Technology Products Should “Just Work”

Judging by the state of consumer technology today, especially in the smart home space, one wonders if anyone ever ran any design thinking  sessions with customers who are genuinely not like the team who builds the product.

In my view, as a technologist, we still create new products for ourselves instead of for our real customers.

Let’s use the example of a smart home product, like a smart light bulb.

First, let’s start with something everyone is familiar with, a typical dumb bulb – you take it out of the package, screw it into the socket and flip on the power, and it works. No configuration required, no fanfare – it just works.

Now let’s look at a supposedly “smart” bulb. You take it out of the package and screw it into the socket. So far so good. You flip on the switch. Yes, it works! But that where the simple stuff ends.

You now need to connect your smartphone to the bulb by selecting the bulbs wireless network. Once you have done that, you give the bulb the credentials of your wifi network. You hope it saves the information and can then connect to your wifi network. If that miracle occurs, you can now control your smartbulb from your phone. Great. But you also would like your Google Assistant or Amazon Echo to control your bulb. So you need to interconnect the bulb to your virtual assistant. Eventually, assuming everything is connected, you can now say “Alexa, Light On” or turn on your bulb, and “Alexa, Light Off” to turn it off. Each command asks Alexa to connect to the light bulb companies cloud, trigger the command, which then communicates to your bulb, telling the bulb what to do.

After about 20 minutes of configuration, it might work. For a bit. Until you have a power failure and the bulb forgets the wifi settings.

You then need to flip the switch five times in the row to reset your bulb, then do the configuration dance all over again.

Back in 1995, after the disaster Windows was in connecting peripherals to the system, Bill Gates announced the concept of plug-n-play – when you plugged a device into the computer, Windows would automatically detect the device, and if it found a driver for the device, automatically install that driver, making the device magically work.

Well, while the reality may not have been precisely that – the concept is sound – and something we desperately need today in our technology product space. Too many of our products are released to our customers in what I might call Beta mode, requiring our customers to have a certain level of technical expertise to install and configure a product. In my view, we should be far past that by now – we know how to develop products which can configure themselves – yet somehow we seem to refuse to imbue our products with those qualities.

Technology products should work – right out of the box.

Just look at Apple for great examples of this – how Airpods seem to magically work right out of the box when you bring them close to your iPhone. This is the kind of “configuration magic” we should aspire to with all of our technology products, whether for business or the home. Technology products should be smart enough to configure themselves by now.

We can do this; we need the desire. Let’s work on a new configuration framework where our technology products are indeed plug-n-play: you turn them on, and they simply work.

Our customers will thank us for that.