I don’t know about you, but I am excited about the coming Internet of Things; it channels my inner geek. Recently though, a few of the examples of its smart, connected devices have reminded me just how good we humans are at finding solutions to small, or even non-existent, problems. You know, technological overkill.
Encounters with the Frivolous
The catalyst for this article was a post from a friend on Google+, who was questioning a new slew of smart, connected baby devices: smart bottle holders for weighing the amount of liquid before and after a feeding, smart pacifiers for tracking an infant’s temperature – you get the idea. Hmm… yeah, I guess these might be useful. I could imagine scenarios where these things might be handy; but honestly, it feels like a stretch.
To clarify, I’m the kind of person for whom most tech companies would check the “enthusiast” field in their Customer Relationship Management database. I love tech.
In fact, if you promise not to judge me, I’ll let you in on a little secret: over the holidays, I even got my wife a kitchen scale designed to connect with our iPad. Finally – a connected kitchen appliance for “digital baking!” Boy, did she need that.
Well, actually, it turns out that she didn’t really need that. I had allowed the prospect of finding something fun and unusual for her to temporarily block the neurons in my brain that would normally have told me that a kitchen scale probably isn’t all that improved by connecting it to an iPad.
And so, boom! – back to the Apple Store it went.
(In fairness, I actually could imagine a device like this one proving itself useful in the kitchen, even if this particular manufacturer had completely missed the mark. Here are some more detailed thoughts on why.)
Right around this same time, my wife faired a bit better on her vicarious journey into the Internet of Things, with her gift for me: the new moto 360, Android smart watch. After a couple of weeks using it, this watch is still a bit of a head-scratcher for me. Do I really need it? Nope, and that, along with its coolness, is what marks this little guy as an edge case in the Internet of Frivolous Things.
The watch sends little notifications of tweets and posts on Facebook and Google+, though I’ll probably only leave that distraction up for a few more days. The weather notices are somewhat useful, as are the turn-by-turn driving directions fed from my phone, even though they’re a bit redundant in a car where you can clearly hear Google Map’s voice-based prompts. I could see this being more useful on bike, however. The step counting and heart rate monitoring are a little awkward, compared to comparable dedicated devices. So, for me, the best feature has proven to be replying to text messages by just speaking into my watch. Geeky? Yep. But actually is useful.
I’m sticking with the watch for now because I have this sense that, eventually, we will make something like this work reasonably well. The moto 360 is actually surprisingly close. As with all these kinds of devices, the real question is whether they truly warrant the extra psychic overhead of managing yet another device – especially a wearable one that features prominently in the way others see us.
Bad Design on the Internet of Things
New-fangled devices now being designed at the dawn of the Internet of Things will be poorly designed for one of two, avoidable reasons.
The first calls to mind the release of the world’s first desktop publishing software in 1985; both the wonderful creativity it unleashed – as well as the deluge of horrendously designed amateur newsletters. Uncle Ben was right in his parting advice to Peter Parker; for sometimes, the responsibility of good design can lag considerably behind the great power of our technological prowess. We sprinkled our documents with all manner of fonts and colors because we could, just as we will surely attach all manner of beeps and data tracking to our kettles, shoes and pens just because we can. Eventually, we will learn to ask whether we should.
The second cause of bad design in the coming Internet of Things will center on the question of frivolity. Will we stand there, frenetically wielding oversized mallets, an over-sized game of Whac-A-Mole, the relentless taunts of mechanical moles, our consumer micro-problems, which we hope to smash with the latest gizmos? Or will we be more discriminating? Do we really need that temperature-monitoring pacifier? Or did some young entrepreneur just temporarily fool investors into thinking it was actually an idea good enough to actually survive past its initial nine months the market?
Perhaps I am being unfair to this new pacifier, but my experience with that kitchen scale has made me ask:
“Do we truly need to solve this particular problem?”
This is the question that best describes the second, and more serious, source of bad design in the coming Internet of Things, and it leads us to some important lessons about the nature of value creation in business.
Being of Service … with Things
Companies create value by organizing themselves around not just customer satisfaction, but customer success. The ones that really understand what their customers hope to achieve by using a product or service think in terms of customer outcomes. They get what it means to fulfill a customer mission.
Companies that know how to serve a customer mission see through the technology to the core of what’s really valuable. They don’t use cutting-edge sensors or cloud services to build crappy products. Instead, they focus on the quintessence, or fifth element, of a product or service; the deeper value embedded within.
I believe we are on our way to an economy that teems with this kind of possibility, an economy of meaning, purpose and service, and I believe that the Internet of Things will play a critical role in getting us there.
But in the meantime, clear out your closets as the inevitable resting place for the coming raft of smart kitchen scales, baby bottle holders and other clunkers. For on our way to a truly beneficial Internet of Things, we seem destined to first make a stop at the Internet of Frivolous Things.