Is Your Smart Device Dumb? Here Are 4 Ways To Tell

Tips from smart-device experts on how to make a successful sensor-connected product.

Is Your Smart Device Dumb? Here Are 4 Ways To Tell
[Image: Flickr user e3Learning]

Bringing a connected device to market is more complicated than you’d expect. After figuring out the form factor, it’s got to communicate with multiple devices and protocols, while not becoming outdated as soon as the underlying technology advances. At a Smart Design salon this week on “The Agony & Ecstasy of Connected Devices: Tales from the front Line, ” four experts playing in the space talked about how to have the best shot at bringing a successful connected product to market. Here’s what they said.


Does It Solve A Problem?

In creating a connected device for the Internet of Things as we know it, for me the most important thing as a designer–though I’m wearing a strategy hat–is to ask the question: “What problem are we trying to solve?” That is the most fundamental question that is often ignored. We’re too busy jumping into the utilitarian aspects of gadget things: “Oh, look at that, there’s a coffeemaker that works automatically because it’s connected to my smartphone.” Not what motivation we’re trying to create for our consumers. I think it’s the one philosophy of design that we sometimes forget.

Kevin Lee, director of strategy at Samsung Design America. Heads up 18- to 24-month product strategy across all categories: wearables, TV, tablet, digital appliances, and building out new a product category.

Is It A Good User Experience?

One of the things I see frequently is Arduino-style projects that grow organically out of the maker ethos being pushed into the mainstream market before a lot of thought has gone into what the market segmentation’s going to look like, what the user is really going to need, and to what extent you can make the product intuitive out of the box. I myself have received Kickstarter projects where I’ve taken it out, plugged it in, and said “I can’t make this connect to the Internet. I have a computer science degree, and I have no idea what I’m doing wrong.” Companies like Apple have set the bar incredibly high where you take the thing out of the box, it has one button, you push that one button, and everything just kind of falls from there. So when you find yourself in a relatively new space… Just nailing a seamless user experience out of the box, I think is one of the more critical necessities for building a successful connected device.

Renee DiResta, venture capitalist at O’Reilly AlphaTech Ventures–where Tim O’Reilly is one of the investors in the fund. She invests in hardware, companies like Little Bits and Misfit Wearables–two portfolio companies in the connected space. She is heading up an upcoming conference called “Solid,” which is all about the future of manufacturing, particularly around the industrial Internet of Things.

Does It Communicate Intelligently?

Connecting it is definitely not sufficient. That’s like having the wires up but not the electricity. The thing that you need to add to the connection is intelligence… There are some people who solve specific problems that I think do well, like Lockitron is a great example of solving a very specific problem with a device that is connected, and it’s worth getting your phone out to do that thing because you can give your key to somebody else who didn’t have a key. So you’ll have little examples like that. And then you’ll have big examples like cars–connected cars make sense if there is intelligence built into that connection. Like the navigation in my car that gives me traffic. Without that traffic piece, it’s just a smart paper map. There has to be intelligence on the back end of that connection. That’s when you’re really going to see people adopt things.

Michael Greaves, entrepreneur and consultant. Used to be at Frog Design. Now founder of a startup called Play-i. The company’s focus: building a robot to teach programming to kids as young as 5 and create a connected community where kids can share programs and interact with each other over the network.


Is It A Service?

As you start to dig in to what the real use case is, you probably are coming at it from the standpoint of creating a connected device, but you’re probably also creating the service that goes with it. So I think there needs to be a little bit of thinking around which is the more critical of that, and think about it from your potential users’ perspective, not yours. A lot of hardware entrepreneurs are hardware people, so that’s how you think about the problem. I think the sooner you can take a step back and look at it from a different perspective, the better.

Sean Murphy, director of engineering at Smart Design. Sean’s background is in medical devices, toys, and consumer electronics. His interest: how the technologies that used to be reserved for very premium products like medical devices are now being deployed to more consumer uses and how those things might get filtered out into our lives.

About the author

Leah Hunter has spent her career exploring the intersection of technology, culture, and design. She writes about the human side of tech for Fast Company, O'Reilly Radar, Business Punk, and mentors tech companies.