“Poor Roo,” my friends say about my seven-year-old Corgi mix. “Don’t you think he minds having his every moment broadcast online?” The fact is Roo has become the unwitting subject of my electronic hacks. One of my recent experiments involved attaching an UP by Jawbone band to his harness to solve the mystery of just what he does all day. I must admit the first set of graphs was disappointing — it seemed like he did nothing but nap. Questioning the data, I reset the band to track a 27-lb, 14-inch tall “person”. Sadly, additional records confirmed that Roo does, in fact, nap. All day long.
Yep, I like to measure things
Thankfully, I’m not the only one who likes to experiment with technology. The startup Green Goose has created a kit of sensors in the form of light portable stickers and labels. When attached to everyday things, they record and broadcast seemingly mundane moments such as a medication bottle being opened or a watering can being tilted. The Green Goose hub then tweets, texts or records a graph of these moments over time. It just so happened that the company’s first kit was designed for pets, meaning I could visualize when Roo’s feedings took place and the distance of our daily walks.
As a designer, I’m really excited by this shift in how we relate to the everyday objects around us. Cisco predicts that there will be 50 billion things connected to the Internet by 2020. Imagine all the consumer electronics, toys, appliances and medical devices that will be connected to the Internet in the next decade. And it’s not only electronics, but also plain old things like coffee cups and lamps that will be sharing data with themselves, the Cloud and more importantly, with people.
What all this adds up to is a virtual database of physical objects — or “Internet of Things” — that can be accessed at any time. It will map out how many miles you walked last month. It will calculate the most affordable time to do your laundry based on fluctuating electricity costs. It can even scold you for forgetting to brush your teeth in the morning.
As inspired as I am by the possibilities, it’s also my job to keep things real. While obsessing over the movements of my nap-loving dog is a fun diversion, I realize that the Internet of Things will only be valuable when it can provide data that’s meaningful to people in their everyday lives. At Smart Design, where I work, we always consider the real-life benefits that convergent devices and data-rich experiences can offer. Just because we can track and display information like blood pressure and energy prices doesn’t automatically mean that we should. In fact, devices intended to enrich our lives can easily backfire and cause unnecessary stress. “Wait, what’s this number? Do I need to worry about this?”
To avoid the trap of “technology for technology’s sake,” I keep in mind these six overarching guidelines when designing for the Internet of Things.
1. Watch out for information overload
Eliminating or ignoring less relevant information should be the first step in determining the hierarchy of a product or digital interface. For instance, a connected car is constantly collecting information about driving behavior and whereabouts throughout the day. But what matters most to people is gas consumption, which means they only need to know about those driving moments that make a difference, and they’ll want to see that data accumulated over time. Ford’s SmartGauge dashboard, for example, features growing leaves that indicate gas consumption in an ambient display. Its intelligence lies is converting driver behavior data into feedback that’s informative and meaningful without making the driver think.
2. Life now, data later
Most people dislike fussing with an interface during their daily routines. Well-designed solutions let people live life first, and allow for deeper dives into data later. Nest, a new intelligent thermostat, works in conjunction with an iPad app that captures much more detailed habits over time. This lets people dig deeper and search for specific patterns when they want a more detailed look at their energy usage. Similarly, the Nike+ suite of products lets people work out the way they always have, but also gives them the ability to drill down into data when they’re at home and ready to reflect on workout progress.
3. Focus on the when, where and why
While it may be fun to know your friend is nearby when you’re waiting for the bus to arrive, it would be dangerous to get the same alert on your car windshield. It’s important to first identify the main contexts of use and design the product to broadcast messages that make sense for the user’s mode. For example, when considering messages and alerts for connected home experiences, the last thing we want to do is interrupt the climax of a movie. Even worse would be to interrupt people while they sleep. In these cases, sleep modes or ambient alerts are much more considerate and less disruptive.
4. Connect with people emotionally
Dynamic layers such as glowing, vibrating, making sounds or displaying screen information all make up to the personality of an experience. For instance, a cleaning robot can be programmed to let you know it’s run into a mess though a charming combination of sounds and visual messages. Then after it’s done is job, it notifies you with a clever tweet. In the Smart Interaction Lab, we created a device called “Lumi” that lets us embed colored lights into everyday objects to give them a rich vocabulary of expressions. We’ve found that when objects communicate personified messages such as “I’m in distress. Running out of batteries!” and “I’m done cleaning, hurray!” we begin to relate to them in more human terms, almost empathizing with them as friendly pets. This kind of emotional connection enhances communication as we increasingly rely on devices to deliver more of the information we need.
5. Play nice with others
There are a number of products that allow us to track movement, blood pressure, calories and weight. The problem is none of them talk to each other. Imagine a connected blood pressure cuff that knows your body better than your doctor. It could communicate with a meal tracker app and your scale to build personalized diet and exercise schedules. Today, the Jawbone Up band that I hacked and strapped to Roo has a companion Smartphone app that I initially used to track my own movement and diet. But what would have helped me better understand the impact of my activity and food choices is having that data displayed alongside with the weight chart that my WiThings scale generates during my morning weigh-ins.
6. Know when to borrow the screen
Sometimes it makes sense to display information directly through an object. Other times it’s better to send data to a smartphone. Personal touchscreens can invite rich gestural inputs or serve as a high-res display but if investing in the manufacturing costs of embedding a rich display into an object doesn’t make sense, why not take advantage of the screens people already have in their pockets? For example, a blood pressure reader may need its own screen in public settings such as hospitals or clinics, but when that same device is intended for home use, an attachment that plugs into a smartphone makes a lot more sense.
The future of interaction design
As people continue to interact with data, they will expect products to deliver real-time, visualized and networked feedback. Home healthcare is an obvious category that could benefit, but so are cooking, entertainment and sports.
Fortunately for Roo, these new opportunity areas for data-enabled experiences have allowed me to shift my attention to people-oriented experiments within our Smart Interaction Lab, an open-ended initiative that explores life at the intersection of the physical and the digital. Within the lab, my colleagues and I are using electronics to craft prototypes such as coffee pots that tweet when empty and cooking aprons that text family members to let them know that dinner is on the stove.
We’re also looking at ways that sound, light, movement and sensors can drive meaningful interactions and relationships between people and their devices. My prediction is that the richness of the communication will go well beyond a simple glow or beep, that data will essentially become a new material, and product design will never be the same again.