The 3 fundamental methods of connected device interaction

To explore the field of connected devices means the exploration of new technology and ways of understanding the world around you. Over the last several decades we have understood the primary way to interact with software is through a screen, and that is now changing. As voice and bot interactions are beginning to gain traction they open up new ways in which we can experience the world around us. As sensors and devices become more connected, they offer richer ways we engage each single device. These two shifts are offering a completely new field in how users experience their lives at home, on the road, and in the office.

At Raft, as we investigated the space of connected devices, we have found 3 fundamental methods in which we interact with connected devices. Each of these methods have implications for both the technology and business models of a particular connected device. They also have security and processing implications. The way in which a user interacts with a device may mean the intelligence of the device must be local and secured, or conversely it can fully live in the cloud, compared with other data of similar nature, only being called upon when explicitly needed.

This short brainstorming framework provides an overview of the different interaction methods, as well as examples of why each method can have an impact on the connected device itself. It can be used to explore different ways devices can find connections to users.


1. Device & User

Users are now provided more ways to interact with their devices, and these can appear deceivingly simple, while on the backend, being exponentially more complex. If companies aren’t careful, this complexity if easily exposed to users hindering product uptake. There are three ways a user and device may interact.

a. The user interacts with the device through a middle layer— The most prominent method here are applications; using an application to control or send commands to a device. The critical aspect here is to remember the non-application and non-screen based approaches that are more recently emerging. This would include bot integration into messaging clients or the more prominent and emerging method of direct voice interaction. The more companies understand a users journey, the better they can understand the different types of interactions that may suit a situation for a particular user. Singular input methods will soon no longer be the norm. Companies will need to explore the input method that suite the situation at hand.

b. The device interacts with the user [through a middle layer]— A overused example here is a reminder from an application to a user to turn their lights off when they leave the house. Or perhaps asking users if they want their heat turned on as they approach their house. Or having a sensor that could remind you to water your plants with a notification. This type of interaction allows the device to prompt the user and be more intelligent about the interactions. The smarter devices get, and the more intelligent processing that is done, the more this can be automated, although companies should be weary of automating in situations where the outcome can annoy the user or be incorrect.

c. The user interacts directly with the device — A purely direct physical approach, users should still be able to interact directly with the device itself in a non-connected way. Designers shouldn’t take away functionality that was previously found useful on non-connected devices. Rather they need to initially focus on extending capabilities. Once new capabilities and forms of interaction have been created and adopted, old interaction methods can be removed.

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Companies need to consider the easiest interactions methods that reduce the most friction when defining how users will interact with a device. If it’s an application, is it used daily? Or is it for settings and used only monthly, where daily use is expected through another channel? Companies must invest in a higher level of Service Design to improve coordination across input and output channels.

Recommendation: Do not rely on an application as the core way to interact with your product. Users spend 84% of their time in their top 5 applications. Chances are your application will not be within those 5. Look at how and where users want to interact with your device easier than they currently can, and then find proper input and output methods that offer the least amount of friction to accomplish that. When sending a notification or having the device / service interact with the user unprompted, ensure that critical information is being displayed, or information that user is specifically interested in. Otherwise these could be perceived as annoying interruptions. Finally when looking at the overall products, always consider how physical interactions will add complication into digital interactions.

Questions to ask:

  • Who are the users for your device and how would they prefer to interact with it?
  • What problems are these new connected methods solving for users?
  • What information would users really want to see, if any, from your device?

2. Device & Context

One of the most unique situations for a connected device is it’s ability to pull in data from other sources. These other pieces of data can better inform the device on what it should do, or how it can be smarter. This allows for automation of functions, like an alarm system that turns on a light because its learned user behavior, over user set automations.

Devices can now begin to understand the context in which they are in. Is it dark or light? Cold or Hot? Is it raining? Is there only a single person or many. This information can be used in a nearly limitless set of ways.

Recommendation: The ability to provide a device context is one of the best things a company can do to provide smarter automation and better information to users. However context of devices still will not take into account the subjective nature of users. Context can be great for devices that may not need human interaction — like an irrigation system that knows how much it’s rained and doesn’t waste water. If you do use context to control devices around people, ensure the outcome of the function in the object will be correct 100% of the time. Do not leave guesswork when trying to automate a system as this will confuse users.

Questions to ask​:

  • Is there any data that could make my product stronger? If so, how do I get it?
  • Do I need to partner with another company to get the data I need? If so, do I truly need it?
  • If this is a device that is automating user needs, how are we ensuring it’s always correct?

3. Device & Cloud

With each new connected device comes a proliferation of data that can be harvested and used on anything from product improvements to providing other devices with context and triggering actions. This type of communication also has the biggest implications on business models and privacy. Devices that can talk to a backend, or company, open up a larger service offering layer that companies can begin to monetize. With this, users are also exposing their data and will be weary of privacy concerns. Companies should see this type of interaction as a key opportunity for their devices, and for business models, but also be careful on what they collect from users, what they do with it, and the privacy behind it.

Recommendation: Companies new to the space need to investigate how they can use customer data to better their future products, or provide a compelling service. At the same time, companies must double down on security measures to ensure proper privacy and protection of customer data.

Questions to ask​:

  • What can I do with any data I collect that will make my users lives better?
  • Am I managing users trust and security needs appropriately with the data I’m collecting from them?
  • Does my connection to external services or handling data collection make my product too complex to set-up or use?

In Conclusion

Any company bringing products into the connected device / IoT space should investigate and brainstorm around these 3 methods in which customers can interact with their devices. Doing this against a Customer Journey framework and using Service Design tools can provide stronger framing to a discussion.

These interaction points must be looked at in context of the users need, across different device touch-points to fully understand the context and determine the best way of solving the users need through the appropriate interaction. Ensuring your product is not overly complex to set up or use, and that the value will always outweigh the pain of having new technology in a previously non-connected product will assist in uptake and extension of a connected product.