Your design process is not working in the Internet of Things


I have two questions for you.

The first question: Have you ever had trouble connecting to a wireless device with your phone? I bet you have. It’s not uncommon to encounter a technology-based product interaction that just doesn’t work the way you think.

The second question: do you think your customers have had this experience with a product that you have designed? (Sip.)

We are all guilty of it and it hurts our businesses. An unintuitive product experience causes frustration and, if left uncorrected, can negatively impact brand loyalty over time.

Despite the fact that designers have been developing physical devices with digital experiences for over a decade now, it makes sense that it’s still happening.

  • Digital experience design is a relatively new discipline, all things considered. With the explosion in the number of connected devices, it’s no surprise that product development teams are catching up a bit.
  • Companies are still experimenting with the best ways to incorporate digital experience design. They assume it’s a function of software engineering, which makes it difficult to design a consistent user experience.

Ultimately, digital-physical products tend to focus on what the technology can deliver rather than what the user really needs. These products provide functional, but inefficient, digital experiences.

We see it all the time in our product innovation business. Here’s what we’ve learned doesn’t work and what does.

Why Today’s Digital-Physical Process Doesn’t Work

Across the industry, the approach to digital product development is still heavily influenced by the hardware development process.

Work is siloed, especially in large organizations. Physical and digital experiences typically fall under different functions and teams, and they are rarely designed in concert with each other. They require different skills and expertise that tend to be embedded in separate parts of the business.

The integration of these functions is a step in the right direction, but obstacles remain. Product development processes and even vocabulary and cultures are sufficiently different among industrial designers, interaction designers and software developers that effective communication between teams is often very difficult. Consider adding the confusion associated with how to define digital user experience by calling it user interface design, interaction design, or user experience design, and you’re in for a treat.

Timing to orchestrate between digital and physical workflows is challenging

There is a mismatch between hardware and software development schedules.

The hardware schedule is driven by the long lead times for product development. Tooling, for example, requires the hardware design to be finalized long before the product is introduced to the market. Industrial designers responsible for physical design and physical interaction have their design worked out very early in the process before the design can go through engineering and go into production.

The software timeline, on the other hand, is more flexible. Digital elements can be iterated and improved without the constraint of tooling. It’s not uncommon for the digital experience team to postpone completing their design tasks until after the industrial designers have finished their part.

The mismatch between development schedules can lead to a disconnect between the physical experience of a product and its digital experience.

Designing seamless digital and physical experiences requires a new process

We’ve been experimenting with various digital-to-physical workflows on behalf of our clients for over a decade now, and here’s what we’ve learned works.

1. User contributions collected by digital and physical focused teams.

User feedback should be collected by the designers of the digital and physical teams. The digital and physical experience must be rooted in user input.

Then digital and physical designers come together to design a solution that makes sense regardless of how it will be realized and whether the solution will be physical, digital or a mix of the two.

This is an essential part of designing effective user experiences.

2. Workflow mapping should consider digital and physical interactions.

The most efficient and seamless product interaction occurs when the user effortlessly transitions from physical to digital interactions, which requires carefully designing and engineering these transitions.

One of the tools we’ve seen used effectively is called a digital-physical workflow map. A digital-physical workflow is the equivalent of a product interaction journey map. It combines physical workflow mapping with wireframe mapping and visualizes them as two distinct swim lanes connected in time.

When we adopted this tool, we were amazed to discover how useful it was in highlighting the areas of most interest to the user and enabling our designers to efficiently address critical interaction elements.

How to Create a Digital-Physical Workflow Map

First map the physical interaction of the product along a horizontal swim lane. Focus on human interactions – physical tasks and targeted user steps.

Then map the digital interactions below or above the physical interactions. Digital interactions focus on user inputs, system feedback, and overall system outputs.

By mapping these swim lanes, you’ll see the key points in the user’s journey where they switch between physical and digital interaction.

These represent key areas where you can create a unique and cohesive experience.

Other Benefits of a Digital-Physical Workflow Map

The digital-physical workflow map is a highly visual and comprehensive way to document complex interactions holistically and help control design intent along the way.

This type of tool also helps to establish the design vision of the product and to communicate the vocabulary between the different design teams and the developers.

Even as the team composition changes, new team members can effectively ramp up and understand the product interaction vision set by this effective tool.

Combine structure and process for effective user experiences

In our experience, leading companies in user experience design have recognized the need to bring together designers from different backgrounds structurally and by process.

Physical and digital designers from leading companies work side-by-side and find tools like the Digital-Physical Workflow Mapping solution to establish a common language and common understanding to deliver the best possible experience.


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