Design Concepts wins GOOD DESIGN Award for its work on Pelvalon's Eclipse System

Connect with success by knowing your blind spots

May 27, 2015

Designing and delivering connected products and the transition to the Internet of Things (IoT) is today’s product development frontier. 

While companies are identifying exciting opportunities and competitive threats, they also discover that their processes, operations and expertise don’t translate well in this new territory. To crack the code of driving innovation in a savvy and connected world, there are a few things that can increase your odds while you are ‘faking it till you make it’. Delivering connected products and services is a pretty different M.O. than most people’s day jobs. And the biggest threat to success? Your team’s blind spots.

Blind spot #1: The right team

When time is tight and stakes are high, projects begin moving very quickly while the team and project are still being defined. The project champions need to be aware of the critical implications of building the team. Of course, they will identify the marketing and business stakeholders and a few individual experts in hardware, software and/or services. They should also identify any high-level individuals that have macro responsibilities and think holistically across disciplines

The next step is to identify which experts are missing from your core team. Be honest with yourself when assessing where you are lacking expertise. Don’t fool yourself by assigning champions who simply have a high level of passion or interest outside of their assigned discipline. It's the depth of expertise that you need. It’s okay to have lots of experts on the team, but if you choose to include fewer people that represent multiple disciplines be sure they are actually experts and not generalists. Especially early on, you need the experts to help you identify the things that aren’t even on your radar. Go find your missing experts and get them on board, even for a small engagement. Do it as early on in the process as possible.

The expertise your team will likely need to deliver connected solutions:

  • Physical / Hardware (industrial design, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering)
  • Digital / Software (interaction design, software development, information architecture, content strategy)
  • Service (service design, customer service)

Blind spot #2: Chasing the right target

Once you have the right team, you need to make sure that you have collectively set the business goals, project requirements, user needs and product requirements. Together, these will define success and guide the design efforts of a seamless user experience between objects, information and behaviors. Begin by making sure the team collectively understands what is in bounds and out of bounds. Then use your stakeholders and experts to ask the tough questions that help you identify what is missing, unknowns, risks, and leap of faith assumptions. It’s okay (in fact, it’s good) to have lots of unknowns and questions. Those are critical areas that will clarify your goals, inform your process, and ultimately set you up for the success of your project. It is too easy to work on the wrong things early on or silo expectations that are unknowingly at odds with one another.

At this point, you have the right team in place and the experts and stakeholders are having critical conversations to build awareness and empathy among the team and identify gaps. It’s okay if the team isn’t fully integrated and highly functional yet. The critical conversations will begin connecting the disciplines and building the foundation for a high functioning team in the near future. Most importantly, this newly formed team will begin making progress that will save time and money on the back end.

It’s good to have lots of questions. They're critical areas that will clarify your goals, inform your process, and ultimately set you up for success.

Blind Spot #3 – Platform Accommodations

Your team is now having critical conversations and can identify real project conflicts, accommodations and inter-dependencies between hardware, software and services. As quickly and thoroughly as possible, uncover and debate all of these topics until you are able to set the detailed project goals, drivers and requirements that will guide design efforts.

Some of the key areas that overlap digital, physical and service will include platform- and system-level topics such as software platforms, connectivity implications of smart features, cost structures and infrastructure. These discoveries will help you mitigate costly surprises later.

You should ultimately identify what hardware, software and service accommodations are needed to function together and separately. Consider that hardware expectations may be limiting the software or that the service may be expecting a level of connectivity that hasn’t been resolved. Deep dive into the needs, open issues and constraints for each platform.

Cross-reference with each of the experts about how their needs, issues and constraints may impact the other platforms. Hardware team members may learn that they need to accommodate more space or power for the software. Those tradeoffs are impacted by what is feasible and affordable and whether they can be achieved with off-the-shelf custom parts. Software team members may assess what platforms and infrastructure will be needed to mobilize a digital solution. Software tradeoffs are impacted by whether or not the selected technologies will enable sufficient connectivity to be both viable to the business and meet user needs.

With clear project definition and a team that has begun working across hardware, software and service, the project is ready to fully move into conceptual design. At this point, you’d think that there are no more blind spots. However, as naturally happens in the design process, there are still more surprises.

The Result – Designing connected experiences

Unless your company has been delivering integrated hardware, software and service solutions for a few years, designing a holistic offering in the connected world still has more unknowns. The intersections between how a smart device enables connectivity is as tricky to navigate as how to deploy a value-rich mobile service. Just as you think you have this thing figured out, things get real. And the realities of connectivity, infrastructure, power, content management and systems require some serious hard work and compromises. The implications of slowdowns are very real. Leverage your experts by conducting a project-level failure modes and effects analysis to identify areas of risk and put a plan in place for how to mitigate them.

If you’ve dodged the first two blind spots, then you will probably be successful at laying the foundation for the team to explore which features should be digital, physical or a service to deliver the best experience. This is a big win for the team. If you had some blind spots, you may have made some assumptions about what would be digital or physical and as the conceptual design begins it may become apparent that your assumptions were wrong. Changes may cause slowdowns or a launch with a less than ideal solution. Don’t worry, you will do better next time.

Other tradeoff areas may include mixed priorities, inconsistently identified requirements or key use cases which are accommodated differently by the hardware, software, service or a combination. When tradeoffs arise, discuss things like which controls and information should be physical versus digital. Which aspects of the use cases should not burden the hardware? Which controls would add value or reduce risk by remaining tactile and physical? What aspects of the use cases would over complicate the navigation of the software? What physical controls should be offloaded to the software? Consider whether aspects of the hardware and software could be supported by or eliminated by services. The trick here is to be aware whether each decision simplifies the user experience, complicates or over burdens it, or inadvertently overlooks something altogether.

By this point, your team should be working closely together so they have natural conversations early rather than big surprises when they report out at meetings. With the right team and champion, your project can move through tradeoffs quickly to get buy in, approvals and a defined user experience that is right for your business.

At the end of the day, whether you work for a corporation or as a consultant, it is an exciting time in the history of innovation to see our industry evolving. If you have the opportunity to take the plunge into the Internet of Things, try keeping these blind spots front and center to increase your odds of success.