IoT and You: Key principles for a new connected era

IoT holds great promise, but at the same time it is a movement that is still very much in its infancy. There are a few key principles that businesses and designers can follow in this new connected era.

“In the next century, planet earth will don an electronic skin. It will use the Internet as a scaffold to support and transmit its sensations. This skin is already being stitched together. It consists of millions of embedded electronic measuring devices: thermostats, pressure gauges, pollution detectors, cameras, microphones, glucose sensors, EKGs, electroencephalographs. These will probe and monitor cities and endangered species, the atmosphere, our ships, highways and fleets of trucks, our conversations, our bodies–even our dreams.”

– Neil Gross, Business Week 1999


A Third Wave of Digitization

There’s no doubt that ubiquitous digitization has radically transformed our world in the 21st century. The first wave of transformation–the birth of the Internet—linked information stored in computers all over the world for the first time. During the second wave of the early 2000s, social networks began to digitize human experiences, interests and preferences (1.5 billion+ FaceBook users). In the third wave, which is only today beginning to take shape, physical things (products, environments, bodies) are becoming digitized—streaming data gathered by onboard sensors, controlled remotely, and even adapting dynamically. This third wave is what today we often call the Internet of Things (IoT).

As it reaches the peak of the hype cycle, IoT has become a term diluted by broad appropriation, yet in its 20-year evolution from technotopian science fiction to luxury product to business gospel we can find important clues about its future. IoT holds great promise, but at the same time it is a movement that is still very much in its infancy. A great deal of user experience research, technical development and others barriers need to be tackled before its true promise is delivered. Opportunities abound for businesses and organizations to be at the forefront of this wave of transformation.

Essential is working with our clients and partners in healthcare, consumer products, building systems, and beyond, to design best-in-class connected IoT products and services. We have defined a few key principles that can guide the path forward for businesses and designers in this new connected era.

Solve real problems (people first)

The promises are great, but the first generation of connected things, from smart wine bottles to tweeting underwear, has been plagued by ‘solutionism’—the creation of new IoT products, well, just because we can. As the technology that enables us to connect things becomes ever more accessible and easier to deploy, the hard problem facing entrepreneurs, technologists, and designers, is not the ‘how do we build it’, but rather ‘what is worth building?

Not every product needs to be connected, and connectivity can sometimes run counter to core brand attributes. One has only to look at the existential struggle of Swiss watch makers as they decide if, and how, to integrate technology into their proudly analog products. IoT can come at a significant cost, and an accounting of benefits should be undertaken. We advise our clients to start with pain points and human needs, not technologies.

Draw networks not products

It’s easy to get fixated on the technology, but lose track of value to users and value to your business. I often give the example of the Beam ‘smart’ toothbrush- a motion sensor-equipped product conceived as a tool to help users understand how often and how thoroughly they are brushing. The CEO struggled to sell these products to consumers; the experience of tracking your brushing was neither interesting nor particularly rewarding. Things got better when the product became social—now brushing became a game, with stats and leaderboards. But the biggest insight, from a business model point of view, came when dental insurers became interested in Beam’s ability to give them a better picture of a user’s dental health; this spawned a data-driven insurance discount program that subsidized purchase of the Beam product.

Beam’s pivot from selling product to becoming a hub in a multi-player service ecosystem is indicative of broader shifts in the IoT space. Data generated by wearable health sensors now streamline risk management by care providers, employers, and insurers, lowering overall costs to the consumer. Toyota and Uber are partnering to offer specialized leases for Uber drivers and incentivize careful driving and maintenance. IoT data flows, marshaled to interdependent parties, are driving efficiency gains across the board.

IoT connectivity is also a critical enabler as product-centric companies transition from single-purchase to recurring revenue (e.g. subscription) models. GM is equipping their cars with On-star systems that allow customers to rent them out. Keurig now generates higher revenues from pods than coffee machines, and their products are increasingly internet-connected. The newest Sodastream will make custom carbonated drinks at home, tapping into an evolving online body of recipes available online through their digital platform. A connected product adapts to, and participates in online consumer cultures, social networks, and interactive games.

Draw the network that connects the data from your product to other products, and to the various players that might participate or benefit from that data. Think collaboratively—it’s imperative to build partnerships, not only to build and execute, but also to extract value and sustain success in the market.

Better information not more information

It’s an instinctive impulse among industry insiders to fixate on the data a connected product generates. A first-of-its-kind sleep sensor, or urban traffic sensor, or health wearable generates a ton of cool data. And this data can be harnessed to drive back-end efficiencies, and even visualized to promote behavior change. But we need to acknowledge that most people don’t find this data as cool as we do. Data can get in the way of natural interactions. And providing data visualization for users to reflect on is among the least effective ways to move the needle on behavior change towards health, sustainability, and other outcomes.

Not everything needs a dashboard. Digitization has a downside when it comes to our limited attention spans. Think about ways to reduce, not increase cognitive load. That often means, lose the screen. Use one button instead of five. The whole point of IoT is to align human-computer communication with the natural, innate ways in which we interact physical objects and spaces, so that the interface disappears, magically.

IoT products are fun. They can be delightful and even magical. People smile when they can start their car from their living room. Part of this is the feeling that we’re interacting with a thing that is dynamic, almost living. And that’s a new feeling for many of us. Great IoT products create subtle feedback that lets the user know it’s alive, without overburdening their attention. Part of the reason the Amazon Echo, a personal assistant cum smart speaker, has been so successful, is that it is delightful to use, with subtle design cues like LEDs that track the direction of a speaker.

Build for adaptation

Connectivity is changing the way users interact with products and services; it’s also changing the entire development curve. Big business has already gotten smarter about agile development, as Fortune 500s retool to better track fast-moving markets with rapid build-test-learn cycles. Yet while software companies are able to push out weekly updates and harvest data from application use patterns, companies making physical products have struggled to keep up. IoT is helping manufacturers bridge this gap, enabling products to act more like software, and transforming traditional R&D processes.

Understanding how exactly your customer uses your product out in the real world is invaluable for a business. But as the Essential research team can attest, it’s really hard to be a fly on the wall–to observe authentic, natural user interactions without altering their behavior. It’s also often prohibitively expensive to spend a whole day or a week with a customer, so a lot of our foundational research is based on imperfect customer recall of previous interactions. Today, this is changing as we (and many in the industry) are increasingly utilizing both IoT research tools (wireless video cameras, location trackers, application use tracking software) as well as product-generated data to understand in detail, and at scale, the patterns of use associated with a connected product.

IoT is aiding the design research process; more radically, it’s also creating a direct bridge between the consumer and engineering team. Recently, Santa Cruz bicycles, partnering with IoT platform Thingworx, created a bike equipped with an array of sensors measuring component stresses and user configuration; data from the sensors was fed into a ThingWorx CAD model which helped engineers optimize the frame geometry based on real patterns of use. One of the greatest promises of the connected product, via the actionable use data that it generates, is to reframe the prototype process by moving a product into a perpetual state of design improvement.


→ IoT inspires us to dream big

→ It’s a movement rather than a disruptive technology- a big idea made up of lots of little experiments.

→ IoT is a compelling suggestion of how we’ll interact with technology in the future, hopefully a world with far fewer screens.

→ It promises to make our lives slightly easier and more productive and to make companies a lot more efficient.

→ But IoT holds a bigger promise as a toolkit to address big, thorny, social problems – from reducing healthcare costs, to outside-the-box prison reforms, to combatting environmental degradation. For more on this, see DxB talk on IoT for Social Impact.


Chris Parlato is a Principal Researcher in Innovation Strategy at Essential Design.

Essential Design is a leading Innovation Strategy & Design consultancy. We work across the healthcare, consumer, and commercial industries, helping our clients conceive and drive to market comprehensive digital, physical, and service experiences.