The race to develop connected products is on; manufacturers who want to develop truly innovative, user-friendly products will need to have a clear vision of how connectivity contributes to the user experience in order to succeed in this rapidly changing market.
The rise of the smartphone is changing how we interact with the appliances around us–as to what specific features drive a successful product is still up for debate.
Experience, user feedback and industry experts tell us that 3 general principles must be followed when designing a connected home product that interfaces with a mobile app:
1. Keep it simple: a mobile app should further simplify the user experience. Some manufacturers have caught the “IoT bug” and are rushing to release Internet-connected appliances that may have a “wow factor” but do not actually contribute to a simplified user experience. Earlier this year, Nespresso released a new product that builds on their popular one-cup espresso maker, the Prodigio. The Prodigio takes espresso one step further with mobile app connectivity by allowing a user to (1) order coffee refills when the Nespresso capsules are running low; (2) remote start a brew; and (3) schedule a brew.
Ordering refills for appliances that need regular replacement of consumables is a problem that many retailers are attempting to solve, and Nespresso has approached this problem head on with the ability to monitor and order refills when they are running low. This app solves the problem of repeatedly having to decide how many and which capsules to buy. The app also sends notifications when it detects that the capsules are running low. This function is powerful because it will save the average user time and headache when searching for the right refill.
However, the two other primary features of the app–remote starting a brew and brew scheduling–do not actually make the user experience simpler for the one-cup espresso maker. Traditional one-cup coffee makers have exploded in popularity due to the user friendly interface, each having a similar setup: insert the pre-made coffee capsule, place a cup under the spout, and press a brew button. With the mobile application, however, the user is still responsible for inserting a coffee capsule and ensuring an empty cup is below the spout–at which point the “remote” capabilities of the mobile app are simply moot.
2. Value-add with function: a mobile app for these products must provide additional functionality. It is commonly accepted in appliance design that the number of features available on an appliance is limited by the number of elements that can be built into the appliance; there are only so many proprietary dials, buttons and screens that can be added to an appliance before the experience for the average consumer becomes too complex or requires an unwieldy owner’s manual.
This is where the true power of a connected mobile app can be utilized: most smartphone users are already familiar with user experience paradigms of mobile apps, giving manufacturers the opportunity to provide users with additional functions that were never before possible. Basic features such as push notifications and remote control capabilities as well as advanced features like diagnostic or troubleshooting information and usage analytics provide a rich, integrated experience, helping consumers utilize their products in the way that is most effective for them.
iRobot’s Roomba 980 has excelled in this capacity. All of the standard features a consumer would expect from a Roomba still exist: worry-free robotic vacuuming, powerful suction motors, and intelligent object avoidance. The mobile app simply acts as a conduit to features that would be impossible to integrate into the product alone. The app allows a user to schedule vacuum times and monitor the status of consumables such as filters and brushes. The app even provides features for the advanced user: diagnostic information such as “it appears something is stuck in the right wheel” is sent via push notification, and analytics about the number of square feet vacuumed provide the user with actionable information on how their robot is doing and what it could do better.
3. Know your user: a mobile enabled product must provide capabilities that an advanced user would expect. The average user who purchases a mobile integrated product and uses the app is more likely to be an advanced user. Our field research tells us that only 30-50% of consumers actually pair a mobile app to their WiFi enabled device; these advanced users are already familiar with how internet connected products work and thus have expectations for what kind of features should exist.
Anova has recently released a Bluetooth/WiFi precision cooker that allows a user to monitor and set cooking temperature and timers based on pre-conceived recipes in the app. While the recipes are very popular and useful for the average user, many advanced users have been critical of the fact that it is not possible to manually adjust temperature or timers from the original recipe.
In deciding what types of functionality a mobile app should feature to augment home products, we find it helpful to follow the above guiding principles as well as a key performance indicator (KPI)-driven user experience. Identifying very early on (even before storyboarding an app) what performance metrics you will use–revenue generated, time on app, or screens per action, etc.–will help drive a highly functional yet intuitive app design. Even after launching the app, assessing how the metrics are performing allows for actionable iterations of the user
interface/experience and product design.
The age of connected devices is changing the landscape for how users interact with the products around them. Simple, yet highly functional mobile integrations will determine who thrives in this space.
Nick Swenson is a founding partner of Swenson He, a boutique software engineering firm specializing in the Internet of Things as well as other emerging technologies and platforms. Prior to founding the firm, he received his Bachelor of Science from MIT and advised on the multi-billion dollar sale of a Fortune 500 tech company as a consultant at Bain and Company.