Internet-connected devices that aren’t computers have been around since the early 80s, when a Pennsylvania university research team hooked a vending machine up to the internet to electronically report when it became empty.
From there, the entire concept of an interconnected network of household appliances was developed and is close to being realised in consumer reality.
But as this becomes the norm, the ability for different products from different suppliers to work together becomes crucial to our overall user experience. Here’s some background to the rise of the ‘internet of things’, a look at the many challenges UX designers have and a few practical things to remember when designing for digital assistants – the gatekeeper between you and a fully stocked fridge.
The term ‘internet of things’ was first coined in 1999, by Kevin Ashton of Procter and Gamble… well, sort of… He actually said “internet for things” as he was talking about using radio-frequency ID chips to keep track of stock.
His quote quickly evolved into what we now understand as the ‘internet of things’, a network that connected household items to allow them to work together without human input.
Cisco Systems believes this concept was actually realised in 2009, when it was estimated that there were more internet-connected devices than there were people using the internet. The idea is that the internet will end up being a tool for the devices we interact with to talk to each other, rather than something any of us use directly.
In other words, you take the last slice of cake from your fridge and your fridge registers that you’ve done this, logs onto your Ocado account and orders another cake. A robot working in the depot picks up a cake and passes it to a drone that takes it to your house and places it in your mailbox. A robot might then pick the cake up from your mailbox and place it in your fridge. There’s another slice of cake there for you tomorrow, but you never went online to get it.
We’re still a ways from this at the moment, but all this is starting to become a real possibility in the near future. Indeed, components of this are already in our homes.
Voice-activated digital assistants have become a common feature in most households over the last few years. According to Statista, more than 3 billion digital assistants were being used on devices last year, and the number of digital assistants is set to exceed the number of people alive on Earth by 2023.
Siri was a largely-unused option on iPhones for 10 years, but once Google and Amazon took the concept and put it in a speaker, they immediately found more utility.
The internet of things, however, is all about the interconnectivity of a range of devices. Google took this on board and made a device that was hooked up to mains power, so could constantly listen for commands. This means you can just say “OK Google, play a song”, which is a far simpler process than picking up your phone, unlocking it, opening your music app and pressing play.
Amazon’s Alexa devices take this even further by being connected to Amazon’s delivery service, meaning you can tell Alexa to order you a cake and one shall appear on your doorstep. Indeed, Alexa works with 85,000 devices from 7,500 brands and is being built into smart fridges, so you can order a cake from your fridge itself. It’s not quite stock-tracking yet, but this kind of functionality is on its way.
The issue, however, becomes one of old-school marketing getting in the way of the new order.
If you buy a Google Assistant (now Nest) device, it works with 30,000 products across 3,500 brands, but it’s far trickier to get it to order from Amazon. Also, since YouTube Music is the property of a company Google acquired, you’ve only recently become able to access your YouTube Music playlists from Google.
There’s a prescient novel by Australian author Max Barry called Jennifer Government. The novel predicts a world where you are required to change your last name to the name of the company you work for. The titular heroine is an agent of the drastically under-funded, privatised government, who no longer have the power to regulate mega-corporations. The oligarchy of the future sees two such corporations institute loyalty cards for customers. By the end of the novel, the corporations are offering cash to anyone who destroys a competitor’s loyalty card and mercenaries hired by the corporations to run this process are firing bazookas at each other across shopping centres. The novel is a comedy, of course, but it’s riffing on the very real, and very outdated rivalries that are holding companies back.
Even Google, perhaps the most-progressive company in the world right now, with all its open-source software and permitting other firms to make their own Android devices, are still fighting for loyalty.
Google want you using your network of Google Nests to control your TV with Chromecast to set it to play Google Stadia until your Android phone plays an alert from Google Calendar that it’s time to have a Google Hangouts call with your mum through your Chromebook laptop from the invite you sent her through Gmail so you can watch your favourite show together on YouTube Premium, and so on…
This kind of thinking however causes issues for your users. What if you have a Google Nest, but prefer Spotify to YouTube Music? What if you have an iPhone? What if you have a games console and only one HDMI socket on your TV?
Trying to force your customers to use your services by only making them compatible with each other is already something customers are getting annoyed with. Wanting to make their own choices about what devices they use and how they use them is exactly what turned tech-savvy users from Apple to open-source Google 10 years ago.
Going open source is a very good start. You may be keen to protect your code, but anyone with a valid chance of copying your product can likely do so without your help if they wanted to.
On the other hand, letting other developers code their products to be compatible with yours gives you instant marketing crossover. Wouldn’t it be great if every customer who bought a Google Nest and started looking at what it can do was immediately introduced to your service? If you use Google’s open-source code to make sure your device is completely compatible with theirs, they might make that happen.
On the other hand, smaller companies might well bring a small group of customers to your brand if you let them offer their service as a plug-in to yours. Make sure to publish a site with as much useful information as you can about making other services compatible and offer to work with other companies on their code.
Likewise, you can attend some of the collaboration events and webinars that Google runs for their partners to find out how to work with them or similar events for other services. Generally, however, there are a few things you can think about:
Different devices will have different capabilities. Is your service reliant on a digital compass, for example? Does your app run in a certain screen aspect that may not fit some phone’s screens? Is an important function hidden under a notch or overlay feature?
You need to ensure your service works with the latest version of any other software, but what about earlier versions? It’s best if you can make your service backwards compatible, but how far back do you go? You need to make a judgement about how many users on an old software version will be interested in your service, based on research.
Obviously Google Translate can provide cursory language options, but it’s often more complicated than that. Do you want to make your app work with kanji for integration into Japanese texting apps? Do you need to jump through hoops to keep your service on the right side of the Chinese government so it will integrate into WeChat?
In the war for digital-assistant domination, the winner will be the device that is compatible with the most services and is flexible enough to work with the largest range of user journeys.
Not to mention, the services that work on the largest range of digital-assistant devices will be the ones that see the most growth, particularly under current or future lockdown orders.
When building your service, take the time to make it compatible with Google, Alexa and even Siri. Don’t take sides, and whoever wins the digital-assistant battle, you’ll win too.