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Successful IoT Projects Start With People

close up photo of a mobile application

Today’s smartphones — bristling with emerging technology — increasingly drive both our home and work lives. With powerful, global companies behind these products, it’s easy to forget that technology isn’t our raison d’être. Technology’s goal is to simplify once-difficult tasks — to even make them seem effortless. Without intentionally improving experiences through meaningful interactions, technology fails as a useful tool.

This truth is most evident when you focus more on IoT’s technical challenges and associated devices (things) than how people interact with and use the technology. But when you put people at the center of your IoT projects, the priority shifts to solving problems you see in the world through great design, which enriches lives and helps businesses thrive. After all, IoT project success should depend solely on how well people interact with your IoT products and devices. Maximize the people experience and you’ll dominate markets.

Historically, user experience design has focused on a single website or a separate app at a time. These experiences have individual touchpoints where a user completes one or two tasks, and each task has a clear beginning and end. Within IoT projects, however, user engagement is far more complex. Multiple users can interact with an app, an IoT device, a website, or some other technology at once, which calls for an expanded toolset to manage this evolving complexity.

Take, for example, the rise of smart homes and the interconnected complexity of devices such as thermostats, light switches, video surveillance, motion sensors and detectors, security systems, smart locks and others. On the surface, each of these tech-enabled devices seems straight-forward. You can control a light switch, for instance, from a physical switch or with an app on your phone from anywhere. With some feature-laden switches, you can also vary light brightness and light color.

But today’s homes are packed with a host of wifi-enabled smart devices aside from light switches. With multiple people using the home’s IoT devices, significant conflicts can arise as system complexity increases. For organizations, there are plenty of opportunities to create great experiences, no matter the complexity. To begin, businesses can borrow from a portfolio of existing tools and methods, as well as develop new tools to address emergent IoT project design challenges. Here are three proven tools:

1. Know the individuals

The first rule of creating any great product or service is to know your users. Consumer IoT devices rarely have a singular user. In the case of a smart home, even a single occupant will have others coming into the home occasionally — guests and service people, for example.

To help define each user type, organizations should start by answering these questions:

  • Who is the main audience for this IoT solution or IoT project?
  • How many people will interact with this IoT project in a typical installation?
  • How are each of the individuals different?
  • What are they trying to achieve?
  • How will the IoT solution help them?
  • How might this IoT solution cause barriers?

To summarize your research, create an empathy map for each of your identified user types to help you isolate their individual needs. At this point, you’ll have a good summary of how each individual relates to the IoT installation.

2. Define context, challenges and goals

For each user group, think about the different contexts in which they might use the IoT solution, or need something unique from it. For example, if you’re working on the light switch example, you should consider what happens when the homeowner or apartment renter is on vacation, at home or at work.

Take each of these contexts and think about the different goals or challenges the user might have in those situations. How will other users affect that context? How will that impact other user groups?

iot table

3. Map out the interplay of an IOT project

Up until this point, common UX practices work to understand the experience. However, when you map these interactions, numerous new components may have to handle new tasks. Traditional flows, which consider the user path through an application, can quickly overload and confuse users. Some don’t extend to address multiple channels or multiple triggers. Customer journey maps are great for identifying opportunities at a high level, but they do little to prepare us to design a seamless flow between touchpoints, people and devices in a given scenario.

To tackle this problem, look to service design methods. Service blueprints tackle the interplay between many people, many systems and numerous user-facing digital touchpoints along the customer journey. However, like a customer journey map, they tend to be too high level. Merging the basic framework of a service blueprint with a task flow allows us to work at the proper fidelity while considering all the required components.

For example, let’s take scenario one from our chart below. Each user, physical IoT device and digital touchpoint has a swimlane. Starting with the primary user, break down the scenario into steps in the journey related to the context. The individual steps are “preparing to leave,” “leaving,” then “returning home.” If other users are involved, add their steps in the journey as well. Next, start your flow with a user goal or task, and map it with actions they’ll take with each touchpoint. After going through this process for the entire scenario, you’ll have a good idea of the cause and effect of each user action. From this data, you can create a seamless design across multiple touchpoints that accommodates many different user groups.

After completing the mapping exercise with several scenarios, it will be easier to isolate features for the design of a single touchpoint so that you can create a traditional task or screen flow at the application level.

iot flow

The light switch example is fairly simple in the world of IoT projects. As the variety of connected devices continues to expand into consumer and enterprise markets, we will see the increasing need to design interactions with even larger sets of devices, people and systems. For example, when creating an enterprise system, user types expand to include several groups with goals (as well as individuals), and data might be coming from several systems in addition to the IoT devices. As a result, we need to continue to expand our toolset to bring the devices together in a meaningful way.

For better business results, start with people

No doubt, we are a society awash in devices made possible through fast-advancing technology and decreasing costs. As we continue to develop our IoT projects, however, ultimate success will come from how well we design for people and their needs. The user experience is critical to using advances in technology to make a real and lasting impact. Start with people. You’ll create products that make an enduring impact with compelling business value.