IoT developers can learn from America’s smart meter mistake

IoT developers can learn from America’s smart meter mistake
Tony is the president and a founding partner of Yeti LLC, a product-focused development and design studio in San Francisco. Tony has been building software since his teen years, and he has led product development efforts for global brands such as Google, Westfield Labs, JBL, MIT, and Sony PlayStation.

In 2009, experts thought they had the solution to America’s household energy waste: smart meters.

“Smart meters will allow you to actually monitor how much energy your family is using by the month, by the week, by the day, or even by the hour,” President Barack Obama proclaimed that same year, heralding the U.S. government’s $3.4 billion Smart Grid grants.

Now, nearly a decade later, if you judged smart meters by their ubiquity, you’d think the initiative was a success. More than half of American homes now have smart meters, with deployments set to top 70 million by the end of 2016. But household energy use trends tell a different story. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, residential energy consumption has remained roughly unchanged since 2009.

So why haven’t smart meters cut consumption? The reason becomes rather obvious when you look at these early-bird Internet of Things products. They offer up useful information — but only if the user actually goes looking for it. And the problem is that users simply aren’t: The Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative found just 8 percent of Americans use their energy company’s online energy analysis tools.

A Smarter Meter Needs a Smarter Roadmap

To understand the smart meter situation, think about a different energy transaction: purchasing fuel for your car. Gas pumps provide in-your-face, real-time information about energy use, causing customers to care quite a bit about their gasoline expenditures.

Smart meters may be more high-tech than gas pumps, but their problem is not the technology itself. While working with EKM Metering on Encompass, we realized that the issue is an out-of-sight, out-of-mind interface that’s engineered without users in mind. And the problem isn’t limited to smart meters; rather, it keeps the IoT industry as a whole from gaining traction.

If IoT brands are to electrify the consumer market, they’ll need to follow the steps of brands like Fitbit, which creates connected fitness trackers famous for their seamless interoperability. Using If This Then That (IFTTT), users can hook their Fitbits to hundreds of other products and services, then interact with those third-party products and services from their very wrists.

Unlike past tech products, nothing about IoT devices works in isolation. IoT devices like smart meters interoperate with other devices to deliver a service that no single device could. It’s that interconnectedness — along with the necessary unification of the user experience — that requires IoT product developers to put additional effort into their product roadmaps.

Respecting the User Step-by-Step

Because the IoT universe is so vast, no one approach to product road-mapping works for all designers. The important part is understanding where IoT roadmaps require additional planning compared with their peers. So if you’re about to create a product roadmap for a new or existing IoT device, take care to follow these steps:

1. Establish a problem statement. If a connected device can’t solve one or more specific problems for its users, then it won’t ever succeed. Figure out what those problems are at the start so that every subsequent decision you make works toward connecting users with actionable solutions.

2. Define user personas. Do you know exactly who is likely to use your IoT product? Don’t speculate: Develop nuanced user personas, test assumptions with a prototype, and ensure every choice you make during development serves those specific users. The main reason products fail is a lack of product-market fit, so don’t sink millions into development before you’ve found it.

3. Create empathy maps.Imagine how the user you defined in the prior step might interact with your IoT product. Use sticky notes and a large sheet of butcher paper to map out what your customer is seeing, thinking, hearing, and doing while using your product.

4. Generate solutions. Only once you understand what your target users need should you begin brainstorming solutions to those needs. Remember that not all exciting or innovative ideas actually benefit the user, and sometimes boring ones — like the gas pump’s price display — actually do more good than high-tech alternatives.

5. Create epics. After you’ve prescribed an answer to target users’ problems, start thinking about the major features and functions of your solution. Separate these into epics — larger chunks of work with many user stories — and write them on sticky notes so they can by physically moved around and grouped together. Color code them by project themes such as “onboarding flow” or “user interface.”

6. Prioritize epics. With product stakeholders, sort epics according to feasibility, desirability, and viability. Designers, in particular, must consider the user’s needs, while developers can speak on features’ technical challenges. Remember that with IoT products, the device’s connectivity, hardware, and user interface should receive the most attention.

Getting IoT roadmaps right is all about the pre-work. Smart meters haven’t taken off as expected because their interfaces just don’t reflect how users think about household energy. Had their creators introduced the meters with intuitive home energy apps that provide push notifications during energy surges or outages, the outcome could have been very different.

Don’t make the same mistake. When you’re road-mapping your IoT product, take special care to understand the problem you’re trying to solve, know your target user, and get the product into the hands of real users to guide development decisions. Then, once your IoT product hits the shelves, it’ll connect with customers right out of the box.

Do you have any further advice for IoT developers? Let us know in the comments. in hearing industry leaders discuss subjects like this and sharing their IoT use-cases? Attend the IoT Tech Expo World Series events with upcoming shows in Silicon Valley, London and Amsterdam to learn more.

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