Ideation & the Internet of Things

ThingsConAMS workshop report — by Dries de Roeck and Ricardo Brito

Designing for IoT is messy. In current practice there’s a lack of proper methods and processes that cover different project stages. Since IoT has been around for many years on the industrial ‘M2M’ level, there are plenty of technical resources. On a Design level, however, we are still figuring out how to approach IoT, which processes to use, what questions to ask and which tools to use in order to create feasible and engaging internet connected products.

Experiencing this first hand in different projects, Ricardo Brito (futurice.com) and Dries De Roeck (studiodott.be) have been, independently, creating and shaping tools that can enhance and guide the design of IoT projects in a real world context.

During a previous Thingscon event, Ricardo and Dries realised that the tools they have been creating could be combined in order to complement each other and support different design stages. After a short test run, the idea sprouted to start working towards a joint workshop session, and understand the actual potential.

Thingscon Amsterdam was the perfect setting to try-out this ‘ultimate IoT tool mashup’. Throughout the workshop session, groups of 4–5 people experienced this somewhat experimental process hands on. During the workshop, the participating groups first came up with a problem statement. Following from there, they defined and visualised a solution to the defined problem.

The Tools

The IoT Service Kit by Futurice is an open-source tool to ideate, map and create services that merges physical and digital interactions.

The IoT Ideation Cards by Studio Dott and Know Cards enable mapping and defining system components that compose IoT products and services.

The designer and the engineer

The relationship between technology and design is not always an easy one. Going beyond software and adding connected hardware to the mix makes things even more difficult. IoT can be very abstract and technical, making it difficult for projects stakeholders to have a common understanding about a concept. The success of a service that involves an IoT related technology is based on a fine balance between technological possibilities and great user experience. In order to achieve this balance, Engineering and Design need to be aligned, speak the same language and understand and contribute to each other’s disciplines. Therefore, more than ever, collaboration between tech and design is essential.

We don’t want to end up with things like this…

IoT is about designing systems

A crucial understanding when design IoT products, is that you are designing a system. This system consists of an interplay between people, objects and environments. The difficult thing to keep track of in an IoT context, is the actions that happen on a physical and digital level. This is even more so during the early phases of a design process, when a lot of design decisions are uncertain and a lot can change. Being able to visualise both digital as physical components is essential to keep a design and development team on the same page. This is exactly where the IoT Ideation Cards support creative teams. By thinking about IoT products as systems, you become wary of the larger picture that is needed to create an internet connected product. This allows creative teams to be more conscious of the product they are making, which indirectly contributes to a more responsible internet of things.

The workshop progress

During Thingscon Amsterdam, Ricardo and Dries organised two workshops. During each workshop, five team teams of four to six people got the opportunity to try out both the IoT service kit and IoT ideation cards. Each workshop session consisted of three parts:

Problem definition

In a real project context, the problem space is often very well defined. For instance, this can be based on own analysis, existing client brief or business opportunity. However, in this workshop setting, we used several random elements to come up with a problem statement.

IoT Service Kit story creation

In order to flesh out the problem statement, the IoT service kit was used to create an underlying story and facilitate the service development to solve it. With the IoT Service Kit participants were able to create a full user journey through and create a story around the service.

IoT Ideation cards system mapping

Once story was created, the IoT ideation cards were used to synthesise the resulting IoT system. This means that cards were created for all persons, objects and environments that are part of the generated concept.

Concluding every workshop, each participating team pitched their developed idea. This allowed everyone to give feedback on how the tools were used and where improvements could be made.

Take aways

Doing a workshop like this is a learning moment not only for the participants, but for the workshop hosts as well. Some highlights and working points:

  • Both tools were complimenting each other better than expected. Although the two tools were introduced separately, it was very nice to see that they were used together. In several cases, tools were used back and forth and elements of each tool were combined in novel ways.
  • Artificial problem statements set wrong expectations. Looking back, it would have made more sense to start with a real framed problem or business idea.In an educational workshop works better if you provide a briefing that includes a physical space, a persona and a problem to solve.
  • Cards, cards too many cards. Both tools used consist of quite some cards, which quickly became quite messy. When the used toolkits are to be used together more often in the future, this needs to be better aligned.
  • Diverging and converging. Focusing on the big picture is great as you can create a full user journey for a connected experience and have a hawk-eye view on the service. This is what the IoT service kit turned out to be great at. But is when you start mapping the network and the system behind that you will have the full picture of how many things are interconnected and can be used to enhance your previous ideas, which is what the IoT ideation cards managed very well.

Overall, these workshops were very fun and insightful to run. Looking back from an organiser perspective, both workshops were immediately ‘sold out’ — which indicates there is a need from the community related to tools and methods for IoT conceptualisation.

If you want to find out more, get in touch with Ricardo and Dries!

Ricardo Brito — Futurice — @toastedric
Dries De Roeck — Studio Dott  @driesderoeck