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UX Meets IoT: Designing Human Interactions with Smart Devices

UX Meets IoT: Designing Human Interactions with Smart Devices

Best practices for UX designers to enhance IoT usability.

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The Internet of Things (IoT) is one of today’s fastest-growing industries, and it’s driving new ways for consumers not only to connect to the internet on the go, but also to interact with appliances, tools, and devices in new and unexpected ways. In the same way that taps and swipes on touchscreens moved us beyond the keyboard, consumer IoT products — like wearables and smart home devices — are now eliminating the need for computer screens.

IoT wearables constitute a $3 billion market, and they are being used by one in every six consumers. Some IoT products are controlled with mobile apps, while others use voice interactions. And we expect to see more novel user experience design, as IoT becomes a bigger part of our everyday lives — from our workouts and commutes to travel planning, home security, and countless other uses. As IoT devices become more commonplace, the user experience, or UX, becomes increasingly important.

To be successful, IoT experiences must be user-friendly, provide a valuable and clear-cut benefit, and not negatively interfere with a consumer’s day-to-day routine. It’s a tall order, but if designers can apply best practices to create technology that bridges this gap between compelling creative, seamless interactions, and true usefulness, then IoT products will be well-positioned.

IoT wearables deliver internet experiences on the go, but also must be user-friendly, provide a benefit, and not negatively interfere with routines.

IoT devices should make life better.

At their most basic definition, IoT products are physical objects that have an IP address for connecting to the internet. They reach across visual, video, and voice platforms, delivering extensive opportunities and possibilities for UX design — specifically for the wearable space. From Fitbits and Jawbones to connected shirts, sneakers, and high performance gear, connected devices are hitting the market and creating new conversations about data and designing customer experiences.

“Behavioral change is hard,” Daylight Design co-founder Sven Newman says. “People have a very low tolerance for the inconvenience of learning something new or doing something differently. That’s why user experience is so vital for IoT products. If consumers experience something delightful and intuitive, it’s possible they will consider adding a new routine or product to their life. But if it’s even remotely difficult or complicated, forget it.”

Ultimately, making life better is the goal of wearables and IoT. If a product covers all aspects of a compelling user experience — solid creative design combined with seamless product interactions — it’s well-positioned for success. And this journey needs to be implemented without negatively impacting your existing brand experience.


“We have to be careful not to destroy the experience we’ve already built, but instead, to make it better,” says UX designer and author Armen Ghazarian. He adds, “no matter the product, it should be something that will make your life easier.”

Provide value with simple, passive engagement.

These high demands present a major stumbling block for many brands. A report on wearables from PwC explains: “All device subcategories have shown significant declines over time. Daily wear of smart glasses has dropped the least (16 percent), while the appeal of smart clothes waned faster than all else (33 percent drop). Meanwhile, the more mainstream fitness and smartwatch device categories registered 18 percent and 22 percent decreases in daily wear, respectively.”

Still, many are breaking through, tapping into data-driven models and comprehensive IoT UX to create compelling, sticky, useful experiences.

“The user experience of all these connected objects is simultaneously the Achilles’ heel and the possible golden key for what makes IoT devices like wearables meaningful to people,” Brett Newman, Sven’s brother, and co-founder of Daylight Design, says. “People don’t want these objects in their lives if they can’t provide value. The way that they can provide value is by simplifying and allowing people to engage on their level, in their language, in a passive sort of way. Certain products have promised this, but very few, if any, have actually delivered.”

Brett Newman and Sven Newman are co-founders of Daylight, a UX design company. Image source: daylightdesign.com

Improve your design, enhance the experience.

When creating any user experience, it’s essential to understand your target audience and the kinds of experiences those people want and need. Then, armed with this intel, it’s important that your device delivers.

“IoT devices are typically more specific in their purpose and their function,” adds Brett. “They need to do whatever it is they do, exceptionally well. If they don’t, the point at which someone will reject the interaction because they find it tedious or undesirable is much sooner.” Some best practices include:

  • Immediately show the benefit. UX designers must focus on user needs that convey the benefit of a product quickly. Daylight always asks one question — “How much work is it to get to ‘Wow!’?” The team is always focused on engaging consumers and proving value in the first three clicks or actions. If they aren’t doing that — if consumers don’t see a progression towards their goal in the first three clicks — there’s zero tolerance.
  • Take people closer to their goal with every interaction. One of the easiest ways to show a product’s benefits right out of the gate, is to help people recognize that your device is getting them closer to their own goals every time they engage with it. “The way you achieve this,” Brett says, “is by showing that what you’re doing now will bring them closer to whatever end goal exists in this interaction. Consumers shouldn’t feel like you’re setting something up that’s not relevant to their specific need.” In other words, avoid IoT for IoT’s sake. Cutting back on meal prep is a huge win for the majority of consumers — but, really, do you need to be able to communicate with your toaster? Probably not. In fact, that would arguably add an unnecessary step to the process.
  • Be mindful of what’s harder with IoT. In that vein, connected experiences need to be easy. “The greatest competitor IoT companies face is whatever consumers are currently doing without IoT,” Sven adds. If introducing IoT means adding another step, it likely is not going to be tolerated by consumers.
  • Focus on business, not just pleasure. While many early IoT products — like wearables — focused on fitness, diet, and other personal benefits, there has lately been a heavy emphasis on productivity. If you’re creating these experiences, don’t ignore this fast-growing segment. Writes Bernard Marr in Forbes, “Employees equipped with wearable technology reported an 8.5 percent increase in productivity.”
  • Get privacy concerns in check. The No. 1 consumer concern surrounding IoT technology like wearables is privacy. Wearables have the potential to aggregate truly intimate data about people — from health and fitness insights to medical and condition-related information. That presents a major question of ethics and what constitutes fair game for creatives and marketers — specifically, where’s the line? The more you can assure users that their data is protected, the more comfortable their user experience will be.
  • Be sticky. To get consumers to integrate an IoT product into their everyday lives, there needs to be something “sticky” that continually pulls them back into the experience. In the wearable world, though, that can be tougher than it sounds. “For a dominant 80 percent of survey respondents (and Millennials in particular), incentives such as money or loyalty points would be required to encourage daily use. Novelty, it seems, is not enough,” explains PwC’s Digital Pulse.
To get consumers to integrate an IoT product into their everyday lives, there needs to be something “sticky” that continually pulls them back into the experience.
  • Think outside the smartphone. Another key consideration for designers, adds Brett, is creating wearable experiences that don’t hinge on a smartphone or tablet. “Today, a smart watch is an extension of, or a smaller screen for, your phone,” he says. “… Things get exciting, though, when wearables can deliver more data than you’d get on your phone.” According to him, the next great IoT experiences will be outside of the smartphone and tablet realm — and that’s something for designers and developers to think about now. “Until products like wearables are better sensors for things that you couldn’t otherwise get on your phone, they won’t really take significant hold,” Brett says.

As designers apply these practices and work toward ongoing innovation in the IoT, they’ll be able to deliver truly exceptional user experiences. And as the user experience for IoT improves, these devices will naturally integrate into the everyday routines of consumers, taking them beyond the traditional way they interact with and access the internet.

To learn about more emerging technologies that are changing the way we work and interact, read more articles in our “Beyond the Screen” collection.

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