The internet of things: a contrarians view

There’s been a lot of discussion over the past year or so about the “Internet of Things”, which basically posits that soon everything will be connected to the cloud and this interconnectivity of hardware will revolutionize our lives. To this grandiose vision I have to express a little bit of skepticism.

Why? Because, and I will paraphrase Jeff Goldblum’s character in Jurassic Park, “Just because you CAN make an internet-connected toaster doesn’t mean you SHOULD…”

What is the value of such connectivity? Is it going to allow people, as they are brushing their teeth, the ability to check on the status of their bread toasting? Let’s be realistic. A connect world is an amazing concept, but at the end of the day the key to an effective experience is to solve a specific user’s problem or serve a need. So many of the IoT notions I see coming out (especially after the Consumer Electronics Show) are gimmicky ideas that are looking for VC investment and nothing more.

So, that being stated, what makes Internet of Things relevant? Here’s a few thoughts on what solutions the IoT craze should focus on.

An obvious value proposition

Using the cloud to save data and to serve up said data to connected devices is an awesome idea, but the value of that should be obvious to users. It’s about devices “knowing” who you are and serving contextually appropriate information to users through the appropriate “channel.” Using your refrigerator to tell you that you have email? Not appropriate. Your refrigerator telling you that you are out of Mountain Dew and that your local Kroger has soda on sale? MORE appropriate… But will it actually be used? Add a quick “save to shopping list” function that saves that to something you can see and useon your mobile phone? NOW we are talking about a helpful function that saves user time. Which brings me to…

A solution that makes things better

“Wow, everything I own is connected to the Internet!” That’s awesome. Except that it doesn’t matter, unless you can do something that takes advantage of such connectivity. Again, go back to UX 101: Define solutions that align with what people need and do. The most successful technology of the past 100 years took advantage of this basic principle. People need to get from point A to point B? Cars, and then planes, made that better. The successful IoT solutions will keep this mind and implement solutions that solve some of the basic problems that all of us have. Or it will provide…

A solution that solves problems people didn’t know they had

Let’s think about, oh, ten years ago. Before the iPhone, before social networking. Were we happy? Did we get things done? Of course. We lived in a world where we were connected to each other through e-mails, phone calls and (GASP) letters. We accessed the Internet on our work computers and, sometimes, when we got home at night… the notion of ubiquitous connectivity was rarely considered. Then we discovered that we COULD be connected with people and the Internet ALL THE TIME… for good or ill. But such as new status quo allowed us to have different connections to a wider circle than we ever thought possible.

So… The Internet of Things. It’s kind of the .1 version of the iPhone and social media; it’s an opportunity for us to develop embedded devices that make people’s live better in ways we can’t yet imagine. A future where all the tech around us knows who we are and what we need and acts as a virtual butler that improves our quality of life in ways undreamt of.

Or it could be like We’ll see.

Joseph Dickerson is a user experience professional and UX Lead for Microsoft based out of Atlanta, GA. He has implemented processes in user testing, design and ethnographic research and provided design and consulting services for many different projects and organizations.

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