin, an industrial designer at Optimal Design. “You can really overcome a lot of technical challenges and turn those challenges into opportunities when you work with other disciplines who know more about the technology that’s going inside.”
“It’s always about developing a product that people need and want,” says Donlin. “Ultimately, as designers we’re solving problems for the user and trying to create the best possible experience for them. It all comes back to the person who will be buying and using the product. At the end of the day we’re just creating things that people need.”
Smart Right Away
Even if a product offers a lot of exciting features, it must still be easy to use and set up.
“The one overlooked area that I think we designers need to keep in mind is that out of box experience, getting your products on the network securely and simply,” Lenzi says. “We tend to jump past that step. If it’s going to be a difficult process or procedure, that’s going to haunt you.”
It should be smart, and if possible, aim to surprise and wow the consumer. “I think that technology needs to be like magic,” says Hector Silva, a research associate in industrial design at the University of Notre Dame, and the current IDSA Chicago Chapter chair. “When technology does something seamlessly magical, it’s a delightful feeling. Along with experience, designers have to understand, how do you give technology a form that is inviting and welcoming into the home? I’m excited for the Internet of Things, excited for everything to be connected. Now with so many companies and so many options, everything is disconnected. I think as we move into the future, things will become more seamless.”
Gregg Davis of Taylor & Chu says companies should be aggressive in investing in the Internet of Things. “Now is the time to invest,” Davis says. “Products that people don’t give a darn about are the ones that are going to be reinvented.”