The Internet of Things… That Are Crying Out For a Better UI/UX

Egyptian hieroglyphics, or modern-day laundry?

I guess we could potentially connect most devices to the internet, hence the growing interest in the Internet of Things (IoT).

Whether we gain much from doing so is another question.

I recently had an IoT face-palm moment after hearing that a friend’s cat’s litter tray is now internet-enabled. He is able to tell how full it is via a smartphone app. If only the cat knew!

Of course, it still requires manually emptying followed by use of a weight reset option, to bring internet and cat waste worlds into calibration again. At this point, I found myself asking “Why??!!”

Connecting things to the internet that require your physical presence on a regular basis in order for them to be useful seems a little preposterous to me: Kettles, coffee machines, cat litter trays… the list seems to be growing.

I often wonder with those coffee machines how regularly the owner discovers that it needs refilling or a mug placing under it — things that need you to physically attend to it — before you can use your smartphone to remotely tell it to create the drink… that requires you to collect it in-person anyway. Is it just me?!

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got a few IoT devices: Notably, a smart plug which I use to turn a lamp on and off to a set schedule, for security reasons. I set that schedule via my iPhone and then I largely leave the device alone, using the switch on the plug itself to override it.

However, I have yet to find a valid reason — other than somewhat perplexed entertainment — to turn on/off the light remotely via my phone and I don’t feel I’ll ever have the need to “ask Alexa” to do the same as I sit on the sofa 10ft away.

I chose the smart plug purely because it provides a better UI than most clunky timer switches do.

TRUE IOT, OR JUST A BETTER UI?

So that got me thinking about a whole class of home devices that have appalling UIs, which could be given a far superior user experience via a smartphone.

These are the hardware devices for which the manufacturer didn’t want to invest in the extra button, another LED, the larger LCD, the complex controller to support a better UI, etc… I sometimes suspect they decided not to involve any user experience expertise at all!

A smartphone is an ideal general-purpose place to host a UI for those home devices, and one we all seem to own.

We’ve all got these devices… the ones with user manuals that painstakingly describe holding down one poorly-labelled button whilst waiting for some bizarre sign from the device that it has changed “mode” so that you can now do something slightly different to it via the same poorly-labelled buttons.

This is precisely how video recorders used to be when they first came out (in the 1970s!) and how most home alarm systems are today.

Sadly, our homes still seem to be filled with these devices, from boilers to fridges to microwaves, all limited in terms of the user experience they offer because the manufacturer was constrained by budget or ingenuity.

These are the devices that seem to have been forgotten by leaps and bounds in the User Experience (UX) world online.

In my own home, the most egregious crime against UIs was committed by the manufacturer of a small device which controls my water heater (pictured here).

Its innocent and simplistic appearance hides a more complex story: It is situated right next to the water heater (seems logical), roughly 10 inches from the floor (less logical for adult humans), on a wall in a darkened cupboard (with no light) at a distance from the heater that requires you to wedge your head between the heater and the device. I’m in my 40s now, so reading anything at that proximity requires my reading glasses. Use of a torch to read the screen is hampered by the reflection in the LCD so what I end up doing is using a hand mirror and a torch to see the display in reverse. Needless to say, without a manual (I tried and failed to find one online) inferring what the controls (4 poorly-labelled buttons and several “modes”) do whilst balancing in this precarious position took some trial and error.

This seems precisely the kind of neglected device that would benefit from a better UI; the kind that it is easy to build online or for smartphones.

A slightly less frustrating but still perplexing example is my washing machine: I rent this apartment so I wasn’t able to select the machine myself. The controls for setting it going seem logical, if a little poorly and amusingly translated/iconised. What’s confusing though is figuring out what state the machine is in during a wash. The manufacturer chose to use a set of 4 LEDs to describe this and avoided the expense of an LCD. Mid-wash, I am usually clueless about what the machine is doing and how long it will take to complete its cycle. This is the kind of machine that I could maybe set going via the existing controls but might want to see more status and notifications about via a better smartphone UI.

INTERNET-ENABLED?

For devices that live in our homes, which we predominantly use when we are there, do we really need to “internet enable” them to benefit from a better UI?

If all of the intelligence, apart from the UI, resides on the device itself, there must be a better way to connect to it, particularly when we have a growing number of such devices in our homes?

I’m not talking about true IoT devices which rely on cloud-based services to gather data from them and to remotely control them. I’m talking about the devices I am happy to be standing right next to, with my smartphone in-hand, controlling them via an improved UI.

Shouldn’t connecting these devices via our home wi-fi be enough to authorise a smartphone connected via the same wi-fi to talk to the device? Is there a better way to see that my smartphone is authorised to use the wi-fi and should, therefore, be able to control the devices in the apartment?

Maybe this is somewhere that slightly more standardised home hubs and local networks can come into their own, rather than requiring the internet. More of an “Intranet of Things” perhaps?

It could also be another use case for Bluetooth… though I already find that particular technology flakier and flakier the more devices I connect.

SIMPLER UI, BUT COMPLEX TO CONNECT

Beyond the question of needing the internet at all, my smart plug involved a complex process to pair it with my phone and to introduce it to the home wi-fi router. All to gain access to the simpler online UI.

The device has, at least once, become unpaired and required me to repeat this.

It strikes me that the pairing process is at least as complex as the physical controls of the clunkier non-IoT timers I was trying to avoid.

Did we just shift the complexity? There must be a better way.

BETTER HOME DEVICE EXPERIENCES

However we tackle these hurdles, it all seems a great opportunity to piggyback on the IoT momentum and to apply UI and UX advances to the many devices in our homes that were robbed of a good way for us to interact with them.

Manufacturers might suddenly feel inclined to add new features for which an on-device UI would be cumbersome, but which a smartphone UI could easily control: A fridge manufacturer might be encouraged to report the internal temperature and defrost status of the device. A microwave manufacturer might offer much more complex programs for cooking and defrosting which are too overwhelming to expose via the existing controls.

Rather than just internet-enabling them, IoT technology might help to liberate devices we already use at home, via better UIs?