The Internet of Things

…we need to think about

As the internet of things becomes more pervasive, some of the major concerns surrounding the idea are those related with privacy and security. However, I would like to highlight some more concerns that we, as designers, need to consider before designing for such a system.


I visited a friend who had recently installed Phillips Hue lights in her home. She was excited about the fact that she no longer needed to get out of bed to switch the light off anymore, and wanted to demo it for us when we got to her apartment. Once she actually tried to switch them on though, she had to fish through her bag for her phone, enter her passcode, find the app, and then choose the correct settings. In the meantime, the regular lights had been turned on with the flip of a good old switch, and the colored lights became a mere — we oohed and ached as the colours changed, but ultimately the colored lights were a distraction from a pleasant and homey night in, and were eventually turned off and forgotten about.

Habits

The system tries to change behaviors that are already ingrained within our lives. The process of fumbling around for a phone and looking for the appropriate controls can never replace the universal habit of flipping light switch. The affordances of a light switch are so simple, and one has to wonder about the benefits of doing away with it as the default. Using the phone as the medium of communication between the user and the system also presents its own issues. The interface requires users to be constantly plugged in to their smart devices, which then becomes a barrier between the individual and her environment. While my friend was trying to switch the lights on, she was missing out on the light banter the rest of the group was participating in. For those few moments, she was disconnected from the people around her.

Infrastructures

To combat this flaw in the design, Phillips also offers a tap switch and a dimmer for your lights, which one can buy separately. The user needs to set purchase and set up not one, but two (or more) products, as well as download and install an app, in order to use the system. It’s also possible for the Phillips Hue lights to respond to the music playing via Spotify, but to do that, an additional third party app is required, and though my friend knew it was possible, she couldn’t be bothered to figure out how to actually get the whole thing to work. This outlines another concern about the infrastructures that are required to create a truly seamless experience that the Internet of Things promises. Each individual thing its own infrastructure, and then another layer on top of that to get all the things to talk to each other.

Values

The smart systems offer “convenience” and “customizability” but one must question if these are the value that we, as users, are looking for? In the above scenario, the lights ended up being a novelty item, once demonstrated and never actually utilized to their full potential, as marketed on the Phillips website. Far from even fulfilling the basic requirements, they added no additional value in terms of “setting the mood” for our intimate, human interactions. Though its clear that no level of advancement in technology, or innovation in design can replace human values like intimacy, delight, and empathy, perhaps we can design systems that augment and support these human experiences in a valuable and meaningful way.