Why the Internet of Things Requires User Experience Research

Why the Internet of Things Requires User Experience Research

I get into my car and it sets me on a fastest route home, offering to stop by a grocery store because my coffee supply is low, and suggesting some fruits to boost my vitamin C intake. My laundry starts before I’m out of clean shirts, and as I walk around the house, I carry an uninterrupted hands-free conversation with an overseas friend. A suggestion for a massage session that perfectly fits into my schedule and adjusted for travel time appears when my levels of stress increase.

This is a fantasy, of course, but notice that it is not about touchscreens, gesture or voice commands, or new generation of wearables. It is a fantasy about excellent experience! This psychological aspect, the experience of ease and pleasure, is at the crux of failure or success in tech. Internet of Things, and in fact most other consumer tech, will fail without outstanding user experience.

User experience (UX) describes users’ interactions with a device, service, or product, and covers everything from ease of use, aesthetic appeal, to technical support, communications with provider and so on. User experience is something that exists between a product and a consumer regardless of whether or not companies intentionally shape these experiences for their customers. Smart businesses focus their efforts in moving the UX needle into a positive end of the spectrum because good UX is good for the bottom line. A study from Forrester confirmed that companies that leading customer experience have triple the ROI as reflected by the S&P index. 

What specifically does good UX look like for Internet of Things solutions? The three key components are excellent technology functionality, high usability and aligning with human psychology.

First, the technology itself must successfully deliver all the bells and whistles that marketing messages promise.  False advertising hurts even more when the product or concept is novel to the user. It's important to understand what your marketing messages communicate about your products to users and what assumptions your users take away from them.

Nest, the popular Internet of Things-enabled learning  thermostat, had to revise its marketing strategy after a false advertising lawsuit over its claims that it can lower air conditioning costs by 30 percent. While it may be true that having more connectivity and data on usage can empower your consumers to make more informed decisions and eventually lead to lower bills, it's important to keep in mind that this advertising claim makes it sound as if plugging the device in will automatically generate energy savings.

Second, overall usability of the device must be impeccable. Setting up, operating and maintaining the solution should be effortless to anyone with even the lowest technology comfort. In fact, using IoT devices should be at least as easy and even easier as the currently existing non-IoT solutions. For example, changing a standard light bulb requires a few twists of the wrist, and so should all smart lights. A 2013 U.K. study found that all of the smart heating devices on the market failed basic usability standards. The researchers found that users were not able to complete a majority of tasks on the devices, and none of the controls passed the industry-recognized usability tests nor met the benchmark for user satisfaction.

Third, IoT must seamlessly align with human psychology. To pull people outside of their routines and comfort zones, new technology must provide massive payoff for the minimal effort required to engage with it. Additionally, users must be able to trust that their devices make safe actions, that personal privacy is respected, and that any device behavior is within the power of the human to reverse or change. For instance, Facebook admitted that their "security check" pause notification is actually slower than the real time it takes to run a security check and this notification was slowed down to make users trust that the check was thorough. 

In another example, pulling data from multiple health monitoring and exercise devices without first obtaining explicit user permission undermines user’s sense of control and trust in technology. Finally, transparency about how automagic technology actions happen reinforces the sense of control users have over their devices. Ad retargeting, or seeing an advertisement for a product that you passed over on an e-commerce site pop up on different sites, is one example of where this experience goes wrong. Unless you are in the marketing profession and are thoroughly aware of how retargeting platforms work, this feels very invasive, as if these sites are spying on you and then following you around on the internet.