The IoT Design Principles

IoT continues to gain tremendous momentum, and even more organizational interest, to the tune of multi-million dollar investments. Companies like Samsung, Google, Ford, GE, and more have made tremendous organizational shifts, in order to fully understand and contribute markedly to what many are calling the next big technological revolution. Which is both exciting and surreal. Exciting because of the potential to create intelligent environments. And surreal because many people still don’t know what IoT is, what it means, and why it’s important to them. And it’s this very mystery of IoT that should guide the next wave of IoT experiences.

In a recent conversation with a fellow IoT Council Member, the question came up as to whether IoT is a technology or a concept. ’Til now, you could absolutely argue that it has simply been a technology - similar to VR and Augmented Reality 10-20 years ago. Like those, IoT came to be through technological explorations. For IoT this meant that developers, and their organizations, began to connect objects to one another and to their environments. And that is what sparked the interest, and fueled the magic, that is IoT up until now. 

But recently, the dialogue has changed. IoT experiences are now being challenged by users; whether they know it or not. User expectations have become more demanding. We’ve seen the demise of some products, such as the Revolve (acquired by Google in 2014). Yet, there have been success such as Google’s Nest, Amazon’s Alexa, and Samsung’s suite of home automation products known as SmartThings - just to name a few. What those successes share in common is that they have elevated beyond the technology and become concepts that consumers can understand, and seamlessly adapt. 

Which is the very challenge that all IoT products and/or experiences will need to solve. And it’s this that is causing the conversation to now shift from not only the technology, but to the development of practical user interfaces. And more importantly, to the role that traditional UX/UI designers will play in it's continued evolution. And being that I’ve been developing UI’s for almost 20 years, I have recently begun shifting my focus towards IoT and how I will influence that space. Which led me to begin crafting some ideas around general design principles. 

Here are 5 principles that I believe are critical as we begin to consider the role of digital design:

1. Prepare for Evolving User Actions

Just as touch screens introduced the pinch, finger scroll and swipe; we will soon be introducing other ways of interacting with digital interfaces. Sure, we expect that there will continue to be hand gestures, but now more than ever we will begin to see even more natural movements controlling our environments. With VR, our movements mimic those of the real world. Moving our heads up, down, and around all allow us to explore the VR world just as we do ours. New explorations are allowing us to wear devices that control our environments through commonly used hand and arm movements. Voice will play a role. Even the act of walking will dictate some level of control. And you might say that these aren’t necessarily tied to UI, but the reality is that as these new controls become adopted by users, they will become the standard by which we interact in this space. No matter if a screen is present or not. 

2. Leverage What You Already Know

The reality that lies ahead for IoT is that we will be exploring never before seen devices with associated UI's. Designing to a few breakpoints will no longer be the norm. Which means that those of us who design to these new environments will need to be even more aware of user demands. Most importantly, we’ll need to call upon those things that have become standard expectations. But even those will need to evolve. It’s safe to say that things like the ‘menu’ will always be a part of the experience. And just as we saw the introduction of the hamburger menu once mobile became a demand, we’ll need to explore its evolution even further within IoT environments. You need to look no further than wearables like Samsung's Gear S2 Watch to see how they are evolving the menu controls.

3. Create Contextual Experiences

The true success of IoT, and digital experiences in general, will lie in its adoption. No surprise there! Will people be willing to use these new devices? Explore these new environments? Frankly, they will if they are easily understood and seamlessly integrated into their lives. Which to me means that we need to expand beyond personalization, and begin to infuse context into the experience. Context is the thing that is timely and purposeful. Context allows for these experiences to be meaningful and valuable. So, as we explore developing the experiences that will drive IoT, we need to understand that being inconspicuous may not be a bad thing. Truly what we want is for the experience to know you, know where you are, and know what you need. So things will adapt as you do, and before you know it, become fully integrated into your daily lives and habits.

4. Account for Premeditated Actions

One of the most promising characteristics in IoT is that as we gain intelligence, we will begin to develop a stronger ability to predict and adapt to situations. The same could be said of the user interface. The old model of singular actions driving singular reactions will need to evolve. We will begin to see interfaces that can predict a series of steps for you. A simple gesture, movement, or word will initiate a series of events that frankly, could be subliminal, but productive. There will even be reactions that aren't initiated at all. Like the Nest learns our habits, it adjusts intelligently without us needing to get involved. As we develop the UI for this new dynamic, we will need to understand that user views will change constantly. At times we will need to allow for controls, while at others we will need to account for some sort of measurable component. And each view will be intelligently displayed, in the context of that very moment.

5. And Most Importantly, Connect People!

And while all of the above certainly sounds very tactical and measured, and obviously important, we must never lose sight of the fact that we are connecting people, not products. The experiences need to open up dialogue and interactions, rather than encouraging people to close off even further. While we look towards a connected future, connecting us all to one another in meaningful ways will allow for more interaction and, hopefully, more productivity. 

The future of IoT, and the role that digital design will play, is more about empowering and enabling people in ways that previously required a tremendous amount of effort or inherit knowledge. This isn’t about cutting corners, as much as it is about gaining an individual experience or expertise that will benefit the whole. We are seeing tremendous advancements in this technology. The next step is for us to allow for user interactions that are predictable and useful, so that this technology becomes more than just that, and instead becomes a meaningful way of interacting, predicting and adapting.