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Product manufacturers: It's time to rethink the IoT user interface

The well-known user interface of yesteryear isn't going to cut it in a connected world; it's time to think about an IoT user interface.

The disciplines of user interface, industrial design and human-machine interaction were born more than 20 years ago, in a world of desktop computers and heavy machinery. Yet, our notion and understanding of what it means to interact with technology, particularly the internet, are transforming radically. Our interactions are shifting from laptop to mobile and increasingly across other devices and connected form factors. As we add sensors and connectivity to our bodies, appliances, homes, cars, buildings, machines and just about everything else, interaction with the internet grows evermore indistinguishable from interaction with our physical world.

What's different about the IoT user interface vs. everything before?

Amid the pervasive application of sensors and networked technology in just about every industry, technologists and business professionals often underestimate the role and depth of user interface. Sure, user interface has always been important; the tangible, aesthetic pleasure of products has always paved the way for our emotional connections to the objects and brands we love most. How we perceive the simplicity and utility of interacting with things dictates our experience and allegiance to them.

What the internet introduced, and now the IoT user interface, was the ability for data to be coupled with interactions.

Let's take an example: It used to be shopping for a new suit in a clothing store was an analog event; a shopper went from one rack to the next, made a few rounds in the dressing room and either purchased, placed on hold, ordered elsewhere or just went home. No data -- beyond perhaps the credit card transaction -- at all.

Then came e-retail. Shopping on the internet attached a data trail -- and thus contextual signals -- to each phase of the process, from searching, scrolling, clicking, zooming, heeding recommendations and incentives, never mind e-payment, earned ratings and reviews, and the integration of shopper profiles into systems measuring and optimizing this process for other shoppers, suppliers, customer service, sales and so on.

What the internet of things introduces -- or better said, unites -- is data, interactions and the physical world.

What the internet of things introduces -- or better said, unites -- is data, interactions and the physical world. Interaction coupled with data transcends the laptop and mobile device, and it becomes literally embedded into any object, infrastructure or interaction.

To continue with our example, in-store interactions simultaneously generating data might include entering the store; checking in on a mobile device; connecting to Wi-Fi or passing by a beacon; scanning an RFID tag, quick response code or other sensor indicating interest in an object or promotion; interacting with an employee stylist equipped with a tablet or other scanning device; trying on an item using a "smart mirror," in which one could search for various sizes, prints, colors or accessories; or even digitally overlay products on themselves using augmented reality.

Purchases, redemption of coupons and digital receipts, among other interactions, can now all be integrated with a shopper's online profile, thereby connecting "brick" (in-store) and "click" (online) interactions. Such interactions can also signal inventory and supply chain transactions and even inform store layout, merchandizing, labor allocation and a host of other operational decisions, many of which are entirely invisible to the customer.

What this fundamental shift represents is the imperative for a new approach to user interface design, one which orchestrates the physical and tangible with the digital and intangible, an IoT user interface design.

In IoT, user interface is the tip of the iceberg

In a world in which data is generated by our interactions, interface becomes the tangible part of a far deeper and intangible whole. In our research of the space, we have found the old "tip of the iceberg" a useful metaphor for conceptualizing the function and future of user interface.

What is visible, tangible and perceivable above the water is the IoT user interface, as we experience it through our five senses.

Connected product UX: IoT user interface iceberg

Yet, what sits below the waterline -- what we cannot see -- are a range of elements that develop and deliver the IoT user experience of any connected object. These elements fall into the following eight categories:

  1. Hardware and firmware. The physical technology -- hardware, firmware, sensors -- embedded in the object that powers its function;
  2. Connectivity. The protocol and hardware -- e.g., gateway, router and so on -- required for the device to connect to the internet or other networks;
  3. Integration and interoperability. How and to what extent data and functionality from the device are shared or accessed with other devices or third parties, and vice versa -- i.e., how third-party device data is used by the device in use;
  4. Security. What safeguards -- hardware, firmware, software, code or otherwise -- underlie the security of the device itself;
  5. Data and content. Data generated by interacting with the device and/or its associated mobile app; this also includes the resulting content that data triggers or generates;
  6. Services and transactions. A company's ability to deliver service interactions and/or enact transactions by interacting with the device;
  7. Identity and privacy. The object's ability to recognize individual user personas or avatars and associate interactions with their unique profiles, preferences, protections and individual context; and
  8. Updates and configurability. Software used to deliver new features to the device's experience, security, mobile app or power consumption.

These eight core elements define a connected, IoT user experience. The sum of these tangible and intangible parts -- hardware, software, firmware, code, integrations, services and content -- is indeed dynamic, and it dictates the evolution of the experience over time.

User experience anatomy defines product evolution

Another consideration product manufacturers often overlook is the importance of user interface as it relates to the longer-term innovative potential for the product. Connected products offer their manufacturers the ability to increase value via, for example, personalization, new features and security over time, and they leverage each of these elements to do so. For example, connected products like mobile phones, Amazon Echo and Tesla receive periodic over-the-air updates introducing new features or UI improvements. This is a fundamental change to the paradigm most manufacturers have subscribed, in which new products are reintroduced each year and current ones grow evermore outdated.

Thus, product designers must consider these elements not just in their current development context, but lay the foundation for agility, integrity and interoperability such that products can appreciate -- not depreciate -- in value over time.

Next Steps

Guest contributor Jerome Rota explains voice interfaces in IoT

Learn more about defining and testing a user interface

This was last published in November 2016

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