The field of UX design will never be the same.

Once upon a time the Internet was something you could only access sitting in front of your computer, staring at your desktop. 

Then the mobile revolution put the Internet in our pockets and created design challenges for a generation of apps. Apps needed to suit a much smaller form factor and anticipate potential issues that came with mobile (e.g. slow connectivity, interruptions). This gave birth to “responsive design.” 

Now with the Internet of Things (IoT) gaining steam, the field of UX design is once again under transformation. With the IoT, design now requires a far greater understanding of the user’s need in a particular context of use. 

It’s much more than how user needs are translated to UI screens: it’s about connecting workflows between the physical and digital world. This requires an interdisciplinary effort of service design, interaction design and industrial design.

Who Needs Screens?

Creating screens for a digital interface is becoming passé. It’s no longer about designing for a screen. It’s about designing for the integrated context. 

In the IoT world, UX design is multi-modal and asynchronous by definition; at any one time, there’s more than one active object or sensor. Traditional UX roles, like interaction designers, are being redefined. Not only do they need to focus on the visual aspects, but also on the interactions now occurring across a diverse set of objects in the context or setting in which they operate. 

Take for instance Glow Cap, a product that provides medication reminders via light. These visible and audible clues alert patients that its time for their medication — no traditional screen or app is needed to interact with the product.

It’s All About the Setting

In this new world, context is king. It’s about designing for the setting and usage context the person is in, be it their office, home, car or city. 

UX's role is to create seamless integrated experience in these ambient settings. Some of the objects or devices in these environments will not even have traditional user interfaces, so the app needs to coordinate interactions. The in-context usage means that apps need awareness of the real world environment in which they operate.

“Interusability” now joins visible aspects such as interaction design, industrial design and visual design as a focus for app design. Consider the suite of applications from Streetline such as Parker, which provides real time analytics on available parking locations. To provide real time parking guidance, the app's design has to consider the setting and context of the person using it.

Enhancing Real World Experiences

Apps in this connected world play a completely different role. Previously apps were designed to engage people directly. Getting eyeballs and time in an app were the holy grail. 

Now apps are less about monopolizing a user’s attention and more about enhancing a real world, physical experience. The app experience should feel like a connected, unified service, which calls for design that is simple, easy to navigate and free of gratuitous icons.

A great example of this is the frequently cited Uber app. It was never about the mobile app experience, and everything about removing friction from the transportation experience. And the experience continues to be enhanced outside the app. The recent launch of Spot now makes matching Uber drivers and customers even easier as a specific hue is chosen on your app which is then displayed on the Spot device attached to the driver’s windshield.

Data is the New Palette

The IoT brings access to large sets of data from objects, sensors and devices. As data flows beyond screens and into wearables, sensors, cars, appliances, etc., design becomes more about the data integration and visualization. Data becomes the new palette for design. 

Tuning the amount of information presented to the user at any one time is critical. The use of integrated, smart cross-device dashboards will enable ease of use and provide simple visibility to the end user. UK company Daden offers a good example of how IoT data is being visualized, providing immersive 3D data visualizations based on real time data streams.

Beacons, Beacons Everywhere

Beacons will become a big part of integrating the digital and physical experience. But beacons can be unreliable, radio wave signals disappear then reappear, leading to frustrating experiences. 

Physical design — and beacon placement — helps avoid this. Where will the app be used? A retail environment, open air environment, large stadium environment? Whenever possible the designers should visit the physical environment to test the app and beacon placement. 

Last year Major League Baseball invested heavily in beacon technology. They equipped 20 stadiums with more than 100 beacons each to help visitors find their seats and to send them notifications about specific discounts.

Watching the Spinning Circles

Watching our network connection spin as we wait for our mobile apps to respond has become the norm. But our expectations for the user experience of everyday things like cars, house lighting, appliances, etc. is quite different. When you turn something on it should just work — no waiting. 

No one will be patient if they're locked out of their car or house because of a spinning app. Designers will have to consider performance and the impact of unreliable network connections top of mind when creating apps.

Building Connections 

It's no easy task to integrate and connect the interfaces for all of these new devices. Each of the current, popular “smart” objects — thermostats, lighting controls, door locks, fitness trackers — all require their own mobile apps to work. So how can you coordinate each of these devices? For instance, how can your thermostat adjust the temperature of the room by monitoring your fitness app? Or can the lights in your house go off automatically when the doors are locked? 

Smart products like Mimo Baby are doing this today, monitoring real time vital sign feeds as well as video while interoperating with Nest thermostats to lower the temperature if your baby is too warm!

Evolving Standards

For all of this to become mainstream, we have to define standard interfaces for IoT devices to interoperate and have a common user interface paradigm. Two competing IoT standards organizations, the Open Interconnect Consortium (backed by Intel and others), and the AllSeen Alliance (backed by Qualcomm and others), recently merged to form the Open Connectivity Foundation (OCF). This will hopefully pave the way for creating a set of open specification and protocols to enable devices from a variety of manufacturers to seamlessly and securely interact with each other.

So for all you UX designers out there, rest assured. Your job is safe. It’s just time to think beyond the screen.

Title image "design" (CC BY 2.0) by  mamnaimie piotr