The future of IoT depends on UX

Rachel Nitschke, content marketing specialist, ChaiOne

Have a conversation with an Internet of Things enthusiast for long enough and you’ll hear these three come up as the hurdles to the Internet of Things reaching widespread adoption and generating massive ROI for every industry, and raise the quality of life and work for consumers and employees. The sky is the limit — once we get these three sorted out.

These conversations obscure the real question with IoT for the enterprise: If you deploy an IoT-enabled product, is it actually worth using? Or put another way, does it actually simplify users’ work and lives enough that they will want to use it every day?  How will it enable continuous business improvement? We’re not talking about the early adopters who are excited about what the Internet of Things will do one day, says Rachel Nitschke, content marketing specialist at ChaiOne.

The majority of your target users are people who need to be persuaded to pick up new technology. For both industrial use cases and consumer-facing applications, the experience of IoT-enabled devices frustrates, rather than enhances, their physical experience. Convincing users to learn how to work with your device and forgo old habits is an uphill climb already. Throw in a frustrating or not intuitive product and user adoption rates go out the window.

Users’ needs are the real issue with the Internet of Things. When these integrated products are responsible for mission-critical and hazardous operations in industrial settings, a non-intuitive user experience can mean millions in lost ROI from misuse and workarounds from potential shut downs of entire operations, missed delivery dates to customers and a loss in investments.

The problem is that many of these IoT-integrated products stem from well-meaning executives and IT leaders, but the requirements do not come from the actual workforce or consumers who will have to use the product. By the time the product is tested with the end-users, it’s too late to make changes. According to a study from NASA, each stage of development, from initial conception to launch, generates a ten-fold increase in the cost to make a requirements correction.

The real problem that Internet of Things vendors and users have is that the user conditions, environmental factors and the features for these products make for a vastly different frontier than web or mobile applications. In late 2013, the U.K. government commissioned a study on the usability of smart heating controls. None of the five major products on the market offered a good user experience.

The systems required multiple, confusing steps to set up the schedules, and did not provide confirmatory feedback that the actions had been registered. Some also allowed users to enter errors into their heating system schedules. In addition, users did not understand the metaphors, labels or icons used in the systems.

What’s different about Internet of Things-enabled products?

  • Faceless. For many products, there is no log-in or authentication required to use. Customising the user experience to different personas for the different users of the product becomes much more difficult.
  • Privacy. Look no further than the recent consumer concerns over the Amazon Echo “always listening.” Although the end result does benefit the end-user with a more tailored and personalised experience, the feeling of privacy invasion will pervade every experience and is something that developers need to keep in mind when developing features.
  • Distributed. Controlling a sprinkler system via two interfaces, smartphone app and product control panel, is very different than a mobile-only driven experience. Rather than a series of disconnected user interfaces and experiences, IoT-enabled products need to treat every interaction from each possible device as a connected user experience.
  • Critical and unpredictable environmental factors. When the device is part of the environment with which the user is interacting, simply observing how a user interacts with an interface will not suffice for user research.

The solution for user experience: a user-centered design practice to truly understand the environmental and user conditions that become part of the experience of the product.

User-centered design means building the product around what the users need or want from the product, rather than developing a product that necessitates a behavioral change. There is not a defined series of steps for a user-centered design process to develop products; the process is also chosen based on the needs of the user and can include ethnography, observations, user interviews, contextual inquiries, surveys, etc. The two phases of user-centered design are research and then design.

Here’s what the research portion of that process is not: solely relying on user interviews, market research, or employee manuals. Too often, companies conduct these and then depend on them and them alone for guidance on how to develop crucial products. For user interviews, the easiest way to demonstrate where these go wrong is by observational example.

Think of how you would explain to someone how you brush your teeth. How do you grab the toothbrush— by the handle or the head? What area of the tube do you apply force to push out the paste? These are the crucial details that enterprises miss when only relying on what users say their process is.

Market research presents the same issues. The data that market research presents will help you understand how to market the product to users, but not how to make a successful product. The data, which presents patterns of consumer behavior, is simply not detailed enough for a fine-grained understanding of users.

In a similar vein, employee manuals rarely tell the whole or accurate story of how an employee completes his or her work. They often reflect the “ideal,” rather than the “real.” These have a place, but they need to be paired with scientific, observational study and other research activities to get the complete picture.

We outline a case study in our 2016 Guide to IoT and M2M for the Utilities Industry that illustrates how powerful user-centered design can be in eliminating false assumptions that sink products. One utility company required transmission line repair employees to use smartphones to log data on asset performance during the process, using a difficult pinch-and-zoom user interface to see the fields on the form. The problem: these users are up on a ladder and potentially in direct sunlight.

Asking them to perform this difficult task with one hand and often shielding the screen in order to see it leaves zero hands to hold on to the ladder and requires complete focus on the screen. This application actually endangered the safety of the workers. Going out into the field to see how users actually perform the tasks on their tablet, smartphone, or wearable device with ethnographic and human factors researchers will yield these important insights— before the product launches and fails, losing potentially millions of dollars.

The design portion consists of taking those insights from research and bringing them to life via design of the user experience. Designers and researchers should work closely together and designers should also accompany researchers out into the field to get a better feel for what the research team will deliver. For example, in the example above, the designer would take that example and see that rather than designing everything on the same white interface of the desktop application, a black background would work better for the worker in direct sunlight.

Internet of Things-enabled products have a long way to go for enabling a better user experience. The products that succeed with consumers and employees are those that use a user-centered design process to drive the product’s development. Next time you are considering the IoT, rather than using the capabilities of the technology to drive the product’s development, make the users’ needs the driver and save yourself the 10X as costly failure this time next year.

The author of this blog is Rachel Nitschke Content Marketing Specialist at ChaiOne.

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