How the Internet of Things is changing product development and design

The Internet of Things represents a radical change for product development and design. The development process of a product no longer ends with its market launch. Instead companies need to steadily improve their customer’s experiences.

At first glance a connected car is just a car. It has an engine, four wheels, a chassis, a steering wheel, seats and much more. The fact that it’s networking only becomes evident when you go with it and, for example, see on the display where you can currently refuel at the best price. For users these changes aren’t always obvious. But for product developers and designers they require a fundamental new way to work.

Software and connectivity are key

First of all, they need to build products that are able to run software. To connect with the Internet, the products need to be equipped with suitable network hardware. With it the product is not only able to create and communicate information but to act on it autonomously. So it does no longer need integrated switches or displays. These functions can be accessed remotely. The challenge is to expand the product’s capabilities while still remaining user-friendly. But customers don’t only value an easy handling. They expect connected products to function as reliably as predecessor models. That’s why developers and designers need to implement preventive measures for malfunctions and connectivity losses.

In the Internet of Things, a connected product can’t be viewed in isolation. Either developers and designers need to create a connected ecosystem from scratch or they need to sort out how they can integrate their product into an existing ecosystem. It can also make sense to be compatible to many ecosystems. Take Amazon’s Echo for example. The device enables you among other things to control your smart home appliances with your voice. The interoperability with the smart home constitute a large part of Echo’s value. Therefore, the challenge for developers and designers is to think beyond the object and to understand exactly how those complex ecosystems work.

Suspension of conventional principles

Once connected, some conventional product development and design principles are suspended. Up to now product variations, for example, were only possible with variations in physical components. With connected products variability is much cheaper and easier to achieve. A perfect example is John Deere. The agricultural machinery manufacturer produced engines with different performance levels for years. Nowadays the company only produces a standard physical engine and varies its horsepower via software. This “software defined variability” is not only limited to a products functions but enables manufacturers to adapt their products to different countries and languages.

A few years ago product developers and designers had trouble collecting data about usage, customer behaviour, and performance. With the Internet of Things this has changed. Manufacturers can now see in detail how, when and where their products are used and offer an improved quality management. Tesla, for example, hit the headlines in 2013 with burning Tesla Model S. The company started an investigation and found out that the fire started in the vehicle’s battery compartment after the drivers hit a large piece of metal debris. Tesla then reconstructed the road conditions and speeds which lead to the battery damage and send a software update to all cars which ensured that the chassis was lifted, if the road conditions were similar. This way they could reduce the battery damage significantly.

Continuous development instead of model generations

In the IoT era product developers and designers also need to abandon the idea of different model generations. With connected products manufacturers or third-party partners are able to change the function of the products at any time via an update. This also includes features, which are not finalized. Tesla, for example, provides its cars with an autopilot and plans to enhance its functions with software updates over time. To make this possible in the first place the Tesla product development and design team needed to prepare the basics on the hardware site. They needed to develop a product that can adapt to unforeseen updates that can change its functions completely.

If products are constantly updated, they vary in their product life cycle. To stay with the example of the connected car: people keep their new cars for at least for at least five years or six years. But software developers publish their updates every few months. Product developers and designers need to take into account both life cycles. They need to develop a long-lasting bodywork but also implement the ability to process regular software updates.

Changing business models changes product design

The expanded capabilities of connected products also confront companies with the question, whether they need to change their business model. If they do so, they need to examine, whether they need to adapt their product design. When Xerox switched from selling copy machines to being a copy service they integrated sensors in the photoreceptor, the output tray and the toner cartridge. This is the only way Xerox can bill the exact amount of used service.

All in all, the fact that IoT unavoidably changes product development and design can’t be denied. Organizations who want to meet the new challenges need to shift their focus from designing products to designing the experience. Only then Mark Weisers prediction from 1991 will become true for IoT:

“The most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it”.

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