This week my search for a Master’s degree in Computer Science at Georgia Tech began. What has this got to do with the Internet of Things? Nothing in itself. But my first and only class this semester is Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) and I am discovering that a lot of HCI can be applied to IoT. In particular, IoT device makers have a lot to learn (as do I!) About designing effective interfaces.

A good example of a bad smart device interface. The image is courtesy of LG

Of course, since the semester has just started, I have only a cursory formal knowledge on the subject. However, I have a decade of user interface experience with IoT devices and a few more decades when it comes to computer interfaces in general. And one of my first class exits that IoT companies need to learn is that when you design, remember that “you are not your users”.

Are IoT interfaces designed for you or someone else?

On the surface that sounds like a general catchy phrase without much meaning. Think though. When you buy an IoT device or download a mobile app to control one, do you think the interface was created specifically for you? Of course it is not.

Instead, in the best case scenario, the interface was created by experienced user teams (UX) and / or user interface (UI) capabilities. Those stylists created an interface and then observed how users interact with it to accomplish their tasks. Based on that observable reaction, the interface would be adjusted. Then back to user testing and more feedback, and so on.

But in the worst situation? It is likely that the software engineers who support the hardware will create the interface.

This point is beautifully summed up in one of our most requested texts, Don Norman’s best-selling book, “Design of Everyday Things”:

Engineers are trained to think logically. As a result, they come to believe that all people should think this way, and they design their cars accordingly. When people have problems, engineers are upset, but often for the wrong reason. “What are these people doing?” they will wonder. “Why are they doing this?”

Reflecting on my experiences of the IoT device interface, there have been some excellent and some missing. I know that this is a subjective statement. We all have different values: You can not take care of a strange interface if the connected device controlled by it does the job as you wish.

Others make it clear:

So I would say there is a lot of room for improvement throughout this market as a whole. And that brings opportunities for future IoT interface models.

What should an interface achieve?

Of course, the main goal for any HCI is to create a way for a person to interact with any computerized device. To be honest, it is easy to create an interface. Difficultly it is difficult to create an effective one that adds value and, for lack of a better word, joy, experience.

This is where companies like Apple hang their hats.

Love it or hate it, Apple’s interface design strives to achieve both goals: value and joy. We may disagree if he really achieves this. In my opinion, Apple’s Home interface is not perfect, but it is there when it comes to IoT interfaces created for users.

The Eve app that shows my Thread network brings me joy.

I would add Eve to this list as well: The sudden addition of Thread network information to the Eve app literally brought a smile to my face.

But even if you agree that Apple’s IoT interface is great, it still lacks a key HCI component. This is because HCI not only provides a useful interface for end users, but can also change user behaviors.

An example of this would be a monthly report of energy usage and potential savings ideas from a smart thermostat.

I get these from Ecobee and know that other related thermostat manufacturers provide these as well. This is intended to change your behavior in a way targeted by product designers. Of course, it is in your best interest to act on this data. You can save money and reduce your energy consumption by doing so.

However, this boost is not (yet) part of the IoT device interface; at least not on any connected thermostat of which I am aware. Why wait with a month of historical data to test and change future behavior based on IoT data?

Instead, device makers can use data at the individual level and compare it with all owners of that device to collectively provide real-time suggestions. Think about it: A simple red indicator on that smart thermostat to suggest that your home is using more power than everyone else with the same thermostat. There may be valid reasons for this, but at least you have an interface created to raise your awareness in real time. See it many times and maybe you investigate why your home is so far away.

Given that consumers are rightly concerned about how much personal data they want to share from their smart homes, perhaps this is not a widely supported idea.

What about voice interfaces?

I’m not sure my class will handle voice interfaces, though I hope so. When Siri was launched on iOS in 2011, I called the sound “invisible interface”. I said it because the word spoken is almost universal.

Yes, there are hundreds of languages, but most people have a common ability to speak. I say “most” because I understand that there are people who do not have a physical voice due to medical challenges or other issues.

I still believe in voice interfaces, but after 10 years of using them, first with phones and then with smart homes and connected devices, I’m disappointed. Shame on me though for thinking the voice interfaces would be easy.

The image is courtesy of Kevin Tofel.

As we have learned in this age of smart speakers and voice assistants, there are many nuances about speech and purpose. Progress has been made for sure, but if I were the creator of IoT devices, I would invest in better ways to use voice in my product line. Again, my hope is that we address this interface during the semester, and if we do, I can share additional thoughts on the subject.

Three receipts for IoT device makers

Although we have seen great progress with IoT interfaces, we still have a lot to learn. I would recommend that if device makers are not thinking more about UI, they should do so and get feedback from outside. With that reaction, the improvement cycle will accelerate.

Connected devices should also move beyond control bases and provide opportunities to modify behavior using data. These may be optional for end users because not everyone wants to run from their smart home. However, it can lead to new income models and homes that are more proactive.

Finally, as many device makers rely on large voice assistant platforms, there is room for improvement. Building better in-house voice interface controls compared to crowd tracking can bring more joy and functionality to your products.