Over the past 30 years, we've got used to the benefits of living in a connected world. One where all human knowledge can be accessed by anyone with a computer and transactions and communication can be sent across the globe in fractions of a second. All this is made possible by an interconnected network of devices called the internet, however this is just the beginning.
The Internet Of Things (IOT) represents a step-change in the capability of our existing network. An IOT device can be defined as a piece of hardware that can connect (to it's environment via sensors), compute (contains on-board processing power) and communicate (to the internet directly or by proxy). The nest thermostat is a good example as it uses a combination of sensor and human input to calculate optimum settings for your domestic heating, while also connecting to the internet to download software updates.
Nest is a simplistic demonstration of what is to come, showing how devices will become increasingly networked, capable, smart and autonomous. Imagine a washing machine that analyses your clothes and washes and dries them perfectly, or a fridge that manages your food shopping, your devices become experts at what they do allowing you to do less. As the number of IOT devices increase, it’s easy to imagine devices communicating to co-ordinate their efforts multiplying their capability exponentially. This could be the biggest change to human experience since the introduction of mass-produced consumer goods in the 1920's.
In addition to simply downloading and sharing data, sensor-laden devices with computation will start creating data and upload it to the internet. To date, the vast majority of content on the internet has been authored by people, however as the number of IOT capable devices grows, an increasing proportion will be created by machine. This ultimately means a huge surge in the volume of data on the internet creating its own design opportunities and challenges.
With the inevitable rise of IOT it is important that human needs remain at the forefront of business minds, otherwise companies may end up supplying products and services that leave customers worse off. This is true of any product sold today but the technological and behavioural complexity of IOT devices, not to mention their data creation capability means a lot of careful thought is required to make interactions intuitive, helpful and enjoyable. User-centred design can help close this gap by employing detailed research studies to understand users in detail. With this deep, nuanced understanding of the problem, designers can shape technology into systems that improve the daily experience of users.
Humans must remain at the centre of any IOT device, but services and eco-systems will become increasingly complex and important. The 'smart home' for example is a network of many different devices working in harmony so that a household can run itself, but how do we design devices from multiple manufacturers that work together seamlessly? And how do we avoid hours of installation and setup? Some of these problems will be solved as regulators define universal communication standards but design will play a significant role in optimising usability.
Another key challenge to the public acceptance of IOT is around privacy and security. If every device in your home has sensors and an internet connection, what stops manufacturers from learning everything about you and your family's private life? Similarly as security systems become internet enabled, a burglar could hack your door locks and turn off your alarm system. While these risks are real, design can work to help minimise risks to acceptable levels and help educate users on how risks have been managed.
In essence, IOT is the natural progression of 'dumb' devices to 'smart' connected devices. The resulting increase in autonomy, connectivity and embedded processing power creates opportunities to make life easier for everyone. However the novelty and complexity of such devices creates a number of complex usability challenges that can only be solved effectively by employing good user-centred research and design methodologies.
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About the Author
Thomas Shirley – Industrial Designer, Tata Elxsi
As an Industrial Designer at Tata Elxsi, Thomas helps clients envision and implement strategies for new products and services designed to improve their top line growth. He works from Tata Elxsi’s Design studio situated in London.