The Internet of Things will be built on a base-layer of Internet-connected “Smart Objects”. However, there is a growing discomfort among individual users about being surrounded by Objects that collect information and then send it to who knows where to be shared with who knows who to be used for who knows what. There is growing alarm about Objects being used to spy on people, about smart home and smart car technology being hacked for break-ins and hijackings. Could somebody hack my smart thermostat data to identify when my house is unoccupied? Could somebody remotely lock me into my driverless car and kidnap me? With lots of Internet scare stories about strangers shouting out of web-connected baby-monitors and implanted medical devices being taken over remotely, such discomfort and alarm are very understandable.
As technologists, we perhaps tend to think that technology is a sufficient end in itself – that using technology to do something interesting or make something new is enough. However, for the Internet of Things to work, we need to go a few steps further: we need to ask ourselves questions such as “How can I reassure the user that this Object is safe and secure to use?”, “How can I make my Object so Enchanting that the user is happy to accept the added risk of having an Internet-connected Object in their lives”? People are happy to accept that their computers and phones are connected to the Internet but anti-virus and firewall software acts as a “comfort blanket” . Such a comfort blanket is not, however, available with many Objects.
How do we overcome these concerns? The first step is to ensure that the Object adds real value to the user’s life – this could be in terms of its practical functionality, its ease of use, its personal benefit or its aesthetics but, ideally, all four. All Objects will have functionality but we technologists again need to look beyond this. The withdrawn Google Glass could be viewed as having good functionality and relatively good ease-of-use but poor aesthetics and, as all too readily-identifiable Glass public users faced growing hostility, the opposite of personal benefit. If an Object can hit all four areas of value, the user is more likely to be interested in being convinced how we technologists have made the Object private, safe and secure to use. With HealthKit, as with many of their products, Apple hit functionality, personal benefit, ease of use and aesthetics but users still had many concerns about data privacy and security and Apple have been taking urgent action to reassure users.
It’s a very big challenge for Object designers: functionality, ease of use, personal benefit and aesthetics PLUS privacy, security and safety – and all of these across the many different application domains for the IoT. This is why phrases like “User Experience (UX)” and “Human Centred Design” are increasingly being heard in IoT discussions. In the Nimbus Centre where I work, our Smart Object development teams always include different varieties of technologist but may also include application domain experts, users, creative designers, UX designers, psychologists and sociologists. As technology specialists, we can’t hope to be expert in all of these topics but we do need to at least understand the importance of taking their influence into account in the Object design process and reach out for expert help as needed.