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Dominira Saul

Dominira Saul

Akendi Alumnus

Ethnography, Journey Mapping and IoT

In a couple of weeks Akendi, along with our partners, will be hosting IoT613, in Ottawa.  IoT613 will be a gathering of those interested in designing and coding for IoT as well as the infrastructure, and social aspects of this technology.

IoT, aka The Internet of Things, aka The Internet of Everything is a widely used, but little understood term.  Even less understood, is how to design effectively for IoT devices.  Now you may be asking, why is designing for IoT any different than designing for any other product?  Well it is and it isn’t.

The techniques for design are the same.  But for successful IoT design, we have to consider the use cases much more carefully.  Context of use plays a much more important role than in traditional product design.  By extension, when it comes to the user research that drives the design of IoT products, understanding the complete user journey becomes vitally important.

While other research methods offer a snapshot or a static aspect of use, methodologies such as journey mapping and ethnography provide researchers with insight into how use changes as context and subtasks change.

Many IoT devices require multimodal interaction.  They may have very little affordance, or they may break our mental models based on the affordances that we already have engrained in our way of thinking.

The image above is of my Withings Activité watch

How do you suppose you set the time?  Based on previous experience with analogue watches, you might expect to turn the crown, in order to change the position of the hands on the dial.  This expectation in this case would be wrong.

In fact, to set this watch, you need an app on a smartphone.

Even the act of setting the watch is different when you look at the subtasks.  Instead of moving the hands of the watch to indicate the time, you align them with noon, and the watch synchs to the system time of your phone’s operating system.

While the subtasks might have a different information architecture than traditional watches, breaking this long-held mental model has significant benefits.  Namely, when in a different time zone, the phone updates the time automatically. Once that happens, the watch follows suit.

Special care needs to be taken when considering the physical design of IoT products, as I mentioned, these products are often multimodal (some functions are completed on the device and some are completed on other devices).  Users must often rely on small visible structures, or invisible structures in order to interact with the physical devices.  Take another look at the picture of the watch.  How do you suppose you check to see that time your alarm is set for?  The watch has no buttons and no crown.  Well… double tapping on the face of the watch will cause the arms to move to the time your alarm is set, another double tap will return them to the current time or you can wait for it to return on its own. This is an invisible structure. It is an interaction mechanism that is not visible to the user.  The user has to know that it is there in order to take advantage of it.

Many of today’s IoT and wearable devices have a plethora of small and invisible structures.  Here are a couple of smart watches from around the office (an LG Android Wear Smart Watch & an Apple Watch) … can you spot the small structures?

What does that fragment of text on the Android watch mean, what are the numbers and shapes in the top corners of the Apple Watch?  Those are small structures; again, you have to know what they are to understand what they mean.

While these examples of affordance, small and invisible structures are fun to point out, let’s look at the bigger picture.  There may be major design issues that cause users not only to miss features or functionality, but to abandon use altogether.

Let’s consider my Withings watch again.  The Activité isn’t the only activity tracker that Withings makes, in fact the Pulse O2 (shown below) has more features and a more versatile form factor.

The form factor allows it to be slipped into a strap and worn on the wrist like a watch, put in a clip and clipped to clothing, or simply used as is, carried in a pocket or purse.  The back side has a diode that can measure pulse and blood oxygen levels. Both the Pulse O2 and the Activité can track your sleep patterns.

Here’s the thing though…  The app that governs all of these devices only allows the user to connect to one activity tracker at a time.  So if I want to use the Pulse O2 for sports, and wear my Activité to business meetings I can’t.  I have to delete one device (and the data it has accumulated so far that day) and replace it with another.  Here is a design decision that does not meet a user goal and probably not a business goal since it doesn’t encourage customers to buy two activity trackers.

Furthermore, I wouldn’t want to wear my lovely leather watchband while playing sports, and I certainly wouldn’t want either of these devices strapped to my wrist while I’m sleeping.  Somewhere along the way someone made design decisions that do not support the users’ needs.  Since I don’t believe that they were being malicious, one has to conclude that they were simply ill informed about the needs of their users.

How do real people use these devices in real situations throughout typical days?  These are the types of questions that can only be answered by doing a deep dive into the way usage patterns are displayed by representative users.  Ethnography and journey mapping are excellent methodologies when looking to gain these valuable types of insights.

Dominira Saul

Dominira Saul

Akendi Alumnus


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Akendi is a human experience design firm, leveraging equal parts experience research and creative design excellence. We provide strategic insights and analysis about customer and user behaviour and combine this knowledge with inspired design. The results enable organizations to improve effectiveness, engage users and provide remarkable customer experiences to their audiences.