What are UX challenges designing for IoT?

Posted on: January 2, 2019 by Aurora Font

Until now, many IoT solutions have focused primarily on the technical capabilities of the company and their services necessities. While focus is already shifting more toward UX, the industry needs to build new best practices going beyond to simple mobile and web guidelines of years past. Companies must overcome the identified challenges to design nice UX for connected things.

UX for IoT is different mainly because, in general, the UX design involves a sequence of interactions between users from a virtual system to the physical one. In addition, when we design UX for connected products, the design becomes much more complex due to the dramatic increase in the number of users and systems. Therefore, IoT poses new challenges for designers used to working for software services.

So, we can say that many of these challenges come from:

  • The specialized nature of connected devices
  • The ability to bridge the digital and physical worlds
  • The fact that many IoT products are distributed systems of multiple devices
  • The peculiarities of networking.

How we overcome those challenges successfully will depend on the maturity of the technology we are working with; the context of use and the expectations of the users have about the system, and the complexity of the service (e.g. How many devices the user must interact with to use this service).

Problem of many in one. Diversity of interfaces and data points

Unification of interfaces to fit various user experiences is one of the biggest challenges for UX designers in IoT.

We must handle multiple types of data from multiple devices under a common user interface (UI) and adapt disparate data points in a simple visualization for the diversity of users and types of devices they are using. All this, considering not only the usability of the user interfaces individually but also their interoperability. That is, distribute the user experience through multiple use cases.

For overcoming the problem of many in one, it’s critical a flexible and interoperable design able to adapt to the complexities of an IoT ecosystem.

Impact of hardware

In many IoT products, hardware is a large part of the solution and, depending on its type, has a great impact on the user experience. In general, hardware selection is guided by technical specifications, software compatibility and costs, but ignores the user experience to a large extent. By selecting the appropriate sensors, processors and communication modules, we determine how a user can interact with it.

If we choose a lower cost system, maybe some functionality cannot be extended and we are punishing user's experience. Therefore, we must bear in mind that pretty design and fancy software will not provide a great user experience on their own. It is important to select the appropriate hardware components.

Impact of connectivity

Connectivity plays a big role. Network connectivity is another key aspect in offering a seamless IoT experience.

There are numerous options available in the market in terms of connectivity but It is important having the right connectivity solution for each use case. In some situations, low-latency and minimal data loss are very important (autonomous vehicles or weapon launch monitoring). The selection of a connectivity protocol will have a large impact on this part of the user experience.

Moreover, most industrial IoT solutions are also located outside the urban nuclei, often in remote environments or in the field, using simple devices that can lose connectivity or miss a few data points fairly easily. This situation should be considered when selecting the connectivity technology and UX designers must consider how to respond to the inevitability that some devices may be offline for a short or longer time. In this case, the user interface can take two main options: faking until the data gets through by indicating an action has been taken despite the latency or indicate that the data or an action is being processed until it is accomplished.

Platform experience

IoT products or solutions are built on top of an IoT platform that supports under one roof implementation of hardware, connectivity, data collection, analytics, rules, actions and application development. This requires to UX designers deeply understand of each module of the IoT platform and invest a lot of time and effort in understanding how each module impacts to design and how design could be changed or improved. Some of these platform modules are not visible to end users, which makes them easy for UX designers to ignore.

These less visible areas of a platform are critical to pay attention during each stage of UX design and product development to render a consistent and user-friendly experience. It is convenient not to forget that UX is not only conformed by what the user can see or find directly. The basis of a valuable, attractive, usable and coherent IoT product is created by taking care of UX at less visible, system-oriented and strategic levels.

(Image from User Experience Design for the Internet of Things by Claire Rowland). In designing for connected products, there is a similar pattern than Jesse James Garret, in which strategic and technical design is needed to enable good UX at the user interface and device level.

Third-party integrations

Third-party integrations are not always seamless. Most connected thing solutions require bringing many components (sensors, processors, controllers, platform, applications) from various vendors together, which can be hard to integrate and lead to a disjoined user experience.

IoT solutions are also always changing with old devices being replaced and new data points being added. Again, flexibility is the key to a good user experience. The underlying solution foundation, as well as the user interface and UX, must be malleable enough to adapt to these changes quickly.

The worst experience is to add a new data source and require the user to flip back and forth between two interfaces or applications rather than integrating the new data source into the same experience.

One example can be the abundance of smart home apps that don’t work together leads to a bad user experience, for instant, a user might control their sound system with one app and their lights with another, or in a more extreme case, lighting from different manufacturers may require different control interfaces.

Building trust

As stated above, IoT solutions take data from the physical world and virtualize it for users to make better operational decisions, but without seeing the physical situation it may be difficult for a user to believe certain data.

UX can build trust in several ways. On one side, by showing acknowledgements that allow the user to understand the status of commands and data transfer. On the other, allowing users to dig deep to get to the root of why things look the way they work. This type of transparency is critical specifically for IoT applications and provides a great user experience.

Concluding, to design a seamless user experience in the IoT product, we must not forget that:

  • The setup needs to be easy, quick and not technically challenging.
  • Connectivity is the main point to IoT products so making this connection process as frictionless as possible should be the main focus.
  • Many IoT products do not have a digital interface. Possibly voice, lights, vibration or audio sounds.
  • Understanding and learning context will greatly improve the overall long-term usage of these IoT products.
  • Incorporating conversational empathy into the design of a product will need to be considered.
  • No matter the type of IoT product it needs to add value to the end customer.
  • If the complexity of use outweighs the value, then your product will fail.

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About Aurora Font
UX & Design Team Manager at Worldline, Worldline UX Expert and Atos HMI Expert
Aurora Font is User Experience and Design Team Manager at Mobile Competence Center in Barcelona, member of Atos HMI Expert and Worldline UX Expert. Her professional career is the evolution of more than 18 years cooperating with companies in the success of their digital strategy; identifying user needs and suggesting the most efficient solutions. She is specialized in User-Centered Design process on mobility environment and focused on providing intuitive and easy-to-use products. As a UX Consultant her main fields of expertise are usability and inclusive user experience (iUX); information architecture and interaction design. She is also a strong advocate of Agile methodologies, Scrum and Lean UX, and the inclusion of UX design process in their regular flow to build products. Aurora is postgraduate in Infonomia: Advanced Information Management in Organizations.

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