November’s ProductTank London hooked us up to the growing Internet of Things. With the number of connected devices already outstripping the number of humans, Alison Austin (@alicenwondrlnd) brought us three great speakers, who have respectively immersed themselves in this brave new world of ‘mundane computing’, to help guide us through the challenges of design and product management.
Making, Not Designing
To open, we had Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino (@iotwatch) of Designswarm. She is a product and interaction designer, entrepreneur, founder of the Good Night Lamp, and co-founder of Internet of People and Tinker London.
Alexandra told us how the Internet of Things (IoT) is changing the way product design is being done. Unlike traditionally design, when you’re working in the online world, there is no one solution – it’s whatever makes best sense at that time.
Hardware development is now also adopting more rapid, iterative development practices, and the availability of open kits to interact with products such as Nike+ is making it easier for makers to remix hardware products. After the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, there was a massive surge in demand for Geiger counters. Safecast put a kit together for the public to gather and broadcast radiation levels via the internet and an iOS app.
Before, early conceptions of a hardware product would either be drawings or non-functional mockups. These days, it’s much easier to experiment and create a functioning minimal viable product to test a concept before moving into manufacturing. Technology – the innards of the box – is no longer off-limits to product designers.
IoT startups also have a different make-up to more usual hardware companies. Surprisingly the initial team doesn’t always involve product designers; often it’s computer scientists making the move sideways from software into hardware. Makers are so rarely product designers with an interest in computer science. The Nest team, for example, came from Apple originally. We should force designers to learn to code! Makers are people who understand the internet as a tool rather than a window display.
Alexandra wrapped up with the following thoughts:
- Design should be an open & flexible process of learning.
- Design should be collaborative by default.
- Focus on designing for real problems.
UX for the Internet of Things
Next up we had Claire Rowland (@Clurr), a UX strategist, design manager and researcher with a particular interest in experience design for the Internet of Things. She’s currently the service design manager for AlertMe.com, a connected home platform provider and writing a book for O’Reilly on UX design for the Internet of Things.
Claire explained how user experience and interaction design need to take into account the expectations people have for mundane devices, such as heating controllers you can operate from your smartphone and smart meter energy monitoring.
She opened by outlining the many design layers of the IoT: platform, productisation, data, service, industrial, interusability, interaction, and user interface / visual interaction. Interusability is all about composition, consistency and continuity.
Composition poses the question: when functionality is distributed across many devices, plus how well do users understand what each device does?
Consistency means retaining a similar visual look (and feel if possible) across all the devices in a family. Returning to Nest’s thermostat as an example, the wall device and the smartphone app share the same user interface effects and sounds to help the user associate them together and be able to reapply their understanding of how to use them.
When people expect changes made to one device in a system to be replicated out to the other devices, that’s an expectation of continuity. When you change the temperature setting on your heating via your smartphone app, you’d expect the wall device to remain in sync.
Claire then described how new technologies in the home present other UX challenges. As an example, UK heating controllers run on batteries, so they only sync with the network once every two minutes, leading to user confusion when different devices are saying different things. Similarly, controlling your heating from a smartphone is great, but when your phone isn’t available, you’ll end up being cold, so that’s why there also needs to be a box on the wall.
Clare parted with the following thoughts:
- Productise. Consumers buy products (e.g. the Nest), early adopters buy tools (e.g. the Belkin WeMo).
- Makes the user value explicit. A door contact sensor isn’t just part of a burglar alarm, it could tell you that your child has opened your front door, or that someone is trying to steal your guns (if you happen to be a US citizen with a personal arsenal).
- Avoid tech for tech’s sake. Don’t create solutions in search of a problem, like the “romantic mode” in home automation systems, which softens the lights, closes the curtains and puts music on. (Though I think the audience secretly liked the idea – Ed.)
- Avoid information overload. Products are suffering from TMI (too much information) – lots of data available, but minimal insight. Instead, explain what’s wrong and what the user can do about it.
- “People have to understand it before they can want it.” – Denise Wilton (@denisewilton)
The Future is not an Internet-Connected Egg Box
Our third speaker was a second Alex – Alex Jones (@zandrjo), a business design consultant at Fjord, and formally a product manager at British Gas Connected Homes (the organisation’s corporate startup) and a business consultant at Detica. Alex is passionate about all things connected and the intersection between business, technology & design and was here to tell us about the role of product managers and designers in the Internet of Things.
Mary Meeker of KPCB says that we are experiencing an intense period of re-imagination: everything is becoming connected, and is powered by the combination of new devices, connectivity, UI and beauty. But is this leading us towards utopia or the Rise of the Machines, asked Alex.
By 2020, it’s predicted that over 50 billion every-day objects will be connected to the internet; every light bulb, kettle, power socket and meter. As a rule of thumb, Alex suggests that by that point, every device priced over $25 will be connected to the internet by default – perhaps even yoga mats…
The trend will be that connectivity will start with one-way communication (query current status) and lead through to many-to-many communication as more items go online. You may find that the items in your house start talking to each other.
However, echoing Claire’s point earlier, just because a device can be connected, doesn’t mean it should. Connectivity is a novelty, so it currently sells, but it doesn’t make a product meaningful by itself, as deftly demonstrated by the internet-connected egg box.
Design is the human wrapper that goes around products to make them meaningful over being purely functional – great design keeps customers coming back. Spotify already provides music recommendations based on your mood, but what would happen if devices knew your routine well enough to take that further? Your phone might cue up some uplifting music as you commute home from work tired, or perhaps motivating music when it knows you have your regular gym session.
Alex believes that product managers are the architects of this re-imagining. Customers won’t re-imagine; they don’t know what they need, so the results will be like sticking plasters on a leaky bucket. They may be able to describe to you the gaps in their lives, but product management needs to define the product.
Similarly, corporations won’t re-imagine; bureaucracy, financial constraints, and risk aversion all stifle the creativity required. Many key performance indicators (KPIs) track business needs (i.e. building something on time) rather than customer needs.
To conclude, Alex’s left us with his five tips for product managers with this responsibility to re-imagine:
- Resist the connectivity urge.
- Be human.
- Defend the line.
- Track the right KPIs.
Q&A on the Internet of Things
How concerned are you about companies gathering and using information not to empower users but to influence us?
Alex J suggested that most companies gathering data don’t really know what to do with it, there’s not enough maturity, however product management is leading the thinking. Claire felt it was scary when companies gather information in public spaces without explicit consent, but Alex D-S was reassured by the moves in Government to extend Data Protection Act to cover new situations that tech and the IoT are enabling.
Which device do you really, really hope never gets connected?
Alex D-S asked how x-rated did we want the answer to be (yikes), but thankfully left it there… Claire said that device needed to learn their manners before being connected, like the Bosch washing machine that thinks it’s a burglar alarm when its cycle completes. Alex J hoped that pen and paper would remain permanently offline. He enjoys drawing, but when it’s thrown away, it shouldn’t come back to haunt him later.
What would you recommend to someone wanting to get into product management?
“Don’t wait to be called a product manager before practising product management,” said Alex J. “Understand the tech, ask difficult questions on what the user actually wants, be passionate about the product,” was Claire’s answer.
And with that we concluded ProductTank London for the night – and 2013! The next one will be at 6.30pm on Wednesday 15th January (third Wednesday of each month as usual). Event details will be made available soon. Do join us in the New Year – have a great break from all of us at ProductTank!
We are indebted to Highway1 and ProdPad for sponsoring the evening’s drinks. If you have a hardware prototype, Highway1 are also now accepting applications for their accelerator programme through AngelList.