IoT Gives Product Design a New Twist

Stem

Dan Ostrower is CEO of Altitude, a product design and innovation company with clients ranging from Nike to Thermo Scientific to the United States Air Force.

The company recently won a SPARK award for its smart connected cocktail glasses. In a recent interview with PTC, Ostrower discussed how the Internet of Things (IoT) and smart connected products are impacting product design.

What is the design philosophy that drives your company?

We discover what’s next for our clients and we bring it to life through human-centered design. This design approach is especially important in with smart connected products, so we strive to understand the needs—as well as the values and behaviors—of humans deeply. And it’s from here that I believe the good ideas come.

This approach starts with qualitative research as we observe the people we’re designing for in their environments. For instance, if we’re designing a product for cooks, then we have dinner with people in their kitchen and observe how they cook. From there, we ideate broadly, trying out lots of things. Then we test these ideas by bringing the concepts back to the consumers so we can find out their likes and dislikes. And we repeat the process until we’ve got the next great idea.

How will smart connected technologies transform industry?

Every industry must redefine itself to successfully create smart connected products. Automobile manufacturers will no longer be in the car making business, they’ll be in the personal transportation industry as cars turn into smart connected transportation units. The home appliance industry might transform into the food preparation industry. I see this already happening in the service industries—think Netflix versus Blockbuster.

How is the IoT fundamentally changing product design?

It’s all about taking physical products and connecting them digitally. Designers must shift their thinking because the question is no longer, “How do I make a better blender?” It has become, “How can I help people prepare foods better?” It’s the same for drill bits and holes. If you focus on the bits, you’ll only make better bits. But if you think about making better holes, then you’re at a whole different starting point.

This kind of design requires a different set of disciplines. It’s not only industrial and mechanical designers in play, but there are also interaction experts and experience designers, along with service designers, involved. All of these disciplines must work together from the beginning to understand the whole problem and work together to find a complete solution.

In the old world, it was all about the physical attributes of a product—how does it look and feel—along with electronics and mechanics. Now, in addition to all that, there’s a connected app which generates lots of data, and there are algorithms overlaid on the data. All of this data is then processed to provide intelligence and actionable insights.

In our own company, we now have a broader cross-section of people on staff, but we also work hard to find ambidextrous designers who think differently. And we use an ecosystem of partners as well.

Tell us about the connected cocktail.

This is a piece of innovation our company worked on and we’re proud to say that it won a SPARK award. Today fancy cocktails are a must on many restaurant menus, and the drinks serve a purpose, they connect people.

But not being able to make these fancy drinks at home is a missed opportunity. Traditionally, like with other products, there are barriers—it’s hard to mix them right, or to decide what is the appropriate cocktail for the right occasion. And it’s often even more challenging to find the right ingredients.

So the smart connected cocktail system, which we call Stem, takes care of all that in a delicious and exciting way. It is an app, a cloud application, and a set of smart liquor bottle caps. Stem knows what ingredients you have on hand, and what’s in your bar. Guests can select from a variety of drinks on an online menu. When the host is ready to mix a drink, Stem’s app and LED-powered caps guide the person through the steps so the cocktails come out perfectly each time.

And you think this will be a hit with customers?

The touchstone is the customer. And what the customer wants is exponentially more important than ever before. If there is no lighthouse on the hill, if you don’t understand what customers want emotionally and functionally, then you’ll miss the mark.

If designers don’t take a human-centric approach, then they’ll end up with a collision of technology. Conversely, when the digital and physical connect innovatively, they are much more powerful than either of the two separate worlds.

The challenge is doing this all right.

Photo courtesy of Altitude

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