The growing industry that is the Internet of Things (IoT) continues to surpass expectations. Analysts predict that annual revenues for IoT could pass $470 billion in 2020 for companies selling hardware, software, and other comprehensive solutions. As of 2015, there was an installed base of approximately 15 billion IoT devices. That market is forecast to have grown to 31 billion IoT devices by 2020.
Obviously, there is still great room for growth in this arena. One of these areas is user experience (UX). If IoT is going to sustain its growth and become integrated into the larger computing universe, user experience design will be a key component of that process. Creating attractive user experiences across multiple platforms will influence more users to adopt IoT devices.
However, there are some difficulties in blending user experience design and the development of Internet of Things devices. Let’s look at five of those and see how they can be addressed.
1. Differences between interfaces
By nature, any IoT solution involves multiple and diverse interfaces. For example, a house alarm built by one company being integrated with a video-enabled doorbell made by another company. It’s not likely that their interfaces will be similar, much less integrated.
Subramani Baskar, writing for Machine Design, says, “Typically, an IoT solution needs to handle multiple data types from multiple devices on a user interface (UI) that flows seamlessly across interfaces. Once these multiple data types from multiple devices are together, the end-user needs to access a simple yet informative visualization on any interface they want, like a phone, laptop, or on-site screen.”
At the same time, other parties who play a role in the IoT complex – such as the security company or law enforcement in the example mentioned above – need to have real-time access to the information they need. One can easily see how complex user design can be for similar IoT solutions.
How can this issue be addressed? The main way this can be resolved is through “unification of feel.” The look and feel of the physical device, interfaces on that device, and any accompanying apps on handheld devices or PCs should have the same appearance. This involves colors, fonts, and graphic design; it may even include an abstraction of the physical device being present on digital screens. This usually means that UX designers must be involved in the development process of the IoT hardware.
2. Hardware development ignores users
Hardware developers are driven by technical specs and predetermined requirements. User interface designers are driven by appearance and usability. The former has productivity in mind; the latter focuses on the people intended to use the product.
Baskar comments, “It’s doubtful that UX designers get involved in the technical specs of the iPhone or other consumer hardware that is a big part of common consumer UX solutions. In IoT, hardware selection is also primarily guided by technical specs, software compatibility, and costs, but ignores user experience to a large extent. This should not be the case since hardware can have a big impact on user experience.”
Like the solution to the first problem described, the problem of daylight between hardware and the user is to get the user interface designers involved in the hardware development process. Hardware is no good unless it makes sense to the people who will be using it, and UX/UI designers help users make sense of the hardware.
3. Difficult onboarding
Everyone likes the idea of being able to talk to their microwave or program their refrigerator based on what types of foods are stored inside. But the set-up process for IoT devices can be difficult for even the most tech-savvy user.
Katherine Clavichord, co-founder and managing partner at Digiteum, writes, “The first step of introducing a new system to users can also be the hardest. In the case of multi-device interaction, it often implies repeated authentications, gateway processes that differ from device to device and switching to additional services like Gmail for verification. Simplified onboarding — secure, but effortless authentication with code verification instead of passwords — is a promising beginning. Considering the use of IoT systems often implies switching devices, say between iPhone, Apple Watch or embedded software, easy, but safe and smart, authentication is a real catch.”
Users get frustrated when they must go through a set-up process on multiple devices. Of course, they want to be able to manage their home security system from their PC, their phone, and their iPad, but not everyone is willing to take the time to set up those devices. Simplifying the onboarding process is a must for the success of IoT.
4. Lack of personalization and context
Because the Internet of Things is still largely a lab exercise, many of the finer details of personalization that are present in our mobile phones and personal computers are not yet present in IoT devices. However, they are on the way largely because users have come to expect them. As Lavarevich writes:
Personalization is not a new trend, rather a necessity for modern technology products. More and more digital tools can learn from user behavior and recognize patterns to provide a more refined experience. Obviously, the fuel of this revolution is user data.
IoT, in turn, excels with data. Today, connected socks stuffed with sensors collect data from runners’ routes, sole movement and report on workout efficiency. Smart cars recognize the patterns in our everyday driving and remember the best routes. The above-mentioned thermostats learn the temperature we consider comfy and warm up the house by the time we open the front door.
User experience across IoT systems should be personalized the same way connected devices personalize their performance. In other words, using the data collected along with the cross-device use, certain elements should recognize patterns and adjust product behavior accordingly.
Addressing the personalization issue will require IoT development to continue the adoption and integration of artificial intelligence and machine learning.
Natural suspicion between man and machine
Installing an IoT system in someone’s home or office is almost like inviting a stranger into a familiar space. There is a natural lack of trust and suspicion of the machine. Many users will express incredulity when informed of what an IoT device is supposed to accomplish.
Arup Barat, writing in Embedded Computing Design, said, “For an IoT system to be used to its limits, users need to fully trust the underlying data. For users working in a highly sensitive environment, like a nuclear plant or monitoring a volcano for city safety, trusting a dashboard on a smartphone with numbers popping up or a good/bad dial might be difficult. Right or wrong data can make all the difference in a user’s decision in a high-pressure situation, which is why UX designers need to build trust in the experience.”
How can UI/UX designers do this?
One way is to design a system that provides regular updates and explains what the device is doing in terms the user can understand. A user-friendly knowledgebase containing articles and videos should also be included as a part of accompanying web and app content that helps the user grasp the concepts behind the device and see how it can help them in their daily life.
The Internet of Things and interconnected devices is the way of the future. It’s likely that business and industrial environments will continue to adopt this new revolution at a faster rate than home users and average consumers. But the latter will follow. They will follow faster if they are able to relate to IoT devices in the same way that they relate to their smartphones or social media websites right now. And that is where user interface and user experience designers play a large role. They can guide the process of IoT development by making sure that the average user is top of mind in the development process.