Product Design & IoT: Is invisibility the key to success?

If you spend a percentage of your working day reading press release detailing the latest Internet of Things (IoT) devices (as I do), you start to notice common themes.

If I had to condense down the last year or so, I’ve noticed an aesthetic shift in many of these devices. We’ve not talking particular styles or design themes, but rather that the most impressive products have started to move away from the “I AM AN INTERNET CONNECTED DEVICE” to something far more subtle.

With IoT products, people interact with software instead of hardware. How is this impacting design?

The camera that doesn’t look like a camera

While speaking to an IoT security-focused design executive recently, we talked about how his team’s first product doesn’t really look like a camera, rather an object that serves an unclear purpose. This struck me as interesting.

Then he pointed out that the user’s interaction with that device isn’t as physical as it would be with a traditional hardware product. He said “You don’t really interact with the device itself after you’ve set it up. From that point onwards, all of your interaction is with the app on your phone.”

That got me thinking.

As the IoT market expands and grows, it’s going to change how users look at the products they buy. It will quickly move from the technology-led buy to the greater market where consumers are looking to solve a specific issue. That’s why the design needs to become less shouty, fading into the background and become barely noticeable.

I’m sure many readers of this blog have read Don Norman’s Invisible Computer (if you haven’t, put it on your reading list). In that book, Norman says that for technology to become truly usable, it needs to transition from being a “technology solution”’ to a “product”. One passage that resonates is this: “As the technology matures, it becomes less and less relevant. The technology is taken for granted. Now, new customers enter the marketplace, customers who are not captivated by technology, but who instead want reliability, convenience, no fuss or bother, and low cost.”

Consider this in the context of the security device we discussed earlier. This is an internet-connected camera that sits in your home and is permanently on, recording everything within its field of view. It’s pitched as a device that gives you peace of mind when you're away from your home, giving you alerts about any intruders, as well as monitoring air quality.

Now, if I was to bring in a traditional CCTV camera, connect it to your home Wi-Fi and tell you that it was permanently recording your every move, chances are you’d find that more than a little bit creepy.

Image: By Hustvedt

What differentiates this IoT device in particular from this Orwellian surveillance is that the conversation around is about security in the home and the simple fact that the device disappears into the background. That’s good design, according to the brief.

A good-looking wallflower

The same executive also brought up something that I found fascinating. “A guiding principle for us was that it needed to be a beautiful product,” he said.  “It wasn’t the case that we worked out the tech and then worked out what plastic we could wrap around it, which is how a lot of connected devices are designed. This was never going to be a purely functional product.”

When you look at the process of product design for IoT and in particularly objects that are intended to be used in the home environment, this is fundamental. They can’t be purely functional, but rather than need to fit into the home or at least, not cause a jarring juxtaposition.

So how does all of this influence the way you design? In short, you’ll need to continue to play with both form and function. You’ll also need to be able to make edits to the electronics component systems to get them into a state that moves you away from the pure functional. At the same time, you’ll need to play with aesthetic form while working within the confines of neat packaging and delivering a robust and solid end result.

[Ed. Find out more about how the Internet of Things impacts you. Attend LiveWorx 2016, June 6-9 in Boston and learn how to streamline product development today and design smarter things tomorrow.]

Al Dean is Editor-in-Chief of DEVELOP3D Magazine ( This blog post is paid for by PTC. The concepts, ideas, and positions of this post have been developed independently by Al Dean.