User-Centricity in IoT Development

Article

Applying Principles of User-Centricity to the Development of IoT Use Cases

The IoT revolution has been a driving force for further digitalization in many industries, the development of innovative business models and the building of collaborative ecosystems. IoT use cases differ inherently from web or other digital applications, as IoT combines both the digital as well as the physical world. Therefore, IoT requires a holistic user-centric approach and cross-functional collaboration between design, technology and business.

From Guo Yir Tang

With this in mind, user-centricity in IoT development is essential in order to provide business value for the targeted users. Design decisions that do not take into account the whole experience of the end user might create an incoherent, or even bad, user experience.

What is the main idea of user-centric thinking?

The main idea of user-centric thinking is simple: First, the overall strategy needs to be defined. After user segmentation and pooling, the user needs are prioritized. However, this is not easy. When applying principles of user-centricity to IoT, several questions need to be considered:
 

IoT, principles, questions

What is the strategy?

Strategy is always first. Before focusing on the user, the strategy needs to be defined and aligned. A clear vision is essential for the overall success. By using methodologies and techniques like design thinking and prototyping and in combination with proven design frameworks like business model canvas or the Deloitte industry print, it is possible to transform IoT use cases into an operable IoT solution.
 

Who is the end user?

If the aim is to be more user-centric in IoT development, there is a need to evaluate the user. However, this is not an exercise that should be done only once, at the beginning of a project. Instead, understanding the end user and solving the problem by using IoT needs to be the main priority in all stages of IoT development.

Often initiated out of company’s technology units, with a stronger focus on technological advancement and functionality than business value or user design, IoT use cases sometimes neglect that there is always an end user that should be targeted. From a retail perspective, this might be a customer purchasing and using home appliances. From an industrial perspective, it might be a factory worker handling IoT devices as part of a manufacturing process. The goal is to understand the user’s motives, needs and pains in using a product or service and enhancing the overall experience. It is essential to know who the end user and other relevant stakeholders are, how they interact with the application and what their requirements are.
 

What is the user journey?

It is not only important to realize who the end user is and which potential preferences for products and services they have. IoT adds real value when it solves a user problem and enhances a holistic user experience. It is important to understand the user’s whole journey and develop a full view of the problem at hand.

User research can be conducted to gain insights and a better understanding of the end user. While quantitative methods are great for testing hypotheses and processing big amounts of data, qualitative research will uncover hidden user motivations and any pains and gains in the user journey. Methods like defining personas, conducting in-depth interviews or even ethnographic research could all help to better understand users and their challenges.

Ethnographic interviews aim to immerse the interviewer into a subject’s environment and daily routine. Using observation and qualitative interview techniques, IoT developers can gain deep insights on how their targeted user behaves on a day-to-day basis, which user problems are relevant and demand for IoT solutions, and where potential touchpoints with the IoT applications could be implemented. In an industrial setting, factory workers could – for example – be asked about their daily routines, challenging tasks in a typical working day, or how current products and services are used.

Building on these insights, IoT use cases can be defined and embedded in the overall user journey. It is important to make the IoT solution part of the overall experience and create touchpoints, which seamlessly integrate with existing processes or actions in the user journey.
 

What are the user requirements?

With the user motivations, needs, preferences and user journey touchpoints in mind, these insights need to be translated into requirements in order to set up the IoT use case. It is important to keep in mind that user preferences and touchpoints might also influence underlying systems and processes that are not immediately visible to the end user, but nevertheless contribute to an overall seamless user experience.

The IoT solutions needs to be integrated into the existing technical environment from a functional (e.g. connectivity to other devices/platforms, handling of data streams, etc.), non-functional (security, scalability, etc.) and hardware perspective. User insights might also influence decisions in the realm of business and governance of IoT applications or platforms.
 

How to integrate insights into an IoT use case with the hybrid agile approach?

Combining the best of the waterfall and agile approach, the hybrid agile approach allows executing the project on a priority basis, taking into account constraints and dependencies. In addition, the hybrid agile approach focuses on shorter sprints with targeted functionality that enables teams to develop prototypes and to confirm requirements when needed while issues are identified early. Thus, this increases transparency and feedback. The design process of an IoT solution is not linear, rather, fast and iterative feedback is needed to develop valuable IoT solutions and in order to make sure that the proposed use case is relevant and is headed in the right strategic direction.

As emphasized before, it should be the priority to keep the end user at the center of all decisions in designing and developing an IoT use case after the strategy is set. This means that the user insights should be considered at each stage of developing an IoT use case.

A “fail early and fast” mentality is helpful in order to avoid going in the wrong direction. If not tested in early development stages, IoT solutions run the risk of adding limited value and of being used in different ways than originally intended. Prototypes and tests should be used at each stage of IoT development to figure out how users will use the solution. The goal is to explore requirements, develop alternatives on how to implement them in the overall user journey and to choose the alternative with the best usability.

Prototyping and testing are intertwined and work together in iterations. Early prototypes can be used to evaluate function and features, whereas late prototypes are a good indicator to evaluate performance.

Even though the end user is hardly visible in IoT projects in comparison to more traditional areas of user-centric design, they should still be considered and prioritized in the user-centric development of IoT use cases. Of course, applying these principles is not the only approach to ensure that IoT solutions are successful. However, looking into the future as IoT platforms grow together and build ecosystems with partners, it might not be a bad idea to keep the end user in focus.