The 4 Biggest Barriers To Connecting Everything, And How To Tear Them Down

Samsung’s Kevin Lee and Smart Design’s John Kiechel say the promise of connected devices won’t live up to the hype unless designers and technologists start thinking creatively.

The 4 Biggest Barriers To Connecting Everything, And How To Tear Them Down
[Blender Image: Mariocigic via Shutterstock]

The Galaxy Gear smartwatch, Samsung’s recent entry into the wearable technology fad, didn’t merit rave reviews. The price is high, battery life short, and the notification system was lacking until the watch received a much-needed upgrade in November. But with more than 800,000 units sold, the company is on track to sell millions by the end of 2013. And according to Kevin Lee, director of product strategy at Samsung Design America, the device is exceeding internal sales expectations.


Still, there’s a big gap between what consumers think and what inventors believe they can deliver. Lee is something of an expert on the topic. Before becoming director of product at Samsung, where he’s responsible for 18 to 24 month product strategy across all Samsung categories, including TV, tablet, and digital appliances, he worked on user experience at Whirlpool, GE Healthcare, eBay, and PayPal. He shared some of what he’s learned at a recent Smart Design salon on “Making It Real: the Agony & Ecstasy of Connected Devices.” Here are the major hurdles that Lee says stand in the way of the sensor revolution taking hold in 2014, and some ways to overcome them as suggested by the designers, engineers, and business strategists at Smart Design.

1. “Smart” Gadgets That Make Life Harder

Think about your trusty coffeemaker. You’ve had it for three to six years, most likely, and it still does exactly what you expect it to–it gives you coffee. “If you start loading that thing with connected chips and software, within a year, I bet you that you need to download new software. Who wants to do that? Who wants to spend another 30 seconds or a minute downloading? And depending on your data plan you may never get one–and then what do you do? Your coffeemaker is now no longer useful or usable,” says Lee.

“I think as things get smarter, you start to create a set of problems. When you think about what use case would be so profound for someone to be willing to go through the friction of downloading things. That is a new friction that didn’t exist before. In the old model, the only friction is ‘Where’s my coffee and my filters and my water?’”

Smart Design Creative Director John Kiechel says the solution lies in looking at the whole user journey, not just the discrete moment of use. “Creating a successful connected coffee machine means creating long-term value for the person owning it, not just a moment of brilliance when it first connects. When looking at the whole journey, it’s easier to identify problems that can occur in living with a device over time. We see companies fall into the trap of not addressing all of these touch points along the experience and that’s where the flaws start to reveal themselves.”

2. Battery Life

The same problem that bedeviled laptops and smartphones is going to be an even bigger issue in the always-connected, wearable devices world. “Battery life is the big barrier for some of the smart connected things to be realized in the time frame people want to have them,” says Lee. “Wearables don’t last more than 24 hours or 48 hours, depending on whether you have an AMOLED display or a retina display. It becomes pure physics.” There’s still plenty of room for creativity within those constraints, but it will require creative designers who are hardware-savvy.

One fix? Learn how different types of people actually use the devices, and recognize that your initial assumptions about usage or needs may not be correct. “Some technological hurdles are real. If you’re having trouble with it, it’s likely everyone is, or will. But it’s very important to challenge your assumptions,” says Kiechel. Sometimes a problem could be a benefit in disguise. “We had a charging problem come up in a project, and it turned out that the charging interval that was perceived as too short actually worked better for the target user because it aligned with existing daily habits, and was easier to remember and integrate into daily use.” The key here: looking at how specs are actually applied in real life and being “people-centric” as much as “performance-centric.”


3. Software Upgrades That Kill The Emotional Connection

According to Lee, “Hardware is the emotional thing.”

“I’m not saying the software and service the things that sit on the hardware aren’t, but when you think about human nature, we are drawn to beautiful objects. You’re dealing with human psychology–it’s emotion,” Lee says. “To think of software patches as if they’re going to create the demand is a false prophecy. The beautiful object never changes, but the meaning and the value starts to change because of the software updates. Rather than creating a promise of that, it starts to create more of a gap and more detachment.”

“We look at the wearable market as a piece of the missing puzzle that will be available and pervasive in 2014 or 2015–a couple billion dollar marketplace for that,” he says. But which platform will be dominant is anyone’s guess. “The key is we need to be patient about how we actually construct a plan to build that consensus in the organization. And therefore drive that vision year by year. Companies like Apple and Samsung can’t build things in a 12-month shot, because it’s almost impossible.”

Sean Murphy, director of engineering at Smart Design points to the simplest solution: make software updates feel like a reward by making them significant enough to be worth the effort. “Software updates are opportunities to make or break people’s emotional connection to your product. We can support the sense of ‘ownership’ in this scenario by designing in tangible reward loops into the process,” Murphy explains. “We all tend to update our iPhones regularly because we can immediately see a rewarding improvement in the product experience (even with the usual chatter around the pitfalls of updating). This visible benefit fortifies people’s emotional connection to the product rather than shattering it. It’s pretty simple. If you can’t see the benefits, you won’t do the updates. Solving for this barrier is bolstered by understanding people’s real, long-term experiences with your product.”

4. Platform Wars

Will Apple and Google willingly cooperate on a standard language of communication that works across connected and wearable devices? “Never,” says Lee. It’s all but impossible until the industry demands it, or a company goes bankrupt. “When you think about building connected devices, often we forget that you’re trying to bring two different industries together, whether it’s two different stakeholders or two different distribution channels,” he says. This is where many of the third-party sensor makers get burned. “When you don’t understand the entire dynamics of how the market works, a lot of those great ideas just didn’t go any further because they run into ‘Oops, we need to hire a legal specialist.’ And by the time you hire that person it takes another $1 million out of the budget because that person isn’t cheap. You need to understand the bigger picture.”

While this is a business and legal problem that is too big for design to solve, Smart’s VP Murphy Freelen is optimistic that some channels and companies–even if not platforms–can learn to play together when offered a clear benefit for doing so. “Our business design practice does provide a way for us to help clients understand the opportunity spaces for their products or ecosystems to open up. If we can demonstrate a new business model and the resulting real opportunity, this can lead companies to take more of a risk in playing nicely with a larger connected ecosystem. Often it’s about creating a viable and realistic roadmap from where they are to a future vision three to five years later. Change takes time but it is easier when it’s clearly outlined and supported with scenarios that are founded on real insights and data.”

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. Formerly AVP of Innovation at Idea Couture and an editor at MISC Magazine, she is an ethnographer by both training and nature