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How the User Interface on IoT Hardware Can Make or Break the User’s Experience

Oct. 8, 2019
At the low end of the IoT spectrum, simple, commoditized solutions often deliver poorly implemented user interfaces. This article examines various problems that result from a inadequately designed UI for IoT products.

At the high end of Internet of Things (IoT) products in the commercial, industrial, or consumer space, it’s common to have well thought out and nicely implemented complementary apps combined with reliable hardware as essential parts of an IoT solution. This optimized user interface (UI) results in a very satisfying user experience leveraging IoT technology.

However, at the low end of the IoT spectrum, simple, commoditized solutions often have poorly implemented user interfaces that create disappointing IoT solution user experiences. In the best-case scenario of commoditized IoT, the hardware works fairly well, but the setup process, software functionality, and mobile application are weak. Or worse, they evoke frustration or even fury in the user.

We have seen solutions where the IoT UI is so poorly implemented that it makes the product virtually unusable, resulting in a sub-optimal user experience and a big fail from a product solution perspective. I suspect this is because the developers are driven to provide commoditized hardware features at a rock-bottom price to compete on selling price. However, it’s clear they often have no or very limited expertise in designing for the total customer experience or for the intended use case.

Having tried and implemented a wide variety of smart, connected lighting and audio products as well as electrical outlets, switches, etc., here are some of my experiences with the problems systemic in poorly-designed bottom end IoT solutions:

Applications with totally unclear mobile application logic flow

It’s not uncommon to deal with applications that have a confusing means to access supported features. There are all kinds of frustrating paradigms out there, from application widgets that bring you to unexpected places, unclear pathways to access the features, graphics with no or cryptic text overlays to enable features, and a myriad others. Even very basic functionality (like setting on and off times or recurrence of events) is often botched beyond recognition. It can seem as if the developers had no system design or flow diagrams experience to understand the application they’re developing.

Applications totally lacking in creativity as to the software feature set

There are many ways to leverage even simple IoT devices. With products that fail to take advantage of IoT capabilities, it seems very little thought is given into the various ways one may use a simple piece of technology. The investment in the software feature set is so limited that the results can only be explained by the need to just get the product out there and quickly knock off the most basic features of the competition.

Applications with setup processes that are fundamentally broken or highly unreliable

This is a major issue, especially when the target buyers aren’t engineers or software developers. As an engineer in and around smart connected systems for more than 25 years, I can work through setup processes that fail involving Bluetooth (BT) and/or Wi-Fi implementation. The only thing I can think of for some products is that the buyer has to call in their engineer brother-in-law to help set up the light switch. Well implemented, this can be quick and easy. Poorly implemented, you need 10 years of experience in Wi-Fi or BT application development to make the product connect and work.

For example, a well-known brand recently released a consumer wireless LED product that required a lengthy series of sequential press and release steps to connect or reconnect to a network—hold a button down for 2 seconds and releasing for 1, then press for 5 and release for 7, and then 3 and 1, etc., going on for about 10 steps. This became such a source of annoyance for users that the product became a notorious internet sensation.

Hardware implementations that are unreliable or provide very poor communication stability

I’ve seen products in this category that are unable to retain a stable Wi-Fi or BT connection. While I’ve never done a teardown of any of my own devices, I suspect that antenna design is at the root cause. Antenna design is extremely difficult and a skillful. Reliable design requires the oversight of an engineer highly experienced in laying down antennas and optimization of signal strength and coverage patterns. From the results I’ve seen, few cheap IoT products reflect anything more than the most rudimentary knowledge. In the end, this causes communications-related failures, disconnects, etc.

Hardware devices for outdoor use with inadequately sealed electronics

On the hardware front, I’ve seen products supposedly for outdoor use fail within a year. Open them up and you will see water and corrosion on the circuit boards. The designs reflect only the most rudimentary understanding of how to design a waterproof enclosure. This shows a mindset that either doesn’t realize the design errors in the product or a lack of caring that a product will fail prematurely.

Instructions that are virtually useless (or worse than useless)

The following are commonplace problems with either the paper (or online) instructions:

  • Graphics that are unreadable and font sizes requiring an electron microscope to read.
  • Instructions that provide no insights in error correction or the process to recover from install issues.
  • Text that’s unintelligible because the authors lack basic knowledge of English-based language (and I’m sure many other languages not native to the authors).
  • Outright errors in the instructions that subvert the process for deployment on a wireless network or a BT connection.

It’s bad enough when a tech-savvy user struggles to get the IoT solution up and running. It’s unimaginable what the experience is like in the hands of a customer who isn’t particularly tech- or IT-savvy. I suspect products often get thrown away in frustration. Or returned, whenever possible.

With better products, it’s expected that the total out-of-box experience will be seamless and easy from the packaging to the device setup to accessing a rich set of product features. On the commodity end, it’s much more hit-and-miss with a stronger tendency toward miss than hit. Generally, as the old adage goes, one gets what one pays for, and getting a great experience starts with quality UI and IoT product design practices.

Mitch Maiman is the President and Co-Founder of Intelligent Product Solutions (IPS).

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