Connected Hardware Eats Unicorns for Breakfast

I recently had the great pleasure to speak at Interaction 17 in NYC – the amazing annual IxDA conference. I gave a spark talk – an 8 minute talk to a large audience – on the subject of designing for connected hardware. It was a fantastic opportunity and learning experience. I was absolutely honored to give something back to a community and a conference that has inspired, supported, and educated me consistently for almost 10 years. Here is a transcript of the first half of my talk, full transcript available on Medium


Hi, my name is Sarah. But enough about me, let’s talk about…

YOU. I know you — you are designers! Not just UX designers or UI designers, capital D designers. Not just designers either, you are makers, you are innovators. You can research, UXify, beautify, code and deploy. Your beautiful websites and apps crush their KPIs and eat them for breakfast.

You are that rarest and most magical of mythical creatures… you are unicorns. (Too 2014? Don’t worry, I’m totally going to double down on this.)

And now the world of software-empowered, connected hardware is beckoning. It’s the unsolved future — a vast frontier of possibility: rich and meaty problems waiting for awesome design solutions. And you unicorns are ready gallop to the rescue, right?


Let’s go on a little adventure together to see how the hardware context changes things.

In our adventure, your friends have recruited you to join their startup. High on Kickstarter success, the iWarm knows to warm your towel for you when you start the shower, it makes your sock toasty just before you wake up on cold mornings. The softer side of smart, it’s intelligent, safe, and full of potential!

You join the team and get ready to dive right in.

The first thing you discover is that You can’t do it all. The iWarm doesn’t only need an app, It needs industrial design to give it shape, mechanical and electrical engineering to give it function, firmware development to make it smart, and compliance with regulations to make it safe.

In fact, your product will live or die by these coming together flawlessly, because Quality is King. If your software works, but the hardware doesn’t, you do not have a product. Your app may be gorgeous, innovative, and ever-so-appropriately sprinkled with delightful microinteractions, but if the iWarm surprises your users with cold socks, you’re in trouble.

Trust is built slowly and lost quickly. Even if it works dependably for months, if you break trust like this even just a couple of times, your app rating and Amazon reviews will drop all the way down to one star, and the iWarm will end up in the junk drawer or the retail return bin.

A complication on your path to quality is the fact that Iteration in Hardware is Hard. Revving the hardware gets more and more expensive the farther along in the process you get, and every time you iterate the software and product behavior you have to coordinate not only app and cloud releases but also changes to the firmware — the software that’s running on the circuit boards.

What about after you’ve shipped, and the iWarm is in people’s homes? You’ve gotten lots of data and feedback from your users, and you’ve made some high impact changes, including to the setup flow. But how do you get these changes onto all those device out there, let alone before someone sets it up?

Upgrading is a Design Challenge. Very few users delight over the term “firmware upgrade.” (although there are a few, and we will get to them in a second.) The upgrade process for the iWarm firmware has to be explicitly designed — not just how to introduce people to changes, but how to actually deliver them in the first place.

If you’ve ever agonized over a group of users who haven’t updated to the latest version of your app, this is like that times pi. Because not only do you have to worry about versions of the app, but also hardware, firmware, and potentially packaging. (Also, pie is yummy, and yay science.)

You’re In an Echo Chamber I know you Unicorns love engaging directly with your users, and iWarm’s successful kickstarter campaign has granted you direct access to a highly engaged group of people who communicate with you, give you feedback, suggest features, participate in testing. But there’s a hidden danger here, because you, your entire product team, and these early adopters are all only on one side of the chasm.

This is the gap between you and actual commercial success. You don’t want to alienate this passionate and rabid review-writing base of early customers, but listening too closely can actually drive you away from the users you need for success.

That larger customer base that you need to reach — the Target, Amazon, Best Buy shoppers, are virtually silent. Far from needing complicated, advanced features, they need to understand what you are, and how you can make their lives better.

You don’t want to share the fate of many smart hardware products that get lost in what I call the imagination gap. Most people can imagine only one very specific use case that applies to them, while others get fixated on the idea of a fully-intelligent Jetsons house of the future, but few people can picture much of anything in the space between.

Ugh, that’s a lot of challenges. So what can you do? I have good news! You guys know what the unicorn’s special weapon is, right?

Full Transcript

And my rainbow-infused, unicorn-tastic supporting slides are on slideshare.


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