Four guidelines for developing connected products

2 October 2013
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Reading time: 3 minutes

After years of talk about ubiquitous computing, the Internet of Things is finally taking off. Miniaturisation and the falling prices for processors, memory, bandwidth, and sensors offer huge opportunities for manufacturers.

For example, home automation devices are everywhere; medical devices and even street lamps are being connected.

What does it take to develop successful connected products?

My experience from Zühlke projects and observing the market shows that four simple guidelines can help:

  1. Let your imagination run wild
  2. Verify the benefit
  3. Design it for humans
  4. Collaborate across disciplines

Let your imagination run wild

First, place your feet firmly in the shoes of your customer and imagine that anything is possible. How would things work out in an ideal world?

For example, Würth Elektronik created an intelligent bin that watches the small parts it contains (e.g. screws and nuts) with an integrated camera. As it gets emptier, an order is automatically and wirelessly transmitted.

Observing your customers where they do their job, looking at examples from completely different domains (cross-industry innovation), and innovation techniques like NABC can help.

Verify the benefit

After you have arrived at some great new idea like connected number plates, step back and check one essential feature:

Does the product help your customers?

There is more to this question than you might think. It includes verifying that your target customers have the necessary skills and that the solution is viable (for some amusement, read about the kitchen computer that Honeywell offered in the ‘60s). It also involves checking that other parts of the overall solution are in place (just think about the infamous Internet-connected fridge and its lasting inability to automatically scan its own content).

Design it for humans

Humans are peculiar. They do not always follow logic. The have emotions. It is easy to get carried away with technology when designing smart objects. The wizardry and machinery should stay inside, not on the surface. An excellent example of non-intrusiveness is the Mother Bear wallet that opens up with more resistance when your bank balance is low.

User experience practices like paper prototyping will go a long way to get your product accepted by the market. This is not just about screen design, but about designing the whole interaction in a manner that fits with our needs as humans.

Another example: DebMed saves lifes by improving hygiene in hospitals through a connected hand sanitizer. The secret for acceptance by mere humans: The data is collected and benchmarked at the team level, rather than individually.

Collaborate across disciplines

Connected products require systems engineering.

When Zühlke helped Liebherr to link their diggers and cranes to a monitoring portal on the Internet, the team consisted of domain specialists, project managers, management consultants, business analysts, user experience designers, software architects, web programmers, embedded software developers, electronics and mechanical engineers, among others. In the future, expect anthropologists, nanotechnology engineers, and data scientists to join the fray.

Interdisciplinary collaboration is not just a question of selecting the right process template or the most capable project manager. It requires systems thinking and openness at each level.

Join the conversation

What else does it take to develop succesful connected products? I would love to read your feedback and meet you in person at the Connected Products conference.

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