By Dries de Roeck
The ThingsCon report The State of Responsible IoT is an annual collection of essays by experts from the ThingsCon community. With the Riot Report 2018 we want to investigate the current state of responsible IoT. In this report we explore observations, questions, concerns and hopes from practitioners and researchers alike. The authors share the challenges and opportunities they perceive right now for the development of an IoT that serves us all, based on their experiences in the field. The report presents a variety of differing opinions and experiences across the technological, regional, social, philosophical domains the IoT touches upon. You can read all essays as a Medium publication and learn more at thingscon.com.
“It’s a sin with no name
Like a hand in a flame
And our senses proclaim
It’s a dangerous game.”
— Jekyll and Hyde.
As part of last year’s thingscon RIOT report, I wrote about IoT design processes¹. The central conclusion made was the lack of (conscious) human centred design approaches in IoT startups, where a technology-first approach is still very dominant. This year, I would like to dig a little deeper and touch upon the somewhat ambiguous term ‘value’, which is — in its many forms and nuanced appearances — always part of a design process at some point. I believe thinking about value can help a lot in becoming more conscious about how a more humane internet of things can be framed and understood.
Your value isn’t mine
The ambiguity around ‘value’ is mostly built upon the very diverse interpretations given to it. Suppose that you’d put a sociologist, a marketeer, a psychologist, a computer scientists and an economist in the same room it should be no surprise that they’d each give a very different definition of ‘value’ from their perspective. In general, I believe there are three larger clusters of value to be introduced. I very much approach these from a product or service perspective, which generates a flurry of different types of value.
This is all about what the stakeholders involved in using a product or service perceive. These values are very emotionally driven and are hard to quantify. It is about the ‘feeling’ something gives you when using it. In a publication on this topic, Irene Ng² talks about ‘Phenomenal’ (P) versus ‘Access’ (A) value, where P-type value focusses on conscious and measurable experiences and A-type value is about the ‘heightened awareness’ or our personal perception of something we experience. When it comes to designing IoT products and services, it obviously is very hard to design for something that every person can perceive or experience differently. Nevertheless, elements such as perceived quality (material quality and/or service quality), transparency about data collection and usage, agency and openness in product usage and personalisation can all have a significant impact on the values delivered to all involved stakeholders.
To illustrate this with an example, PLEQ is an internet connected sensor used for predictive maintenance systems. PLEQ allows ‘upgrading’ older machinery by adding a sensor box to it which monitors anomalies in machine behaviours (primarily using vibration detection). It is the type of hardware that is hidden and is monitored mainly via software systems. However, once these sensors were introduced to the market, the users asked for more visible sensor boxes (brightly coloured, perhaps not in ‘just’ a square box). The reason behind this was that the companies using the product wanted to be able to show to their clients visiting their warehouses or production halls that their machines were being monitored by this IoT system. However blunt, this example does show that user value should be taken seriously from the start.
The second type of value is societal, which is again harder to quantify and sits more on the human values side. It is, however, different because societal value relates to a group of people (or a culture). Related to IoT, a product might not impact you directly — but might substantially impact society. An example of this is the UK based flood.network, which is a service focused on reporting floods throughout the country. A distributed network of privately owned and maintained sensors keeps track of the water level around the country. When aggregating all data points, trends in data can be spotted and local communities can be warned about imminent floods or risks thereof. Interestingly, this only works because multiple people collaborate. One sensor on its own doesn’t really do much, which means that by investing in the flood network there are societal values at play. Let’s not forget that societal value can also be impacted negatively, and IoT might (unfortunately) be very good at doing so. An inherent characteristic of IoT is that it uses a digital medium by default, implying that having access to this medium is essential. In many cases, a large slice of society is left out of IoT products and services because of not being able to access it in the first place. Examples such as the internet connected urban participation pavilion do bridge this gap, by providing a way to interact with a digital system for everyone.
The third type of value is company value, which should be regarded as a more quantifiable type of value. It very much ties in to the ‘hard factors’ like cost, revenue and overall business model related to a product or service. Another aspect to company value, specific to internet of things products, are less tangible ‘assets’ which can be gained. Typically this is about gathering data coming from a device (through sensors) or some kind of user monitoring. Gathering this data has its potential, but can very quickly end up being abused or misused. Sometimes this abuse is conscious, in other cases it may not be intentional or even truly clear, but collecting data can have a nasty side. On the other hand, the premise of data gathering about the usage of a product or service is to develop a stronger relationship between companies and clients and build a two way conversation using the product or service as a mediator. One of the true strengths of an IoT product is that companies can change a product’s behaviour after it has been launched. The schoolbook example thereof is the Tesla car, which constantly updates its GUI based on user interaction and feedback. Doing so, Tesla can push novel features and other updates to the car based on (amongst others) gathered user data. In this case, the gathered user data increases company value. How it impacts user value depends on the case.
All of these types of value are in constant interplay with each other. Interestingly, there is no one-to-one relationship between the different types of value involved: Focussing on generating company value doesn’t necessarily lead to negative impact on societal or human values or vice versa. It is essential to note that the before-mentioned types of value and values are not at all exclusive to design and development in an IoT context. What is, however, very specific to IoT development is that technology is thrown into the mix. Technology has the capability to impact value in a hidden way. For instance, data can be gathered from a device and used by a company to increase a product’s company value. In many cases, the people using that product are either not aware how their data is used, or they have no (direct) access to this data at all. If they ‘found out’ or if a data breach occurred it would negatively impact the perceived human value that this product delivers. On the other hand, if a company included a sensor to enhance the end user experience (thus increasing perceived human values) but neglects the impact on the company’s cost structure, one could argue that the focus on human values impacts company value negatively: The company might end up with a happy customer but doesn’t necessarily have a viable product.
While there is nothing really new to this thinking, technology is making it more difficult for people in design and development to be fully aware of the impact design choices have on the ‘invisible’, technological, parts of a product or service.
Impacting value through IoT
Knowing that these values are constantly at play, not only during the design process but also when an IoT product is used, is one thing. But how to impact them, or at least take informed decisions during the design process? To do so, there are three aspects to the internet of things that can be helpful and should be considered when defining an IoT concept.
IoT allows to combine data across diverse sectors. This has the premise to open up a design space for radically novel ideas. When defining these ideas, it is important to constantly have a very broad view on how the product or service being created relates to other sectors or other technologies. In a design and development team, this means that organisations should be aware and offer flexibility to reach out to industries which might seem very unrelated in the beginning. In literature, these activities are referred to as ‘boundary spanning’, which is by definition a very open and unstructured activity.³ Boundary spanning related work is not necessarily required for conceptualising an IoT product, but by considering unrelated market sectors it becomes possible to have a much larger impact on different types of value.
The premise of designing an IoT product is by adding a digital component to a product, its perceived human value will go up as well as its measurable company value. In reality, we should be very wary about this. Firstly, just by adding a digital component to a product it won’t automatically become an IoT product. There are specific characteristics to take into account which need to be consciously considered during the design and development process. An example of this is Alexandra Deschamp-Sonsino’s Litmus Test for the IoT which hints towards several of such categories. Secondly, in current practice, digital technology is too often considered the driving force of a digitally connected product or service. Adding more technology shouldn’t be the goal. Instead we should strive to find ways to get inspired by the ‘value opportunities’ digital components can offer from a human and company perspective. In both cases, responsibility and awareness play a central role.
A last element very specific to IoT design is to consciously consider future product or service changes over time and the implications on human, company and societal value thereof. An IoT design and development team should be prepared and open for ever-changing functions and be willing to revisit the underlying value propositions of the product. When working on future implications of a product, reflections are made on how an internet connected product can evolve over time. This type of design work is typically done in future forecasting projects (i.e. by setting out scenarios in the short or long term), and has the intention to be divergent instead of convergent. However challenging, this activity is important because it allows and forces a design team to point out the spectrum of possibilities a product or service might hold over time. This ‘future implications’ work should be done during the ideation process, as part of a concept definition and not as something which is done after a product launch. Defining future implications could eventually become part of a product launch strategy, where not all product functions are implemented or included — deliberately — leaving flexibility for the organisation to figure out how their offering can be adapted to better match the market.
Work in progress: a visual consolidation of this value framework for IoT.
tl;dr: Be explicit
In order to understand value better, it is important to understand and be clear about the intended actions of a product. A helpful way to be explicit is by at least knowing which elements play part in the designed system:
- Which people interact with objects, which objects interact with other objects
- What type(s) of interaction are used? Are they hardware based, or do they solely rely on data?
- Are there objects that interact between each other by sharing data or aggregating data from linked sources?
- In which context or environment does all of this take place, what is the role of this environment?
Getting insight into this interlinked, underlying system of interactions was the spark that led up to creating the IoT ideation card deck. It helps in structuring and communicating about network connected product service systems by offering a personalisable deck of cards to build system maps. This tool is for sure not the holy grail, but it does support diverse design and development teams in taking more conscious design decisions.
A reaction often encountered when presenting a tool like the IoT ideation cards is that it takes long and merely states the obvious. The case I would argue for is that taking the time and stating the obvious might as well be what our industry needs in order to consciously design the responsible IoT we’re all trying to contribute to.
This thinking luckily didn’t just sprout randomly out of my own brain. Thanks Pieter, Alexis, Ingrid, Karin, Albrecht, Alex, Iskander, Laura, Nathalie, Nik, Peter, Simon, Simone, Sören, Elisa and Iohanna for challenging and helping me in understanding all of this better.
(1) Dries De Roeck, (2017), On IoT Design Processes, Thingscon RIOT report
(2) Irene CL Ng, Laura A Smith, Stephen L Vargo, (2012), An integrative framework of value
(3) Susan E. Reid and Ulrike de Brentani, (2004), The Fuzzy Front End of New Product Development for Discontinuous Innovations: A Theoretical Model.
Dries is a designer, researcher and leads all things research at the creative agency Studio Dott (Belgium). In his research work, he questions how design processes change when digital and physical products become increasingly intertwined. He is the creator of the IOT ideation cards and sporadically hosts local Thingscon events.
ThingsCon is a global community & event platform for IoT practitioners. Our mission is to foster the creation of a human-centric & responsible Internet of Things (IoT). With our events, research, publications and other initiatives — like the Trustable Tech mark for IoT — we aim to provide practitioners with an open environment for reflection & collaborative action. Learn more at thingscon.com
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