By Straight Talk Editors

[Read Part 1 and Part 3]

The Principle of Great Expectations

The IoT has the potential to touch every aspect of our lives, from our bodies to our communities to our places of work to a fully connected world, improving our well- being, raising the quality of life, increasing productivity, and fostering better cooperation and collaboration. In 2020, there will be $8.9 trillion in IoT-related revenues, according to IDC.

As we have seen many times before, however, promising technologies stay at the promising stage for a long time if more attention is paid to the technology than to the experience of the people using it. Chancellor Angela Merkel reminded the audience at the opening ceremony at CeBIT that technology should be centered on human beings. Products must adapt to individuals, and not require people to adapt to them, she said.

This is certainly not where the IoT is right now. “I look today at some of the work being done around the Internet of Things and it’s kind of tragically pathetic,” MIT Media Lab cofounder Nicholas Negroponte   observed at a recent TED event in Vancouver.  Call it the Principle of Great Expectations: the higher the expectations, the greater is the likelihood of a rapid proliferation of products that are “tragically pathetic.” Products are often developed simply because certain technologies have become available, without a lot of thought given to why users need them or how to make them delightful to use.

Take, for example, one of today’s most successful product categories, the tablet. The first product in this category, the GRiDPad, was introduced in September 1989. It was followed by other unsuccessful attempts to crack the tablet market, including the Apple Newton, in 1993, and the enterprise-oriented Microsoft Tablet PC, in 2002. It wasn’t until 2010, when Apple introduced the iPad, that the tablet became a successful mainstream product, appealing   to   both   consumers and enterprises.

Becky Wanta, the CEO and President of RSW1C Consulting, has encountered many times in her career the disconnect between invention and successful products. Having worked as CTO or CIO (and sometimes both) for MGM Resorts International, Best Buy, PepsiCo, and Wells Fargo, she is familiar with the seductive allure of technology for technology’s sake. “You’ve got to understand that what you are building has a market at the end of the day. Inventors are so in love with their new shiny nickel, they think everybody wants to buy a new shining nickel,” says Wanta.

Nowhere is this attitude more evident than in wearables, the hottest segment of the Internet of Things.

Do We Really Need So Many Watches?

After seeing hundreds of fitness devices on display at the recent CES, Donna Hoffman asks: “How many watches do you need? Clearly consumers can’t use all of these different things and integrate them into their lives.” Hoffman is the Louis Rosenfeld Distinguished Scholar and Professor of Marketing at the George Washington University School of Business, the co-director of the Center for the Connected Consumer, and a longtime observer of consumer behavior in the digital world. She adds: “The churn rate on fitness devices is about 60%. People buy these things, use them for less than three months, and then never wear them again.”

“As far as I’m concerned, this is a very immature market,” says Bruno Aziza, the Chief Marketing Officer at machine-learning startup Alpine Data Labs. An early blogger and speaker in the Quantified Self movement, Aziza has also observed the limited appeal of fitness devices. “Unless you are a Quantified Self geek, you are going to stop using these devices,” he says. Adds Hoffman: “Most people are not interested in the Quantified Self movement; they don’t want to track every moment of their existence and quantify it.”

Both Aziza and Hoffman see the design of the “things” in the Internet of Things, especially their ease of use, as the key to moving beyond the “tragically  pathetic” stage. Aziza talks about a product’s “center of design,” the idea that a specific technology is particularly relevant for a set of defined use cases. Product developers ignore this when they think that their product is going to make an existing product obsolete, even if it addresses a completely different set of use cases. “If you think that people will do on their watch what they do on their phone,” Aziza says, “you don’t get it. That’s how we are going to build more and more devices that are going to stay in more and more drawers and provide value to nobody.”

Janus Bryzek, the sensors guru, offers a more sanguine view, given recent progress in how devices interact with their users. “User interfaces have advanced dramatically during the mobile explosion,” he says. “More and more sensors are embedded in mobile devices, and this should make all IoT devices more intuitive.”

There is no question that significant advances have been made recently in how users and devices interact, and, more generally, in how products are designed. After 21 years of failed attempts, the iPad has finally succeeded in providing the right combination of weight, size, mode of interaction, and useful and engaging applications to create a sizable market for tablets. But will this be enough to make the Internet of Things delighting and engaging to all users of all things, an Internet of Experiences?

Or would we need a new conception of what constitutes great product design?

Design and Data

Two of the most  successful  tech innovators of this century, Apple and Google,  have often been portrayed as taking  different paths to launching products that users find appealing, easy to use, and even addictive. Apple is obsessed with design; Google with data. Great aesthetics and “good taste” have been the foundation of Apple’s philosophy and business strategy since the company’s inception. Measurement, analysis, and data- driven decisions have guided Google since its founding.

These two philosophies are now converging in the evolution of the Internet of Things. If the Internet of Things is to provide real value to users, design and data must be redefined and merged into a single philosophy for making products exciting and delightful to use. Great experiences will be provided by products that are designed to be almost invisible and revolve around the most useful and engaging data for their users.

The Disappearing Internet

Bob Metcalfe’s hunch about what will make the products of the IoT exciting to use is “not so much good UX [user experience], but no UX at all. The IoT needs to disappear into the woodwork, even faster than Ethernet has.”

The idea that the best technology disappears into the woodwork may have originated at Xerox PARC, where Metcalfe invented the Ethernet. In 1991, Mark Weiser, then head of the Computer Science Lab at Xerox PARC, published an article in Scientific American titled “The Computer for the 21st Century.” The article opens with what should be the rallying cry for the IoT today: “The most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it.”

Weiser went on to explain what was wrong with the personal computing revolution brought on by Apple and others: “The arcane aura that surrounds personal computers is not just a ‘user interface’ problem. My colleague and I at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center think that the idea of a ‘personal’ computer itself is misplaced and that the visions of laptop machines, dynabooks and ‘knowledge navigators’ is only a transitional step toward achieving the real potential of information technology. Such machines cannot truly make computing an integral, invisible part of people’s lives.”

Weiser understood that, conceptually, the PC was simply a mainframe on a desk, albeit with easier-to-use applications. He misjudged, however, the powerful and long- lasting impact that this new productivity and life-enhancing tool would exert on millions of users worldwide. Weiser wrote: “My colleagues and I at PARC believe that what we call ubiquitous computing will gradually emerge as the dominant mode of computer access over the next 20 years. [B]y making everything faster and easier to do, with less strain and fewer mental gymnastics, it will transform what is apparently possible. [M]achines that fit the human environment instead of forcing humans to enter theirs will make using a computer as refreshing as taking a walk in the woods.”

More than 20 years after ubiquitous computing was predicted to become the dominant mode of computer access, isn’t it time for product design for the Internet of Things to focus on making things disappear?

[Read Part 3]

Originally published in CTO Straight Talk, No. 1 (August 2014)