Designing Subtlety into Your Internet of Things Products
Will Future IoT Devices Add to Our ‘Distraction Hell’?
Let’s face it. The Internet of Things (IoT) can be a distracting place. Phones, tablets, computers are sucking our attention enough as it is. Do we really need smart devices on the IoT grabbing even more of our attention?
Yves Béhar, founder of the Fuseproject and world-famous industrial designer, doesn’t think so. At SOLIDWORKS World 2016, the award-winning product visionary said, “There’s a huge conflict between our tech tools and living in the moment. Our screens have become giant attention-sucking monsters. We’ve become prisoners of our displays and phones.”
Béhar has a big problem with the so-called “distraction hell” being created with current IoT designs. He suggests that engineers and product developers should aim for a more invisible interface. Something so natural and instinctive that you don’t even realize it’s there until you need it.
“People confuse using the phone with being distracted and not in the moment,” said Béhar. “We all experience the social tension caused by the screens and displays that control the information we can’t live without. The alternative is to think about how that information can be transmitted in subtle and invisible ways. As humans, we have five senses—so why are we just focused on sight and screens to comprehend the signals that technology sends us?”
This idea might sound crazy, but think about it. Béhar argues that humans experience invisible interfaces constantly when interacting with nature. Who needs a weatherman when you can step outside, look at the sky, feel the temperature and moisture on your skin? The goal is to mimic these subtle cues to drive the future of IoT devices.
“IoT need to be discreet, to disappear and be a part of the way we wear or live with something—which is a really big challenge,” explained Béhar. “Technology was never a field that was easy for everyone to get into, it wasn’t discreet or the background with invisible signals and pretty designs integrated into fashion. This has been a big shift in the past few years.”
The Importance of Industrial Design to Advance IoT Technology
To bring these subtle notifications into our IoT devices, Béhar noted that we need to pay attention to industrial design early in the development cycle.
“I think back to when designers were called in last-minute to make something look pretty. It’s completely impossible to think of a good user experience that late in the design cycle,” expressed Béhar. “If you don’t have the user experience and design at the forefront you won’t be able to catch up at the end. You can’t just redesign at the end of the process.”
At SOLIDWORKS World 2016, Béhar jokes about how ignoring design in favor of technology led to Microsoft’s initial failed attempts at creating a tablet computer. Apple, however, took the idea and made it marketable.
To demonstrate why design is so important to technology, Béhar compared the failure of the early Microsoft tablets to the success of Apple’s iPad years later.
“In the mid-90s, Silicon Valley did not think design was important. Technology was mostly in enterprises and hidden from view. It wasn’t something people were using in their everyday lives,” joked Béhar. “Of course, Microsoft has done a lot of work on design lately so this is a slightly older slide but it still works.”
This is a great lesson for IoT designers to pay attention to. After all, a classic complaint made against Apple is that the company repackages inventions and innovations of others into more marketable products. But who is really to blame here? The company that made the innovation and couldn’t design it to sell? Or the company that picked up the bright idea and made millions off of a sleek design?
“Technology today is commoditized. It’s not about specs anymore. Instead it’s really about the experience,” argued Béhar. “Technology is the raw feature before design gets to it. When design gets hold of that raw feature, what we do with it to shape and mold it to our needs and lives is the job.”
Data Collection Lessons from a Smart Device that Predates the IoT
Designing subtlety into an IoT products is a challenge but it isn’t impossible once you get your head out of the box.
Béhar’s Learning Shoe was one of the first smart connected devices before the IoT was a concept.
Forget about onboard displays or phone apps. Think about how we need to interact with the product. Think about how you can make it look and feel like the traditional product.
Béhar noted the subtlety in one of his earliest smart devices, the Learning Shoe. The shoe collected data about how a user walked. Their pronation, weight and heart rate were all recorded.
The data was collected in an attempt to change the relationship between the user and the shoe maker. Béhar said, “I wanted that relationship to be continuous. I didn’t want it to be about a single product that I purchased for one season. It should be a product made smarter. It should give people a reason to go back to the manufacturer. I was interested in a customized fit and how the product is designed and made just for me.”
The challenge at the time was how to transfer the data to the manufacturer so they could make the custom shoe. When Béhar worked on this shoe, it was before the widespread use of Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and the IoT. But was this an advantage in disguise?
“Back then the data was collected on a chip and the chip was removed and then the shoe recycled and a better shoe made from this data,” explained Béhar.
The point is that the users and the designers were not inundated with data as the tests were being conducted. The user just continued on their routine, walking around. The data wasn’t transferred or even considered important until the moment it was needed.
Béhar’s Learning Shoe collects data discretely.
Though this custom-made shoe didn’t take off, it sparked Béhar’s interest in the idea of making technology more discreet, wearable, fashionable and personal. And given the wearable trends of the IoT industry, he wasn’t the only one interested.
Using Camouflage to Hide an IoT Interface Until It is Needed
Some IoT devices are not just about collecting data. At times, users will also need to give some IoT devices feedback and instructions.
However, having this interface constantly available will naturally steal the user’s attention—even when that attention isn’t needed. The best strategy is to hide the interface until the user chooses to interact with it.
hive thermostat blends into its surrounding by hiding its interface in a mirror when not in use.
Béhar noted that an IoT device he worked on that used this strategy was the hive thermostat. The device uses camouflage to blend into the home environment by hiding the user interface behind a one-way mirror coating. The interface will then come to life as soon as the user needs it.
This device is unique in that it doesn’t attempt to distract people from the world around them. In fact, it reflects that world as a means of hiding from the user.
“As IoT products enter our homes they have to be designed with the home in mind; an environment where you don’t want distraction and you don’t want complexity,” said Béhar. “[Design] isn’t just about making things pretty or work. It’s about shifting our perception of the world and making new experiences by pushing the limits of what’s possible.”
What if You Don’t Realize an IoT Design Interface is Even There?
Contrary to popular belief, not every IoT device needs a visual interface after the initial installations or even for the odd tweaks and troubleshooting. Some devices work best when you forget they are even there. They just do their job.
August smart lock gives users subtle clues as to the status of the locking mechanism.
Béhar notes that one such example he worked on is the August smart lock. This tiny little robot fits into your door and unlocks itself when it recognizes the phone in your pocket. The user just walks up to the door and feels a vibration from the phone signaling that the door is now unlocked.
Though the user can add chimes and lights to help add cues to express the status of the lock, these are not necessary. The user just needs to toss out their clunky keys, walk to the door and open the door as if the lock isn’t even there.
“Imagine if this level of attention to user experience, design and brands went into everything: your car, appliances, the things we interact with every day,” said Béhar. “It would transform technology from being something that needs to be learned to something that integrates seamlessly into our lives.”
“Technology in the home is typically installed by a ‘tech person’ and then everyone else hates it,” Béhar added. “When you install something in the home everyone has to love it or it will fail. If only one person knows how to use it or get it into the home, you’re in trouble so it’s a different bar to reach compared to a computer or a single-use tech product.”
To read about the industrial IoT (IIoT), click here. To learn about designing an IoT device that makes beer, click here.
About the Author
Shawn Wasserman (@ShawnWasserman) is the Internet of Things (IoT) and Simulation Editor at ENGINEERING.com. He is passionate about ensuring engineers make the right decisions when using computer-aided engineering (CAE) software and IoT development tools. Shawn has a Masters in Bio-Engineering from the University of Guelph and a BASc in Chemical Engineering from the University of Waterloo.