Product Design

Internet of Things: What It Means for Designers and Their Companies

21 Jan, 2015 By: Nancy Spurling Johnson

The growing network of web-connected products demands a new approach to product development.

For tech-loving consumers, the Internet of Things, or IoT, is delivering lighting systems you can control from anywhere, and pet trackers that alert you if your dog gets loose. For savvy industrial companies, IoT-connected machinery helps optimize operations by monitoring the life of parts and averting malfunctions. IoT is a catchphrase that has garnered as much media buzz and industry speculation as evidence of actual progress — but that status advances with each new web-connected refrigerator, medical device, tractor, and wind turbine that is launched into the real world.

IoT is changing how we live and work — including how we design the connected things that it comprises.

IoT Basics

The Internet of Things is a network of smart, connected products — smart because they contain software, sensors, and processors that collect data from their environments, and connected because they can send and receive data via the Internet, wired or wirelessly.  This smart connectivity typically aims to:

  • monitor the product’s operation and use;
  • control the product remotely or customize how it is used;
  • optimize product performance, including predictive diagnostics and repair; or
  • combine the first three capabilities to support autonomous product operation and personalization.

This can apply to an endless spectrum of products, but to date most developments have been centered on home automation devices, wearable tracking devices, devices that monitor health, and automotive devices and transportation technologies. Just as significant are developments in the industrial market, where connected machines are improving operations and profits — in fact, many observers believe that IoT applications that support business offer the greatest growth potential.

The Internet of Things can help homeowners, farmers, business owners
— and even animals, as in a project by GROUND Lab that uses GPS and
SMS technologies to help conservationists protect the last 2,000 lions
living in the wild in southern Kenya.


A report from McKinsey Global Institute, Disruptive Technologies: Advances that will Transform Life, Business, and the Global Economy(May 2013), concluded that the Internet of Things has the potential to create an economic impact of $2.7 trillion to $6.2 trillion annually by 2025. The researcher predicts that 80–100% of the manufacturing market could be using IoT applications by then, leading to a potential economic impact of $900 billion to $2.3 trillion, largely from productivity gains. For example, with increasingly sophisticated IoT technologies becoming available, companies not only can track the flow of products or keep track of physical assets, but they can also manage the performance of individual machines and systems.

Large enterprises have already recognized the market that will develop around IoT: GE is simultaneously developing its retail line of Connected Home products, from light bulbs to appliances, as well as technologies that support the “Industrial Internet.” Intel and Citrix offer product lines for connecting devices and delivering data over the cloud. PTC is arguably the most heavily IoT-invested CAD software developer, having paid nearly $3 million combined for Thingworx and Axeda, two developers of technologies that support connected products. Autodesk, Siemens PLM Software, Dassault Systemes, and other CAD developers have their eyes on the market as well.

Other companies are developing entirely new business models around connected devices, moving from a product-development focus to one of service provider. Philips has evolved from simply selling light fixtures to delivering light services. In Washington, D.C., it installs and maintains about 15,000 municipal lights at no cost to the city. The company profits by earning a percentage of the energy savings it generates. Industrial machinery makers are are now competing on the basis of value-added services and protective maintenance, based on the new ability to monitor their products no matter where they are deployed. Future homeowners might eschew HVAC ownership in favor of subscribing to a service that maintains the desired temperature in their homes year-round.

What IoT Means for Designers

In the article, “How Smart, Connected Products Are Transforming Competition,” (Harvard Business Review, November 2014), the authors explain how the growth of IoT will affect product design and development:

Smart, connected products require a whole set of new design principles, such as designs that achieve hardware standardization through software-based customization, designs that enable personalization, designs that incorporate the ability to support ongoing product upgrades, and designs that enable predictive, enhanced, or remote service. ... Expertise in systems engineering and in agile software development is essential to integrate a product’s hardware, electronics, software, operating system, and connectivity components. ...  Product development processes will also need to accommodate more late-stage and post-purchase design changes quickly and efficiently. Companies will need to synchronize the very different “clock speeds” of hardware and software development.

All that sounds very challenging, if not daunting. But IoT also will provide newfound design insight when products collect and transmit data about how they’re used in the real world, such as which features are most popular, which components are malfunctioning, how much energy the product is consuming, and other information that can spur a software update or inform future design decisions.


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About the Author: Nancy Spurling Johnson

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