Why User Research for Connected Products Fails

Dealing with the complexity of what we mean by “Connected product” today

THE GIST: The biggest challenge when creating a new product or service today, is changing interpretation of what a product is. The hard edges of what makes a product are becoming increasingly blurred. We are shifting into products that can now be slotted into a connected ecosystem. There are smart products that have the intelligence to take decisions based on a range of conditions. Therein lies a problem. In the past, product and service were designed by first understanding the user and how their needs can best be met. A product in the old sense of the word was unconnected and dumb. Products today are characterised by a latticework of complexity. Yet old habits die hard and research is still focused on the users and their needs.

A shift is required to address this new paradigm of complexity, away from understanding the user as the primary factor for product design. In its place a systems orientated approach to product research can grapple with the added complexity of products today by understanding the person, the place and moment in time where the product will be used.

From Music Box to Bits

But how when did creating products get so messy. Let’s take the example of music. Growing up in my household, there were two formats for listening to music: vinyl and tape. This was later joined by a sliver of silver. The Compact Disk took up less room, it promised superior quality. You no longer had to get up to flip the tape or vinyl over, rather you could play the whole thing right through. Or choose to skip or repeat the songs you wanted because the CD broke the album into its constituent parts. Music listening got smart.

Music was no longer contained in a solid artefact such as a record or tape but encoded into bits. The encoding of music opened up a whole new field for the creation and consumption of music.

Fast forward thirty years and today we are more likely to rent music through streaming services than owning it. A person’s music collection is now likely to be distributed across multiple streaming systems and multiple devices. An entire system of systems has been built around the music listening experience based on what we listen to, how we listen to it, what our friends and family listen to. The music industry is more likely to describe themselves as tech or data enterprises than in the business of music.

Product Constellations

A similar pattern is starting to emerge with products. Products are being designed increasingly with data capture capabilities that means they are no longer constrained to a particular industry but are instead part of a much broader information ecosystem.

Being part of a larger constellation of systems raises fundamental questions when developing the product. Michael Porter and James E. Heppelmann said:

These new types of products alter industry structure and the nature of competition, exposing companies to new competitive opportunities and threats. They are reshaping industry boundaries and creating entirely new industries. In many companies, smart, connected products will force the fundamental question, “What business am I in?” — How Smart, Connected Products Are Transforming Competition

What use to be routine questions during the development stage are now upended by the complex tangle of products, services and systems where change in one part can affect the functionality of products and services in seemingly unrelated systems.

Porter and Heppelmann’s System of Systems framework

A Different Approach

To unpick this complexity requires a different approach during the research and design phase of a product. A systematic approach shifts the focus away from a problem and instead provides a broader and more balanced test bed within a specified system or place.

Applying the Systems of Systems framework with Vodafone’s Innovation Team

A project with Vodafone I was involved with in developing a connected bicycle shifted the focus of study on the city environment and how cyclists use it. In this project, mobility became the cultural focus and the city (London) became the object of study. A much richer and deeper cultural understanding of what mobility meant for London cyclists started to emerge. We found that air pollution was a barrier for commuters to cycle into the centre of London. By looking at the urban environment we were able to test concepts around real time pollution alerts that recommended less polluted routes into the centre of town.

By examining the interconnected yet diverse systems that a cyclist encounters such as traffic, crime, pollution and weather helped to define the problem space beyond the cyclist.


So, when you’re thinking about your product, think beyond the user. A systems orientated approach to product research gets to grips with the dense complexity of products today by understanding the person, the place and moment in time where the product will be used.

Tom Eldridge is an independent Innovation Strategist whose clients have included LinkedIn, Sony Pictures Entertainment, and Vodafone. To find out more about what I do and how I work drop by strategyxdesign.co.uk