When we think of design for connected products, we tend to focus on the most visible and tangible elements. These are the industrial design of connected devices, and the user interfaces (UIs) found in mobile and web apps and on the devices themselves. They are important concerns, which have a major impact on the end user’s experience of the product.

But they’re only part of the picture. You could create a beautiful UI, and a stunning piece of hardware and users could still have a poor experience of the product as a whole.

Designing for the IoT is inherently more complex than web service design. Some of this is to do with the current state of the technology. Furthermore, some of this reflects our as-yet immature understanding of compelling consumer IoT value propositions. Some of this stems from the fact that there are more aspects of design to consider. Tackling them independently creates an incoherent user experience (UX).

Designing a great connected product requires a holistic approach to user experience and a change in mindset.

It spans many layers of design, not all of them immediately visible. More than ever, it requires cross-discipline collaboration between design, technology, and business. Essentially, great UX may start with understanding users. But the designer’s ability to meet those users’ needs depends on the technology enablers, business models, and wider service ecosystem.

I thoroughly discussed the same topic in my Zerynth Continuous Learning webinar, in March this year. The presentation demonstrates how to handle the complexity of UX design for connected devices. As mentioned above, the specialized nature of connected devices requires a change it the mindset of the developer.

Of course, you can watch the whole webinar, on the Zerynth YouTube channel:

Why UX for IoT Is Different

Connected products pose design challenges that will be new to designers accustomed to pure software services. Many of these challenges stem from:

  • Specialized nature of IoT devices
  • Their ability to bridge the digital and physical worlds
  • The fact that many IoT products are distributed systems of multiple devices
  • Quirks of networking

A Framework for IoT Design

The most visible and tangible design elements of an IoT product are:

  • The user interfaces/visual and aesthetic design of the devices: whether web and mobile apps or on the connected devices
  • The industrial design of the physical hardware: the form factor, styling, and capabilities of the connected devices

UI and industrial design are important, but they are not the whole picture. It’s possible to create apps and industrial design which individually seem appealing, but for the overall UX still to be poor. This can happen if the components don’t work well in concert, or the value proposition is not a good fit for the user’s motivations for using the product. It can also reflect limitations of the technology or service ecosystem, which prevents the product from fulfilling surrounding user needs as well as it could.

The UX is not just shaped by what the user can see or encounter directly. The basis for a valuable, appealing, usable, and coherent IoT product is created by care for the UX at less visible, system-oriented, and strategic levels. This requires a good underlying technical, service, and product framework aligned around user needs. It requires attention to the experience of using the system as a whole.

A good overall product requires integrated thinking across all these layers. A stunning UI means nothing if your product concept makes no sense. A beautiful industrial design may sell products in the short term, but can’t mask terrible service.

Real-world context – Undo is not available

What’s more, unlike in the digital world, there’s no undo option in the physical world. More precisely, when you change the physical status of something there is no undo. Like I mentioned in the Zerynth Continuous Learning webinar, if you’ve started the washing cycle in your washing machine, there is no undo button. You can stop the machine, but your clothes will be wet.

Of course, you need to take this into consideration before you start the User Experience design process.

The physical context of use creates further challenges. For example, devices may need to be ruggedized for outdoor use. An in-car system needs to be
designed to minimize distraction while driving. A remotely controlled oven needs to minimize the risk of fire.

Devices must adhere to regulatory requirements such as radio interference or waste recycling standards. And the social context of use may be particularly complex, especially in the home.