How can we design an internet of things for everyone (not just alpha geeks)?

Despite the influx of new products and considerable excitement around the Internet of Things, from a design and innovation point of view, we are in a “blank slate” moment. We know that connected devices are possible, but we’re not exactly sure why we need them.
Young startups such as Ninjablocks and Twine offer kits that let us connect our own sensors to measure and track values such as how often a door has been opened, the temperature in a certain room, or when the plants have gone dry. Companies like Sony have been working with designers to envision a flexible platform for internet of things development and collaboration to allow product designers and developers to create virtually any kind of information appliance they can think of. (GigaOM’s experience design conference RoadMap is in November in San Francisco).
These extremely flexible devices remind me of what the Commodore 64 computer was for kids like myself in the ’80s. Many people played with the limited games that were offered on it but then couldn’t really find a need for such a thing in their lives. But my geeky friends and I couldn’t leave them alone. We spent weeks crafting lines of code to write simple video games, compose algorithmic music, and even create training programs to increase our SAT scores. The computer was a kind of “everything machine”, presenting a small population of people who liked to tinker and explore with a set of tools to create and probe, while leaving everyone else feeling impressed yet bewildered, unable to figure out just what this magic box was really good for.

A magic box or a bewildering toy?

What will people do with the new connected devices and tools that have just become available? And how should those tools evolve to best suit people’s needs? And what businesses will grow from the desire (and eventually the need) for them in our lives? The alpha geek in me is excited once again, but my product designer side knows that in order to be meaningful in people’s lives, products and their associated data have to be presented within specific, human-centered contexts.
In order to really understand what’s coming in terms of design opportunities, I’ve been studying what’s happening on the front lines of the internet of things — watching companies who create the building blocks for today’s “everything machines” –- to see what people have been doing with their newly connected world. I’ve organized my observations into categories ranging from those products that can be valuable to someone as an individual, to those that relate to groups of people and social exchanges, to products that can actually help people in different places work together at different times to collect and analyze data on a “macro” level. Below are a few examples:

Knowledge of myself

These products can offer us interesting glimpses into our own personal habits and health, providing tools to change behavior. A popular use for the Twine sensors have been interfaces that encourage self control around food by visually keeping track of the number of trips to the refrigerator in a day. To conquer a forgetful mind, another user has hooked a sensor to his garage so the service can nag him via a text message if he’s left the door open. Other visions include combining GPS data with place-specific reminders, so that you get a buzz or phone call if you’re near the bakery and need to pick up bread. (Or perhaps the grocery list and your connected scale data can join forces and tell you if that pumpernickel rye loaf is really such a good idea.)

Knowledge of others

These products can connect us to other people in new ways. Many entrepreneurs are working furiously on devices that show an ambient representation of another person’s presence such as the Good Night Lamp, which is a light that turns on automatically in one place to indicate that a person in a location in another place far away has switched on a light.
In addition to the one-to-one paired communication of presence, connected objects will allow for a team dynamic, where physical aspects (location, laps run, miles walked) can be represented via on-screen graphics or another means of showing measurements such as light or sound.
This becomes most meaningful in health care, where patients can benefit from loved ones keeping an eye on them, watching changes in their health and behavior patterns and helping everyone keep an eye on medication compliance. In terms of eldercare, Lively is a product currently under development that negotiates these challenges well. Instead of an always-on vigilance system like a camera, or a catastrophe-only solution like emergency alert buttons, it offers a number of “passive” sensors that keep track of subtle but meaningful movements throughout the day. A unit on the refrigerator door, for example, gives an indication of eating habits, one on the medication dispenser shows when pills have been taken.

Knowledge of the world

about surroundings
The internet of things gives us is the ability to expose measurements that were previously invisible. A web-connected umbrella can tell us if the forecast predicts rain for today. Similarly, a host of new product concepts encourage people to distribute sensors throughout their environment in order to measure changes in temperature, humidity, barometric pressure and EMF. These products promise to give you a visualization of these values, with the ultimate goal being to help you identify how they may be affecting your health, mood, or home.
And while we can retrieve information about microscopic values like humidity, what I think is most promising is the ability for people in different parts of the world to band together to offer “macroscopic” views of a particular measurement, such as the DIY Geiger counting activities that took place after the Tsunami in Japan. A recent Kickstarter campaign called Smart Citizen is trying to standardize the way we measure air composition, temperature, light intensity, sound levels, and humidity in terms of both hardware and software. These collaborative activities can help people take citizen journalism to a new level, giving them the power to crowdsource data to give credence to their cause through recorded evidence of values that would be otherwise unable to be seen.

Pulling it all together

While the maverick manufacturers and alpha geek tinkerers have managed to find meaningful applications for the internet of things through new tools and devices, there is still a big gap between them and the average user who doesn’t want to hack or discover. In the “About Myself” category, we have a glut of health trackers to measure steps walked or run, but few truly user-friendly products that go beyond that. Similarly, in the “About Others” scenarios, we have products that provide some vague sense of presence, but if they begin to go further, the challenge of balancing vigilance with a respect for privacy is a big one. And in the “About Our Surroundings” category, the effort towards standardization tackles one hurdle, but the meaningful interpretation of that data can still require an editorial leap that makes it challenging to build a persuasive case around the numbers.
Ultimately, the ability to make sensor streams meaningful by finding significant links to multiple, varied sources of data (for example linking biometric values with environmental factors, or calendar data with home control and monitoring) is what will lead to promising developments in each category. But first, we have to design products that are intuitive to install and easy to understand, giving us feedback in a human language that tells us things that matter in our everyday lives. And while we’re at it, we as designers have to take responsibility for the fact that exposing data that’s been previously hidden will shape social mores and privacy considerations from now on.
It’s an enormous puzzle where the pieces are disparate products, tools and protocols, but those designers who are up for the challenge are the ones the ones who will truly succeed in creating a future filled with products that have a positive impact on people’s lives.
Carla Diana is a smart object designer and Fellow at the innovation design firm Smart Design, where she runs the Smart Interaction Lab.