App Designers & the Internet of Things

Like the rest of the design community, lately I’ve been obsessing over the “internet of things.” So far it’s pretty damn disappointing. We can all see the potential: a not-so-far-off future when we stop calling it the “the internet of things” and just call it “the internet” (then finally, just “things”). And I think today’s crop of app designers are actually best suited to make this potential into a reality.

The thing that makes this so interesting is that most of the predictions for the future seem to be so oddly underwhelming. Take this one, from BusinessWeek:

What if your alarm clock wakes up you at 6 am and then notifies your coffee maker to start brewing coffee for you? What if your office equipment knew when it was running low on supplies and automatically re-ordered more?

Or this from Vox:

Multi-colored, wifi-powered lightbulbs could turn your living room into a dance party. In the bedroom, they could wake you up gently with a simulated sunrise.

Whoa guys, let’s not get too carried away. I mean seriously, this is so far below the actual apex of this technology that it’s almost comical. Considering the cultural upgrade that smartphones ushered in, how could adding those abilities (and more!) to every connected device not drive a shift unlike anything we’ve seen in our lifetimes?

In a way, these types of predictions make sense. They’re based on what we’ve seen so far. Nest is great, and absolutely deserves the accolades they’ve received so far. But I also can’t help feeling that in the context of what’s coming, it feels very much like the first step that it is. Predictions of what the “internet of things” will be tend to just be more Nests.

I’d argue that we’re still thinking small here because we haven’t put the right people to work in this space yet. Here’s an example: I didn’t go to school for graphic design, like most of my peers did—I studied industrial design. And while that has held me back on occasion, it also allowed me to leapfrog others when we started designing interfaces for phones and tablets. This was because we interact with these devices differently than we do with a computer. We experience it as a part of the whole object, not just what’s on the screen. The interface becomes part of the product design, so things on the screen should react to touch as if you were touching a physical object. That’s still lost on a lot of designers.

Knowing that, I think there’s a strong case to be made for turning app designers’ attention back in the other direction. Product designers will only take the ecosystem that will make up the “internet of things” so far. But skilled app designers, just like they did when the app store was opened to them, will be the ones who take it the rest of the way. The best thing the makers of these connected devices can do for themselves is to agree on a common platform that will allow for it all to come together.