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Industrial design in the age of IoT

People working together in a design thinking and UX workshop. Source: Offenblende

Industrial design is changing in the age of IoT. In this post, Paul Hatch describes his design firm's expansion from industrial design to fields like UI and the IoT and explains why product nurturing will become more important than actual product design.

When it comes to the Internet of Things (IoT), it’s easy to focus on technological aspects. You can talk about different platforms or discuss which IoT solution might be the best to solve a specific problem. Looking below this layer of technology, it quickly becomes apparent that there are many more aspects that determine the success of the IoT. Not the least of which is the matter of how today’s connected products are designed. As an industrial designer, Paul Hatch knows a lot about this topic.

Hatch is the CEO of TEAMS Design USA, an award-winning design firm. He has firsthand experience of the impact of the IoT on industrial design. He has also been able to observe how companies that produce physical products handle the challenges and opportunities of a connected world.

Design in the age of IoT is about ecosystems

“Our background is in designing experiences around physical products.” Hatch says. Over the last decade, his agency has expanded into other fields like UI design and the IoT. Hatch describes the change this move entailed:

"Within the Internet of Things, it is no longer just about physical objects, it is also about designing things in a virtual space."

In the past, discussing product strategy meant looking at a line of physical products. Now a very big part of strategy revolves around services and user interaction. To cope with this transformation, the company has shifted its focus away from industrial design, and now concentrates more on the strategic aspects: “We are designing ecosystems rather than products,” Hatch says. “This means we are more interested in people who know about company strategy, brand strategy, product experience, and user experience.”

Paul Hatch even tends to think that the term “design” might not apply any more. “I see it more as nurturing. You release a product and you nurture it. You use your design skills to bend and twist it in different directions. It is no longer sufficient to simply launch a product – and assume that’s it!”

New opportunities for product nurturing

According to Hatch, understanding a product’s actual usage in real-time offers great opportunities to companies that produce physical products. “They can now find out how their products are being used, be it in an industrial or consumer environment. You can track its usability, the context in which it is being used, or how often it is being used,” Hatch explains. In the past, a finished product was sold in a specific time frame before being revisited and updated. With the IoT, it is possible to collect information starting from the moment a product is in use. Hatch compares it to software development: “After you launch version 1.0 of the software and people are using it, you quickly follow through with versions 1.1, 1.2, and 1.3. This approach was previously unheard of in the world of physical products. We would just work on version 2.0 and not launch it until much later.”

Hatch stresses that the true value of a product after its initial launch is not the volume of sales it generates.

"Its true value lies in the data it provides. That helps you design version 2.0."

Consequently, if a company takes advantage of the data, it can take a big step forward with the second product.

What does this mean to a brand?

It means that it now has a connection to its users. “If the company behind the brand realizes this, it can actually create products, experiences, and services that are more relevant to consumers. Rather than just being a product that someone likes or dislikes.”

Organizations are changing

It might not be easy for a company to adopt a new strategy in which it no longer just launches a product but also then collects data to improve it. Hatch points to big manufacturing companies that already have a process for product development in place. “When that process ends and the product is released, another team – in sales or aftermarket services – takes over.” A product that doesn’t just launch and disappear has implications for the organization and its structure. Organizational change might be needed to accommodate this new concept of product management. Hatch thinks this might be a challenging step for companies. He also mentions another possible issue: money. It takes a considerable investment to change the product management process.

A look ahead

Paul Hatch

Paul Hatch is CEO of TEAMS Design USA. With over 1000 design awards TEAMS Design is one of the world’s most respected design firms. Paul has spoken at several conferences on IOT, user experience, industrial design and technology. He is also co-author of two books on the impact design and technology has on business.

What does this mean for the future? “Five years from now, any electronic product that is not smart or connected will be a dumb product,” says Hatch. “People will automatically assume that ‘electronic’ means smart and connected. If it’s not connected, it won’t live up to the user’s expectations. Therefore, it’s worth a lot less.” He also thinks the line between industrial and consumer products will blur. People will expect a product to offer the same level of logic and intuitiveness, no matter whether they are using it at work or in their private lives. As a result, areas that generally have not been affected by technological change in the past will increasingly need to adapt.

Hatch sees many organizational changes looming on the horizon for companies – and these changes don’t concern engineering or R&D roles only. “The bigger IoT picture involves major decisions that shouldn’t be left to the product manager alone. It should involve everyone up to and including top management.” Hatch already sees CIOs and design thinking approaches playing a bigger role in organizations. In his eyes, this confirms their importance as drivers of organizational change.

More on digital transformation?

This text is based on an interview we conducted with Paul in preparation for a white paper on digital transformation. Do you want to dive deeper into it? You can download it here:

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