Designing for the Internet of Things (IoT)

Business of Design

Learnings from design projects

A column by Manik Arora
May 23, 2022

In this column, I’ll focus on designing user experiences for the Internet of Things (IoT). What is the Internet of Things? It represents a worldwide network of physical devices whose software, sensors, and other technologies enable them to connect with one another and exchange data over the Internet.

Through low-cost computing capabilities, massive data capture and storage, mobile technologies, the cloud, and data analytics, these physical devices can easily collect and share data with minimal human intervention. Digital systems are capable of monitoring, adjusting, and recording each individual interaction between connected devices. Thus, the digital world is meeting and cooperating with the physical world.

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What Are Connected Devices?

By linking electronic gadgets such as computers, smartphones, tablets, TVs, appliances, or any other objects that have the necessary connectivity and sensors to the Internet, we can enable them to communicate with other gadgets that are on the same network. These are the connected devices of the IoT. Figure 1 provides an example. For example, a refrigerator that lets a supermarket’s online server know that a user is running low on soda is a connected device that is communicating on the IoT.

Figure 1—Connected devices
Connected devices

UX Design for IoT

How is UX design for IoT different from software design? In most cases, users know what to expect from interactions with a mobile app, Web application, or Web site. Essentially, their designs may differ somewhat, but their consistent structures and the common user journeys make them feel familiar, as shown in Figure 2. In contrast, for IoT devices, the standard structures and experiences of applications might not always be present, because these devices support both human-machine interactions and interactions among a variety of IoT devices. Plus, because IoT depends heavily on the Internet, a weak connection can result in a devices’s failure to respond.

Figure 2—The human-machine user experience
The human-machine user experience

Challenges of Designing for IoT

UX design for the Internet of Things must weave together various design domains to develop a successful product. Even if you consider each of the following issues individually, they are quite challenging. Together, they can be daunting.

  • battery-life limitations—If you enjoy following the smartphone space, you are probably aware that there is now no limit when it comes to screen size. For example, phablets’ screen dimensions are taking an upward trajectory these days. Their bigger monitors aren’t just for the user’s viewing convenience. They are more about providing the space to accommodate larger batteries. Battery-life limitations are ultimately the realm of hardware engineers, but larger batteries can deliver greater capacity now.
  • lack of efficiency and effectiveness—The capabilities of embedded systems are somewhat constrained by expense. The need to minimize costs drives the development of better approaches to designing IoT devices, so the way you manufacture their various digital, electronic elements can help contain costs. Plus, enabling these devices to run more efficiently and effectively improves the user experience and reduces the cost of ownership.
  • system security—We must design and implement systems to be sufficiently secure and reliable through the use of cryptographic algorithms and security approaches. Securing every element of an embedded system from prototype to deployment could involve a variety of approaches.
  • emerging standards—Despite the common depiction of the IoT as a connected ecosystem, in which devices work well together, the reality is confusing to many people. As many companies dash to become dominant players in this emerging domain, they may develop conflicting standards. Therefore, some devices might be completely unaware of the presence or capabilities of others on the IoT because their manufacturers have designed them to work exclusively with those of specific providers. Others are more broadly compatible. Now the crucial challenge for developers is dealing with the potential interference of different devices.

Figure 3 depicts some of these challenges.

Figure 3—Design challenges for IoT
Design challenges for IoT

UX Design Principles for IoT

IoT devices are becoming endemic in our daily lives. We know that IoT has the power to change some fundamental aspects of the ways in which we interact with the world. Therefore, a device’s user experience could play a critical role in the advancement of IoT. Here are a few UX design principles that you must keep in mind when designing for IoT:

  • the importance of UX research—During the initial phases of design, it is always a good idea to think about what value an IoT device would offer to your users and must deliver to your business. When getting into IoT design, you’re not creating products anymore. Instead, you’re building services and experiences than have the potential to improve people’s lives. So an in-depth qualitative analysis is essential to figuring out how you can succeed.
  • building a strong brand—Because of the real-world context in which IoT solutions exist, regardless of how carefully you design a device, something unexpected will likely take place. This could cause your solution to no longer function within the network of connected devices. In the event of such a situation, it is important that you’ve built a strong brand that resonates with your users. Once they feel connected to your brand, they’ll be more accepting of system failures and continue to operate using your solutions.
  • taking a holistic view—Ideally, IoT solutions consist of multiple devices that have various capabilities—both digitally and physically. You must take a holistic approach to designing an IoT device, looking across the whole system, which needs to work seamlessly together to create a meaningful experience for users.
  • safety and security—You must always remember that IoT solutions aren't purely digital. Once you place them into a real-world context, the consequences can be severe when something goes wrong.

Make sure that you build trust with your users through every interaction rather than breaking it.


It is fair to say that IoT is on its way to becoming one of the most disruptive technology trends. IoT is likely to cause major changes that impact our daily lives. IoT solutions are now commonplace, so our interactions with each of our technology devices are evolving. Each connected device requires detailed design, and many require new technologies. The key elements that I’ve discussed in this column can guide your decision-making when designing for IoT. Hopefully, the IoT design principles that I’ve shared with you will enable you to design for IoT successfully. 

Co-founder and Design Director at Onething Design Studio

Gurugram, Haryana, India

Manik AroraManik was introduced to design when he was building Placesso, a ride-sharing platform based on Facebook’s social graph. While they never launched the platform, the experience taught Manik a lot about design and development. Since then, he has stayed with design. He and his friends began spending a lot of time discussing the designs of newly launched apps, exploring ways to improve their user experience. They felt really badly about people using poor designs so, in 2014, launched Ketchup Designs Studio. In 2015, they changed the name to Onething Design. Since then, they’ve helped a lot of businesses design products people love to use.  Read More

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