The Internet of Things (IoT) has reached the peak of its hype cycle for emerging technologies, and like the tech trends it follows — particularly the app boom — it seems nearly every business wants a piece of the action.
By 2016’s end, Gartner expects companies will have sold 6.4 billion connected “things,” up 30 percent from 2015. By 2020, the research firm projects we’ll be collectively using 20.8 billion connected devices.
But as companies scramble to capitalize upon consumers’ demand for next-generation technology products, too many are grasping at straws like smart diapers, connected deodorant applicators, and high-tech scotch bottles.
Frankly, these are novelty products. Users might use them once or twice, then decide they can determine for themselves — and for a lot less money — whether the baby needs care or their deodorant is properly applied.
Lots of companies want to jump aboard the IoT train, and that’s understandable: It’s an exciting group of technologies that have piqued consumers’ interest perhaps more than any product since the iPhone.
But to build a “smart” product that’s relevant to consumers — in a way that self-driving cars will be (or in a way that Nest’s thermostat already is) — technology professionals must ask themselves these four questions:
1. Is your IoT product designed to be as ‘human’ as possible?
Like a favorite pet, a beloved IoT technology needn’t be literally human, but it should delight and engage us in similar ways. Humans are hardwired to enjoy gadgets, particularly those that tap into our cultural experiences and respond to our own expressions.
Ironically, perhaps one of the most “human” smart devices I’ve seen is modeled after a fictional robot. Debuted just before the latest reboot of the “Star Wars” franchise, toy company Sphero showed a licensed BB-8 droid controlled by an Android or iOS app at CES in January. Dubbed the “best holiday toy of the season” by Mashable, the BB-8 toy learns the personality of its owner, can respond to voice commands, and can be set to explore autonomously. The public instantly fell in love with BB-8 because of its “human” tendencies and pop culture’s fascination with smart machines in sci-fi franchises like “Star Wars,” “Star Trek,” and “Doctor Who.”
2. Does your IoT product solve consumers’ problems?
In a flooded market, technologies that don’t solve users’ problems won’t be long for this world. And just as all but the most useful apps lose 77 percent of their daily users within three days of installation, so will pointless IoT technologies.
The $4.8 billion drone market, however, is thriving because of these products’ usability. From backyard-fun technology like the Air Hogs Helix video drone to conservation tools like the DJI Phantom to seeding-and-spraying agricultural drones like the Yamaha RMAX, commercial drones offer incredible functionality across industries. Expect these products to stick around.
3. Can your IoT product adapt to its environment?
A winning IoT device must be smart enough to adapt to the world in which it’s being used.
One of the earliest — and most popular — IoT products has been Nest Labs’ Nest Thermostat. Nest’s early-on feature is truly smart, taking into account incoming weather fronts as well as what it’s learned about how quickly the home heats and cools. This enables it to reach the target temperature accurately and on schedule, saving users up to 12 percent of heating and 15 percent of cooling costs.
Likewise, Nest Cam adapts to its users’ schedules by tapping into the location of users’ phones. It can know when everyone has left the house, turning on automatically to monitor for any disturbances. This environmental adaptation means users can set it and forget it, then check back when they’re wondering if a packaged arrived, if the baby woke up, or if the dog is busy tearing up the couch.
4. Does your IoT product pair with other technologies?
Nobody wants to have to replace all of his or her gadgets each time he or she acquires a new one. That’s why it’s important that your IoT product can pair with users’ existing technologies.
Jawbone, manufacturer of headsets and fitness trackers, made a really savvy move when it debuted its free Up app. Although Jawbone could have made users purchase the Jawbone Up fitness band to use the app, it instead chose to piggyback on the functionality of iPhone and Android devices. Connected to a smartphone, the Jawbone Up app performs basically the same functions as its pricey cousins, Fitbit Surge and Garmin Vivoactive — logging caloric intake, sleep hours, and daily activity — and it works with plenty of other products like MyFitnessPal and Runkeeper.
By not forcing users to run out and purchase a separate device, Jawbone has brought new, satisfied customers into its ecosystem of products. And by focusing on the service level of its connected products, Jawbone has demonstrated its understanding of what its customers want in an IoT product. Consumers will pick winners and losers of this growing economy not by the hardware a product is packaged in, but by what the product’s software can do for them.
There will be a lot of silly devices that come and go as IoT matures, but there will undoubtedly be some enduring, life-changing hits, just as there were during the app explosion of the early 2010s. To be sure your next IoT product is one that sticks around, remember to design with the end user in mind. It’s what the IoT movement is all about.
By Tony Scherba