Meaningful connected products

by Dries De Roeck on June 26, 2014

Over a period of a few weeks, I have been or will be giving a couple of talks on meaningful connected products (here, here and here). Although that the talks are all different, I wanted to introduce some of the core concepts related to my interpretation of meaningful connected products using some key slides I’ve been using.

1 – the internet of things is broken


Using an excellent quote I first heard at thingscon 2014 during a talk by @aallan I want to highlights at least two points of attention related to the current state of the internet of things. Firstly, there are several aspects related to technology that need attention. Secondly, there is a lack of human and contextual involvement within the conceptualisation, design and development of internet of things hard and software.

2 – the technological side


(from top to bottom) : Philips HUE, Sonos, Nest thermostat


Think back 7 years. Envision your coffee table or sofa in your living room, what objects were in/on/besides these pieces of furniture? I hope you’re thinking of at least one remote control right now. People had at least two, but most likely at lot more of these devices around their house. Each remote control talked to a specific device (radio, tv, dvd player, set top box, game console, etc.). Now think about the current state of connected (internet of things) devices, each device has a separate app to control it. Instead of coffee tables full of remotes, we now have smartphones full of apps. Luckily, there are a few initiatives going on which will create the technological bridges needed to get all devices to talk to each other. A good, low barrier, example of such a service which is available today is IFTTT, allowing to link digital sources and physical devices together.


I believe that the above image illustrates what is happening to the internet of things at the moment. Products are becoming network connected, and they might work flawlessly within their own ecosystem. I get the feeling that when a company can state that their products are network connected, it is regarded as a feature instead of a philosophy in which a created product is drenched. Internet of things has the risk of becoming a ‘label’ on something, much like an ‘intel inside’ sticker. Linking this back to human interaction, Dan Saffer made an excellent quote on that recently:

Dan might cut a couple of corners short here, but I’m quite convinced about the hidden message in his tweet (at least, the one I’ve found in it). A connected product can only be designed when human interaction, physical hardware and digital software are considered as one ‘blob’. There is and should be no difference at design time (Fischer).

3 – Meaningful connected products


I use the term ‘meaningful connected products’ to describe a network connected product that incorporates a context driven or human centered approach. Instead of making connected products as ‘showcases’ of what could be technologically feasible, it makes much more sense to me to explore how to actually embed this type of products in our everyday lives. In order to do so, a product should be meaningful to the person that owns it. Now, what is something meaningful? Verganti deconstructs this concept in three elements;

a – from functional to emotional


In order to create something meaningful, a transformation from something solely functional to something emotional is required. In his book, Verganti uses the example of what Jacob Jensen did with HiFi systems. Before the launch of the iconic B&O HiFi systems, HiFi audio was something that was driven by engineering. Think : heavy square metal boxes. The mindswitch that Jensen introduced was that in order to actually sell this technology, people needed to ‘want’ this in their living rooms. He therefore redesigned not only the HiFi components, but also the furniture to hold the products. Doing so, HiFi audio became a desire by music enthousiasts instead of something obscure.

b – understanding context of use


In order to create an emotional relation between a person and a product, a deep understanding of someone’s context of use is crucial. A good model to support this is illustrated in the convivial toolbox book by Sanders & Stappers. Having a deep understanding of context means that a design team should know what people feel, what they dream instead of merely reflecting on what people say and do. A design team should be able to gain insights into latent knowledge, things that aren’t visible after talking to someone in an interview. In order to achieve this, specific methods are required. (more on that later)

c – temporal


Lastly, we should be aware that something meaningful is temporal. What means something to me today might mean nothing to me in a week. A typical example of this is a hype. A few years ago, everyone wanted a Furby – now I can imagine that a lot of these creatures are silently weeping in cupboards around the world. The aspect of temporality implies that meaningful (connected) products should be able to evolve, change and adapt to the context around them.

4 – But what does it mean!?

In order to make the above theory jibber jabber better understandable, there are two examples that show a connected product that is created as a ‘meaningful’ connected product and a ‘non-meaningful’ connected product.


Firstly, the Good Night Lamp. This lamp consists of a large house (shown in the picture above) and a smaller house. When someone switches the large lamp on by pressing the little chimney, the small house lights up too. The small house does not need to be connected to the large house with a wire, thus can be place anywhere around the world (as long as it has a network connection). Technologically speaking, there is very little ‘novel’ going on here, LEDs go on and off based on button press data that is sent to a networked server. But from a human point of view, there is more going on. The lamp becomes an emotional artefact, as it is typically used to indicate presence of a loved one. People using the lamp can give meaning to the device in their own way, it therefore is not something with one defined function and has less chance of being something temporal. Lastly, the product is aesthetically created to be part of people’s home. It does not look technological, it does not have blue flashing LEDs in a faux-silver casing but it appears as a friendly and warm object.

An example of a network connected product that is conceptualised in a less meaningful way is the growguard. This product is a ‘stick’ which is placed in the soil of a plant or vegetable garden. The device monitors the soil quality, the amount of light the plants are getting, etc… and pushes this information to a server where it can be visualised. Based on this data, the process and overall ‘health’ of the plants can be tracked and acted upon when necessary. So regarding functionality, this product surely has its use. But what strikes me in the image above, is the absence of any relation to the possible context it is to be placed in. The image shows an outdoor vegetable garden, with an unprotected printed circuit board stuck in the soil. Typically for outdoor vegetable gardens is that they get wet. Starting from even that ‘small’ element of empathy with the context the device is to be placed in could transform the whole conceptualisation of this product.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that one product is ‘better’ than the other. What I’m saying is that the goodnightlamp embraces its context of use and lets the product be defined starting from there. The growguard is an example of a technology showcase product, with a lot of interesting features but which becomes questionable at use-time.

5 – So how do I get started?

In order to incorporate context of use during the conceptualisation phase of a network connected product it is important to first define the envisioned interaction as good as possible. I believe that it is important to, before creating a functional/experiental prototype, to make sure what effect you want to achieve in the end.


Lillidots is a method in development (currently going through its third iteration) in which I propose a way of working that can help design teams in getting a clear idea what their connect product(s) should do and how that should be achieved. Lillidots allows you to define and refine a conceptual idea and explore how it can be materialised (i.e. what should the technology I need do?) It stimulates design teams to think beyond technological limitations and explore context driven possibilities.

In a next post I will shed some more light on this method, what it consists of and when I believe it is useful to include in a design process.


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