I have always found the term, the “Internet-of-Things” a bit of a misnomer. What does it actually mean? Are things going on the internet and if so why? What is the counterpart of this term? The “Internet-of-People”? Surely IoT is just connectivity added to Things in order to, hopefully, enhance their functionality. This is, in the end, the only thing users really care about. How it works, whether over the internet, through Bluetooth, Zigbee or from your fridge over the internet to a server in the States back to the UK through your fibre broadband followed by a few hops over your Wi-Fi back to your phone is irrelevant unless it is not seamless.
IoT should be seamless
It should be seamless, as seamless as connecting your phone to a thing over a cable. If how you connect to something doesn’t matter, then the Internet-of-Things is just a term invented by a small audience of engineers for whom connectivity is cool and worth talking about. For the rest of the world (the vast majority), connectivity simply has to work and the less we know about it, the better it is.
Smartphones as remote controls
Unfortunately, connectivity thinking also seeps into the way multiple devices are designed to work together. Most IoT apps on smartphones are just remote controls. Take home automation as an example. In my house, I have a few remote controlled light switches. The manufacturer developed an app that allows me to switch lights on and off, which is useful if I am not in the house and would like to switch the light on to deter burglars, or off to annoy my wife and children. When I am at home, the app is pretty useless. The switch on the wall is still the most efficient way and that is true for many ‘remote controlled’ things. It is just quicker to walk up to the thing to control it or to grab the dedicated remote control then to find and start the app on a smartphone.
The smartphone as a remote control does become more useful when the things we want to control become more complex. I recently purchased a radiator thermostat that can be programmed to heat the room to different temperatures at different times and days of the week. Useful, yes indeed. Usable? When kneeling on the floor fiddling with tiny buttons whilst trying to read the cryptic messages on a 8 character display? Not really. So out with the cheap valve controller and in with the Homekit enabled £59 a piece valve controller and breathe easy. Managing this kind of complexity on the rich and familiar interface of a smartphone certainly makes all the difference but the app is still a remote control albeit a very useful and usable one. Still, when changing just the current setting for instance for a ‘heating boost’, pressing the button on the valve beats the app anytime.
Where do we go from here?
So how do we move beyond the basic ‘remote control’ concept? Joined-up thinking is the key or in other words, how can we make 1+1 equal 3 when 2 devices are within ‘spitting’ distance? This requires designing for the combination of the 2 devices as if it was one just one device. Take the simple example of switching on lights. Rather than deciding which device (wall switch or smartphone app) to use when turning on a light on, why not explore what additional functionality could be offered by placing the phone on the light switch? For instance, simply placing my phone on the wall switch could set the light immediately to the colour and intensity of my personal preference? A simple action with enhanced functionality. Why not set an alarm on the oven to a certain time and receive the alarm on my smartphone if I am not in the kitchen and only then? And all is this, of course, without explicitly having the indicate that you would like to receive this on your phone? This would truly make use of connectivity and engineers can start drooling now over the different connectivity technologies required to achieve this whilst the rest of use just enjoy smart things.
Let’s stop talking about the Internet-of-Things unless you are trying to impress your engineer friends and talk about Smart-Things instead.
Dr. Leo Poll is President of Akendi UK. A firm dedicated to creating intentional experiences through end-to-end experience design, to learn more about Akendi or user experience design, visit www.akendi.co.uk
Akendi is a product strategy, user experience design and usability research firm. We are passionate about the creation of intentional experiences – whether those involve digital products, physical products, mobile, service or bricks-and-mortar interactions. We work shoulder-to-shoulder to optimize the experiences you deliver. Akendi Corporate Overview (PDF).
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