When being smart can be dumb

2017-08-18, 09:16 Posted by: David Griffith-Jones

Smart cars, smart homes, smart TVs, smart factories, smart cities: we are increasingly surrounded by things that are now imbued with apparent smartness. But what does that even mean?

With increasing numbers of products being reinvented in a smart guise, perhaps it is time to reassess what qualifies as “smartness”. Providing an interface with the ability to connect to a network, download apps or review usage data is surely not enough nowadays. Intelligent capabilities are only “smart” if they solve real problems or materially enhance end-user experiences. Further, if they create more issues than they solve then they can more aptly be described as dumb than smart!

Consumers are becoming more accustomed to everyday products being connected. This familiarity means their demands of what smart products should do is quickly growing beyond satisfaction with mere novelties. A user base with liquid expectations seeping over from unrelated and more technologically advanced market categories want features that power real utility. Artificial intelligence, the ability to learn, personalization and sensitivity will become cornerstones of what constitutes true smartness.

Smart product fails

A few years ago, when describing the IoT powered home of the future an appliance guaranteed a mention was the “Smart Fridge”. However, uptake hasn’t matched expectations. This is partly because of price but also because the value proposition isn’t clear. The one thing a smart fridge does for the user is to automate what happens fairly frictionlessly already: the compilation of grocery lists after assessment of a fridge’s contents. How much of a pain point is this for most people? A quick glance combined with a list scribbled down on paper is a method tried, tested and for most people entirely sufficient. Throw into the mix security issues alongside data privacy concerns and the value proposition fades into relative insignificance. Perhaps this is why according to research by Forrester in 2015, only 6% of homes in America had a smart-home device with meagre projected growth to just over 15% by 2021.

More than being connected

The benchmark for what constitutes “smartness” needs to be raised beyond connectivity. Consumers are increasingly conscious about both the security and value of their personal information. The European Union’s General Data Protection Regulations is only going to raise awareness and increase exposure to liability if companies are not smart about how they process users’ information.

Smartness is not static - as Artificial Intelligence becomes more widely integrated into connected devices the product offer should evolve through pooled analytics and self-learning. Outsourcing of the decisions about what is desirable for the end-user to a faceless AI brings with it a whole raft of other privacy challenges but done right leads to services that grow in utility as they are used. Consumers will expect services that offer personalized experiences whereby the data collected is leveraged to incrementally increase the benefits. Balancing these enhancements without straying into the realms of creepiness requires a sensitivity towards the “emotional permissions” that users give to each product they use. We might be happy for our smart toothbrush to advise on gum health but not want it to score our smile!

Recipe for smart product success

So how can you ensure that the smart products your company is developing will be used, useful and generate value? Here are the questions to ask yourself when assessing whether your smart product is, in fact, a dumb idea:

1)    Does your research with end-users suggest that the smart product solves a real-world problem or adds significant value?

2)    Is it hard to find obvious “next-best alternatives” that end-users currently employ which achieve most of the benefit at significantly less cost?

3)    Have you identified a segment of end-users who have illustrated a willingness to change existing behavior in order to unlock the benefits of the new smart product?

If the answer is “yes” to all three of these questions then it is worth exploring your smart product ideas further. Just don’t fall into the trap of creating expensive technological solutions before testing early prototypes, iterating based on feedback and being open to pivoting from your original idea. The smart products that eventually deliver on the promises of the connected world must offer smartness beyond simple connectivity. It is not enough to add a chip, some fringe benefits and a headline grabbing feature.

David Griffith-Jones is a Service Designer specialising in Digitalization and Industrial IoT.

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