Three: The Product is a Symbol

Over the course of this series, we’ve discussed a few initial business challenges and design strategies to get up and running with your Real-time business transformation. As your business moves along the maturity curve and commits itself to new business models and the connected products that support them, several new inherent challenges emerge. In this final post, we’ll discuss how brand identity, sociocultural context, real world context, and product failure must be addressed with thoughtful design practices.

Connected products go beyond delivering continuous value through only a physical product and include other touchpoints. In some instances, the physical product may not have a user interface whatsoever and is entirely controlled through remote applications. In others, the organization might monetize the power of the data alone by allowing customers and partners to access it through an online portal or tool.

Whether you are building a B2B or B2C connected product, it is important to understand that as the number of touchpoints grows beyond just the physical product, the brand and overall experience becomes decentralized. Nest, a popular manufacturer of connected home products, offers customers control and monitoring of their household via four different hardware products (with minimal UIs) and an app that centrally manages them all. Nest goes even further by offering compatibility & integration with a multitude of other 3rd party smart-home devices, and power companies, thereby increasing its own value proposition. As Nest product becomes spread across multiple touchpoints, in the consumers’ minds it becomes less of a “product that does a thing” and more of an untethered dynamic experience that adds value to their life or business. Nest understands this as it is reflected in their mission: “A home that takes care of the people inside it and the world around it.”

Viewed in this light, the hardware product can be thought of as a manifestation, or symbol, of an otherwise digital service. It becomes one touch point in a larger web of interconnected touch points, some of which are digital, and some that exist only in mind of the consumer. The user pulls together their interpretations of these different pieces in their mind to create a uniquely subjective experience.

In bringing your product to life, it is your duty to design not just for form and functionality, but also to support a desired subjective experience of how your users will understand, perceive, and actually use it. This task is more likely to be achieved if your team has a shared understanding of the following.

Brand Identity – In the midst of your transformation, you will likely find yourself creating a product that is new to your company. Perhaps that is a new physical product, or in the case of BMW’s Personal Assistant, it is a digital experience. Regardless, it is important to you that the new product embodies your brand identity. This involves more than just throwing a logo and colors on it and calling it a day. Instead, you may be faced with more nuanced questions such as:

○ Our product will need to speak to our users. What will it say and how will it say it? Depending on your brand, perhaps the voice should be relaxed, authoritative, friendly, bubbly, etc. What words that will be spoken, and which ones should be avoided? Alternatively, how should alerts and notifications sound?

○ How should the physical product feel in their hands, or the room, etc.? For example, how can a sense of brand ‘playfulness’ be represented in a product that will entertain your pet while you’re away, and also in the digital app that will enable you to watch it or chart their exercise.

○ What type of emotional affinities do your customers and non-customers have for your company or product? What do they expect from you, and what kind of barriers or opportunities can this create?

○ How should the heritage of your signature product (such as the body style of a high performance sports car) be brought to life in another medium?

Sociocultural Context – The user needs to be able to place the product concept into the proper context within the world they are a part of. This does not serve to undercut disruptive new concepts, but insists that the product itself and the organization must tell a compelling story of how it fits into the fabric of the user’s world. Drawing design inspiration from familiar symbols and form factors, along with cultural movements and other mental cues can help the intended users understand and adopt your product. For example, consider the design of the Ring Video Doorbell. When a visitor pushes the button, the built-in camera sends high-definition video from the door to the phone of the home owner. Of course, an important requirement of the whole service is that the person at the door recognizes this new device they likely have never seen as a doorbell. While the design team certainly could have completely redefined “how a doorbell should look”, it is clear with its slim design and prominent single button that they drew upon pre-existing concepts so that the user could understand the purpose it is intended to serve in their social exchange.

Real World Context & Designing for Failure – Your connected product offering will not exist in a void. Simply by spreading out its functionality across servers, WI-FI connections, 3rd party APIs, sensors, and power supplies, the risk of failure is increased exponentially. The design team must have a real respect for this heightened risk, and pair it with a sharp understanding of the real-world consequences. PetNet, an in-home connected product that dispenses pet food serves as a cautionary tale. Recently it informed users through its app that it was “experiencing an issue with a 3rd party server” and instructed their users to feed their pets ‘manually’. Since this product serves those who are not in close proximity to their pet, this failure resulted in some pets going unfed for over 10 hours. Pairing connectivity issues with the fact that humans on their own can be forgetful and make mistakes creates a multitude of scenarios to consider. Regardless of if the product is intended for the warehouse or a baby room, a responsible design team must identify those scenarios, determine how the product can continue to operate with intermittent or local connectivity, and how to assist the user in such circumstances. The key to doing so is by conducting thorough research and testing of early prototypes in that real-world environment.

Over the past few posts, we’ve explored some basics about how to get started with designing your Real-time Business future and became oriented on the idea that IoT is not the product, the notion of continuous value delivery, and how your physical products gradually become a symbol of something larger. In future writings, I’m really looking forward to diving more into detail in these and other areas! For now, ideally this post has helped you become acquainted with the strategic design mindset an organization should adopt when it desires to transform its business by harnessing the power of the IoT. At BlueMetal (an Insight Company), we build modern applications that impact people and organizations in extraordinary ways. If your organization seeks to re imagine, invent, and do things that seem impossible, we would love to hear from you!

In case you missed the first two articles in this three-part series, click below.

Part One: Designing for Real-Time Business: IoT is Not the Product!

Part Two: Designing for Real-Time Business: Continuous Value Delivery