How is UX for IoT different?

UX Design for IoT comes with multiple challenges that will be new to designers accustomed to pure digital services. How tricky these challenges are will depend on:

  • The maturity of the technology one is working with
  • The context of use or expectations your users have of the system
  • The complexity of the service one is providing

The key difference between UX for IoT and UX for digital services are summarized below. Some of these changes are a direct result of the technology of embedded system and networking. Even if you are familiar with embedded system and networking technologies, you might have never expected the way it shapes the UX.

Functionality can be distributed across multiple devices with different capabilities:

There are variety of form factors when it comes to IoT devices, with varying input and output capabilities. Some may have screen such as heating controller or washing machines while many may have other ways of communicating with us.

Some of them may be unable to tell us what they are doing as they may not have any input or output capabilities. Interaction might be held by web or smartphone apps. Users need to feel as if they are using a coherent service rather than a bunch of disconnect UIs despite the differences in the form factors. It is important to consider the usability of an individual UIs, but when it comes to IoT, we need to consider inter-usability of these multiple distributed devices.

The Focus of UX (User Experience) may be in the Service

There is a tendency to focus more on the devices in IoT but, as we all know, much of the information processing or data storage depends on Internet. This means that the service around a connected device is often just as critical to the service, if not more so, than the device itself.

We don’t expect Internet like failures from  the Real World

Isn’t it frustrating when a webpage loads slowly or a skype call fails. We accept that these irritations are just a part of using internet. Real world objects respond to us immediately and reliably in contrast to the internet and digital services. When we interact with a physical device over the internet, the latency and reliability issues are same when compared to that of any other Internet communication. There are more chances of delays in the response and our requests and commands might go missing altogether. This could make the real world feel broken. Just imagine, how would you feel if it takes two minute for the light to respond once, you have turned on the lights. There could be unexpected consequences if things and objects fail to adopt internet like behavior.

IoT is largely Asynchronous

When we design for laptops, tablets and mobiles, we assume that they will always have constant connectivity. Well-designed apps handle connectivity like issues gracefully, but more often than not they tend to treat them as exceptions to normal functioning.  We assume that the flow of interactions will be even across all the devices. Making changes on one device, will quickly propagate across any other devices we use with the same services.

A lot of IoT devices run on batteries so they need to conserve electricity. Maintaining network connections consumes a lot of energy hence they connect intermittently which means that part of the system can be out of sync with each other, resulting in discontinuous user experience.

Code can run in many places

In an ideal world, users don’t need to care about the system model (Configuration of devices and code that makes system work). We don’t need to understand how conventional Internet services like Amazon works in order to use them successful.

IoT service is composed of:

  • One or more embedded devices
  • Cloud service
  • A gateway device
  • One or more control apps running on laptop, tablet or mobile.

In case of IoT, there are more places where code can run as compared to conventional web services. Depending on what code is running on what device, some of the functionality may be unavailable at any given point. It would be nice if we could guarantee that no devices will ever lose connectivity, but that is not realistic because IoT is not yet a mature set of technologies, it will take some time to reach a point where e-commerce has reached today. So failures are likely to be more frequent. System designers should ensure that important functions continue to work as well as possible when parts go offline.

Devices are Distributed in Real World

We have shifted from desktops to mobiles, which means we are now using computers in a wide variety of situations. Mobile design needs far greater emphasis on understanding the users need in a particular context. In case of IoT, computing power and networking is embedded in more and more objects and environment around us.

Complex Services can have many Users, Multiple UIs, many devices and many rules and Applications

A simple IoT might serve one or two devices.  But as we add more devices, there are more ways for coordinating with one another. If you add a security system with motion sensors and camera, you may wish to turn on one of your lights when the alarm goes off. In this case light belong to two services: security and lighting. As we keep adding other devices, what started as a straightforward system becomes a complex web of interrelationships. It becomes more challenging and complex to manage it.

Interoperability is hard as many different Technical Standards exists

Before embedded devices were connected, there was no need for manufacturers to share common standards. Just getting the devices talk to one another is a huge challenge as there are many different network standards. Devices within the same manufacturer’s ecosystem, such as Withings, will work together. This means that devices share data with a common Internet service, which the user accesses via a smartphone app.

There are some emerging platforms that seek to integrate devices from different manufacturers and enable them to interoperate. The service that promises to unify all the connected devices may not be able to support some of their most advanced functions. It will take some time before consumers can trust that things will work together with minimal hassel.

IoT is all about Data

Embedded devices and networks allow us to capture data from the world and use it to deliver better services to the users. Networked devices with onboard computation are also able to use data and in some cases act on it anonymously. A smart energy meter can easily detect the electricity is used above baseload for example. This data could be used by the heating system to adjust the temperature.

“Information is now a design material.”

-Mike Kuniavsky

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