The world is becoming increasingly connected. This trend is not limited to people but also applies to the products we have in our homes. More and more consumer electronics come with an app, communicate with Alexa, Google Home, or are linked to a system of connected products. To prevent your end user from getting lost somewhere in between the app and your physical product, it is important to address the design of both digital and physical elements simultaneously. Doing so is essential to create one holistic user experience.
In this article, I give you a quick look into my world as a User Experience (UX) & Product Designer at SLIMDESIGN. I will demonstrate how an overarching UX perspective can help you to create a clear narrative for your users, and how this helps you to make your user experience almost feel like magic.
Connected consumer electronics, why a consolidated design process is important.
Consumer electronics such as household appliances, lights, and even your refrigerator are getting smarter, they are increasingly becoming connected to your smartphone or even communicate amongst each other. Products are no longer just tangible objects; their user experience is extended to a whole extra dimension: the digital world.
To design an experience that transitions seamlessly between digital and physical elements it is important to look at the design process from an overarching User Experience perspective. Because when the digital and physical elements are designed separately and then added together afterwards, this causes the user experience to clash inevitably.
At SLIMDESIGN we have developed a consolidated design process in which we look at both the digital and the physical elements of a product at the same time, and design them simultaneously, treating them as one user experience.
What makes a good user experience?
First, let’s define a good user experience. A good user experience is intuitive and has a strong narrative that aligns with what the user is trying to achieve. It takes the user by the hand and almost instinctively explains how and where to interact with the product. After the user interaction, the product/app/service gives the appropriate feedback on the user’s action. When talking about connected consumer electronics, most importantly the experience should be a seamless transition between the digital and the physical world.
To make this definition more concrete I will give you an example. Many people use smart lighting in their homes these days. Lights that automatically adapt to the time of day, that respond to voice controls, or are controlled via an app. When you are the owner of the system and you have installed it yourself, it might feel obvious to you how it works. But what happens when you have visitors over who want to turn on the lights above the kitchen table? How do they know there is a system in place? How can they control the system without using the host’s phone? Should there be a physical switch? Or only a digital one? Or both? And how do these switches influence each other?
As you can see a simple example can turn into quite a complex design challenge rather fast. Imagine when the product feature complexity and quantity increase, so does the complexity of the design challenge.
To achieve a good working system for multiple users across different platforms it is important to look at the design from a holistic perspective. Who is going to use it? In what context? And what are they trying to achieve? And foremost why?
Defining the basics of the user experience
To develop a clear narrative, it is important to get a good feel for the system you are designing. What elements will be present and what are going to be the basic features. A few tools that we like to use in our consolidated design process at SLIMDESIGN, to establish a good narrative are listed below.
The easiest way to start is by mapping your product ecosystem, what elements are in there? Is there an app? A physical product? Or maybe multiple products and a remote? Make sure you include all elements and map how they relate to each other.
Very basically put, what features does the system have, and in which of your system elements are they placed. Think back to the on/off light switch example, do you place it in the app, on the product, on a remote, or all of the above? The easiest way to go about this is by creating a basic table, this gives insight into what happens, where, and why at one glance.
A good next step is wireframing, much like wireframing is used in the digital world to nail the basic workings of an app, it can be used for physical products as well, and for the system as a whole.
Bringing your User Experience to life, build and improve.
Once you have a basic idea of what you are making you can start bringing the system to life, this will help you to get a better feeling of the narrative that you are designing.
Choose a few key scenarios and start running through them! Use some low-fi placeholder objects and simply act out the scenarios. This way you get a good idea of whether what you have been designing on paper, makes sense in the actual context.
Prototype prototype prototype
An easy way of figuring out if the flow of your product makes sense is making low-fidelity prototypes or paper prototypes. Make basic representations of the elements in your system on paper/cardboard, such as app screens, interfaces, or the product and walk through some of the key scenarios, are there any gaps in the flow? Do the different interfaces seem to make sense?
Yes, user testing, and this doesn’t mean you have to set up a whole test setting and protocol. It can be as easy as using some of your paper prototypes and getting a few people in to run through some of the use scenarios. Make sure you use people that are not involved in the project as well as some non-designers and fellow designers! Use a minimum of 5 participants, preferably from different demographic groups within your target audience. You will soon find out that what might be obvious to you and the design team, might leave some of your users completely puzzled.
You can start very simple, use some of the paper prototypes you created before and test. Once you are further in the process you can upgrade the fidelity of your prompts/prototypes and testing script.
How to use these UX design tools in your process
Mix it up
These are just some of the tools that we use in our consolidated design process, that help us nail the experience across different platforms. Of course, every design project requires a custom approach. Mix up the tools mentioned here, adjust them and increase or decrease fidelity depending on where you are in the process.
UX versus UI
The terms UX (User experience) design and UI (User Interface) design are often used interchangeably. It is important to note that UX and UI are not the same things, and in this article, we are talking about the overall product UX. Although some of these tools can be applied to developing a good UI as well, there is much more to it than that. Are you interested in developing a good UI for your product? Keep an eye out for our next article on how to design a physical product UI that works!
Lastly, in the development process of connected consumer electronics, you will need a wide range of disciplines involved. The decisions you make early in the process will inevitably affect the work of disciplines that are typically involved in later stages of the process. At SLIMDESIGN it is key to our consolidated design process to involve all different disciplines early in the process. For example, we involve our electronics engineers, mechanical engineers, and software developers from the start. This way useful information does not get lost in translation and we use their valuable input early on.
Would you like to know more about UX? Or do you have a project that you would like to get some help with? Please get in touch! We would love to help you further or to explain more.