Design & UX

The Unique UX Challenges of the Internet of Things

By Alex Brisbourne

2001 Space Odessey

The Internet of Things (IoT) is often portrayed as a seamless environment where you and the objects around you fluidly communicate with one another with ease.

From the surface, these technologies are working to effortlessly brew tea, set treadmill speeds, and — if it's feeling less than friendly — refusing to open the pod bay doors.

Unfortunately, reality offers a much less harmonious experience. The 'thing space' is a battleground and competing standards from various companies like Apple, Cisco, and Google make intercommunication between smart devices difficult. No one has settled on a standard UI.

This presents a few questions for user experience designers:

  • How do we design for smart versions of devices that have been in our lives for decades
  • And if there are no prescribed standards, how will users know what to do with a new smart product?

While the Internet of Things is still evolving and users are still adjusting to the idea of a world full of connected devices, we're not completely lost.

There are three major factors that go into creating an exceptional UX in the IoT. And while not all the specifics are set in stone, following these steps is a good way to stay on the right path:

1. Utilize proper hardware.


The IoT presents a unique challenge in UX because, in many cases, the hardware is the user experience. The sensors, processors, and communication modules inside the device determine its purpose and how the user will interact with it. If a device fails to have the right sensors, no amount of pretty design or software will save it.

In many cases, software compatibility also plays a role in hardware choice. To develop products and software for HomeKit, for instance, companies must be part of Apple's MFi program, which requires developers to incorporate an exclusive wireless chip and software package.

Consequently, developers must listen closely to the needs of their target audience before rushing into the market. They must determine which operating system users prefer, as well as the type of smart home experience they want.

They must also consider what kind of data they'll collect, how to communicate it, and how to process it into usable information. Whether their devices use Wi-Fi, Ethernet, or a cellular network, its hardware should fulfill the requirements.

Those who design an experience around these desires will gain a competitive edge and reap the long-term benefits of a connected home ecosystem.

2. Design the application

A key thing to remember when it comes to IoT products is that dumb versions of these devices are already a part of the user's life, so a smart device has to present a compelling argument for adoption right from the start. This argument is often made within the application.

Up Coffee app

The Up Coffee App

For some devices — like fitness trackers, for example — applications will simply act as ways to read the data that's being collected. In these cases, the goal is simple: Make the data clear, concise, and easy to read. Developers can (and should) have fun displaying the data — like in the case of the Jawbone's UP Coffee app — but they can't sacrifice clarity in the process.

For more interactive applications, the name of the game is usability. The basic purpose of a device should nearly always be the main focal point of an application.

For example, Nest has a lot of nifty smart features, but the simple ability to change the thermostat's temperature is still front and center. That intuitive usability coupled with beautiful design makes the application exciting for users.

If users have difficulty completing the basic tasks that they can easily do with their dumb devices, then the UI of the application has failed.

3. Connect the devices

Fitbit on Wrist

Strong connectivity is crucial. Without it, the device can't communicate what it knows.But while connectivity in the home may be on its way to being solved with Wi- Fi and Bluetooth, low-energy, mobile IoT products still face major UX challenges.

For some things, this can be a minor inconvenience (e.g., losing a GPS signal in the car), but for others (e.g., personal emergency response systems for the elderly), the consequences can be life threatening.

In particular, consumer-facing devices should be lightning-fast. LTE is gaining ground in the U.S. at a fairly rapid pace, but it's far from ubiquitous. In fact, other parts of the world have adopted different high-speed solutions, such as HSPA+ or even WiMAX. The more developers can do to support these various network possibilities, the more effective and accessible their solutions will be.

For example, a smart car system might need LTE or HSPA+ to communicate with the outside world and Wi-Fi to communicate with tablets or phones.

4. UX Should Be a Priority

The IoT presents a unique challenge in the UX world because nearly every aspect of a product directly affects it. These products are a part of people's homes, cars, and everyday lives, and if even one facet of these products is substandard, it could ruin the experience altogether.

That being said, here are four things developers can do to create the best UX for products:

  • Make it work. Getting different devices and programming languages on the same page is no easy feat. But developers can make it a little easier on themselves by choosing tools early on that will allow them to remain flexible as customers' needs change.
  • Make it efficient. There are several data protocol options (e.g., TCP, UDP, etc.). Developers need to determine which option is the most appropriate for their app and business model.
  • Make it secure. Security is justifiably a hot topic right now, so developers should design with security top of mind and make sure their solutions are built on enterprise-grade infrastructure.
  • Make it creative. People are always interested in new ideas and innovative ways to make their lives easier. Think about it this way: The iPhone would be just another phone if it weren't for the applications.

There's one underlying goal throughout every step of development: A smart device must present a compelling reason to be chosen over a traditional one. If the hardware is incompatible with the user's preferred operating system or the connectivity is spotty, then the UX won't measure up.

As of now, there's no beaten path to success in the IoT, but if developers keep these elements in mind during every step of the process, they'll stand a fighting chance.



Because We Like You
Free Ebooks!

Grab SitePoint's top 10 web dev and design ebooks, completely free!

Get the latest in Design, once a week, for free.