The Internet of Things for mere mortals

2012-04-25 | 15-03-05

As we steer toward a future in which all our objects and environments are connected, we will eventually find ourselves living a technologist’s dream where everything is part of a network. But how will people experience and interact with this? Will users see it as a logical step in the evolution of the World Wide Web, or is it going to be understood as something radically different from anything we have seen before? Is this the beginning of a new era? Perhaps. But let’s not kid ourselves. The technology industry, after all, is in the business of optimism. There is a solid belief that as it constantly demonstrates to customers how technologically and functionally state-of-the-art its products are, the value of their applications will be self-explanatory. When groundbreaking technology is developed, it’s simply a question of creating enough hype and ensuring the packaging is right. That’s bound to create mass demand, isn’t it? There are many valuable and often quite amusing insights to be gained from the history of technological fiascos, but one of the main reasons that products flop is the industry’s inability to imagine how they might fit into real life. There is a lesson to learn here: the industry needs to understand what it’s like to be an end user, and the key to that understanding is empathy.

Technology only part of the equation
The technology has to be shaped into something people understand, like, want and enjoy. People already know quite a lot about the technologies they use, but our perceptions and behaviors are very much decided by our emotions – which, in turn, are affected by many different things: for example, comprehension, physical and social context, trust or control.

In one of our studies, focusing on usability issues in handling and managing several wireless networked devices, the participants were asked if they could explain what a wireless network was. The study took place in Sweden, so it was expected that most of the participants knew what a wireless network was. However, when asked, none of the participants actually explained their Wi-Fi networks by describing any of the characteristics of a network. The participants’ definition of a wireless network was that it is something that connects something else to the internet. People casually defined a wireless network as a replacement for a cable. This means that “network” has gained the somewhat simplified connotation of a series of a-to-b connections, rather than a web of numerous, simultaneous many-to-many interconnections.

Making users aware
This didn’t affect the participants’ ability to use their Wi-Fi networks. But the mental model of a-to-b connections became an obstacle that effectively meant the participants were unable to understand more complex network effects.

People understand a new thing by looking for a previously existing thing that is close enough in terms of usage, form and function to be seen as its predecessor. Most people regard making voice calls as a modern smartphone’s obvious main function – even people who use it exclusively for text messaging, playing games, accessing a variety of applications or browsing the web. That is how strong the connection is to its analog ancestor, the telephone. The same logic applies to people who view their wireless networks as a series of invisible cables: before we had wires; now we use Wi-Fi networks.

Looking ahead, if we keep in mind how analog ancestors and mental models affect people’s understanding, the term “Internet of Things” become a little misguiding. The term itself make us think of what we know of the Internet. Is Internet of Things the same as “things with internet” and/or “internet with things in it”? It is common to use the terms World Wide Web and the Internet interchangeably, is the “Internet of Things” then something like “things with web pages, links, e-mail and Twitter accounts”? These descriptions fit many of the connected gadgets that we see today, but it gives no effective intuitive understanding of the implications of, and opportunities afforded by, a web of billions of connected physical or intangible, visible or invisible, always online and real-time interrelated devices, sensors, services, environments, places, objects and users.

Perception matters
What’s the big deal, you may ask? Is it not so that simplicity is in fact a good thing when we talk about usability and user interaction? Well, yes and no. It depends. For the Wi-Fi networks in our homes today, the metaphor of invisible wires is fine. But for a future scenario where we have billions of networked things, this simplified understanding becomes a limitation that has to be considered by anyone who wants to design useful and usable systems and services for an Internet of Things. Why? Because its true power is to be found in the core characteristics of the network as such, and the opportunities that these core characteristics enable are currently hidden.

And this is not only true for the individuals who are the so-called “users.” Businesses are people too in the end, and even professionals with expertise in infrastructure business models and network technologies apply the simplified mental model when they switch from thinking as professionals to thinking as users. It is not a contradiction to have one understanding when thinking about something as an abstract concept, and then to use the metaphors inherited from its analog ancestors when experiencing the concept as a user. The point is that while the abstract understanding of a network helps engineers and software developers to create systems and technology, as soon as the same people start to think about real-world usage scenarios they fall back on the simplified mental model of a network. This makes it harder to communicate what the technology is capable of and limits people’s imagination; and as a result it may prevent innovation.

New paradigm needed
The Internet of Things needs new interaction paradigms that makes it easy to see that the power is not in any of the single connections, but in the totality of interconnections.

There are other concepts that have gone through transformational leaps in their evolution. The personal computer for example. The PC evolved into a technological as well as a social revolution, not to mention a new global market. What really kicked off the success of the PC was the insight that the key was a better user experience. The introduction of the graphical user interface and the mouse transformed the personal computer into something usable, understandable and eventually extremely popular.

Whatever the emerging Internet of Things turns out to be, to me it currently seems to be at as at a stage of conceptual clarity and user-friendlyness analogous to the early PCs with command-line interfaces. Imagine what it could mean if someone came up with something that is to the Internet of Things what the graphical user interface is to the PC. Pair that “something” with open APIs for everything and it would really catapult us into a networked society.


This is an edited version of the article “The Internet of Things in the Eyes of the Users” previously published in Ericsson Business Review #3 2010.

Photo by Joakim Formo, found on flickr.

Written by Joakim Formo

Joakim expedites inter-foci multiplex strategic design projects that intermingle human behaviour, sustainable futures and emerging technologies.

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