Don’t Discount the Role of UX in IoT

User experience is a natural component of any software or hardware development process—at least it should be, even though some in software and product development beg to differ. But once one accepts this concept, one can see the advantage of a good user experience in all aspects of product development.

That also goes for any products designed for the Internet of Things (IoT), the web of sensor-embedded devices continuously taking “connectivity” to a new level. As IoT becomes more prevalent and common in our daily lives, the need for applicable UX has grown along with it. IoT by definition is not limited to a physical product that is connected to the Internet; it is an ecosystem (see Figure 1), and each aspect of that ecosystem has its own UX needs that have to be met.

The IoT Ecosystem

The key to an IoT device is its connectivity to the Internet. I have two thermostats in my home, one a simple thermostat, circa 1980, another an Ecobee connected thermostat. Both perform the same function, which is to ensure that the temperature in the house stays at our desired setting. However, the Ecobee thermostat allows for specificity while expanding the level of control. A connected device does not exist in a vacuum. In some instances it relies on other products or systems for information and data. In other cases it will feed data to products or applications.

Illustration of different as aspects of the IoT ecosystem connected by lines, including, a computer, data, a modem and the cloud

Figure 1. An example of an IoT ecosystem. (Credit: Spira.com)

An IoT ecosystem includes one or more of the following elements. We’ll take a closer look at some of these:

  • IoT-accessible device
  • Big data
  • Application Programming Interface (API)
  • User interface design and development
  • Connectivity
  • Security

The user experience in each of these is important. UX plays a role in building trust and confidence in the user, which leads to the adoption and continued use of products.

The Importance of UX in IoT

One of the requirements CEO Steve Jobs had was that all Apple products should be able to work right out the box—no charging required, and minimal installation needed. That is why all new iPods, iPads, iPhones, and Mac computers require only the tap of a button to be able to use them. The user experience idea is simple, yet it was never implemented in similar products before Apple. Jobs applied UX design principles not only to the exterior of Apple products but also to the interior. If a battery needs to be replaced, having it accessible to be changed was part of the user experience mantra he followed.

I wholeheartedly agree with this concept and that is why I think that all aspects of the IoT ecosystem should be handled with the tender gloves of UX expertise.

IoT-accessible device

The physical device itself must have a great user experience. This begins from the moment it is received and extends though ease of use. Some areas where UX should be applied:

  • Packaging
  • Ease of installation
  • Ease of connectivity
  • Simple and intuitive user interface

These aspects can make the difference between a fully adopted product and one that is not even partially adopted. For example, I was looking for a digital watch that would measure my daily activity and support GPS. My first purchase was a TomTom sports watch. After opening the package and trying to activate the watch, I was instructed to download an app on my computer. The app did not work very well on a Mac. This experience did not give me enough confidence to call their 800 number for technical support. I immediately returned the item. My next purchase was a Fitbit. The setup was easyish—definitely better than my previous purchase. So, my next activity monitor was an Apple watch.

A good industrial designer will consider all the aspects of product experience. A great industrial designer will empathize with the users from start to finish. They will consider everything from packaging to product end-of-life and how to keep the user interested in using the latest version of the product. Although Apple has its detractors, building customer loyalty starts at very beginning: a charged iPhone that you can use right away.

Big Data

In the UX world, this is the least sexy part of the IoT ecosystem. Nevertheless, data gathering and data analysis is essential to the experience of the product. Without its sensors that gather usage data, the Ecobee thermostat is nothing but a simple thermostat.

Data gathering and storage, while not user facing, still needs a UX touch so that engineers can analyze the data properly and deploy it for the benefit of the user. In some instances, a better UX around the data will also allow analysis to blossom from data that was not initially meant to be studied. Users can surprise us in the ways that they use products, ways that the creators had not conceived. This kind of information can be inferred from the data. Smartphone usage today is exponentially different from the initial usage imagined by its creators. It is used not only as a communication device but also as a GPS, a movie player, a way to instantly share our experiences with millions of people, and so on.

Connectivity

Another important aspect of an IoT device is its connectivity. We have a plethora of devices that can connect to our products, whether directly to the product or through the cloud. Those devices can be our mobile devices, computers, voice-activated products, and even our cars.

One of the key UX principles that should be applied to connected devices is consistency, so that no matter what device the user employs, it will have the same functionality and the same UX.

Spotify is a good example of this (see Figure 2). The music streaming service has an app for mobile devices, a desktop application, voice activation on Amazon Echo, and can connect to Apple’s CarPlay.

Music streaming service Spotify shown on iOS and Android smartphones, a tablet and a desktop monitor

Figure 2. Spotify’s UX is consistent across multiple devices. (Credit: Spotify)

I am also a user of Mint.com from Intuit. The UX for the desktop or web application on the browser is different from the UX of the mobile app. Accordingly, the user has to decide what they want to do, then decide which device to use. I only use the mobile app for a quick look at my information, while I use the desktop application for all other related tasks.

Application Programming Interface (API)

The API is the connective tissue of IoT. It’s how sites and apps work with each other in ways like embedding maps or videos, sharing data, monetizing sites by featuring ads, and enabling searches and purchases. Although one may think UX does not play a big role in this area, if you are building a connected device that you would like third-party vendors or applications to contribute to via apps or usage, a user-friendly API is crucial.

For the purposes of this article, there are two types of API:

  • External API. Created to be used by authenticated third-party users. UX plays a key role in the adoption of the API. A good example of a very user-friendly API is Twilio (https://go.twilio.com). An example of an API that can use some polish is Amazon’s Marketplace Web Service (https://developer.amazonservices.com/).
  • Internal API. The portion of the API utilized by internal applications and users. UX plays an important role because again, adoption is important, and what if that internal API becomes an external one?

Conclusion

The IoT network can range from a smart home thermostat to medical devices that send patient data from an ambulance to the emergency room to a tractor gathering crop yield data from different areas of the field, and so much more. IoT products are in their infancy—well, maybe the toddler stage—and spreading in different industries (for example, UX will play a huge role in smart factories of the new “Industry 4.0.”) And, as mentioned, UX is not limited to the outside of the device; it is in all areas of the device. Let’s make it count.

Pourian, K. (2018). Don’t Discount the Role of UX in IoT. User Experience Magazine, 18(3).
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