Asking the product

I’ve begun to hear a meme infecting the philosophy of product development and IoT. Suppose you have a question about how to design a product. Which features to add? Which to take away? Where geographically is the product most being used? Normally you’d call in some focus groups, maybe hire a user experience consultant.

But IoT believes all you have to do is Ask The Product.

Much of the drive to add connectivity to consumer products is because the product requires connectivity to operate. If you want to build a learning thermostat you need to aggregate data related to human behavior and run analytics on that data. If you want a smart lock, it has to be connected to a smart phone.

But inherent in this connectivity is the potential to better understand the usage patterns of users and to run analytics at a very granular level. Not only could you track how a smart lighting system is being used, but you could also cross reference that data against age, demographics, gender, usage of other smart home products. The data opportunities suggest not just better product design but significant marketing opportunities or even tailoring of product features for key groups.

Any way you slice it, it would be hard to find a product design team that doesn’t want rich data on how their products are beings used, for how long, what times of day, etc. Privacy restrictions will play out here and data may not be available for every company that wants access to it. There are, for example, reasonable concerns surrounding how Google will use all of the home data being tracked on a Nest thermostat.

But whether a company has the ability to track usage data on all their products, they almost definitely can put prototypes in the hands of select users and analyze their usage patterns. Or more likely we’ll see certain premium features or discounts in exchange for allowing data collection. And this possibility raises the question of whether the value of connectivity is only to enable the product’s operation or if it has become a core part of product development, and what IoT promises companies—the ability to ask the product.

The value of asking the product is probably even more profound in the world of industrial IoT where there are no pesky privacy restrictions and where machines can be tweaked, firmware updated, and redesigned to drive efficiency. For example, in the utility industry, being able to connect a gas or wind turbine, and generate enough data from the turbine to assess where preventative maintenance needs to be performed can result in significant benefits. Even 1 percent efficiency gains in the industrial sector can mean billions of dollars in cost savings.

As with any major technology promise, “Ask The Product” is not bullet proof. There are privacy concerns as mentioned. But there are also other issues related to being able to make sense of the onslaught of data as well as the courage many designers often need not to merely design for a market but to take the risk of designing an entirely new product and thus creating a market.

Still, in many sectors in IoT ranging from utilities to the smart home, the possibility of tracking in real time how a wind turbine is performing or how a smart thermostat is being used is a degree of insight into machine use that is one of the prevailing promises of IoT.