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How Making an IoT Product Is Like Making a Movie

Creating a connected device is a bit like making a movie: it has a beginning, middle, and end; challenges to overcome; and an ultimately victorious hero (the user).

Figuring out what this story is, and how to tell it vividly, is the crucial first step in developing an IoT product. The end-to-end, cinematic experience needs to be defined upfront. It’s what you do with the findings of your research, and it’s the vision the product manager lays out to get buy-in from the various disciplines on a team.

What else do movies and IoT product design have in common? My colleague, Bill Horan, and I adapted our recent article for O’Reilly, “8 mistakes that can derail your IoT project,” to put this list together:

1. Dramaturgy drives direction.

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There’s an ongoing debate in the tech and design communities about whether hardware or software should lead an IoT design effort, but they’re both wrong: research should lead.

A good research effort can tell you whether the device you’re designing should be connected in the first place — an underlying question that many companies fail to even examine. Connectivity also adds to the user’s attention burden, so it’s important to examine whether the experience trade-off is worth it.

A good research effort can tell you whether the device you’re designing should be connected in the first place.

Most crucially, a solid research foundation serves as a “third thing” that designers and engineers can reference throughout the project. If every decision turns into a debate between opposing factions, you probably don’t have the kind of clarity and guidance that research provides — and your finished product likely will be a hodgepodge of features that have nothing to do with user needs.

2. Everyone works from one central script (or spec).

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An IoT product’s project team will include some mixture of user research, industrial design, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, and interaction design. More than any app, peripheral, or standalone digital device, an IoT product takes an enormous range of expertise to get right.

Someone’s got to take care of the digital and tactile interfaces, the connectivity protocols, online security, energy usage, and notifications, not to mention the design of the physical device and its role in the larger digital ecosystem.

When various disciplines work together, it’s easy for each to formulate its own set of project goals, whether that’s a cost target, a feature set, or a form factor constraint. While each may be valid, it’s crucial to corral them together into a single spec that everyone on the team is looking at. Each discipline has something to contribute to the realization of the “fairy-tale” user experience — and all of these experts need to know what each other is doing.

The bottom line: make sure your experience story informs one central spec, and make sure everyone’s referencing it, often.

3. Plot is prioritized over pennies.

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Often when engineering decisions are made before interaction design is considered, cost becomes the default tie-breaker. In mature product categories where price point is a key factor, this can make sense, but with connected devices, the “fairy tale” user experience is all-important. Saving eight cents per unit and crippling the interactive experience along the way is a great way to kill your product before it has a chance.

With connected devices, the ‘fairy tale’ user experience is all-important.

And in many cases, a well-integrated IxD effort can actually reduce overall project cost. Often, the best way to improve a user experience is to strip it down, removing unnecessary features or details that complicate the interaction and add cost. By focusing in on the product’s core functionality, a good IxD team can help engineering do its job better, both in terms of cost and customer delight. This is first and foremost a UX optimization task, though not a value engineering one.

Make sure that expense is a factor, but not the factor.

4. There’s a plan for when the projector breaks.

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In the rush to add Internet-enabled features to products, it’s supremely easy to forget about the case when there’s no Internet. Most, if not all, of the IoT horror stories of the past few years hinge on this failure — think web-enabled lights that won’t turn off because the Wi-Fi is down, or a car that won’t start because its operating system is updating.

Remember that an IoT product is really two products: the connected one and the unconnected one. By making the product usable in a disconnected state, you’re making it clear that the user is ultimately in control — a major concern among many IoT-wary potential customers. The show must go on! Strive to make your product like an escalator: better than a flight of stairs, but still useful when the power goes out.

5. It takes a team (and constant team check-ins!).

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A “magical” IoT product is the direct result of meticulous alignment and relentless collaboration between disciplines. A change made by one member of an aligned team can spark insights and new opportunities for the others; on a disheveled team, that same change is a recipe for disaster.

A ‘magical’ IoT product is the direct result of meticulous alignment and relentless collaboration between disciplines.

When different disciplines spend time working in the same room, they quickly realize where their assumptions and priorities differ. This can be uncomfortable, but it’s something aligned teams do early and often.

You or your clients will almost always need to move quickly, so you should run engineering in parallel with IxD. Realistically, IxD often gets a head start, but you should make sure other disciplines sit in on the meetings — and make sure that whatever engineering is up to later in the process, they’re sharing it weekly, or even daily, with designers.

6. The product is built to stand the test of time.

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One of the great things about connected devices is that, through software updates, they can keep getting better after purchase. Over the air updates (OTAU) are practically table stakes in IoT these days, but it’s not enough to just ship a bug patch every four months.

A great device has additional hardware capacity built into it, thoughtfully provided by designers who know what the connected device landscape is going to look like one, two, and three years down the line. It also has an update cycle that’s designed to not interfere with daily use, and anticipates impending security risks.

One of the great things about connected devices is that they can keep getting better after purchase.

When our designers redesigned the Rachio smart sprinkler system, for example, they took care to build in additional wire ports, in anticipation of software updates that would expand the number of watering zones it could control. We also switched out the chipset for a module that will eventually make it compatible with Apple HomeKit and other IoT hardware. In both cases, the additional hardware is worth the small investment because it creates an opportunity for future moments of magic.

Customers are willing to spend extra on connected devices because they expect to get something for tomorrow as well as today. Make sure they do.