Smart homes, which used to be considered something out of a Sci-Fi movie, have finally arrived. More and more devices in our homes are now smart devices. Simply put, a smart device is a context-aware device that is capable of performing autonomous computing and connecting to users and other smart devices. What do those terms mean? A context-aware device is one that can gather information from its environment and adapt its behaviour accordingly. Autonomous computing means when a device can perform a task without a direct command from the user, for example, suggesting that you take an umbrella with you today because rain is predicted without being prompted.
Together smart devices form the Internet of Things (IoT). In a broad sense, the Internet of Things is when smart devices connect to the internet and to each other and communicate with one another. So how can we design experiences for smart devices and the Internet of Things?
Immersive user experience
Smart devices are often controlled by voice commands. Voice search is easier than other methods because it is much more intuitive and has a smaller learning curve – after all, people might have to learn how to type, but they don’t have to learn how to communicate and give commands. It comes naturally to young and old alike and can be done in the user’s native language, which makes its popularity understandable. That is one reason why every major tech company has developed its own voice assistant – Amazon’s Alexa, Alphabet’s Google Assistant, Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana are the most popular examples.
The great thing about the proliferation of these voice assistants by the tech giants is that they are ubiquitous and can be easily employed to enhance user experience. Although designing for a non-visual interface is new for most UX designers, voice-based experiences can be equally delightful for users if crafted right. As long as they are built thoughtfully and with a strong foundation of user journeys and personas, the potential for design is limitless.
Innovation in OTT design
OTT platforms have only grown and grown in popularity over time. During the pandemic when people were stuck at home with nothing to do, OTT platforms came to the rescue for many and subscriptions soared. With smart devices like wearables and smart speakers becoming more and more popular, is there an opportunity to integrate them with OTT in order to give viewers a more pleasurable experience?
Designers should focus on ensuring that viewers have a seamless experience on OTT across large screens, desktops and mobiles alike and that they can control the experience easily through wearables and smart speakers. If a smooth experience can be assured where users can pick up where they left off regardless of the device they use to give the command, their enjoyment will increase greatly. Smart devices can also give content recommendations to users based on their viewing history to further enhance this experience.
Designing for local users
The great thing about smart devices is that they can be easily designed for experience for those who don’t speak the default language or those with disability and accessibility problems. For example, users who are blind have often been left out of the great technological advancements that the rest of us take for granted. But with smart devices, you don’t need to depend on one language or even a visual interface at all. This means that designers can design truly accessible and universal experiences that can be enjoyed by all kinds of users no matter their level of technical skill, language proficiency or special needs. Smart devices can be triggered by voice commands, visual cues or gestures and can finally include those who have felt left behind of the usual user experience with technology.
Design without glitches
When interacting with the usual medium of user experience – websites and apps – users know to expect a small fraction of glitches. After all, the internet itself can cause all sorts of issues. So they aren’t caught unawares when say a web page takes too long to load or a video call with friend drops. These are considered usual annoyances of using the internet and are accepted as part of the experience. But we don’t expect the same response from real world objects. With real world objects, we expect a glitch-free experience. We expect an object to do the function it says it does and any interruption can imply that the object is broken, which is out of the usual.
For example, when using a toaster we don’t expect to encounter any latency or reliability issues. We expect the toasted bread to pop up after the instructed amount of time. But with smart devices, users might experience these glitches. Because these devices rely on the internet to run and any hiccup in the network, will cause delays or errors in the real world. It is even possible sometimes that the device misses our command completely and the request never gets fulfilled. This can make the real world feel glitchy and broken. Imagine that you try to unlock your front door using the smart lock and it doesn’t let you in or you ask Alexa to turn the light on and there is a two minute wait before the bulb lights up.
Since some latency is inevitable, designers can account for it in their design and create experiences that are light and low-latency from the outset. Also, be prepared for any glitches that do occur and design the device to acknowledge them instead of leaving the user hanging. In fact, acknowledgement of letting a user know that the device has understood what they are saying or missed their command and need it to be repeated will be immensely helpful for the users and help them to learn as much about the smart device’s behaviour as it learns about them.
Upgradable technological interfaces
Another point to consider when designing experiences for smart devices is that the device may not be as easily upgradable as smartphones usually are. When designing for smartphones, the usual route has been to design for the tech you can foresee for the near future, because it is understood that most users will replace their device within 2-3 years anyway. The same is not true for smart devices in the home. Say your customer buys a smart washing machine or smart refrigerator. They will probably expect to have that device in their house for the next decade or so. People are not going to buy a new fridge every time the tech for smart fridges improves. Therefore designers have to find a way to include upgrades in their design. The software part of the smart device that connects to the internet and follows user’s commands should be more easily upgradable than having to throw away the hardware and start afresh. For a user, not knowing when the device they are using will become obsolete and stop responding to them can be a source of anxiety and can ruin their experience with it. Hence, include provisions for as many updates as possible and let the users know when their devices are going to stop being supported by further updates so that they are ready to upgrade the hardware.
Crafting user experiences for smart devices is new for most UX designers, but the design follows the same principles that designing for digital interface does. As long as designers keep employing the tools of design thinking and keep creating thoughtful, innovative iterations, the users will continue to have enjoyable experiences with their smart devices.