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Several months passed before I got around to connect our Nest smart thermostat to the WiFi network. It is only then I really understood the power of connectedness for products. What used to be a moderately better, albeit well designed, thermostat transformed into an intelligent and accessible home comfort assistant that understood our preferences and patterns. Yes, there is some risk to letting Nest know and control some of the most critical aspects of your home, but the value you get once Nest is connected is worth the risk.

Connectedness was always a desired feature even when I was designing engines and car interiors 20 years ago. As a product designer who wouldn’t want to be able to understand how customers use the product, provide better customer support and continuously improve the product even when it is actively being used in the field. It just wasn’t possible or easy or cost effective. With almost universal availability of WiFi, Bluetooth and 3G/4G/LTE it is less of a problem now. Many product categories including, toys, fashion, medical devices, industrial machinery, autos, kitchen equipment, washing machines, etc. are candidates for connected products. If fact, any product worth more than 25 dollars and lasts more than a month is worthy of consideration for connectedness.

There are many worthy reasons for designing connected products. At the top is the ability to continuously improve products even when they are being used actively in the field. You do that almost on a monthly basis with iOS and Android (may be not so much) updates to your phone. The example of Tesla changing ground clearance to improve safety with an over-the-air software update is an amazing example and possibility of connected products.

The second reason would be to develop a sticky customer relationship. A non-connected product generally tends toward a transactional relationship with the customer. A connected product moves the customer towards a long-term relationship (at least through the life of the product and usually beyond) by sharing data and getting more value out of the data with the help of cloud services. For example, users of Fitbit usually get limited information from the fitness band itself. However, a connected Fitbit usually shares information with Fitbit’s cloud services so that the customer can get richer and insightful analysis. This sharing of information and the additional insight are the sources of sticky customer relationship that can last beyond a single product purchase.

Product designers can also obtain extremely valuable usage, performance and fault data from a connected product. Companies can use this information to improve products, understand what is important for customers and design even better products. In addition, actual usage and status information can be used to guide customers toward more optimal maintenance and service protocols to reduce total lifecycle cost.

Clearly, the case to develop connected products is compelling for product designers and companies. However, designers and companies should approach connected products with a fundamentally different design and lifecycle management strategy. The normal approach is one of designing and creating a product (even if it is made up of mechanical, electrical and software components) as a rigid object that is designed, manufactured, sold and forgotten. This approach is at odds with the key tenets of connected products.

Connected products require a product design and lifecycle management viewpoint that assumes that products are malleable and can be improved even when they are being actively used, can be reached with customers’ permission and that cloud services are an extension of the product itself. The design strategy then will modularize and parametrize (and add APIs) key capabilities, performance and components of the product so that they can modified/improved with software updates.

Additionally, the company needs to develop customer service and relationship management processes that can directly access the product via the network as well as have the capacity to leverage product’s historical performance and fault data, adjust maintenance and service recommendation processes that take into consideration actual use of the product and current status, predict likelihood of failure and take appropriate action, adjust supply chain and replenishment processes to use actual consumption of materials (ink, for example, in a printer), etc. In short, connected products force companies to rethink and reimagine how they design products and how they operate as a business to serve the customer.

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