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Experience Design Trends: The Internet of Things

By Lakai Newman

The Internet of Things (or IoT) and other screenless experiences are revolutionizing the way consumers interact with technology. Agencies and brands are returning to the drawing board to keep ahead of quickly changing consumer demand, delivering and increasing value to everyday objects and experiences.

For this third installment in a four-part series on experience design trends, I spoke with the team at the London office of Made by Many, a SoDA member company. Made by Many is an innovation consultancy based in London and New York that works with global brands to build digital ventures that transform markets. I also talked to two lead design technologists, Josh Newnham and Tim Meador, from SoDA member company Method. (SoDA is a global, invite-only network of digital shops, of which I am the communications manager.) With shops in San Francisco, New York, and London, Method is a collaborative design studio that puts customers’ needs at the heart of the problems they solve and the opportunities they create.

Create: As a pioneer in IoT/screenless experiences, can you address the changes brands and agencies entering this realm need to make?

Made By Many: Co-designing, testing with users, and working in an agile manner has always been central to our process. It may seem obvious, but you’d be surprised how many digital/physical products don’t get developed this way. Our coming from digital and this way of working seems like a distinct advantage over marketing and traditional product design companies in the IoT space. At the same time, we’ve had to learn about the semi-linear processes that are used to make physical products, and we’ve had to adjust our way of working to accommodate those processes. One thing that was particularly helpful was our partnership with Map Project Office, a product design agency, who were able to provide the critical expertise we were lacking.

Brands and agencies do well when they play to their strengths. In the prototyping phase we created the product completely on our own terms, building on successful processes and domain expertise. Yet once we’d settled on the product proposition, we had to adapt to accommodate a process that more closely resembles the waterfall model being used by factories and suppliers. This was possible because we were confident in our product; we wouldn’t be where we are now if we hadn’t developed and evolved the product in-house to the extent that we had.

Method: As with any new technology, companies should continually ask, “How can X improve the experience and/or bring more value”? The answer is dependent on the service or product and their customers’ adoption of the technology.

Sometimes the only way of identifying these opportunities is through experimentation, so I would encourage companies to develop a culture (either within or through partnerships) where they’re exploring creating experiences with new technologies with customers, probably with the “power” customers.

But, with the same breath, I would discourage solely focusing on technology. Look at the customer and their journey of achieving the relevant goal. Map the journey and identify how technology can better integrate into their life. Also identify any hacks customers are currently doing that can be adopted by your offering. An example of this is Amazon’s Dash—it intercepts the exact point where customers realize they have ran out of product Y and therefore removes any barrier (for product Y).

It’s critical to view your offering as a service, even if you are offering a physical or digital product. We now have the opportunity to connect with the customer across multiple media, in all contexts, but if your offering is not applicable to a specific context, don’t make it accessible.  

We need to be more mindful and empathetic towards the user, their current context, and constraints of the device. For example, the experience needs to adapt to the context and medium: the flow for Web will differ from, say, Amazon Echo. 

Create: Can you share which of your IoT/screenless experiences you are most proud of, and why?

Made By Many: Much of what we are working on is under NDA. Overall, we’re most proud of the experiences you don’t see (the micro experiences that are a result of considered design) because they are the hardest to get right.

When you have a product where a person’s attention is constantly divided between the screen and the physical product, and they can move between being connected to the app to having the product work standalone, then the best thing you can do is to make the whole experience feel seamless and obvious. For example, with Hackaball, the ball has no screen, so our basic rule was, “When in doubt, shake it.” This is a satisfying thing to do to technology because it is intuitive. Shaking wakes the ball up and shaking a second time in succession starts game play. 

However, when someone is using the app it becomes like the hand of the user, an extension of their intention. So the ball responds to app actions, too, as a way to stay in sync with the experience. For example, if the ball is sleeping and the user opens the app, the ball wakes up. Or when you move away from the play screen on the app to the overview screen where the other games are, the ball goes back to its listening state. In the same way, editing games is an experience that happens simultaneously on the ball and the app. The app and ball are thought of one and the same experience, rather than as two components of an experience that happen sequentially. It was important for us that the ball was contextually aware — we wanted the ball to always be ready and responsive to the person playing with it.

Method: Method and GlobalLogic collaborated with healthcare start-up Bay Innovations to design and engineer a wearable product that revolutionized patient care. The product, Vivi, enables clinicians to visually perceive patient vital signs data within their field of view, improving response time and allowing more attention to be directed toward patients and the surgical field. [For more, see the SoDA Report.]

Create: What do you see as the potential for screenless experiences to unite people in new ways? Are there technology advances that still need to be made for that potential to be realized?

Made By Many: What we’ve seen working with 6- to 11-year-olds is that even games that we would think of as one-player games are often played together, either sharing the device or playing the same game on different devices together in the same room, much like in the past when kids read comics together. For many kids, technology is inherently social, even when they aren’t on social media. It’s not a question of technology advancing as much as services being designed around people’s natural tendency to socialize. When you get people in the same space with a common purpose, socializing happens automatically.

Method: Over the years, we have seen many paradigm shifts of how we interact with computers. We have gone from physical switches to punch cards, the terminal (command line), direct manipulation (GUI), and conversation (speculated by a few). Each shift is toward a more natural paradigm, removing barriers of requiring the user having to learn a new language. The by-product of this is that computers better understand us and our world, and we have seen innovative ways of making the world more accessible for everyone.

Recent technology has also had an effect of isolating us from the present moment. For example, screened technology often requires the user’s full attention, pulling them away from the world and their current situation. By removing the screen and pushing technology into the environment, it will hopefully alleviate some of this, providing us with all the convenience without requiring our full attention. However, for this to be realized, we, the designers and builders of these experiences, need to take some responsibility in how we engage with the user and how much attention we really require. Can we further leverage technology to better assist our users, perform some of the tasks for them, and only engage with them when needed?

Create: What are three things you've learned about crafting screenless experiences that other agencies and brands entering this world should know?

Made By Many:

  1. Design for a non-linear experience. The experience of a screenless product can be divided over the product, the app and other service touch points — and it's uncertain which of these the user will interact with first. Make the product easier to interact with by layering messaging across the entire experience, where each part of the service supports the other. A simple example: create an event in the supporting mobile app that simultaneously starts a light or sound message from your product. 
  2. Underpin everything with a strong brand. In the sense of communicating the product’s character and values, brand is the glue that keeps everything together. How your app feels, sounds, and communicates should support and reflect the look, the sound, and the interactions of your physical product.
  3. Don't reinvent fundamentals. Build on existing digital communication and physical interactions that people know and love to construct the language of your product. It is hard to teach people new ways of interacting with a product. No one likes reading manuals; we are now used to intuitively exploring interfaces. By building on existing design language, you allow people to confidently explore your product.

Method:

  1. Be patient. Nintendo and Apple are great examples of companies who, presumably and generally, experiment with a lot of new technology but are patient in terms of when they release—ensuring that what is exposed to the customer enhances their experience. They don’t compromise the experience for the latest gadget.
  2. Think holistically. The opportunity and implication for the adoption of IoT/screenless experiences is better fitting into the customer’s lifestyle. In order to do this, you need to take a step back to better understand the greater goal and how your product or service fits into this. Map out your journey first and then look for ways your product can help achieve the goal.
  3. Move your company in the mindset of software and data first. Software-first means shifting your process from “releasing X” to continuously monitoring and tweaking the offering. This obviously becomes more challenging for physical products, which is why it is important to extract as much functionality as possible into the software layer. Data-first means appreciating the value of data in terms of its ability to better understand your customer, as well as the opportunities to make your product smarter and more personalized for each user. 

Create: What are some of the biggest trends for IoT/screenless experiences to embrace and avoid in the coming year?

Made By Many: For many IoT products, the digital part of their proposition is making existing experiences more convenient and interesting. A trend to avoid is the products that make existing experiences significantly worse when the underlying technology fails. And technology is guaranteed to fail. When you get locked out of your house because a server is down, that’s a problem that’s further out of your control then getting a locksmith in when you lose your key. We know that when Hackaball’s battery dies, you still have a bouncy robust ball to play with and the ball games you’ve played since your childhood aren’t suddenly broken. We’ve built a product that can gracefully handle failure. Designers of IoT products should know that the products exist in a physical universe, and the designers should construct services around the product that build on that experience.

Method: The adoption of voice is quickly increasing. With the advancements in natural language and the proliferation of devices being able to support voice, we’re likely to see more products and services deliver experiences over this medium. Therefore, “tone of voice" will become literal for a lot of companies; how does your brand translate into voice is an important question.

It’s important to look at unbundling your offering, such that it can be easily adapted for multiple mediums as well as easily integrated with.

Related is the need for (and rise of) Artificial Intelligence. Reducing the interaction surface layer means your products need to be smarter. It can only work if you can offer a smarter experience, one that knows the user’s basic details and only requires minimal input to achieve the same goal. Your product or service may be delivered through an agent. It’s important to expose your product, allowing it to be easily integrated with (and thus giving you the best opportunity to deliver your experience).

Lastly, it is important to be mindful of disruption, but your focus should be predominantly on incremental improvements. The best examples of IoT and A.I. are those that reduce pain points for the user and improve the efficiency of the flow. For example, auto-suggest and key prediction on iOS and Android make typing possible on the smartphone, and the Nest learning thermostat provides assistive setup and updating, removing the need of explicit interaction. In both of these examples, the change incrementally improves the product by removing pain points.

Catch up on the first two articles in this series: “Where It’s At: An Interview with Two Place-Based Experience Designers” and “Demystifying the Craft and Promise of VR.”