Why the Internet of Things needs White Space

White space is a critical concept in graphic design where white “empty” spaces around things and between things are essential to good design. In the increasingly complex Internet of Things space, designing experiences with “Digital white space” brings much needed focus to user needs. In this article we explore how the concept of white space functions across design disciplines and how it addresses some of the major issues in IoT user experience design.

Hasegawa Tohaku “pine trees” example of white space from Designing Design

The purpose of white space

White space between elements on a page provide contrast to content. It gives things space to “breathe” and allows the focus of the page to be clear. Even the spaces within and between letters in typography are integral to the legibility of a typeface.

It sounds easy, but often when you are faced with designing a poster, all the “empty” white space compels you to “fill it”. Providing more detail when the space is available is tempting. It is a difficult exercise to edit a page down to the essential elements and convey your point.

The Google homepage uses white space to draw the user’s focus and inform them of how the site works.

The Google homepage is an excellent example of the functionality whitespace can offer. The user comes to Google to search for something. The white space on the page draws all attention to the center where the search bar sits, cursor gently blinking at the ready. The lack of distraction on the page only highlights utility. Considering this “negative space” in any type of design is fundamental to communicating how to interact with a product.

White space and design

Silicone cabbage bowls by Yasuhiro Suzuki imply their function (to hold) with empty space.

Kenya Hara writes about the concept of white space in his book Designing Design. He explains that the Japanese character for empty contains the character for white. The two concepts tie together, “empty” and “white”. However, empty space is not considered a waste but rather an expression of potential. Like how an empty bowl informs you of its function; the emptiness of the bowl shows you that it can hold things. Hara’s process and way of thinking reveal the great complexity behind designing something simple.

This concept extends to product design. Naoto Fukasawa describes his philosophy of design as +0 (plus minus zero). To him this means that everything unnecessary must be removed, and only what is essential remains. What results is often a beautifully functional and minimalist product.

Muji rice cooker by Naoto Fukasawa

The Muji rice cooker is one of Fukasawa’s recent designs. Every detail has been carefully pared down to the absolute minimum. Consider how a user might rest their rice spoon atop the rice cooker. The only design cue for the spoon rest is a slight raise opposite the button for opening the lid. Yet this is all that is needed to convey functionality. When you are holding a rice covered spoon you search for a place to rest it. You have just closed your rice cooker and there is a perfect ledge on top. You might put your spoon there and never give it a second thought.

“People shouldn’t really have to think about an object when they are using it. Not having to think about it makes the relationship between a person and an object run more smoothly.”
-Naoto Fukasawa

This is an example of design fading into the background. It only enters your consciousness when you need it; it is useful and unobtrusive. The design itself becomes less important. Priority shifts to the user and their intent. When you use a well-designed product you hardly think about the product at all. It fits into your life effortlessly. The product becomes invisible and only the experience remains.

So why does it matter for IoT?

Most IoT products are designed within a technology bubble. The people who have the opportunity to design and build IoT user experiences are already in connected and technologically advanced environments (think: Silicon valley). People tend to make products that fit the context of their daily lives. As a result, interaction with IoT is often driven by advances in technical capabilities rather than common user needs.

Notifications from a connected umbrella. Photo: Joanna Stern, Wall Street Journal

Product companies are adding chips to their products with the intention of giving the user more options and features, often via an app. The Davek Alert Umbrella, for example, uses “Loss Alert Technology” to ensure you “never leave your umbrella behind again.” It does this by sending the “Loss Alerts” to your phone every time you lose contact with your umbrella.

This system isn’t smart, it sends these alerts even if you leave your house on a sunny day, or if your internet is interrupted for a moment. It creates more problems than it solves and most people will see the inherent ridiculousness of an app for your umbrella. This approach of tacking a chip onto a product and half-heartedly solving a low-level user problem is not sustainable for a company.

Check out this twitter account to get an idea of how just how bad this approach can get: https://twitter.com/internetofshit

Nest thermostat programs itself based on how you use it for just one week.

Another approach is to gather data which informs device behavior. This approach nudges the user out of the equation a little. An excellent example is the Nest thermostat. Users interact with Nest only for the first week, and Nest takes this data and uses it to program itself. The only further interaction is when the user corrects Nest and they do this by manually setting the thermostat, same as they would have done 20 years ago.

The first approach maximizes user interaction with the connected device (via and app and added features). The second approach reduces user interaction and gives the majority of the control over to automation based on data. Both allow the user to correct it when it gets something wrong, but only with the second approach does the device learn.

The second approach is using white space. Whenever possible the device informs itself and the user doesn’t need to interact. The only moments when the user does interact are “teaching moments”. The device should learn from every user interaction to minimize redundant commands (like updating the notification settings on your umbrella every time the weather changes).

Designing for white space doesn’t mean we reduce technical capabilities, it just means that we consider how much of that complexity is exposed to the user.

Just like the white space around the Google search bar, Nest’s automation and decisions based on data provide focus and a clear path for user interaction. Designing for white space doesn’t mean we reduce technical capabilities, it just means that we consider how much of that complexity is exposed to the user.

Where to start

So we can see that automation is one way to design interactions with white space. But there are many other aspects to consider when designing for IoT user experiences. Here are three things you can start with to improve the user experience of your IoT product/service:

01 | Identify the core use case of your product.

The core use case has probably not changed since pre-connected devices. If you are designing a lightbulb, the main intent is to provide light. If it’s a thermostat, the intent is to heat a home. It is most likely the same function that the non-connected counterpart performs. Like the in the Google home page example, you need to provide a clear path for the user to engage. Optimize the user experience for the core use case.

This experience needs to match or exceed user expectations to even be considered for purchase. Let’s take the connected light bulbs as an example. If your user can’t have light at the moment when they need it then they will stop having any interest in your product right there.

Now look at how technology can optimize the core use case experience. Match user needs to the appropriate technology. Be selective about the features you make available; just because it can do 50 different things and call your mother doesn’t mean it should. Again, white space is all about the careful edit. What do we absolutely need and what can we do without? User testing and rapid prototyping can help tease out which features are essential and which ones can go.

02 | Identify the points of friction.

Fukasawa observed his customer’s journey and identified the dirty rice spoon as a point of friction, and then designed for it. Draw out your current customer journey. Any areas where your customer has difficulty using your product are major problems. Tackle these friction points individually. Keep in mind that each touchpoint the user has with your product should strengthen the core use case and key features. Sometimes clever solutions to little problems can make a big impact on the user experience.

We noticed patterns in the types of friction points common to IoT user experiences and have gathered them in our article Eliminating Friction in IoT.

03 | Capitalize on the data you have available.

Wherever possible, use the data you have to inform how the device functions. What Nest does best is that it learns from every user interaction. It’s your job, and the job of the technology to do the brunt of the work. What remains is a simple and enjoyable user experience that strategically competes with both analog and digital competition. If the Davek connected umbrella could know when you have accidentally left your umbrella in a café, it would be a much better product. User data, when used correctly, can eliminate a lot of unnecessary interactions.

Design with “Digital white space”

The concept of white space in the Internet of Things or “Digital white space” is about minimizing user interactions. Embrace the principles of good design to win-out your competition. Only leave what is absolutely essential to get the task done. Fully utilize connected technology and data to inform device function. When all of these things have been carefully considered, then all the complexity of how a device works fades into the background, leaving only magical, seamless, functional user experience. Nothing more and nothing less.

Lily is a senior designer at Raft with a background in industrial design and digital practice and a keen interest in designing experiences beyond the screen.