The Secret Ingredient to Successful IoT Devices

Kevin Baily, President at Design 1st attended CES 2017 last week and shares his perspective on the secret to the success of an IOT product.

It’s ease of use.

CES 2017 was an exciting mix of IOT hardware products tethered to their companion cloud and phone applications.

Many products were sophisticated prototypes with a product ready look, each booth beckoning you to try out their new features.  Audio interfaces are the new buzz.  However, at the show they were spotty with Amazon Alexa cloud platform and echo hardware devices struggling in the Wi-Fi saturated and noisy crowd environment.

With 3D prototyping exploding and investors providing a variety of funding models, a new generation of creative thinkers displayed their design talents.  This year’s show screamed of connected everything.  Truly a hardware heaven of wireless gadgets.  Drone fun, Virtual Reality goggles, robots, home monitoring and body electronics options were in abundance.

There was an entire floor with a thousand startup teams, set up like a science fair.  The exhibitors displayed product and ideas in various stages of development and the aisles bustled with shoulder to shoulder interested crowds. The rest of the show floors and buildings were vast runways of companies and global giants showing off connected objects, from body biometrics and hairbrushes to TVs, kitchen appliances and cars.

The take away for me was the hidden confusion coming as we buy, set up and use each of the hundreds of connected products to come with their unique interfaces that we will need to learn one by one in order to use them all.  Truly suffering will be the ease of use for this new category of IOT connected products.

Great products are born from ease of use as it enables us to accomplish tasks, allows us to feel in control and in doing so, it projects our confidence and personality to others.

At Design 1st we have 3 Golden rules that get used when we test drive any new product concept.

From a user’s perspective when I interact with a product:

  1. Don’t make me wait (2 seconds is awful, 10 seconds is a lifetime)
  2. Don’t make me guess (I feel frustrated)
  3. Create magic moments where what I want to happen, feels satisfying and enjoyable, every time.

Product ease of use for interconnected mobile devices is much more challenging than standalone device designing as they must be convenient and easy to use everywhere.  This means that as users, we expect to be able to take a discrete call in a movie or turning on the oven on your way home from the car audio interface.

We want the technology to disappear and the device to meet our needs.  Leveraging Amazon Alexa audio scripts (skills) is one choice for handsfree interaction and its popularity with designers has skyrocketed in the last 6 months as a convenient way to give commands and trigger actions without keys and displays.

To interact with devices in your home, there are now many service providers that will collect data and inform you using data from your growing inventory of household appliance and security sensors. These home stations add a display on a table or wall and can be accessed on computers, tablets and smartphones. 

This will likely be the first interface you will select and use.  

The big player choices are AppleHomeKit, GoogleHome, AmazonEcho, Honeywell and there are dozens of others.

The car manufacturers have their own audio and display interfaces and each one was jaw dropping to try out at the show.  The third major environment of use is when you are out and about. You will need a central command and the smartphone or watch becomes your friend so your biometrics can be a click away wearables and the small screen and audio will keep you connected, aware and informed.

Medical connected products are a category of their own.  They bring an exciting area of connected medical device equipment replacement and upgrade, however the hardware product creation is going slower than the consumer market frenzy, with the added complexity of compliance, privacy and security of data.

This feels like year one of a hardware journey where developers want everyone to experience the value of their standalone cloud interconnected device while global giants and standards groups catch up with simpler more ubiquitous solutions to help the technology problems disappear. This first step we believe is the connection phase followed by the data management phase (analytics, filtering and delivery), once the connection stage frustrations are minimized and the easier to use products have matured. 

In developing a good product, it is important your design team understands the changing component, cloud and software options to help extend product life in the changing cloud connectivity environment over the next 3 years.

It was apparent while walking the exhibits at CES 2017 that some companies are building fast and loose and many will fail the test of make it easy for me to use everywhere.  There are thousands of exciting connected products being brought to market every year. 

Ease of use will guide IOT product adoption over the next 5 years. Get it right, you stick around, get it just a little wrong and a new entrant will replace you.  The hardware design failure problem is so large that Indiegogo and Kickstarter crowdfunding platforms have implemented support programs to help mentor, guide and audit incoming projects with the platform establishing approval requirements before a campaign can be launched.

We all recognize a successful product as it is immediately exciting to interact with and easy to operate, with little or no help.

For most companies, the trial and error of creating devices and applications without considering the delays and inconsistencies of network connections and the environments and personal situations a user will need to be in (at home, office, in-between and away) can lead to several years of prototyping, learning and re-design before an acceptable solution is configured. These product development projects spiral to failure as they take the shotgun approach to the design process rather than using tried and true design tools, team experience and early stage lean methodology to test the various options.

The design methodology will ensure you arrive quickly at a product solution that is good enough to launch to your market.  A good deal of the feature design tweaking will happen in software after the product is launched.  Your connected hardware device generally is made to be ‘dumb’ for lower cost and longer useful life and the device software is updatable over the cloud.

Young startups and technology companies shifting to connected IOT products including manufacturers extending their product lines require a very experienced design process mentor now more than ever to steer connected product development.

At CES 2018, we predict an even larger explosion of devices most of which will be land fill the year after. Successful new product design must embrace rigorous user testing during the early product definition stage. This type of expertise is hard to find and harder to cultivate and maintain. 

A product development schedule is 4 months; an expert design team takes a decade and hundreds of projects to be effective.  Startups and companies connecting their existing products to the cloud will need to find and exploit existing product design teams that are experts at ease of use.

Building a team and developing the design process from scratch at the same time you are developing your product and technology is a much longer road making the venture an educational experiment not a business strategy, in today’s fast-paced product design environment.

The successful companies will go on to solve real world problems with devices and applications that give better customer experiences using devices that fit easily into our day and are delivered in under 8 months from idea to revenue generating sales.

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