Growing the Internet of Things, part 2: Ease of use

December 5, 2016 OpenSystems Media

What will it take to really grow the Internet of Things (IoT)? The answer is complex and multifaceted, and we have to consider the following areas:

  • Cost
  • Ease of use
  • Interoperability
  • Future proofing
  • Security

In part 1, I addressed the issue of Cost in the IoT for consumers using connected LED light bulbs as an example, and citing factors such as Moore’s Law, integrated system on chips (SoCs), and economies of scale, determined that connected products currently driven by early adopters will become increasingly affordable for the average home user. Now, I turn the conversation to the next big challenge facing the growth of IoT: Ease of Use.

Ease of use is a broad topic and often problematic for connected devices. We do not intend to connect all the devices in the home and require a new home IT specialist to keep the devices and system running. Often in our rush to add connectivity, we target early adopters who are willing to live with a certain amount of pain and suffering in using and managing their connected devices. This early adopter experience then slows adoption as the broader market concludes connected devices are too hard to use.

From an ease of use standpoint in the consumer market, let’s cover the following specific areas:

  • Consumer expectations for device reliability
  • Simple to add and remove devices (including replacing them)
  • Simple to pair devices and change end user behavior
  • Device responsiveness during operation

This is quite a list, so let’s dive into each topic and look at some of the simple things we have seen in use cases or the market.

  1. Device reliability – This is one of the hardest issues to address, and yet it seems so simple to resolve. We are generally numb to dropped cell phone connections or having poor Wi-Fi connectivity to our devices. We accept this device behavior and change our own behavior (by moving to get better connectivity) to adapt. The IoT devices in our home cannot move to establish better connectivity. The consumer expectation of bulb behavior when a light switch is toggled on and off is rather simple – it must work every single time. A thermostat has to function all day, every single day. It seems very basic, but reliability cannot be overlooked in trying to add connectivity.
  2. Responsiveness from devices during operation – Lighting provides the best metrics for device responsiveness. If a light does not change state in ~100 milliseconds, then the end user will toggle the switch again. This was a trap for those putting device controls through a cloud interface, resulting in increased time lag from switch to bulb when the Internet was slow (or no response if it was down). A noticeable time lag on human interaction tends to lead to customer returns or complaints.
  3. Adding devices – My simple question is how many people in your house can change a light bulb today? It sounds trivial, but what happens if your mom can no longer change a bulb without “help from IT”? Today’s new LED bubs have longer life spans so we change them less often, but there is a wide divergence from early adopters who are often very technically adept and the broader market that may not be. We now hear of end users struggling for an hour trying to get a connected bulb to pair with their gateway. If this ease of use challenge is not addressed in the design of connected devices, then the IoT market is going to be limited.
  4. Pairing devices and changing behavior – When I install a traditional bulb today, there is not much question how it will function (e.g., the hard-wired switch in place still controls the light). With a connected device, I now have the ability to pair it to a different switch, group devices together, link my lights’ behavior to other inputs such as motions sensors or door locks, or put the lighting on time-dependent behavior. That all sounds great, but it opens up a whole new range of user controls through interfaces known as “if this then that” (IFTTT). This is another area of great divergence between broader market users and early adopters who happily discuss different IFTTT interfaces and wizards.

Next up: Interoperability.

Skip Ashton is Vice President of Software at Silicon Labs.

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Skip Ashton, Silicon Labs
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