Smart devices that collect & use data in the real world could transform our lives—but first we’ve got to figure out how to actually use the darn things.

Hey, psst! I don’t mean to make you paranoid or anything, but I heard that all your smart devices have been talking with each other about you, behind your back…

You two-faced little mofos don’t fool me for one second…

Yes, the Internet of Things (IoT) is looming on the tech horizon, and with it, the promise of truly smart, internet-connected devices that collect—and in some cases, intelligently act upon—data from the real world. Many companies are investing some serious dollars into creating whole lines of IoT products, in a bid to capture a piece of this burgeoning market, which is expected to comprise 25 billion devices, and be worth a total $267 billion by 2020 (Boston Consulting Group, Winning in IoT).

While the naysayers (fairly) question the concrete benefits of, say, giving your fridge its own internet connection, the potential of IoT as a transformative technology is staggering, if yet unrealized. The ability for the devices that surround us to extract, share and analyze data from the world around them could radically change the way business is done in major industries like healthcare, architecture, shipping & logistics, and in particular, retail.

And yet, while new “smart” devices are already rolling out to consumers, somehow, signs of their imminent takeover aren’t so easy to find right now – there’s currently a significant gulf between the hype and the actual reality of IoT for the average person. According to an Accenture study, 87% of consumers don’t actually know what the Internet of Things is—and those few that do, don’t see the value of it (yet):

“The top barrier to mass adoption of this technology according to Acquity Group’s research is a lack of both awareness and value perception among consumers.” ~ Accenture, The Internet of Things: The Future of Consumer Adoption

So although the Internet of Things is undoubtedly chock full of potential, clearly, there are still significant hurdles for it to surmount before we’re all willing and able to control our surroundings with murmurs, gestures and smart automation, instead of touches, taps and swipes. But how can IoT product manufacturers get over these barriers to adoption? In this post, I’m going to look into what’s holding IoT back, and explain how good UX design can help grease the wheels for this new technology to fulfill its promise.

What’s holding IoT back from mainstream adoption?

How UX design can solve IoT’s adoption problems

What’s holding IoT back from mainstream adoption?

Before we plunge into exploring how UX can help drive the mass adoption of IoT, let’s first understand the barriers that must be broken down in order for it to gain real traction.

IoT has a perception problem

As in, it’s completely invisible to most people—which is ironic, given that virtually all of those consumers likely own at least one IoT device in the form of their smartphones, TVs, or even recent-model cars. And among those who are at least aware of the Internet of Things around them, only a small subset are clearly able to derive value from the current implementation of the technology:


In short, IoT is a solution looking for a mainstream problem—current consumer behavior and conscious desires don’t tightly align with the capabilities of today’s IoT devices.

“Imagine you had a house that could do whatever you wanted it to do? What would you change? Many people would say ‘more space’, a ‘bigger kitchen with nicer appliances’, ‘better furniture’ or ‘replace that ugly wallpaper.’ Very few people would say ‘I’d like to be able to control my lights with my smartphone.” ~ Ryan Borker on Quora

Security & trust are hard to find

In October 2016, internet infrastructure company Dyn experienced a massive DDoS attack that slowed large portions of the internet to a crawl. The attack was greatly amplified through the use of compromised IoT devices like security cameras, DVRs, and even printers, that were connected to the internet while still using factory-default login credentials for their internal firmware. Basically it was the online equivalent of leaving the keys in the front doors of half a million houses around the world. I know, facepalm, right?

This is what Dyn’s network looked like at the height of the October 2016 attack. Source:  Source: Image


While these device’s individual users are ever-so-slightly, technically to blame for this security oversight, the attack made it clear there was a glaring lack of sound cybersecurity practices designed into the setup processes for many IoT devices. The industry’s mainstream credibility suffered greatly due to this hack, and yet little has been done so far to prevent such an attack from happening again.

The devices are hard to set up and use together

Setting up and integrating a new IoT device into your current constellation of connected devices is a little like today’s version of building a new Ikea cabinet: users have to unbox several different pieces, then wrestle with complex setup instructions to get multiple different and sometimes-incompatible components working together harmoniously.


Your lights might be Philips Hue, your thermostat an EcoBee, your security cameras from Nest, and your front door locked by August—all premium IoT brands. But all it takes is an errant shadow to convince your camera that there’s an intruder in your home, causing your thermostat and lights to turn back on, but your deadbolt to stay tightly shut. In short, the user experience of these products combined isn’t quite delivering the magic just yet.

How UX design can solve IoT’s adoption problems

Much like how the advancement of website design helped power the adoption of the World Wide Web in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, the Internet of Things is at a similarly critical point in its evolution, where UX and product designers must step in and help connect end users with the promised value this technology can provide.

Here’s how we can do it.

Make the User a Badass

Most people don’t know or care what IoT is, but we need to start asking ourselves: why should they?

Are you watching closely? One of my favorite movies, The Prestige, contains a ton of great lessons about designing magical products.


Device manufacturers must realize that IoT is merely the facilitating technology that enables the magical user experience. Trying to put the phrase “Internet of Things” on consumers’ lips is like requiring them to know what a carburetor is, in order to drive the car you built.

Rather than simply provide users with enough features with which to hang themselves, we, the product designers, must teach them what the possibilities are with this technology, and lead them directly to the value. The way you get users to follow you on this journey, is by making them feel like a badass.

In her book Badass: Making Users Awesome, product design thought-leader Kathy Sierra explains how bestselling products gain traction by giving users superpowers through using the product—and in doing so, create sustainable demand from those users’ peers via word of mouth.


Badass: Making Users Awesome by Kathy Sierra at Mind the Product San Francisco from Mind the Product


According to Sierra, badass users exhibit several common traits:

  1. A desire to become awesome at… something—whatever wider context within which your product exists. In other words, I wouldn’t buy an internet-connected fridge just because it’s connected, I’d buy it because I want to make better, more conscious decisions about what I eat.
  2. They want visible results and progress—Sierra calls this “designing for the “Post-UX UX”; it’s making sure that the user gets to see and enjoy the results of using the product, after they’re done using it. In our smart fridge example, this might mean it keeps track of my average meal prep time and energy saved, or perhaps encourages healthier eating habits by teaching me about my nutrition consumption over time.
  3. Their results speak for themselves—When successful at using your product, badass users’ results get noticed by their peers. If, with the help of my smart fridge, I’m able to lose 50 lbs by the time I go home to see my family at Thanksgiving, they’ll ask me my secret, and I’ll tell them I bought a new smart fridge that helped me stop eating tub after tub of Haagen Dazs. My family’s reaction (maybe)?


Badass users drive the crucial word of mouth needed to enable a new technology to gain mainstream traction—and it takes careful UX research and detailed design planning in the early stages of the product development process to clear this crucial hurdle.

Get product designers involved early

Solid user research is critical to the success of IoT products, but it’s also important to remember that you get out what you put in. Making sure you avoid the common and numerous pitfalls to conduct proper user research will prevent costly decisions based on biased research conclusions.

Experience Mapping is another important product design practice that enables you to trace your user’s end-to-end path through all the separate interactions with your brand—called touchpoints—in order to find opportunities to improve your customer experience.

Researching and articulating your user’s needs and emotions at each touchpoint helps keep the design and functionality of your product focused on addressing their concerns. These insights help your product provide the surprise and delight that keeps users engaged and on the progression path toward becoming a badass user.

A perfect example of an IoT product designed with a detailed map of the user’s experience in mind is the Amazon Dash button—a simple, internet-connected button that attaches anywhere in your home, and enables you to reorder common household supplies with a single push. Out of dishwasher soap? Push the button, and like magic, more shows up at your door, sometimes within a couple of hours.

Thanks to IoT, global ecommerce has now been reduced to a game of ‘Simon Says’


It’s a compelling concept that’s catching on with consumers: it’s estimated that Amazon has already shipped over 300,000 to 500,000 Dash buttons since Oct. 1, 2016, and they’ve confirmed that orders coming in via Dash buttons grew 75% since January this year.

Good design builds users’ trust

In most cases, IoT products are being entrusted by users to do something they’re used to doing themselves. This is a difficult behavioral leap to make, and it requires a lot of trust on their part to delegate these tasks, so if the product doesn’t provide a reliable experience, that fragile trust is easily broken—and it’s almost impossible to regain.

Good product design guards against this kind of disillusionment, by ensuring that users’ expectations are clearly defined and managed upfront, and then consistently met. Notice how most of the prominent IoT and smart device brands today all employ high-end product designers? This isn’t a coincidence.

From left to right, Nest was founded by Tony Fadell, (designer of the iPod), August was founded by Yves Behar (designer of the Jawbone bluetooth speakers), and Fitbit was created by Gadi Amit, (designer of the Lytro Camera)


Good product design also helps increase and maintain users’ security in myriad ways, from clearly communicating requirements to the user (“The password you entered is pretty weak—try making it longer, and adding some special characters”), to minimizing the friction and effort needed to reach a decent minimum level of security, and maximizing the number of users that adequately protect themselves, by making the security setup process more engaging.

All of these are UX-driven measures that help reduce the number of potential devices that can be easily compromised by unauthorized actors—what’s known in security circles as minimizing the attack surface area.

Design for the experience, not the screen

In a time when it seems like touchscreens are popping up everywhere like mushrooms, it’s interesting to observe that most IoT devices don’t have screens—visual interfaces are disappearing, leaving behind only designed experiences that are driven forward either by data fed to the devices via sensors, or by voice interaction.

“[T]he Internet will disappear. There will be so many IP addresses, so many devices, sensors, things that you are wearing, things that you are interacting with, that you won’t even sense it. It will be part of your presence all the time. Imagine you walk into a room, and the room is dynamic. And with your permission and all of that, you are interacting with the things going on in the room.” — Eric Schmidt, Google chairman, World Economic Forum panel


Careful, intentional design of the user experience is still crucial, even if the screens that used to serve as our primary interface are receding into the background. Those who think that the rise of voice interaction will remove the need for user experience designers conveniently forget that Amazon Alexa—currently the most widespread voice-driven interface on the planet—still has a measly average 3% user retention rate for its apps, only 2 weeks after installation!

Clearly, there’s still a huge amount of work left for designers to craft the compelling stories that keep users engaged with IoT, and lower customer churn for these businesses.

In summary: It’s not the Internet of Things—it’s just the Internet

IoT has huge potential to change the way we live, work, shop, play and beyond—but its mass adoption is currently hobbled by several issues:

Most people don’t get what IoT is, and how it could benefit them. By its very nature, if the technology is overtly visible to the user, it’s usually only when it isn’t working correctly.

The technology is generally tricky to setup & use, and often fails to live up to its promise of smart automation and convenience—which breaks users’ trust in the overall category.

Security and privacy haven’t been deeply incorporated into IoT product design, which gives consumers further hesitation about inviting these devices into their homes.

These aren’t new problems

We faced similar obstacles to widespread adoption with the original internet in the late 90’s and early 2000’s—it was slow and expensive to get online, and once there, there really wasn’t too much to actually do. While the technology that powers it was an engineering breakthrough, human-centered website design enabled the internet to achieve real traction with mainstream users.

The Internet of Things has reached a similar point in its evolution, and it’s time once again for UX and product designers to take on the task of polishing this rough technological diamond into shining examples of delightful, memorable user experiences.

Careful user research, a commitment to user-centric design from the early product planning stages, consistent and highly-visible delivery of value to users, and maintaining a keen awareness of the overall context within which these devices operate, are all critical ways UX can help the Internet of Things evolve from an engineering curiosity, to a foundational technology that improves the everyday lives of billions around the world.