Claire Rowland has been working in UX since the late ‘90s and is the co-writer of the book Designing Connected Products: UX For The Consumer Internet of Things. She worked as the Head of Research for Fjord covering primary user insight work and R&D design for interconnected embedded devices as part of the Smarcos EU consortium from 2008-2012. In 2012, she worked for alertme.com, a connected home platform.

We spoke to Claire about why UX design is so vital for IoT products, whether it’s necessary to hire one person to handle your UX for you and the future of privacy when it comes to IoT products.

My first job was created for me. I was put forward as a software developer at the Press Association New Media wing in Leeds – which I was completely unqualified for – by a very bad recruiter. My boss said, well, you’re blatantly not a software developer but you seem interesting, so come and work for me and let’s figure out what you want to do. Around that time, I was doing a lot of research online — it was when people were starting to talk about user experience instead of just usability and human-computer interaction. That really gelled with me and I realised the products we were working on could do with some of that thinking. Around 1999, I became an information architect — that was what the interaction and organisational part of web UX was called at that time. It was quite early on in my career but people were definitely not hiring UX people back then.

I believe UX design is vital because you can have the best idea in the world but if you don’t get the execution right and nobody wants it or if nobody can figure out how to use it, then you don’t have a product. I can definitely think of times where people clearly haven’t thought the proposition through in terms of making something valuable. For example, somebody was going to make a connected baby buggy — the problem they were trying to solve was that you have to use your hands to push a buggy, which means you can’t use your hands for things like drinking coffee or using your phone. The idea was that when you walked towards the buggy, it would move away from you. These people had clearly never had a child because they didn’t consider the obvious worry about the buggy— that you might accidentally walk towards it and it might run down the hill and go in front of a bus or something. There was even a heater in it! There was just so much potential for things to go terribly wrong. And then, of course, the risk of all these things going wrong far outweighs the benefits you’re trying to sell.

But that’s a proposition problem, not a design execution problem. You see a lot of design execution problems in old school home automation systems, as well as in energy monitoring, things like solar panels, battery monitors or even smart meters, they’re often just way too technical in terms of information display, and people don’t get it.

One challenge posed to UX design by IoT is that it’s just more complicated. For a start, there are a few different models of an IoT type system you might have. So you might have a hardware-enabled service where the user isn’t really interacting with the devices, they’re just sent them — a smart energy meter is a good example of this. Designers who have only ever worked in software tend to think that everything is connected all the time and all the data is constantly up to date and it isn’t usually. Data often comes from things that use batteries, which means that they don’t have an open connection all the time because that would run the battery down. The smart energy reader probably reads the electricity every few seconds, but with gas the reading is probably every 15 or 30 minutes because you can’t put a mains powered sensor next to a gas pipe because that has the potential to go horribly wrong. So you get these different intervals of data and it’s not the same type of data. A lot of the designing something like that is about understanding the structure of the data: how granular is it? How up to date is it?

Then the other type of system is where you have embedded devices that people are engaging with alongside another sort of interface like an app and there the whole challenge is making it work coherently together as a system. If you design the system in isolation and your device in isolation, individually, they may seem great but when you put them together and they don’t work well together that can be confusing.

I think the designers who do best with IoT are systems thinkers. Lots of designers are pretty good at visual execution and may be good at making screens but don’t have the bandwidth — they don’t think about how all the parts fit together. Ideally, a good IoT designer would be talented at thinking about the bigger picture – if they change something here, what will happen there?

For example, I did some work for a company that makes a connected breast pump a couple of years ago. There weren’t just interactions that needed to happen on the device, there was also an app — after all, a breast pump is something you use under your clothes so you can’t fiddle with the buttons under your shirt all the time. So you get these complicated interactions between the device and the app. I was brought in to figure out the decision they were blocked on: which controls needed to be on the hardware? They realised in order to make that decision they needed to figure out which controls needed to be on the app so things could work together. Their designer at the time had made beautiful UI work but didn’t have that interaction skillset.

So, do you need a UX designer working at your startup? If you think of UX as a list of jobs, the question is whether those jobs get done. Who does the work of figuring out whether people need your product, how do you make your product make sense? If those jobs are being done well they don’t necessarily need to be being done by one person. The breast pump company worked in that way. UX happens between products – they have a product-focused CTO as well – and the designers are more creatively focused. They have researchers who are out talking to people all the time so everything is tested. So there’s a kind of consciously planned approach to doing UX. What there isn’t is a UX designer who makes the wireframes. they make it work really well, and they pull in other skillsets from consultants occasionally as needed. What’s harder about that is that not everyone who says “Oh, we don’t need a UX person” is equally committed to it. You have to have that ongoing research, you have to be listening to users all the time, you have to be prepared to make products and get them wrong and test them and do it again. You have to have people who have a clear vision of what it is they’re trying to achieve with a user experience and be committed to it. Certainly for startups, it is possible to work without a dedicated UX designer if you have those skills distributed around the rest of the team but not everyone does it as well as they think they do.

I think two big challenges for IoT are privacy and security. To give you an energy example, if you look at somebody’s electricity consumption you can tell when they’re in and you might even be able to tell roughly what they’re doing. So a heating schedule from a connected thermostat is a reasonable indicator that someone is home, especially the ones that have sensors and can tell when someone’s in. There are streams of data that can be used to infer a lot more about somebody than you’d expect you could. Especially when you combine those streams of data, you get a detailed picture of what someone’s doing.

Even with the measures that have been introduced, there are challenges. When you think of GDPR, nobody reads license agreements, the license agreements aren’t really fit for purpose — not just because nobody understands them but because they are asking for permission to use data for a certain purpose, which means you’re supposed to go back to someone and ask for their permission again if you start using data for a new purpose. The means of getting consent just doesn’t work. The means of communicating all the things that could be done with it just doesn’t work.

We need to come up with ways of engaging users in a much more conversational approach to privacy. We’re going to have to help them become savvier. But the way to do that is not to give them a 100 page licensing agreement, it’s not to give them a forest of privacy settings like Facebook does. The more burden you put on users, the less they’re going to engage with that. We’re going to have to help people understand the value of their data and what can be used. It’s about thinking about if you really need a product to be connected. There’s a connected kettle in the UK — it’s a fabulously insecure thing that allows people onto your wifi network. When you think about it, nobody really needs a kettle remotely because you still have to put water in the kettle and take water from the kettle so why do you need to be able to turn it on or off from another room? And yet they’ve sold thousands, so what do I know! (laughs) But ultimately, it’s about creating savvier consumers on one side and being much more transparent on the other. It’s about trying not to overwhelm the consumers in the process.