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PHOTO: Miss Zhang

If there’s one thing I’ve learned while working in digital policy development, it’s that developers are way ahead of consumers. Consumers have heard the chorus of “The IoT is coming! The IoT is coming!” and are eagerly awaiting the big announcement that will tell them what it is and how to use it. They don’t realize it's already here: in their cars, in their appliances, in their wearable devices, maybe even in their light sockets.

Developers don’t realize consumers are waiting for this big reveal. Which brings us to the “curse of knowledge.” Developers seem to forget that the rest of the world doesn’t focus on technology 27 hours a day, so they devote their time to coming up with new IoT devices without stopping to think about the people who will be using them.

I’ll share a personal example: We bought a fancy, IoT-enabled HVAC system that lets us control the thermostat from our phones. Everything worked great until we started getting notices it was time for a software upgrade. That’s when the big “oops” in the development process became clear: There was no way to download the update directly to the thermostat. Apparently, we were supposed to download the updated software to a USB drive and use that to upload it to the thermostat.

No, thank you. I’m pretty tech-savvy, but I decided to have the company’s technicians do it for me — and, after two visits, even they gave up. They gave me the newest thermostat model instead.

Clearly, a few steps were missing in the product's development process.

All of this is to make a single point: If you’re developing IoT devices, you have to think about the end users. And you have to think about them every single time, which means — you guessed it — you have to incorporate your IoT initiatives into your digital policies.

Related Article: Why the Future of the IoT Depends on Digital Policies

What Should Digital Policies for IoT Usability Testing Cover?

Whether the internet of things is your core business or you’re adding IoT connectivity to your legacy products, I can’t stress enough how important it is to develop digital policies that keep your organization focused on usability by design. And, like anything else, that starts with a strong foundation.

Build a Strong Framework for Effective IoT Usability Testing

The first step in IoT usability testing is to make sure everyone is on the same page as to what you’re testing for. In most cases, that means looking at your product from three angles: what your IoT device is for (why you think there’s a market for it), who will use it, and how they’ll use it. Answering those questions will tell you a lot about what kind of testing you need to do and who your testers should be.

What’s your IoT device for?

Here, I’m talking about benefits, not features. What task is your IoT device supposed to help people accomplish, and how does that add value to their lives? Things to think about include:

  • Why did your company decide to develop this device in the first place? Did they see a consumer need and come up with a way to fulfill it? Or was there a need within the company (decreasing costs, increasing efficiency, etc.) that the device will solve?
  • Or is it more of a solution looking for a problem? (Or a toy looking for users?)

In other words, the why of your device matters a lot when it comes to usability. Consumers are more likely to put effort into a device that benefits them than one that only helps you. The less value it offers consumers, the easier it must be to use.

Who will use your device?

Possible target markets include:

  • “Average” consumers.
  • Tech-savvy consumers who want to be the first to try every new gadget.
  • People who will use it for entertainment.
  • People for whom the product provides life-sustaining support (like the wearable devices being used in healthcare).
  • Industrial, commercial and retail consumers.
  • Students and educational institutions.
  • Government agencies.

Pro tip: People will often invent a use for the device that wasn't part of your original market concept, like an IoT-enabled tractor which sends alerts back when servicing is required. In this case, perhaps the farmer will use it to pay employees based on productivity, as documented by the tractor in terms of acreage, areas, crops, etc., covered during the shift. Be careful to listen for and record these ideas during your testing process, they could introduce you to markets you had never even considered.

Each of those markets will have specific needs for the IoT devices they use, and those needs will (or should) define usability parameters.

How will they use it?

Before you know what to focus on for usability, you have to understand how your target market will use your IoT device:

  1. To show off.
  2. To provide entertainment.
  3. To automate simple tasks to make their lives easier.
  4. To be able to control as much of their world as possible from their cell phones (see who’s ringing the doorbell, turning lights off and on, keeping track of their kids, etc.).
  5. To monitor and control health issues, communicate with doctors and other health care providers, etc.
  6. To increase efficiency, reduce costs, improve planning and forecasting, etc.
  7. To support the educational process.
  8. To maximize resources and simplify needed tasks.

Pro tip: Just as there will be people who invent new uses for your device, there may also be people who see ways to use it to do something immoral or illegal. Be careful to listen for and record these ideas, too, so the people in charge of creating your company’s digital policies can decide what to do about it: close a loophole, change terms of service, include a statement that the device is not to be used for illegal purposes, etc. 

Establishing the various use cases matters because they identify the criteria for usability in a way that’s specific to device, person and task.

Related Article: Don't Continuously Deploy Junk, Fix it Before Release

Establish a Process for Your Usability Testing

Clearly there’s a LOT to think about when it comes to testing the usability of your IoT devices. So how can you ensure you cover all of these issues? The answer is to establish a testing process that every single IoT device must go through and codify that process in your digital policies.

Identify what you want to learn

The first step in developing your usability testing policy is to identify what you want to learn. Common criteria include:

Ease of connection

  • How easy will it be for customers to connect their devices? (Don’t forget to test with a variety of ISP providers, bandwidths, WiFi devices, router speeds, personal devices, operating systems, etc.)
  • Does setup go better when people have a “quick start” guide or when the device itself walks them through the process?
  • What percentage of people can complete the connection process without assistance? Is that percentage acceptable? If they do need support, what is their preferred method? Email, live chat, phone call, etc.?
  • For those who do need help, is there a common stumbling block? What is it, and can you eliminate it or come up with a workaround?

Ease of setup

  • Once the device is connected, how easy is it for people to log in and set it up? Are there common problems that can be corrected in the next iteration?

Navigating security protocols

  • How do people react to the device’s security protocols? Do they complain about them or try to circumvent them? Many consumers don’t understand that household IoT devices, when not properly secured, can give hackers access to much more than just that one device.

Certified Scrum Product Owner April Ebert says, “IoT brings connectivity to products for which security isn’t a 'normal' concern (e.g., light bulbs and refrigerators), making security-focused user testing a must-do from my perspective. User testing can help you identify those security risks that your customers may inadvertently create, giving you an opportunity to address those issues before bringing the product to market.”

User behavior

  • What do people try to do first? Which features are most interesting to them? Are they able to easily access those features (preferably from the home screen), or do they have to search for them? How many screens do they have to go through to find what they need?
  • Are there features that most people ignore?
  • Are most people using the IoT device in the way developers intended? What are tasks are they attempting to do that developers didn't anticipate? Are they trying to complete tasks in ways that developers didn't predict? Are there features that developers thought would be popular that are being ignored completely?

Unanticipated obstacles

  • Are there certain types of users who are having more trouble than others? What conditions might contribute to their difficulties? Challenges with sight or hearing? Language or cultural differences? The temperature in the user environment? Finger size? Device size or orientation?

Related Article: IoT Trends 2019: Where We're At and Where We're Heading

Choose Your Test Pilots

The next step — and a very important one — is to select the people who will test your IoT device. The testers need to match the criteria we established earlier: what’s your device for, who will use it, and how will they use it?

If you’re developing an IoT device for millennials, for example, you probably don’t want a test group who grew up using rotary phones. And if you’re designing a connected healthcare device, you’ll want to consider the limitations imposed by the medical conditions of the users.

The particulars will vary depending on the device you’re testing, but the main point is really simple: For user feedback to be valuable and valid, your test group has to be as representative as possible of the people who will be using your IoT device.

Other Factors

The testing environment

You’ll also want to make some choices about the testing environment:

  • Will people be observed remotely, or will employees be in the room with them? If employees are in the room, will they be allowed to answer questions and offer help? If a user appears to be having trouble, will an employee be able to ask what they’re struggling with?
  • Will testing take place in a group or with individual users?
  • Will you video the test for later analysis?
  • Will you ask users for qualitative feedback? How (verbally, in writing, etc.)?
  • What happens after testing?

It’s equally important to set guidelines for what happens after user testing. What will you do with the observations you made and the feedback you received? Are you willing to go all the way back to the drawing board — or even abandon the product completely — or are you willing to make only the easiest, most valuable, least expensive, etc., adjustments? Will you do another round of user testing after revisions? How many? What are the criteria for rolling out your Minimum Viable Product?

Related Article: How to Ensure Your Product Roadmap Embraces Facts, Not Fallacy

Don't Let Our Connected Future Slip Away

I’d love to come up with some profound conclusion, but it’s too complex for that. The bottom line is this: if users are going to adopt the IoT, developers are going to have to adopt robust digital policies around user testing. Because if the who, what, when, why, where and how of user testing isn’t documented, it won’t happen (or, not the right way, at least). And the end result of that? The connected future of the IoT could fade into the mist, and we’d have no one to blame but ourselves.