Design Thinking and the Internet of Things

The first challenges on the Internet of Things are engineering-based. Getting things to talk to each other, reverse engineering beacon packets and whacking away at code until I can figure out how to water the lawn or adjust the temperature in my living room.

But technology alone is not the answer. Just because we can doesn’t always mean we should. Yesterday’s inflated headlines of hype reminded me that just because something might be obvious doesn’t mean it’s always a good idea.

Being more productive at a tradeshow might be possible, as Forbes would have us believe, but mostly your potential customers want to wander around and take a pulse, meet some new people, and generate a lead or two. It’s a technology solution in search of a pain point.

The Future That Can’t Be Predicted

Design thinking is the process of imagining a future that can’t be extrapolated from past data. If all you do is say: “yes, this is where the industry, or a technology, or a trends seems to be headed” and then follow the line forward, you’re doing extrapolation not design.

Design thinking lives at the intersection of imagination and analysis. It can use as its starting point a new technology that’s never been used before, a customer pain point, synthesis of unlikely components, analogy, metaphor…all the tools that a ‘designer’ would use but applied by the rest of us to a business, a product or a service.

We’re at the earliest days on the Internet of Things and we know this because the solutions, so far, can mostly be extrapolated from past data. We’ve bolted technology on top of old paradigms and maybe thrown in some spiffy UX or industrial design to give it a smooth sheen.

Forbes might be excited by a world without keys and security badges, but that isn’t design thinking: it’s an extrapolation from past data with a new technology merely bending the curve.

First, Ask Why?

Gordon Hui at Wired reminds us that just because we can doesn’t mean we should:

“Thanks to widespread Internet adoption and over 10 billion connected devices around the world, companies today are more excited than ever about the Internet of Things. Add in the hype about Google Glass and the Nest Thermostat, and nearly every business, including those from traditionally low-tech industries, wants to get on the cloud, track a group of devices, and gather data. The question, however, is not if a device can be connected, but why the company is connecting a previously “dumb” product to the cloud. Or stated differently, if a company invests in making my toaster talk to my lawnmower, is that really a good business decision and why?”

He proposes three simple questions to ask before you go chasing IoT just because it’s there:

1. Why does connecting to the cloud create greater value for the user?
2. Why are the connected features on your product roadmap integral to the core experience?
3. Why does connecting to the cloud enhance your business model?

It’s the challenge of context that matters, according to Hui: “Instead, the challenge is to bridge the technology to a larger context and understand why connecting to the cloud creates greater value for the user, product experience, and business model.”

Second, Ask About Pain, Love and Embrace

Meanwhile, Nest CEO Tony Fadell hates the phrase Internet of Things. It puts the focus on the devices. It turns the physical world into an engineering challenge: how do I connect my fridge to shopping data? How do I digitize my toaster?

For Fadell, terms like ‘love’ and ’embrace’ are part of the language we should use in designing the Internet of Things. And he sounds a lot like Jony Ive:

“We are all about taking those things everyday that are important to you and should be important to you and casting them in a whole new light with new technology, solving the problems that have been around for decades” 

He worries about a world in which people are connecting devices that don’t need to be connected, creating experiences that don’t need to be ‘appified’:

“People are like, I am going to bash Wi-Fi with a toaster, or with a kettle. The other day I saw that someone was doing it with a water bottle. It doesn’t make sense. You have to think about the entire experience of the product. Once you rethink the entire product, then connectivity is right.”

I’m not so worried about the devices that get it wrong. We’re at the early stages. It’s not unlike the early days of desktop publishing, say: the democratization of design which also meant the creation of a lot of crap.

IoT development has become more accessible, cheaper, available to the masses (or at least the geeky early adopters).

But that also means we have a larger playing field and that words like love, pain, richness and embrace can enter the lexicon of IoT as we imagine a future that can’t be predicted based on the data that’s come before.

You’re at the frontier to the future. It’s time to create.

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2 Responses to “Design Thinking and the Internet of Things”

  1. Doug,
    This post resonates with me so much. I complement you on injecting a design thinking perspective into this. We are really trying to think hard about not just proximity as UX ornamentation, but what are the ‘jobs to be done’ by this technology that adds relevance, timeliness and value to the user’s daily experience.


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