How the Internet of Things Is Changing Industrial Design

Last year someone gifted me with Twine, an Internet-connected 2.5 square box that can be “programmed” in plain English, without needing to know how to code. It’s equipped with WiFi connectivity, internal and external sensors, and a simple Web app to connect your physical stuff to the Web.

Using a basic if/then interface, Twine can be set up to send emails, tweets, or text messages depending on inputs from its sensors. For example you can set it up to send an email when someone knocks on your apartment door, or a Facebook update whenever your dog eats from his bowl. I initially set it up and played around with it not knowing what I wanted to accomplish. I knew it had some potential but I was at a loss about how to use it.

Process for using Twine

About six months later I moved into a new apartment. I was having issues with my air conditioning, and I decided Twine might be useful for logging the temperature fluctuation. The tinkerer in me found a way to link Twine with a Web service called Thingspeak. After some experimentation I had a real-time graph of the temperature in my apartment. It took some trial and error but I ended up with a powerful tool at my disposal. The graph finally convinced my landlord to fix the air conditioning.

Graph of apartment temperature over time captured by Twine

Moments in Twine

Created by two graduates of the MIT Media Lab, Twine falls into a category of products called the Internet of Things (IoT) that’s been around since the ’90s and is now gathering major steam. The “things” in question are connected to the Web and to each other. Some examples are the FitBit, a wireless, wearable activity and sleep tracker; and Peeko pajamas, which let parents monitor their kids’ respiratory activity via smartphone app.

The Internet of Things has a lot of implications for product designers. Many of us started our careers when there were very few connected objects and we are fast progressing into a world where many or most objects will be connected. User interface design is becoming an integral part of product design — I wouldn’t be surprised if it became a core competency for industrial designers five or ten years down the road. Our process has changed, too. Bresslergroup’s team of interaction designers has grown five-fold in the past six years and on many projects they work side by side with us (the industrial designers) and the engineers.

Another newish requirement is to keep abreast of emerging technology and trends. Luckily we love what we do enough to tinker into the weekends.

Twine: Power Tool for the DIY Digital Weekend Warrior

Twine doesn’t have a display and it isn’t much to look at. The interaction comes via Web interface. Websites like IFTTT.com and the aforementioned Thingspeak let you set up more complicated interactions (such as my temperature graph). These types of projects might seem silly to some, but Gen Yers appreciate the ability to always be connected and to customize their access to specific information.

As a designer I’m really excited about this new wave of devices that give end users out of the box control. Twine is like a modern-day Rosie the Robot. It takes orders and performs repetitive tasks. It uses high tech sensors and logic to let people interact with the world around them. It doesn’t take an electrical engineering degree or a developer to figure out how to make that happen. Twine and its ilk empower average Joes with the power of the Web and let the users’ imagination dictate how the device functions.

This is the opposite of how product development consultants work when partnering with a client to create a product. No matter for what industry — medical devices, consumer electronics, kitchen tools — we start by doing user research and then we design for unmet needs. (Our if/then = If the need is unmet, design for it.) Twine has no such defined end usage. What the makers are really leveraging is the curiosity of tinkerers and the power and flexibility of the Web.

Twine: Research Tool for the Industrial Designer

From the perspective of a designer working in a fast-changing environment of increasingly networked objects, Twine is a way into understanding the consumer relevance of the Internet of Things. Used correctly, it could serve as a valuable research tool.

People tend to go overboard at the beginning of a movement, pushed by novelty and excitement to take new capabilities too far. There are a definitely a few IoT devices out there that seem egregious — how many parents really need to monitor their baby’s every breath? Designers would do well to canvas the Twine forums and see what people are using them for. Which problems are they trying to solve? Are there certain problems that come up over and over again? This rich pool of data inspires and informs product designers, making this power tool all the more powerful.

In Democratizing Innovation, Eric von Hippel suggests putting design tools in the hands of the user to help create new products. Twine seems well-suited for this function considering its easy learning curve. It’s kind of like a bridge to the future in the shape of a little blue box. All in all, a pretty fantastic gift.

(Update! Thanks to New York Times reporter, Natalie Kitroeff, for featuring me and my IoT temperature reader in her article, “High-Tech Solutions for House and Apartment.”)