Last week I attended a conference at Bentley College titled ‘The Internet of Things.’ Largely, the topic was around data—how it is produced, stored, and shared; what it is worth; and how secure it is. We’ve been gathering data through direct input for a long time (think forms, posts, credit card purchases—anything where you have to manually enter information), as well as live-recorded data, i.e., video and sound. But the recent trend, and where forecasters are predicting a shift, is in the gathering of data from the tangible, everyday things we use.
Every time you use your smartphone, drive your car, or adjust your Nest thermostat, that tool is gathering information from and about you. How far did you drive? Where did you go? What time of day do you usually heat up your house? This information can and has been used by companies in a variety of ways, such as how to advertise appropriate products to certain demographics based on their habits. Beyond marketing, however, we will likely see a shift in traditional business models based on the increased quantity and improved accessibility of data. For example, instead of fixed-rate insurance policies based on past history, these rates could be calculated on a flexible scale based on a user’s day-to-day behavior.
With the decreasing price of sensors and RFID cards, it is becoming increasingly feasible to connect everyday objects to the Internet. This allows us to aggregate data and look at our actions in a way that has never been possible. While we’ve been connecting objects and creating networks directly for a long time (think ethernet cables, local servers, and walkie talkies), the cloud allows us to connect globally, opening up data tracking to anyone in the world with a particular device. For example, including a sensor on asthma inhalers to track when they are used may seem arbitrary on an individual level. But this information can be incredibly useful when looking at the larger picture. A scenario was presented at the conference regarding these inhalers where researchers were able to track and relate asthma attacks around a seaport to the delivery of certain products that emit dust into the air. This knowledge could then be fed back to inhaler users the next time a delivery is scheduled, alerting them to close their windows or stay indoors during that particular time of day.
The presentation of data collected from an object back to the user is where UI/UX (user interface/user experience) design comes in. By studying different types of users and pinpointing their behavior, motivations, and emotional triggers, UI designers are able to determine what information is valuable to users and how to represent it visually. Data can be useful on its own (How far did I run?) or in relation to others (How far did I run compared to my network of friends?). This information is typically fed through a web or mobile application, as that is currently our most accessible form of communication. In the future, however, we may be able to retrieve and access information through different mediums, like wearables or from the devices itself.
So as the things we use have more capabilities, will this be a hinderance or improvement to our everyday life? Let’s use the car insurance example again. For those who have a clean driving record because they always adhere to speed limits and laws, tracking driving performance to determine auto insurance rates will be a good thing. For those, however, who have clean driving records simply because they’ve never been pulled over but sometimes go through red lights or drive over the legal limit, it will be more irritating to have their actions monitored. Our job, if we were working with the insurance company who had both users as their clients, would be to find a way to make the experience of this business model positive, useful, and enjoyable.