Connectivity and Data

 

Internet of Things (IoT) products and services are fundamentally different than traditional products and apps. It’s difficult to point at a single object and say, “That’s IoT!”. Instead, what we find in IoT is a system of connected objects, cloud components and data that together becomes a user experience.

 

Due to this complexity, grasping IoT as a designer can be challenging. One model to make IoT more tangible is to start thinking about the more abstract parts, namely Connectivity and Data, as materials that we shape rather than as technologies. As with any other material we work with, designers need to get a gut feeling of the properties and options that are available.

How will a special type of plastic feel in my hand? How will my icons look on a 5” screen with a specific resolution? Good designers in their respective fields naturally know how to answer these questions. The same should apply to IoT, but with two of the new materials being connectivity and data.

As a consequence of treating these elements as a design material, designers can be (and should be!) part of the requirement and development process for IoT systems as well. It’s natural for an industrial designer to be part of the decision making in selecting materials and components for a phone or speaker – just as it must become natural to invite designers to understand the impact of latencies or sensor choices in an IoT system.

Unfortunately, a pattern we witness too frequently in IoT based projects is that designers are brought in extremely late to the product definition process. After fundamental decisions about connectivity and data are already made, a designer is essentially asked to work with materials predefined, handcuffing the value for users they can create. This can be like asking Jony Ive to work with the cheapest plastics and components that could be sourced, rather than letting his team create a valuable vision.

 

IoT is generally built on a mix of local connectivity (such as Bluetooth or Wifi) and cloud computing through the Internet (data stored and processed on a remote server).

 

CONNECTIVITY AS MATERIAL

Examples of technology decisions that heavily impacts the user experience include:

  • Latency (When will user actions have effect? How immediate are notifications, etc)
  • Bandwidth (What type of content can be transferred to/from the user? What are reasonable push/pull schemes for information?)
  • Properties of specific protocols (Pairing of Bluetooth, Wifi passwords, etc)


As designers, we can’t simply rely on engineers understanding the impact of connectivity on the user experience. We must have a deep understanding of the connectivity on our own, develop an intuitive sense for it, and make sure our design works with the chosen technologies. It’s a material that shapes the IoT experience and we have to work with it.

 
 
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Data is the currency of IOT

As our friends at VisionMobile states; Data is the currency of IoT. Data is probably the most challenging material to work with as designer.  It’s also the one with the most potential.

Many IoT products today have a 1-to-1 relationship between the data and the product using the data. For example, the bracelet that counts your steps is also the one that suggests a new goal for you the next day. However, data becomes really interesting when you apply asymmetric models to it. What data can you collect and use (or sell?) somewhere else? What seemingly unrelated data is available to you (freely or at a price) that can improve the experience you are designing? An example of this is Nest, that can use traffic information to calculate when you arrive home.

Today, strategic thinking around data is done mainly by “big data” companies and data crunchers. But since data eventually is a foundation for many future experiences, we, as designers, need to get our hands dirty with this new material.

A few aspects of data that are valuable for designers to understand include:

  • Sensor types and their properties
  • How raw data can be turned into insights and intelligence, i.e. data crunching
  • Privacy
  • Open data sources, or which data that can be bought
  • Value of data, which data can be collected through a design and be useful for others?
  • Big data, crowd sourcing, etc

Data can be perceived as a very dry and theoretical topic, but is the foundation of the Internet of Things and the new types of experiences which will emerge.

 

PROTOTYPING – THE WAY TO GET YOUR HANDS DIRTY

For designers to develop experience with these new materials we need to have methods and tools to explore them through prototypes. The complexity of IoT systems can be perceived as barriers for designers to participate as fluently as they have with more traditional design disciplines, and this means they can require quite extensive support from an engineering organisation.

At Topp we have been experimenting with extending our UI prototyping tool Noodl to include connected prototypes as well. This is a first step for us to let our designers work more hands on with these new IoT materials. An example of that can be seen in this video.

With Noodl we can keep the speed of iteration high (which is imperative to generative concept exploration), while still allowing the designer to build quite complex and nuanced IoT scenarios.

So far much of our work involves the intersection between physical and digital experiences through connectivity.  However, we are actively looking into how data and related experiences can be prototyped. For example, understanding how latencies affects a design can save a lot of time and money down the development stream.

The Internet of Things is revealing several emerging methods and practices for designers, and to date there are only a handful of experiences that have really impressed us. By learning how to work with our new materials, Connectivity and Data, we will see that changing rapidly.

 

Anders Larsson is CTO at Topp. Talk to him about the future of design at anders@topp.se