Lately, we’ve been helping more and more of our clients design smart products in the industrial and commercial space. The terms 'Connected Devices' and 'Internet of Things (IoT)' may sound like industry buzzwords at the moment, but with solid ideas and strong design guidance from the outset the opportunities are real.
These innovative products require innovative solutions – how exactly do you design for interfaces that don’t have traditional interfaces? Such smart products serve to improve existing, and often intricate, analog workflows. But this technology is incredibly new – and with nascent tech, comes numerous design, business, and workflow challenges – fortunately, solving complex business problems through design is what we do.
As always, the key to creating useful experiences begins with understanding users’ needs. Speaking to users is the first port of call, but the real insights come from shadowing users as they go about their daily routine: this ethnographic research is key to revealing the actual pain points, and designing better experiences.
It’s better to design a scalpel, than a Swiss Army Knife – the end user will prefer the former over the latter. When designing user interfaces that users depend on for productivity it’s essential to understand what their most important tasks are, and focus on improving these.
Users don't need a Swiss Army knife
When looking to improve an, until now, analog workflow it’s important to focus on key areas. Often, stakeholders (ourselves included) become distracted by the possibilities of IoT technologies – we want to automate task X, or gather data from sensor Y – but designers shouldn’t let this desire to ‘innovate’ mislead design efforts. Doing so only help to create a substandard product.
The relay race
Designers must consider the entire ecosystem – the people, their relationships, their roles, their dependencies, as well as the physical space and environmental safety considerations.
A number of the projects we've designed required multilayered input from different users, with one user relying on the previous to have fulfilled their role efficiently. One user’s actions has a knock on effect on the next user’s. It's a sort of relay race, and the goal is to help each participant be as effective as they can when it's their turn to sprint. The passed baton should ensure the team maintains their momentum to the finish line.
Different roles, different mental models
Knowing your users means understanding their motivations and the mental models with which they approach each task. Each user may have completely different roles and, most importantly, completely different views on the what needs to be done and how.
Some considerations: If one user is responsible for physically installing the hardware on a commercial scale, will they actually even meet with the other users who come along later in the workflow? Are these users full time staff or contractors who work on multiple different sites using your product as well as others? Will your product need to work alongside not-so-smart competitor products too? There are numerous scenarios to be considered when designing a truly intuitive and efficient productivity tool, which meets everyone’s requirements.
Prototyping the experience with end users
This might sound obvious, but it's imperative you test with the people who will actually be using your product. When speaking to users, proxy users, and business stakeholders the product features wish list can become bloated with non-essential ‘requirements’.
Effective prototyping and testing can help you separate the business ‘requirements’ from the actual business and user need. We found that when we spoke with users, their end-goals were often the same as the business's, but their requirements were often vastly different.
Managers may suggest ten core requirements, but in many cases the top three of these, if designed well, will have the biggest impact for the end user, and in turn the business.
If your user base is spread out internationally then be clever with focussed remote user testing at appropriate intervals in the project. We regularly use a mixture of low-fidelity prototypes throughout the design phase: including early stage clickable wireframes tested remotely, in person, and over web conferences; to high fidelity industrial design models with fully rendered app interface, including animations and transitions.
Test early and often. Listen to your users and use evidence-based design to inform your decisions, and refine the experience.
Efficiency and impact
With a complete understanding of your users’ needs, the opportunities and restrictions of the underlying technology, and a focused approach to the overall design and execution, you can create a truly essential and innovative product.
Not just a product that users merely agree to adopt, but one that they feel compelled to use.
Input by Ciaran Harris
Edited by Piers Dillion-Scott