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How Boston Agencies Are Thinking About IoT in 2018

Rebecca Gatesman

On March 27th, 2018, Growth Spark hosted MAB 17, an event for and by Boston agencies, to discuss the role that IoT, VR and AR will have on how we interact with our buyers and build our brands. We welcomed speakers Steve Brown, Partner at Veux Labs; Tom Biggins, Founder of Atlantis Technology; and Kianosh Pourian, CEO of Spiria to share their stories and expertise with attendees who joined us from over thirty different companies.

There were a number of key insights about how an agency should approach development and application of IoT, VR and AR shared by our speakers that are relevant to every business looking to become more involved in the future of hardware technology:

Design Realistically

The overarching message from MAB17’s speakers: a lot of new innovations fail because the IoT agency developing it, or their client, gets caught up in providing an ideal solution, but forgets to consider the realities of how humans will interact with the hardware.

Don’t Get In The Way

MAB17 customer first design

One of the worst, but also most common, situations to get into with IoT is to design a piece of hardware that works as intended, but the design was never based on how an actual user would prefer to interact with it.

Brown told us of a smart dumbbell that was in development for a sports technology company by his Boston agency. The product counted reps, heart rate, and several other data points that customers had confirmed they were interested in. There was just one problem - in order for it to work, the user would have to pause at the end of each rep, and hold the dumbbell differently than they would hold a normal, “dumb” dumbbell. Product testers outright rejected the product.

Key learning: New hardware should be helpful, not demanding. Make sure that your design changes as little as possible about how a user completes the activity your device measures, or they’ll be loathe to use it.

IoT’s Nemesis: Low Battery Phones

MAB17 IoT fails because low battery phones

If it’s plugged in, it will be unplugged. My Boston agency focuses on B2B IoT deployments for industrial plants and facilities,” explains Biggins. “We had one situation where we had about a thousand devices plugged in around a facility, but we saw that a lot of them were getting unplugged every day. So we put up signs that said ‘do not unplug.’ That didn’t work. So we put them in a box that said ‘do not unplug’ and they still go unplugged. Then we screwed a metal coupler over the outlet that said ‘do not unscrew, do not unplug,’ but they still got unplugged. So we finally designed a new piece of hardware that included a powerstrip.”

Key Learning: Your client company cares about the IoT device, but their employees or customers may not. Be realistic about how the people who work near your product will behave, and design your product around those truths.

Market Research Is Key

market research

Boston is a hotbed of technological innovation, which is great for intellectual gravity, but can sometimes result in a market research bubble. This is especially true of developers that are a part of a younger IoT agency, and basing their design off of their - and their friends and family’s - experiences and preferences. This works well for a small launch, but in order to really capture the imagination of the general marketplace, understanding what the average user wants is key.

Additionally, it’s common for companies to believe that incorporating IoT, VR or AR systems into their existing functions will elevate their value - and done correctly, they will. However, because these technologies (and how we use them) are still in their infancy, it’s important to make sure that they’ll actually benefit your customer experience.

Know If You’re In An “I’m OK” Market Or A “Reporting” Market

A major differentiator that the panel at MAB17 discussed was the difference between what consumers and businesses want in a device and the data it sends, and how an IoT agency can anticipate and accommodate their needs. The three Boston based agencies explained the core trends that they had noticed, with one standout: businesses want confirmation, consumers want action items.

Consumers are often looking for devices and experiences that tell them more about the world around them. The best example of just how eager they are for devices that report information can be seen in the exponentially growing fitness devices market, and the reliance that users have on them. These devices provide tracking and reporting of data that customers previously did not have a way of accessing, and enrich the experience of mundane activities - such as walking home from work.

On the other hand, businesses are much more likely to be looking for devices that confirm that “everything’s OK.” Many common pieces of hardware have IoT functionality added to them, purely so that they can connect to a universal dashboard that confirms that they are working properly. This allows the company to work more efficiently, as machines can be left to run until a problem arises, in which case they can maximize their value by simply shutting off the machine they’re a part of.

Key Learning: The success of your IoT agency will rely on your team’s ability to anticipate the data that is most important to your customer. Often times, clients do not know what they want until after production is complete - using your expertise to know before they do will earn you repeat, loyal business.

Explore Unconventional Uses For Data

Steelcase for MAB17 Agency IoT

Now that your agency has designed the product, the bulk of the work is completed, but the project isn’t over. As you learn more about how the product is interacted with, brainstorm how the data it returns could be used to increase its value - often without changing anything at all. 

In the case of Steelcase, they found that their IoT furniture, which records what pieces are being used when, not only helped employers plan out offices, but could also be applied to reduce waste and utilities cost. No one sitting in a particular room? Automatically shut off the lights and lower the heating.

The Market Is Only Just Beginning

“IoT, VR and AR are where we were when the iPhone came out in the mid-2000s. People were stumbling over themselves to make apps and monetize this new platform, and we got a bunch of fart-noise apps,” explained Pourian, laughing with the audience. “We know today that smartphones are incredibly powerful, but when they first became available, nobody was quite sure what to do with them yet. We had to do a bunch of silly things before we figured out how to really use what we had. We’re there with this new technology; we’re still figuring out just what it’s capable of.”

Key Learning: Don’t limit your imagination to what’s been done, because we’ve barely scratched the surface. If you have an idea for how IoT, VR or AR could be used and your research supports it, be bold and innovate. Who knows, your IoT agency could become the next Instagram in a few years.

Data Is The Product, Hardware Is The Means

The core of why IoT, AR and VR are so enticing is not the hardware, it’s the data that they gather, analyze, and record for us. Whenever you’re brainstorming a new device, or even a way to use a device, remember that the data will be what provides lasting value to the customer experience.

Key Learning: If you don’t have a good way to analyze it, or if the data does not serve a purpose, the idea will be a failure, no matter how sleek the design.

IoT Agency Beware: A Data Regulatory Storm Is Brewing

MAB17 GDPR for IoT

With all that data floating around, corporations are starting to learn a lot about their customers - perhaps too much. The MAB17 panelists discussed the rising need for legal consultants specific to these growing industries, as well as all of the ways that customer data is currently unsecured.

The main problem with all of this data is that many struggle to see how it can be used for nefarious purposes until it’s too late. A well-meaning developer may not realize that their connected dog-collar could indicate when the dog owner has left home, and where they are. A company that just wants to provide a better customer experience may not realize that their beacons show how busy their store is (or isn’t), and whether there are any staff at a target zone.

Governments have started catching on to this, as evidenced by the upcoming rollout of GDPR, but that’s only the beginning. Every IoT agency should design their products to reflect the new regulations, and advise their clients to prioritize the changes as well.

Key Learning: A regulatory storm is brewing for data collection, so make sure that your security is a top priority as you develop new hardware and applications.

Enjoyed this post, and want more information about technology, and what it’s like to work with or for a Boston agency? Check back soon to stay up to date on upcoming MAB events!

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