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Designing for Brand Identity & Beyond: The Product Is a Symbol

3 Nov 2017 by Ryan Hayen

Over the course of this three-part series on designing for Real-Time Business, we’ve discussed a few initial business challenges and design strategies to help you get up and running with your transformation. As your business moves along the maturity curve and commits to new business models, and the connected products that support them, several new inherent challenges emerge. In this final post, we’ll discuss how brand identity, sociocultural context, real-world context and product failure must be addressed with thoughtful design practices.

Connected Internet of Things (IoT) products go beyond delivering continuous value through only a physical product and include other touchpoints. In some instances, the physical product may not have a user interface whatsoever and is entirely controlled through remote applications. In others, the organization might monetize the power of the data alone by allowing customers and partners to access it through an online portal or tool.

Whether you’re building a B2B or B2C connected product, it’s important to understand that as the number of touchpoints grows beyond just the physical product, the brand and overall experience become decentralized. Nest, a manufacturer of connected home products, offers customers control and monitoring of their household via five different types of hardware products (with minimal user interfaces) and an app that centrally manages them all.

Nest goes even further by providing compatibility and integration with a multitude of other third-party smart home devices and power companies, thereby increasing its own value proposition. As Nest products span multiple touchpoints, in consumers’ minds each becomes less of a “product that does a thing” and more of an untethered dynamic experience that adds value to their life or business. Nest understands this, as reflected in its mission: “To create a home that’s thoughtful — one that takes care of the people inside it and the world around it.”

It’s all about the experience.

Viewed in this light, a hardware product can be thought of as a manifestation, or symbol, of an otherwise digital service. It becomes one touchpoint in a larger web of interconnected touchpoints, some of which are digital and some that exist only in the mind of the consumer. Users pull together their interpretations of these different pieces in their minds to create a uniquely subjective experience.

In bringing your IoT product(s) to life, it’s your duty to design not just for form and functionality, but also to support a desired subjective experience of how your users will understand, perceive and actually use it. This task is more likely to be achieved if your team has a shared understanding of the following.

Brand identity

In the midst of your transformation, you’ll likely find yourself creating a product that’s new to your company. Perhaps it’s a new physical product or, in the case of BMW’s personal assistant, a digital experience. Regardless, it’s important to you that the new product embodies your brand identity. This involves more than just throwing a logo and colors on it and calling it a day. Instead, you may be faced with more nuanced questions such as:

  • Our product will need to speak to our users. What will it say, and how will it say it? Depending on your brand, perhaps the voice should be relaxed, authoritative, friendly, bubbly, etc. What words that will be spoken, and which ones should be avoided? Alternatively, how should alerts and notifications sound?
  • How should the physical product feel in customers’ hands, or the room, etc.? For example, how can a sense of brand “playfulness” be represented in a product that will entertain your pet while you’re away, and also in the digital app that will enable you to watch it or chart its exercise?
  • What type of emotional affinities do your customers and non-customers have for your company or product? What do they expect from you, and what kinds of barriers or opportunities can this create?
  • How should the heritage of your signature product (such as the body style of a high-performance sports car) be brought to life in another medium?

Sociocultural context

Users need to be able to place the product concept into the proper context within the world they’re a part of. This does not serve to undercut disruptive new concepts but insists the product itself and the organization must tell a compelling story of how it fits into the fabric of the user’s world. Drawing design inspiration from familiar symbols and form factors, along with cultural movements and other mental cues, can help the intended users understand and adopt your product.

For example, consider the design of the Ring Video Doorbell. When a visitor pushes the button, the built-in camera sends high-definition video from the door to the phone of the home owner. Of course, an important requirement of the whole service is that the person outside the door recognizes this new device as a doorbell. Although the design team certainly could have completely redefined how a doorbell should look, it’s clear with its slim design and prominent single button they drew on pre-existing concepts so that the user could understand the intended purpose.

Real-world context & designing for failure

Your connected product offering will not exist in a void. Simply by spreading its functionality across servers, Wi-Fi connections, third-party APIs, sensors and power supplies, the risk of failure increases exponentially. The design team must have a real respect for this heightened risk and pair it with a sharp understanding of real-world consequences.

Petnet, the maker of in-home connected products that dispense pet food, serves as a cautionary tale. In 2016, it informed users through its app that it was “experiencing an issue with a third-party server” and instructed users to feed their pets “manually.” Since the products serve those who are not in close proximity to their pets, this failure resulted in some pets going unfed for 10 hours.

Pairing connectivity issues with the fact that humans can be forgetful and make mistakes creates a multitude of scenarios to consider. Regardless of whether the product is intended for the warehouse or a baby room, a responsible design team must identify those scenarios and determine how the product can continue to operate with intermittent or local connectivity, and how to assist the user in such circumstances. The key to doing so is conducting thorough research and testing early prototypes in that real-world environment.

In case you missed the first two articles in this three-part series, click below.

Part One: Surpassing Operational Effectiveness: IoT Is Not the Product

Part Two: Designing for Real-Time Business: Continuous Value Delivery

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