The design of things: Building in IoT connectivity

Product connectivity has been part of our daily lives for decades – automatic doors and thermostats have included sensors for many years. These systems and sensors lacked the larger ecosystem to allow companies to collect data about usage, customer behavior, and performance.

The Internet of Things (IoT) has ushered in an age of connectivity, one that enables objects to function in new, expanded ways. IoT technology allows objects to communicate with each other continuously, forming large, interconnected systems capable of creating, communicating, aggregating, analyzing, and acting on data. Developers can use data gathered via IoT-enabled devices for a range of applications, from consumer goods that make a home more efficient to industrial systems that can enhance asset management.

As connectivity expands a product’s role and functionality, it only makes sense that its original design might prove limiting. And new smart products need to incorporate IoT technology from the beginning.

This article examines four significant ways in which IoT technology has transformed the nature of products and, by extension, product design as well as also identify the accompanying organizational transformations—in terms of people, process, and technology—that are crucial to successful product design in the IoT age.

A product designer has many things to consider: who would be using the product, how, when, and why—and, perhaps, how it might look in a TV ad or on a store shelf. IoT connectivity reshapes the challenges and complexity of product design; the interconnectedness that defines the technology imposes new requirements.

The impact of IoT technology on products—and product design—can be categorized into four main transformations:

  • Marrying physical and digital worlds  – IoT enablement of a physical product involves embedded sensors to capture and transmit data about that product over a network. The information the product generates is as important as the physical product itself. But keeping the product simple to use—even while its capabilities expand—is a crucial aspect of design.
  • Staying “always on” and constantly connected – An IoT-enabled object will necessarily stay connected to a network to facilitate the communication of data. Connectivity invokes purely technical issues for the product designer: choice of network, power-consumption considerations, and interoperability.
  • Moving from single object to part of a larger system – If the constant connectivity of an IoT system makes it difficult to separate a product’s physical makeup from its digital components, it also introduces wider interactions that complicate design even further. Consider just the communications protocols needed.
  • Constantly evolving uses—and life cycles – In the connected world, not only can a manufacturer potentially change the core function of its product at any time via an update—third-party partners can do the same thing to key components, such as apps. The forces of change and product evolution are faster, more complex, and further outside the hands of the manufacturer. designers are now tasked with designing an object that can not only adapt to unforeseen updates that can change the function completely but can also accommodate mismatched life cycles.

The issue of “designing for the IoT” moves beyond the contours of product design to touch on organizational design. To effectively design a connected product, the organization should first consider how it will handle the transformations that IoT technology imposes on product design. These new requirements can, in turn, result in a shift in design mindset, responsibilities, and design and management workflows.

To accommodate these shifts, the organization needs to evolve:

  • People: Changing talent needs
  • Process: Changing mindsets—and design approaches
  • Technology: Broadening capabilities to accommodate data flows

In changing the nature of products, IoT technology unavoidably guides their design. If an organization wants to meet the new challenges imposed by these transformations and successfully design connected products, it should rise to the challenge.

>> Read more by Brenna Sniderman, et al., Deloitte University Press, September 12, 2016

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