7 UX challenges and opportunities facing IoT designers
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Audi A7 Autonomous Vehicle drove from Palo Alto to Las Vegas last year, without any problems. Image Credit: Audi / video on site

A new dawn: Waking Up to the Internet of Things (IoT)

You wake up to the smile of a surrogate that serves you your morning cup of coffee, with the blend and the brew adjusted to your exact taste. You step into the bathroom, where everything from your toothbrush to the toilet is connected to the Internet. Dressed up, you step outside and your preheated driverless car eases itself out of the garage. It drops you off at the office before parking and plugging itself into a connected solar charging terminal.

This is not a scene from a Minority Report sequel. The devices I have just described are either already available or are going to be available in the very near future. Countless such devices are connected to the Internet right now, and together, they constitute the Internet of Things (IoT).

This year, the IoT sector is forecast to expand to more than 6.4 billion connected objects, eventually exploding to an estimated 20.8 billion ‘things’ by 2020. These things include all sorts of ‘smart’ devices, from lights and water faucets to door locks and home appliances, and from cars and medical equipment to wearable tech and business and industrial objects.

Challenges in IoT UX Design

The nature of IoT UX design is so fluid and complicated that experts are still in the process of figuring out the best ways to design new products and experiences. Making a website is easy but this new era of connected products can be much more challenging. The pace of the IoT’s expansion is only adding to their difficulties. It’s hardly surprising that the UX of many IoT devices is far from perfect. For example, a usability testing study of smart heating controls employed by the UK Department of Energy & Climate Change found that none of the five major smart heating devices available in the market offered a great user experience. This is typical of most new technologies or industries in their infancy, however significant steps towards improvement will be taken in the near future when focusing on the below.

Belkin's WeMo monitors and controls smart wall switches, LED light bulbs, motion sensors, and webcams from your browser and smartphone, without requiring any hub. Image credit: Belkin / website

Belkin’s WeMo monitors and controls smart wall switches, LED light bulbs, motion sensors, and webcams from your browser and smartphone, without requiring any hub. Image credit: Belkin / website

1. UX Can Make or Break Products

2. UX Is More Widely Spreadonline user experience that delivers how it should. Planning and thinking about different objects and what kinds of interfaces could and should be provided from the get go will help this. In the end, it will have to be one seamless design that joins different interfaces and objects to create a smooth UX.

3. One UI Can Control Multiple UXs

The unification of interfaces is the biggest challenge for UX designers right now. There’s a diversity of devices distributed in the real world, but no interface exists right now to integrate those devices for a seamless user experience. For instance, you have your fitness tracker, driverless car, and smart home, with your smart temperature control system, lights, locks, and everything else you can imagine. Ideally, you’d want to control them all from one simple app, but you have at least three different apps for them. This is just dumb, considering that everything else is so smart.

The new BMS has more control options Image Credit: BMW / video on site

The new BMS has more control options Image Credit: BMW / video on site

4. Design is Multi-Layered

IoT products consist of multiple layers that are added through different stages of development. Some of these layers are more visible than the others, while some are invisible. For example, platform design, productization, service design, and conceptual model are the layers that are invisible, whereas UI/visual design, interaction design, and industrial design are visible. It may not be possible to enhance the visible UX unless attention is paid to the invisible layers, which are developed much earlier than the visible layers.

5. Objects are Not Always Connected

Unlike mobiles or computers, IoT objects will not be online all the time. In fact, most of them are energy-saving products that will go online intermittently and remain powered off when they’re not functioning. For instance, an air conditioner will be offline when not running, so the UX designer has to take this into account. Similarly, there may be a time delay between certain things and their controls. For example, you may reduce the thermostat of your air conditioner through your phone, but the air conditioner may take a few seconds or minutes to make the change. It may not matter if you’re doing it remotely from your office, but may be slightly frustrating if you’re sitting at home. Of course you could do this manually if your at home and this should be factored in to the UX.

6. Technology Drives the UX

Many IoT devices will be controlled through eye or hand gestures, voice input, and even thoughts. For such interfaces, it is critical to consider the aesthetics of the gestures or voice commands. For instance, the gesture controls for a tennis game should work like one is actually playing tennis, and not cricket, something that Xbox Kinect is already building at a rapid pace. Moreover, designers will need to think about the latest sensors and technology (such as thought control or 3D holographs) in order to design the best UX.

7. Glitches Are Unforgivable

The IoT may bring more convenience, efficiency and sustainability to the world at large, but it brings new and unprecedented challenges for UX designers. Their job is now more critical than ever. A business that offers a poor web or mobile UX may still survive, but the success of a smart object will almost entirely depend upon the kind of experience that they offer. People may forgive a website for having a bad navigation experience or if the server is temporarily down. But they won’t forgive a toaster or coffeemaker for burning their morning breakfast because there was glitch in the UX design or a connectivity issue.

So, are you up to these challenges? Or do they sound more like opportunities to you?

Featured Image Credit: Audi / video on site

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Matt Janaway

About Matt Janaway


I am a digital & online entrepreneur and marketer, specialising in the retail & eCommerce arena. I have built, purchased, optimised and sold in excess of 10 eCommerce businesses with multi-million pound revenues and I’m now heading a team project optimising 30 websites with over 20,000 products. I consider my methods, scientific and incredibly advanced.

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  • goodtoknow

    There’s a problem with the list in the article
    1. UX Can Make or Break Products
    2. UX Is More Widely Spreadonline.

    needs a space and to have the 2. removed
    Otherwise great article!