Designing the Internet of Things


This week has been an exciting one so far for the SmartThings team at Le Web. It’s my first time in Paris, and I’m here with co-founders Ben Edwards and Jeff Hagins. We’ve seen some great speakers and have met many people with big ideas for the Internet of Things, which is the theme of the conference. On opening day, Jeff shared the SmartThings vision of an open physical graph with the world from the main stage, and announced the Maker & Developer Contest Series.

Jeff and I were also invited to present 5-minute “Ignite” talks this morning. 5 minutes. 20 slides that start and move automatically while you speak. What a challenge! My talk topic was “Designing the Internet of Things”. Even with solid prep and rehearsal, my talk went off the rails early on. I feel like I recovered some in the middle and towards the end. The format really is tough! All in all it was a great experience. You have to start an illustrious career in public speaking somewhere, right?

While the live presentation was a little rough, I couldn’t be more passionate about design’s role in the evolution of the Internet of Things. I believe that we will only succeed working together as a community, sharing our ideas. So, let’s start the conversation.

Design + technology. It’s not one or the other.

As a designer that loves technology, these really are super exciting times. Thanks to recent efforts from designers, developers and brands that have focused on creating products that are beautiful and easy to use, design has permanently become part of our internal dialog that guides our decisions about what new things and services we add to our lives.

Design can drive global adoption of very complex things.

Careful design, iterated over time and working hand-in-hand with advances in technology, plays a critical role across the three graphs in the evolution of the Internet. It’s true for the knowledge graph. It’s true for the social graph. And it’s only just beginning to impact the emerging Internet of Things, or physical graph.

Consider the knowledge graph: everything we know made digital. It’s something we take for granted now, but it never ceases to amaze me when I stop to think about it. All of the world’s knowledge, data and experience. Indexed. Easily searched using simple and elegant interactions. Available at the tips of our fingers, within seconds (or less!), anywhere in the world.

And what about the social graph? Our relationships are now digital. Not that long ago, it would have been difficult to imagine that we would be connecting with so many others – friends, family, coworkers – online and sharing so many details of our lives on a regular basis.

These graphs are infinitely complex (and the physical graph promises to be just as far-reaching), yet they have been adopted by and now influence a large portion of the global population. In no small way, iteration of the design of the user interface and interaction model has allowed this kind of mainstream adoption to happen.

Design can integrate new technology seamlessly into daily life.

Think about a common scene. Perhaps a group of friends at dinner. The knowledge and social graphs have likely played a role in just about every aspect of that moment in time. The friendships, the time to meet, the restaurant, the food ordered, the clothes worn, the discussion… everything. We often don’t notice just how seamlessly these amazing technologies have been integrated into our habits, thinking and way of life. When the product or technology “gets out of the way” and people are just living better lives because of the physical graph, we will have succeeded.

This hasn’t happened yet for the physical graph.

I believe that one of the biggest reasons (and there are many!) that the vision and promise of the Internet of Things hasn’t been realized yet is that design has not been effectively and thoughtfully applied in the space. This isn’t just the look and feel of the software, or the enclosure of a piece of hardware. Designing the physical graph is about a complete view of the customer experience. Design strategy needs to be planned, and decisions need to made, for so many details across software, hardware, electrical engineering, manufacturing, support, packaging, marketing… and the list goes on. We have a long way to go, so we need to get started now.

We don’t need to start from scratch.

So, it’s time to finally pair design excellence with technological innovation for the physical graph. But where do we start? Fortunately, while there are new challenges to overcome, we’re not starting from scratch. We can look at what’s worked for the knowledge and physical graph as a starting point, and build from there. I think the building blocks that follow are a great starting point for anybody or any business that’s building for the physical graph.

Make it easy.

This is a lot harder than it sounds, for sure. The sources of friction in the user experience of your product will seem endless. I like to think that means boundless opportunity to do better! Pay unrelenting attention to the details of your hardware and software designs and ruthlessly eliminate friction to reduce the time it takes for somebody to start realizing value.

Take the time to map out the complete flow of interaction with your product: pre-purchase, the purchase itself, pre-delivery configuration and setup, delivery, unboxing, installation (hardware and software!), first use, maintenance, getting help when there’s a problem, and more.

Consider every step. Prototype and test as much of it as possible. Ask for others to try things. Listen to what they say. Were they ever confused about what to do next? What takes longer than it should? Was something confusing or physically hard to do? Were instructions easily understood?

Then, step back and look at the big picture. There will be some low-hanging fruit and things you can improve quickly. You’ll also see some of the tougher challenges, and you can begin to design solutions. Develop a plan for making improvements and get started.

Make it intelligent.

Intelligent solutions built for the physical graph will do more than what’s possible only with computing power and information available locally to an individual device. Effectively tapping into the incredible amount of raw processing power, context, history, collective intelligence, personal data and rich world of web services in the cloud will allow the creation of truly intelligent product experiences that learn, adapt, and anticipate in ways that will seem magical.

Software development has been revolutionized by a world of programmable web services, now it’s time for the same to happen for the Internet of Things.

Make it open.

Read this update to find out what we mean when we talk about creating an open physical graph. We believe it’s the right path, and are focused on making it real. From my perspective, one of the most important benefits is the potential to maintain simplicity and elegance of the user experience while also making possible scenarios incorporating a very wide range of devices.

People should have control and flexibility to make their world of connected things react in intelligent ways. As you design, be thoughtful about how your project will interact with other projects, devices and services without creating unnecessary friction in daily use.

Make it mobile.

“Mobile first” has been talked about a lot, so I won’t spend too much time on it here. But it’s important. Smartphones are everywhere and are fast becoming the most important interface to the knowledge graph and social graph because they are with us all the time. As we develop for the physical graph, this is even more true. The physical graph will literally be all around a person, and their smartphone will be with them as they move through it.

Beyond control, alerts, discovery, and configuration in smartphone software, however, the smartphone itself should be considered an integrated part of the physical graph itself, providing sensors and tons of useful context and data that can be used to personalize the user experience and make what we do that much more intelligent.

Make it beautiful.

Deceptively simple. 100% essential. In all of its many forms, beauty in design can create emotional connections between people and their things, which is an important factor for mainstream adoption of new technology. People like to fill their homes and interact with objects that are appealing to look at and fit well into their own decor. Building products for the physical graph has the added complexity of requiring beauty to span software, industrial design, marketing and more. Don’t neglect any opportunity, no matter how small, to make something beautiful.

Make it agile.

As designers, sometimes we need to learn new tricks. With software developers leading the way down the agile path, the designers that work together with them have adapted and adopted agile methodologies and processes into their process of creation. For me, at least, being agile is about increased responsiveness in rapidly evolving markets, and also having greater resolution and control over delivering a product experience that is matched to real-world needs.

Now, designers, developers and engineers building projects for the physical graph have to fit together both software and hardware product development, keeping them perfectly in alignment. It’s still early to say exactly where we’ll end up, but recent innovation in industrial design and manufacturing are now introducing the opportunity to be increasingly agile in hardware development. Design strategies that acknowledge this new reality and effectively embrace it will win.

Make it together.

It has been a process, but the best progress that has been made on the Web over the years in beauty, manageability, ease of use, accessibility, and usefulness have come about through an engaged community. Collaboration. Discussion. Disagreement. Competition. But in the end, working together to make the Web a better place. The same is true for the physical graph. Software and hardware. Designers, developers, engineers, enthusiasts, hackers, makers, and businesses. A diverse ecosystem needs to engage as a community in order to ensure that now is finally the time that the physical graph goes mainstream.

Add it all up, and we’re making it livable.

Incredible complexity, intelligence, and an ever expanding world of connected things that responds to my presence. The potential for friction in the user experience surrounding the physical graph is enormous. It will take focus, determination, and attention to every design detail to truly make the physical graph livable, to see it cross over into the global mainstream, and to see it influencing every aspect of our lives as the knowledge and social graphs do today. This is the real promise and potential of the physical graph.

Let’s keep the conversation going!

I hope that these thoughts are useful to you and your own approach to design and development for the open physical graph. I’d love to hear what you think. What you would add to the list? What do easy, intelligent, open, mobile, beautiful, agile, together, and livable mean to you? Let’s design the physical graph together.

// Attribution: the photo of James at Le Web is courtesy of Le Web.

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