How To Use Connectivity To Drive Product Innovation

Forget houeswares with useless features. It’s time to design products that truly connect. Altitude’s Daniel Ostrower explains how.


In the world of product innovation, the buzzword of the day is “connected.” But there’s one place where products have yet to realize the full potential of connectivity: the home. We’re not talking about consumer electronics like phones, computers, tablets, and video games. We’re talking about the humble appliances that make our lives easier and our homes more comfortable, like coffee makers, toasters, and space heaters.


While the multitasking and connected smartphone has gained acceptance even with technology laggards, our toasters still just make toast. Manufacturers may promote a plethora of add-on features–ovens with intricate programs or blenders with an insane number of speed settings–but most of these feel like gimmicks. Consumers are experts at sniffing out real value and in order for products to breakthrough using connectivity, these additional features need to mean something.

There are a few notable examples that avoid this trap: Withings and Nest have both created promising early adopter markets for their connected scales and thermostats. And there are some niche products like the Brewbot, which is an iPhone controlled home beer-brewing device. But there have been many more that simply haven’t gained traction. How long have we been hearing about the refrigerator that orders groceries?

The potential of connected appliances to both consumers and business is huge: Organizations create the opportunity for deeper relationships with customers and more profitable business models than when selling hardware alone. And consumers like connectivity, when done well, because it can deliver more meaningful and useful experiences.

In order to win in the connected market, however, companies must shift the way they inherently think about their products. The key? Focus on the essence of what a product delivers–as opposed to the mere function it serves–and then use the power of connectivity to enhance that value.

Here are five keys to using connectivity in product design in order to create real value for consumers–and a win in the market.

Don’t Make Everything


Co-opting the screen on a smartphone or a tablet means that you don’t have the cost of producing a high-quality display screen. Instead, focus on delivering your product’s ultimate value. The Withings baby monitor, for example, offers just a base while tapping into a user’s existing smartphone or tablet to view the video of their child. Gone is the grainy image typical of video baby monitors replaced by the rich image of a high-resolution smartphone screen. Tapping into Wi-Fi networks extends the coverage of the monitor from the traditional home-bound version, thus allowing parents to connect anywhere.

Include Remote Operation

Remote controls aren’t new, but a remote control that can be utilized anywhere you have a smartphone is. Take the Samsung SmartHome WiFi Washer and Dryer. It allows you to control your dryer from your phone. The real value: a notification that lets you know when your wash cycle is over (no more forgotten loads of laundry discovered two days later) and a de-wrinkle cycle for the dryer. Imagine stepping out of the shower, hitting the de-wrinkle cycle on your phone, and by the time you get downstairs, your clothes are ready to go.

Provide Useful Information, Not Just Data

When you step onto the Fitbit Aria scale, you don’t just get your weight for that day, you also see how your weight is trending over time on your phone or tablet. Since bodies don’t react linearly to food and exercise, causing weights to fluctuate, this function keeps you on point by showing true weight loss, rather than a daily number on the scale. The product converts little bits of data to much more useful information.

Create a Community


One of the true powers of connectivity is community. A community of products and services all tied together can create an offering much stronger than each product individually. The Withings Smart Activity Tracker (similar to a FitBit or Body Media device) lets you track your daily activity and monitor your sleep. Combined with their connected scale and blood pressure device, you have the ability to see the impact of exercise and sleep on your weight and overall health. Withings completes the picture by partnering with food tracking apps such as My Fitness Pal, resulting in an ecosystem of offerings greater than the parts.

Offer Free Trials and Upgrades

Products need to adopt an oft-used app technique where consumers are given access to a program for free for a limited time. Once a consumer tries what you’re offering, the hope is they will love it and buy it. How do you achieve this in the hardware world? While this hasn’t hit the consumer market yet, we’re seeing “hacks” that point to the possibilities. Product functionality is increasingly enabled via software, not just hardware. If you can access that software with a connected product, you can sell additional functions to the consumer, without them having to purchase new hardware.

To monetize this, think of shipping a camera with basic functions at a basic price, and then allow consumers to download more whistles and bells over time, basically purchasing a higher-end model as they become more expert users. Rather than having to capture consumers at shelf (the “good, better, best” approach), this approach allows consumer to buy into the hardware at the “good” price, but end up paying for the “best” over time: always an easier sell.

Connectivity in the home is something consumers are ready for and sales channels are banking on it. Embedding a Wi-Fi chip in your product isn’t enough to create a product that consumers will care about and pay for. All you’ll do is trigger their gimmick meter. Understand instead what your product can offer a consumer, use connectivity to deliver on it, and you will create a value for the consumer, a win for your business, and another successful connected product.

[This article was written with Heather Andrus]

About the author

Daniel Ostrower is the CEO of Altitude. He has two decades of experience in understanding organizations, building businesses and teams, and launching disruptive innovations for commercial and industrial markets.