Designing for ecosystems: Making meaningful IoT products and services

Mike Kuniavsky on PARC’s work on IoT and the mindset shift the IoT will require.

By Mary Treseler
May 18, 2015
"The Telephone Newspaper": A stentor from "Telefon Hirmondó" reading the day's news to 6200 subscribers. "The Telephone Newspaper": A stentor from "Telefon Hirmondó" reading the day's news to 6200 subscribers. (source: Wikimedia Commons)

The emergence of the Internet of Things has prompted the production of thousands of new connected devices. More challenging and interesting in many ways, though, is how to embed intelligence into existing products and services. Corporations are trying to wrap their collective minds around the possibilities the IoT presents, but many don’t have the internal expertise to make sense of the space. Companies like Palo Alto Research Center Incorporated (PARC) are helping these organizations with the transition to the IoT. I recently chatted with Mike Kuniavsky of PARC. Kuniavsky is a user experience designer, researcher, and author. He is a member of the Innovation Services Group at PARC, a strategy consulting team within the research organization, formerly known as Xerox PARC.

Bringing the IoT to Fortune 50 companies

PARC has been around since 1970 and has contributed to the evolution of computing, including laser printing, graphic user interface, and the Ethernet. It should be no surprise that they are working on the next generation of computing with the IoT. Kuniavsky explains a bit more about what he and the team are working on:

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The Innovation Services Group is essentially PARC’s consulting arm. Of course Xerox is still PARC’s biggest client because it’s our parent company, but it is no longer our group’s biggest client, for sure. We mostly work with Fortune 50 companies. A lot of what we do is essentially reduce the risk of adopting novel technologies through the use of user experience design and ethnography, and an innovation strategy. These days, a lot of that is in the form of looking at things that are broadly in the Internet of Things. Part of that is because that’s where my expertise is; I’ve been playing with connected hardware for 25 years. Part of it is because that’s where there’s a lot of interest. It’s gotten me to really think about the entire ecosystem that the Internet of Things is. It’s not just hooking up a sensor to the Internet and sticking it somewhere in your house. It’s a much larger ecosystem, from my perspective. That’s what we’ve been exploring a lot because that’s what’s interesting to our customers, is understanding not just how this piece of cheap commodity hardware, which can be replicated very easily by any one of their competitors, is going to create an advantage for them, but how this one specific piece of hardware is going to create an ecosystem that is going to be very competitive and is going to create significant value.

We do things like add electronics to things that are not currently connected. We work with a big consumer chemical company; they know chemistry. They’re a multi-billion dollar company that knows chemistry. They’re like, “Well, what can we do when you connect a sensor on it?” We’re working with them on that. We also work with companies that already know about electronics. The difference is that they don’t necessarily see themselves in terms of an ecosystem play.

Making the mindset shift to the Internet of Things

As Marshall McLuhan has pointed out, the initial content of a new medium is the old medium it replaces. Nowhere can this be seen more right now than with the Internet of Things. The biggest challenge for those working with the IoT is the shift in mindset required to realize the possibilities. Kuniavsky explains:

I was reading this book that was published by Philips Design on their Ambient Intelligence project. They actually thought through the entire Internet of Things thing about 15 years ago, and then they couldn’t make any money on it and all those people went away. Now it’s actually a real thing. They left some really good documentation. I was reading the Philips design book, and they had a very interesting point from one of my favorite theorists, Marshall McLuhan. McLuhan essentially said that the content of every new medium is the old medium. Every new medium subsumes the old medium of the content until you actually figure out what the new medium is. When television came about, the stuff that was initially on television was essentially radio, until they actually figured out what television was good for. When radio came out, it was people reading the newspaper on the radio, until they figured out what radio was good for. It’s like that going all the way back. Right now, in the Internet of Things, we’re in this place where the content of the Internet of Things is the pre-Internet of Things world. It’s all of the things that are either currently not connected, which are everyday objects, or it’s the electronic things that are being shoehorned. What we’re trying to do is we’re trying to get over that hump and trying to figure out the natively interesting qualities of the Internet of Things that make it really different than home automation, which has been around for 30 years and has been an abject failure on every front, or simply connecting appliances to the Internet. Years ago, I wrote a history of all of the different smart refrigerators that have been around and why every one of them was a failure. I wrote that five or seven years ago. Since then, there’s been basically one every six months. That history went back 20 years. We’re trying to get over that hump.

Withings, David Rose, and GE

There continues to be much-needed experimentation as we move toward meaningful applications of the Internet of Things. Kuniavsky describes what and who he finds interesting:

I like what Withings has been doing in the health space. The reason being is that they are not afraid to make physical products of a wide variety of form factors that look really different from each other but that still essentially feed into the same core idea and the same core service. As an individual practitioner David Rose has done a lot by essentially elucidating the metaphor of magical or enchanted object experience as a useful way of communicating to people who have never dealt with a chair that adjusts on your behalf. That there is such a thing and that you can interact with it and you can relate to it. I’m also really fascinated, maybe unnecessarily so, but I’m fascinated by GE’s FirstBuild project, which is their ‘reinventing the appliance business’ by crowdsourcing innovation and crowdsourcing ideas around it. … Also, part of it is that I have a deep long-seeded love for appliances and for furniture because they are the tools of our everyday life, and if anything becomes the content of this new Internet of Things thing first, it’s them. What’s interesting to me is that they have this already existing set of affordances, to use the HCI term, which means people know what to do with them and how to do it. They have a set of expectations and how this set of things can now utilize this amazing set of sensing and actuation and meaning-making and statistical analysis technologies that are available up in the cloud to do the things that they have always done but do it better. I’m really interested in how does intelligence affects the appliance industry.

You can listen to the entire interview on the SoundCloud player above or on our SoundCloud stream.

This interview is part of our ongoing investigations into Experience Design and Business and Experience Design and the Internet of Things.

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