The [Slightly] Smarter Office

I just got a new job. The standard slew of questions ensued.

Friend: “What will you be doing?”

Me: “Oh, it’s very cool. I’ll be working on an IoT project.”

Long, awkward pause…

Friend: “What is ‘IoT’”?

For starters, shame on me for using an acronym. As a designer, I know they can be confusing and alienating. In my meager and only line of defense, I just sort of assumed most people would know what “IoT” is. Good ol’ Wikipedia defines it as such:

The Internet of Things (IoT, sometimes Internet of Everything) is the network of physical objects or “things” embedded with electronics, software, sensors, and connectivity to enable objects to exchange data with the manufacturer, operator and/or other connected devices

Turns out not only the term but the concept itself was new to a lot of the people I talked with. Despite its recent appearance at the top of the hype cycle, it’s not made it far beyond the tech bubble. Yet there’s all sorts of IoT-enabled “Smart Home” products out there. From light bulbs to sound systems to door locks and thermostats, more and more connected devices are showing up at my local stores. Target recently unveiled a new pop-up store to showcase the “connected home”.

Here’s an example of how this might work with some of today’s smart home technology:

You leave work. When your phone connects to your car’s Bluetooth signal, it sends a text message to your loved ones that you’re on the way. As you pull in the driveway, the garage door senses your car’s proximity and opens automatically. At the same time, the garage door sends a message to your thermostat to change the temperature to your liking. You wave your phone at the lock on the door and the deadbolt releases. As you walk in, the lights come on as you walk through the house. As you settle into the couch for a moment of relaxation, you are blanketed by the sounds of your favorite music.

Connected home

Sounds great, right? Yet I spend most of my day at the office, with a larger design team at Ixonos. Our team has been thinking a lot about IoT concepts and how they will change the world around us. We already have a few Sonos devices and a starter pack of Hue light bulbs. Could we take some of the smart home ideas, tweak or expand them to an office environment, and then demo it in our own office?

Research

We spent a day thinking about what we wanted our ideal smart office to feel like. First thing we realized was that it was as hard to define the “smart office” concept as it has been for the smart home. To imagine the experience, we sketched out two journeys - employee and visitors through an office space. We generalized where applicable, but tried to keep it true to our own experiences.

Initial design session

As you can see, we have limited (not infinite) whiteboard space.

Here’s a simplified view of just the employee journey. Of course, there are a number of possible loop backs, skips, etc., but this helped us to drive toward a specific flow to prototype.

Employee journey

Scenario

We took a simple, targeted scenario from our broad strokes to see if we could build and test the experience:

  • Turn on the lights in a conference room when someone walks into an empty room
  • Provide a status to people outside the room when it’s in use
  • Turn off the lights in a conference room when the last person leaves

Technology

We had the connected lights, but needed location data. Part of our research had been focused on beacon technology, so we used that as a starting point.

We wanted something cheap, quick and replicable across our different studios and projects. We opted to host everything on a Raspberry Pi running Raspbian with a Bluetooth adapter to control the lights. We installed Node, BlueZ and a few other components that can be found in our public repo.

When someone gets near enough to our Raspberry Pi with their BLE enabled device, the USB adapter picks it up and communicates with the Hue bridge over the network to turn on the light. After a set amount of time without seeing the device again, the light turns off, assuming the person is no longer there.

Result and Implications

Here’s a video of the experience…plus a few extras. We did what we set out to do, which was use location data to change lighting conditions. In the video, we also added a few static application screens to show some of the broader opportunities.

Smart office experience

We learned a couple of important things in the exercise:

Experience - There is a significant set of hurdles to use beacon data. The user has to have Bluetooth turned on and an app preinstalled for each and every environment.

A few companies like Samsung are working on removing the need to preinstall the app, but it of course won’t work on an iPhone. In the meantime, it still has potential value for everyday users — in this case employees.

Technology -We started looking into iBeacons, but they are Apple proprietary. Android phones can’t read iBeacon data, leaving out nearly 50% of users. Right now (and this goes for all of IoT) there is little standardization between protocols.

Apple has its own standard, iBeacon. Google released its own platform recently, Eddystone, which allows interactions with both iOS and Android. There’s also AltBeacon, a separate, open source platform.

Next steps

We’ll be looking at calendar integrations to support what’s shown in the video. We’ve also ordered some Estimote stickers, and will be playing around with what we can do with the additional sensor data.

If you have ideas about other office scenarios and experiences or IoT in general, we’d love to hear them. Check out our public GitHub repo, or reach out at smartoffice \@\ ixonos.com

Thanks to all the contributors to this design exercise and article: Rahim Bhimani, David Crowley, and Yang Jiang.

Cris is a product strategist, designer, researcher, and the Global UX Lead for the Digitalist Group. If you liked this article, check out Research is the Engine for Design. Comments and conversation always welcome.