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Tesla shows the importance of aesthetics in IoT

20 Oct

‒ For consumer IoT products to be successful, it will take more than great technology or a good value proposition, says renowned product and service designer Martin Charlier. He recently visited Stockholm for Screen Interaction’s IoT seminar with Tesla. Read what Martin has to say about the future of connected products here.

Martin Charlier is one of the world’s leading product and service designers, specializing in the intersection of digital and physical. After working for several of the largest agencies in Germany and England, he’s now a freelance design consultant and recently co-authored the book “Designing Connected Products.”

Along with Tesla’s Andy Rietschel, Martin Charlier headlined our Internet of Things event in Stockholm on 14 October. We got an exclusive interview with Martin, where he spoke about the future of Internet of Things and his new book.

You are here today with Andy Rietschel from Tesla. When it comes to IoT events and fairs, Tesla and other car manufacturers always have their booths packed with visitors. Do you think that the car industry’s ‘sexiness’ will be an important factor in getting consumers to embrace other connected products in the coming years? 

‒ I would argue that one of the reasons those booths are packed might be because people are really interested in how IoT will actually materialise in actual products and everyday objects. Much of what IoT entails has to do with infrastructure, logistics and systems that are quite intangible. A car is a widely understood physical ‘thing’ that makes it conceivable for customers how connectedness might alter it.

“People are interested in how IoT will actually materialise in actual products and everyday objects”

‒ But I also think the automotive industry is a great example of the importance of styling and aesthetics ‒ a fundamental part of design. For consumer IoT products to be successful, it will take more than great technology or a good value proposition. You’ll also need to package all of this into a product that is desirable and that consumers are willing to let into their lives.

‒ This is slightly different with software and apps ‒ you don’t have to see them when you don’t use them and they tend to be quite task driven. A physical product in your home will be there regardless of the time, and there needs to be a more emotional connection to this physical manifestation. I think we’re only beginning to see this slowly. So far, unfortunately, lots of connected products are being designed as boxes with rounded edges and some LEDs. 

 “For consumer IoT products to be successful, it will take more than great technology” 

One of the main concerns when designing connected products is obviously batteries and battery life. I get the feeling that consumer expectations for the industry’s ability to develop longer-lasting batteries far exceeds what is actually possible from a technical standpoint. Do you agree with that, and what can you as a designer do to bridge this gap in expectations? 

‒ Yes, I tend to agree. Of course I’m hopeful for new breakthroughs in battery technology; but I also see a couple of ways in which designers can help address this problem right now.

‒ Firstly, I think low-power radio standards and new interface types, other than power-hungry touch screens, are both ways to extend battery life. This is partly a technology and cost problem, but also one for designers ‒ they need to conceive great product ecosystems using low-power radio gateways. Examples would be designing a great system of devices that work efficiently together, or creating interfaces that aren’t power-hungry glowing rectangles, such as getting clever with non-screen alternatives.

 “Low-power radio standards and new interface types are both ways to extend battery life”  

‒ Designers also need to look beyond the core product functionalities towards building habit-forming or delightful interactions that make charging less of a chore.

‒ Lastly, one way IoT devices will conserve battery life is by connecting intermittently, such as every ten minutes. This means that designers need to get better at building a UX that accounts for data that may be out-of-sync, a few minutes old or user actions that will only execute the next time a device comes online.

For many years, Sweden has been considered the world’s most wired country. Do you think this is still an advantage when it comes to the development and marketing of connected products, or has the rest of the world managed to close the gap well enough in recent years? 

‒ I think being a ‘wired’ country is only part of what will provide an advantage in the development of connected products. There are connected products coming out of many countries at the moment: the US, France, the UK and Germany come to mind. To me, it seems it’s more about being open and optimistic about the networked future, and a willingness to invest and experiment. I think it also requires consumers with an a mindset that’s open to the idea of networked objects, whether they be electricity meters, thermostats, home automation tools or other.

You’re one of the authors of the book, “Designing Connected Products” that was released in May this year. Can you tell us a little about the book and your contribution to it? 

‒ The book is aimed at UX designers and product owners that have worked predominantly with digital products and services and that now face the challenges of working with IoT and connected products. The contents of the book touch on all aspects they might have to take into account, from technology and networking considerations they should be aware of, via design methods particularly relevant for IoT, to very specific design challenges of connected products like ‘composition’ ‒ how functions and interfaces are distributed across devices.

‒ I wrote two chapters for the book and contributed to a third. In the chapter ‘Embedded Device Design,’ I drew on my background in industrial design to give readers a primer on how designing and making physical products is different from digital UX. In the chapter ‘Interface and interaction design,’ I provide an overview of interface types and discuss their benefits and drawbacks as well as considerations when designing for them. The idea is for readers to pick and chose the chapters that are relevant to them.

By Christian Dahlström

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