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IBM’s seven deadly sins for IoT design

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez December 2, 2015
No company has completely figured out how IoT is going to penetrate the market in the future. However, that doesn't mean that mistakes can be avoided now in design.

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The Internet-of-Things (IoT) is currently riding the hype wave like no other technology ‘buzzword’ at the moment. Everybody and anybody wants a piece. That’s not to say that it’s not real or not having an impact, but in reality most companies and users haven’t yet figured out what it means to them.

Equally, the market is still figuring itself out. Platforms and toolkits are springing up from all over the place and isn’t yet clear who the winners are going to be (but there will be many).

IBM of course has a play in this space. And at analyst firm Redmonk’s ThingMonk event this week in London, which is an absolute *must attend* for anyone interested in this area, two IBM-ers took to the stage to give a presentation on their learnings from working on IoT design over the past couple of years.

However, Sam Winslet, a visual designer at IBM, admitted that it isn’t easy to stand up and provide answers to what works for IoT, as things are still being figured out. He said:

How do you design something when you don’t know what it is and you don’t know how many of them there are likely to be? We had a long hard think about this, and I’ll be honest, you can’t.

So instead of showing what does work, Winslet and his colleague Sophie Riches, a user experience designer at Big Blue, decided to showcase what they believe doesn’t work with IoT design. Winslet said:

So we went back to the drawing board and said let’s find something that you might find interesting about what we have learnt in the couple of years that IBM has been pushing its IoT strategy. We have come up with seven deadly sins for the design of IoT.

1) Greed

Riches started by explaining that one of the common mistakes is that when thinking about IoT and it’s purpose, the focus remains too granular - to the point where the people working on it are simply designing for themselves. They’re not thinking about the bigger picture. She said:

This is about not designing for yourself, or for your developers to be perfectly honest. As you would hope and as you would expect, anyone that is working on an IoT product at IBM obviously has some personal interest in it. You’re not just going to go and work on a product that you’ve been forced into and not enjoy it. But we can’t just use these people and design for them, because we are IBM and we are obviously designing for scale, for enterprise, not for specific developer users.

Designing something for someone like that (a single developer) is very different to designing something for someone that wants to connect up a city. There is a huge difference there, so we have to think about the whole spectrum.

The solution to this, said Riches, is to focus on designing for as many users as possible and thinking about the “whole ecosystem for IoT”. For example, IBM has come up with an ecosystem map of which users are going to be involved in IoT platforms, which is considered throughout the design process.

2) Envy

IBM’s second sin of IoT design is that of envy, or resisting the urge to copy others in their design or success. Winslet said that, unfortunately, what happens in larger companies is that designers often don’t end up designing for the intended purpose, but end up being swayed by sales. He said:

We often find that in larger companies our sales teams drive the direction of the product. This is about trying to reign that in slightly. Don’t just go ahead and copy what everyone else is doing, take a step back and try and get a little bit more innovative. That’s something that we struggle with because of the speed at which the industry is moving.

Make sue that your sales teams are forming a direction, but not driving the entire product and what features and functionalities are in that. It’s really quite key. Have some faith in your own product, your skills and your market research. What’s your USP? Focus on a small number of things and do them very well.

3) Gluttony

Following on from envy, Riches said that it’s also important to recognise the difference between what’s

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needed and what’s capable. Just because you can put something into he design, doesn’t mean that it should be there. She said:

This is all about focusing on a huge amount of features and functions in a platform. This is definitely what we don’t want to do. If you just keep adding and adding and adding, you might end up with something like…Lotus Notes. You could probably run Twitter’s back end on that thing, but you will never ever know how to actually do it.

There are so many things you can do, but all you need to do is send an email and add something to your calendar. The solution to that is design thinking and centering it around the user, rather than the features and functions.

We understand the problem and the user. We are exploring loads of different possible solutions. Prototyping to make sure that that’s working. And then we evaluate it with those users at every step of the way.

4) Wrath

Winslet’s next addition to the list centred around the common mistake that companies often make, which is that they assume that they know what the user wants and needs. Or assuming that they know what IoT actually is. He said:

We, the people in this room, are the ones making the decisions and deciding the terminology for how IoT is defined and everything like that. But I bet if we asked everyone in the room what they thought IoT is, they would come back with something slightly different or have different outcomes.

If you went ahead and asked your family, they would say it’s about connecting fridges. It’s not really telling the entire story. Everybody has different answers to what IoT is, so don’t assume that when you go out and you’re talking about use cases that people really understand the value of where IoT can fit in their business.

There is not one use case right now that we can find that when we go out and talk to people that really appeals to everyone. We need to deliver a consistent information experience and that’s as much about creating standards.

5) Lust

Riches’s fifth sin is one that I’ve seen plenty of evidence of in the market - in that companies and people buy into the idea because they have heard that it’s important, but in reality they’ve actually got no idea why. She said:

IoT is something that everyone loves at the moment. Every big enterprise company wants to ride the wave of IoT, it’s just the trendy thing to do at the moment. So the sin here is, what is the actual need behind it? What is it you’re trying to achieve?

I know everyone in this room has a good idea, but we have people coming to IBM saying: “I want the Internet-of-Things”. When we ask them why, they’ve got no idea. That’s really not the way to do it. You end up with stupid things like internet connected toilets. I think that we are still yet to find that really, really amazing idea that just boosts IoT.

6) Pride

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An obvious one, but one that’s important. The ‘usability’ factor of IoT will be important for companies that want to be successful in this area, explained Riches. She said:

Pride is really all about not wanting to make users feel like idiots, but at the same time to not be condescending to them. So not to overcomplicate things, as well as to not over-simplify them.

Washing machines, for example, have way too many buttons. Why does it need all these things? But at the same time don’t oversimplify it. Put things at a surface level, but allow users to dig down deeper if they want to e.g. really in-depth APIs, documentation.

7) Sloth

Finally, Winslet warned that companies designing for IoT should not assume that their users will invest time and energy in adopting a solution. They will move on if it’s not simple. He said:

[Don’t assume] that your users have infinite patience. Or any patience. Or care about you or your product. The way that everyone is able to quickly try stuff out now means that you have maybe ten minutes of their time, maybe a little bit more if they’re feeling generous, to convince someone of why they should spend money on your product.

Especially in the age of the web when they’re signing up for X number of platforms, when they can give up and move on to the next one. That’s especially the case on your mobile phone. This comes back to not designing for yourself, but understanding what your users are looking for.

Having said this, because IoT is a relatively new thing, people are willing to spend a little more time trying stuff out. But that’s going to change, it’s not going to be the case in five years time when everyone has an IoT offering.

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