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What happens when user experience designers meet the IoT?

The IoT brings a lot of moving parts, particularly when it intersects with user experience designers. Expert Claire Rowland shares her suggestions for sorting it out.

Claire Rowland is one of a handful of independent user experience designers who specializes in the Internet of Things.  Rowland spoke with SearchSoftwareQuality about the intersection of UX and IoT and the challenges it brings.

Where do we even begin to think about UX and IoT?

Claire Rowland: One place to start is what UX is all about and the way user experience designers think about engineering and engineering people think about design. IoT makes that a somewhat more complicated notion. The idea that design is slapping a UI on something, on the very visible parts, breaks down even further when it's applied to IoT. There's crossover with engineering and design in terms of things that shape UX concerns. The work of engineers bubbles up to the UX layers and shapes what UX people can do. Design and engineering need to work much more closely together on these themes.

The answer to that ... very much depends on the organization you're in and the culture. I've spent a lot of time at design-led agencies. In the design world you see how many different ways there are to think about design. In that world you see the complexity of it all: UI design, visual layers, interaction behaviors and more. With UX it's a different flavor and a different set of concerns. If you're supposed to design UX software when working for an engineering-led organization it's very much "you're here to do the UI," and it's a little bit harder to do some of the things we need to do, particularly in an IoT system. If you have a mental diagram in a room full of user experience designers that engineering is that little box over in the corner, then stuff gets built that does engineering a massive disservice. In an engineering-driven environment you don't always see the complexity of the UI because it's in the design box. It's hard to do a really good job of that because UI layers are more complicated.

How should we think about UX?

Rowland: UX really is in some senses an umbrella term for visual design, for content, for organizing information, for organizing functionality, and often it goes beyond the software itself to other aspects like ongoing service and support offered to the customer call centers. The experience of all those things is shaped by the business model and the strategy people, and hopefully it's charged fairly. But does the thing do something that's valuable? If you don't have something people perceive to be valuable it doesn't matter what you do at the UI level. The three tenants of UX are, is it valuable or useful, is it useable, or is it engaging or appealing? Is it doing something that will make people want to figure out how to use it?

Is it possible for us all to speak the same language?

Rowland: Design people don't make it easy for other people to understand how to break in. It's all incredibly complicated. It's complicated culturally within the design world, but it's no worse than any other rapidly changing domain -- like saying technical architect or solutions architect, but meaning the same thing -- but when you're working from different disciplines it's your responsibility to explain what you're doing. It needs to be more about "What does this project need? What do we need to do? What steps do we need to go through to get that?" This is a process we have to go through to achieve success.

Is it going to take a while to find the value in the IoT space?

Rowland: In the consumer space most of us had a laugh about connected things like drinking vessels and the "value proposition." This doesn't apply to industrial or commercial systems, just the consumer space because they can be made easily rather than because anyone wants or needs them. There's very cheap connectivity and processing power in hardware and I think there will be massive experimentation. Some will be valuable and some won't be. We laugh about Internet refrigerators ordering more milk so you're not running out. The idea that you might very well put connectivity in a refrigerator -- to monitor its performance -- is not as exciting a reason to be connected, but in some devices it might be enough to justify the cost. Then you could see all sorts of add-on services on top in varying degrees. Value is a big question quite central to UX and the overlap between UX and product management.

What are some of the UX/IoT hurdles that might surprise us?

Rowland: Interoperability is a huge one. There is a lot of crossover with the technologies. Lots of things that are out there at the moment, a lot of those things are not necessarily on the Internet in the true sense of the word. It might be on an intranet or local network or potentially a proprietary ecosystem that does not talk to anything at all. Lots of products do not talk to each other, and there is a lot of working going into this smart home thing where the products are not open.

There are lots of technical challenges that will have an effect on the user. For example, the user will buy things that work together, but they might not actually. If you buy one manufacturer's connected lightbulbs, but have an app with a grotty UI for one of them and don't know enough about them or about the other controls and then you realize the system only supports black and white or is missing functionality, that's not a good user experience. Unfortunately, you're going to have to expect lots of oddnesses and slightly broken things even among products that do work together.

The idea of a very shiny interconnected future, well, that's just very often not how things work and certainly not how things work over the Internet. It's not designed to do this. There are lots of ways various bits of the system might not work temporarily and handling that well is minimizing it through engineering and handling what's left is a design problem. The other thing people talk about with UI is how to approach design across a bunch of screens. They're not thinking about interusability across devices or experiencing interacting with several devices all together or in a wider area. The value of that product comes down to things like crossover between design and engineering. If you don't have the right APIs you can't design the right UX. That has a big impact. Both of those things really need strong, shared understanding. It's inherently more complex to users to understand a distributed system and there's lots more system hardware challenges as well on the design side.

In addition to being a UX designer with a special focus on IoT, Rowland is also the author of Designing Connected Products.

Next Steps

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This was first published in January 2016

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