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Expectations from the Internet of Things (IoT) are very high, and rightly so. One trillion connected devices are expected to be in use by 2020, and worldwide IoT spending is projected to hit a trillion dollars by 2022. However, as of today, IoT’s adoption levels and return on investment (ROI) are lower than many projections. We believe this is because many businesses and individual buyers do not realize the promised benefits or expected value of IoT.

Drilling down further, we see that too many IoT solutions today are being designed without sufficient focus on human experiences. Merely articulating the principle of basing design on human needs — but not practicing that ethic when developing industrial IoT (IIoT) solutions — will eventually lead to underwhelming outcomes.

Successful IIoT solutions inject human insight into the process of building things. We have worked on a range of projects to help consumer-facing and industrial companies conceive, design and develop human-centered technology and solutions at scale. Our approach aims to reduce adoption risk, decrease costly rework, improve productivity and compress development cycles. We call this “putting humans in the loop.”

How human insights matters for IoT

Organizations across industries are exploring how IoT solutions add value or lower cost, or both. Examples include sensors on packaging machines; hardware engineering and software-in-the-loop; and sensor-enabled manufacturing shop floors.

Every business has its own discrete, identifiable value chain. Every process improvement — including the design and implementation of IoT solutions — aims to optimize that value chain. In the insurance business, it’s underwriting or the claims process. And even in highly mechanical and automated processes, at every link in the value chain (from materials sourcing to manufacturing to sales and shipping and service delivery) there is a human in the loop.

Successful solution design, therefore, begins not with technology, but with an understanding of what we humans, as consumers, factory workers, repair agents, etc., want and need. Putting humans in the loop avoids creating technical solutions that people use under a mandate, instead of by choice. Moving from human insight to things helps create the internet of us.

Designing to meet human needs

Human experience must be at the core of design; it is important that the human experience of technology is simple, enjoyable and rewarding. But it is harder, we believe, to develop products in a way that meets this challenge. For this to happen, the one change that needs to be effected in product and solution development is the adoption of a tangible, analytical approach to product or solution conception, design and development that is anchored in rigorous research into actual human needs.

Which is why, when it comes to creating solutions for our clients, we apply the principles of human-centric design to identify unmet needs and opportunities. This can happen only by marrying data analysis with the measurable, qualitative insights derived from social and behavioral research into not only what users say they want, but also how they actually use products.

Human sciences are critical in the age of the algorithm

Consider the challenges of providing care to the elderly. What happens when an aging adult slips and falls, and there is no one to help? Or when biometrics signal an increased heart rate, the appearance of biomarkers like adrenaline, spikes in blood sugar, or high levels of enzymes that appear only when a patient is stressed?

Sensors that connect to IoT-enabled smart-home devices can send biometric data immediately to an approved caregiver, thus allowing them to deliver suggestions directly to emergency medical technicians. Such IoT solutions are now reducing the risk for aging adults with a range of conditions, while improving their quality of life.

This calls for reframing what the IoT needs to be doing: applying human insights to learn ways to build meaningful products. This approach places product design and development on the road to building the internet of us.

IIoT value drivers

When it comes to the industrial internet of things (IIoT), digital connectivity — sensors, cloud, algorithmic processing — provides more opportunities for intelligent design and engineering than ever. However, watching people interact with technology to learn from what they adopt and what they ignore is essential to realizing value. Following are a couple of examples:

  • Manufacturing plants: Connected across a global footprint, today’s industrial facilities allow for design and production changes on the fly at multiple sites as they adjust to rapidly changing customer needs. Information on decision-making extends from the C-suite to the factory floor and to the extended supply chain, combining for a value-add to customers that meets a real need.
  • Energy and utilities: Nuclear power plants have an exhaustive array of sensors to monitor operations, from the reactor core and control rods to pumps and generators to the lead and concrete skin that contains the reactor. These integrated IoT solutions process copious amounts of data. Computerized control software reacts to changes such as hot spots, pressure drops, and anomalies faster than human operators and mechanical equipment ever could, meeting a business need with enormous implications for people and communities.

IoT needs to be more human

The IoT doesn’t quite feel human enough yet. Following are some of the reasons:

  • There aren’t enough humans in the picture. The IoT has to work for people. For product designers and developers, the question is not “What can we do?” but “What will work best for people?”
  • Overpromising risks underwhelming results. Much of the conversation about IoT is driven more by imaginative rhetoric than practical reality. While grand conceptions inspire us, projects must be based on what will provide near- and long-term ROI.
  • Flavor of the day. Many IT and departmental executives focus on discrete projects so they can point to a successful IoT initiative, rather than focusing on the ways and means of increasing operational efficiency.
  • The IoT means different things to different people. The needs and wants of buyers should dictate project scope and product design.
  • The IoT introduces risks. For example, when loss of information flow across an organization cripples operations. Enterprises must work to connect, but must be able to work disconnected.
  • The importance of enchantment. Along with discovering what people say they need, and testing it to make sure it’s right, designers need to watch what people’s actions show they need, so people are delighted by what technology helps them do.

Accelerating innovation

There is a tremendous value proposition when design principles focus on improving the human experience. Its benefits include productivity improvements and the ability to command a market, charge premium prices and better retain customers. It also accelerates the velocity of innovation.

Human-centric design touches on the realm of humans as consumers and that of humans as makers. This is why IIoT’s best solutions put real people at the center, applying principles from the human sciences to establish how people think and work, what they say they want, and what their actions show they need. Common to both realms is the effort to build actionable intelligence based on data and connectivity.

To learn more, read “The Internet of Us: Why Human Experience Is Vital to Building Useful IoT Applications,” visit the Digital Business section of our website, or contact us.