September 4th, Berlin – the city was once again home to the world’s leading trade show for consumer electronics and home appliances. PDD’s Creative Director, Jamie Buckley and Principal of Design, Marko Plevnik were there to meet current and future clients and see what companies and brands are talking about and launching in the not too distant future.
As well as the eagerly awaited launch of Samsung’s folding phone (re-release!), Sonos’s portable speaker, Braun LE series speakers and Panasonics transparent TV, Jamie and Marko have highlighted 10 of the most interesting experiences and products they came across on their travels…
- Hisense round corner TV
- Sony’s beautiful colourways and colour, material and finish compositions
- Electrolux easy use dishwasher interface
- Bosch vacuum sealer – store, sous vide, blend
- Samsung Serif TV
- Bosch concept washing machine
- LG solar panels and integrated energy storage
- Samsung Bespoke fridges
- Vacuum blenders, everywhere!
September is nearly here, meaning that the tech world will be once again converging on Berlin for the annual IFA convention. This is Europe’s largest and oldest tech convention and naturally, PDD will be attending.
The biggest expectation is that 2015 is the year that the connected home will go mainstream. With devices such as the Nest Thermostat leading the charge, the last few years have seen the race to add connectivity to every household device we can think of, ranging from light bulbs to ovens and even the kettle. Unsurprisingly at IFA this year we are likely to see the larger home appliance brands pushing to bring connectivity to their entire range of products.
As a UX/UI designer I see this trend as beneficial. Firstly household devices will be able to give in depth feedback to their users. For example your washing machine could recommend a more efficient cycle based on your load history and your oven could let you know how well your food is cooking. Secondly, allowing smartphones/tablets access to household devices could be a game changer. Household devices have some of the most notoriously bad interfaces out there (I’m looking at you, Microwaves). Smartphones however have some of the best interfaces and almost all users have experience using them. An app that controls an appliance will allow for a more flexible and informative interface than an array of buttons paving the way for a better user experience.
There are downsides however, as we are seeing in the media data security is becoming an increasingly big issue. But, on a more personal level one of the biggest problems is that as more devices become connected, the risk of information overload grows. Do you think your phone has enough notifications already thanks to email, Whatsapp, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Linkedin and Candy Crush? Now imagine having twelve different smart devices each with their own app demanding attention as well. Managing this may end up being more hassle than operating their non-connected predecessors, defeating the point entirely.
To make this avalanche of extra information digestible for the user, device manufacturers will have to start thinking differently. Instead of trying to engage with the user, they will instead have to try to convey information efficiently with as little contact time as possible. This is often referred to as “slippy UX” and will become increasingly popular over the next few years. This concept may be strange for designers to adapt too. Until now many interfaces have been designed to increase user engagement. For websites or apps that rely on customer purchase this approach is necessary. The more a customer sticks around, the more likely they will make a purchase (this is known as “sticky UX”). For connected household devices however the opposite is true. The customer is already past the point of purchase. Trying to force them to engage unnecessarily will only frustrate them. The emphasis should be on blending seamlessly into the users’ life instead of demanding their attention.
One of the best ways to this is to convey as much information as you can with a single glance. Google Now’s card based design shows a good example of how this works. The Apple Watch fitness app also shows a good example of this; everything you need to know about your current exercise can be seen in a single glance. Connected household devices should operate in the same way. A smart lock should only notify when something out of the ordinary happens. My thermostat should very occasionally inform me how much money I’m spending and how to improve.
The Apple Watch Fitness Tracker. Image Credit: Cnet.com
Another way to decrease user engagement is to make household devices talk to each other rather than just the user. Your lights could automatically switch on every time you unlock your front door. Your kettle could switch on for that vital cup of tea when the alarm goes off in the morning. Of course this is easier said than done as a user is unlikely to buy every home device from the same manufacturer, although the tech giants seem to be on the case. Apples’ homekit aims to make every device compatible with iOS, meanwhile Google are hot on its heels with Nest Labs. I admit it may be frustrating to see the never ending iOS vs Android war spill over into my choice of bedroom lights but so far this is the best chance there is of bringing order to the connected house.
It’s still early days for this technology. We can expect a lot of innovation some of which will work, some of which will not. It’s very easy to get caught up with the hype surrounding the connected home, but before attaching sensors and a WiFi connection to a mug (that’s already been done by the way), designers will always need to ask themselves one question: How this will benefit the user? If adding smart features fails to impact the overall experience of using the device in any way, then your efforts are best put to something else.
After attending CEF electronics show in Shanghai, Emily Lai investigates how local Chinese brands can survive and thrive if they want to expand in a global market place. What will set these Chinese brands apart from other players within their own highly competitive and fast moving marketplace?
I was at the CEF electronics show in Shanghai a few days ago and visited a forum called “Wearable Technology Development and Making”. A designer/engineer from Desay vaguely described his inspiration behind its newly developed product. He described how he overheard a little child talk about her aspiration to get a Nike Fuelband approximately 1-2 years ago. The girl kept asking her parents to buy one of these devices because it could monitor sleep, calories burnt and also heart rate. Following this, the designer/engineer was inspired to develop his own version of the device that had identical features, which he called ‘Fitband’.
He continued to describe the Fitband from features to form factor. The two models developed took the form of wrist worn devices. To someone familiar with tech brands such as Nike or Samsung, one model looked visually alike to the Nike Fuelband, and the other visually alike to Samsung’s Gear Fit™ device, both of which were released at least one year ago.
Samsung Gear™ Fit – fitness band. Image credit: Samsung
CEF show Shanghai 2014. Image credit: PDD
The intent of this blog wasn’t to draw attention to how similar the product looked compared to the other wearable devices on the market. I wanted to investigate and understand how these brands survive and how they thrive if they want to expand in a global market place.
With a population of 1.35 billion, China has already overtaken USA as the largest economy in the world. However, the purchasing power of individual consumers is still much lower than in other developed countries. These local Chinese tech companies have the technology and capability to achieve similar features and quality of those global brands. In fact, imagine if a local brand is already making its desired profits with little to no investment on design, why take the risk to invent anything new? If innovation is to improve people’s quality of life, these 2nd or 3rd tier companies are offering affordable solutions to achieve just that. The basic technology behind many of these wearable devices is becoming more and more of a commodity as the industry develops, the sharing platforms are simply different from one country compare to another. We cannot just look at a product from an aesthetic perspective and should acknowledge its positive social impact (which can sometimes be hard for us designers).
Let’s set this wearable bracelet topic aside for the moment and speak of the Smart Phone market in China. Since a majority of Chinese consumers are on a low income, they seek good quality local branded products that offer good features at a low cost. Successful cases such as Xiaomei, a Chinese Smart Phone manufacturer who produce great phones at a low price, may be seen to ‘copy’ other brands from a Western view point, but I prefer looking at it from an alternative perspective. I like to define it as ‘customised-innovation’ that is ‘cost acceptable’ for the greater public. Smaller companies will learn and understand that just copying will not make them an industry leader.
Friedman said it best in his book The World is Flat: ‘Companies that were paying attention understood they were witnessing the birth of the “self-directed consumer”, because the internet and all the other tools for the flat world had created a means for every consumer to customise exactly the price, experience, and service he or she wanted.’ The word ‘internet’ has a slightly different meaning in China compared to the rest of the world. Let’s not forget that Google, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are disabled in China unless used through a VPN connection. I see that smaller brands have more flexibility in satisfying the local needs of consumers compared to some of the larger less agile global brands. By being closer and locally embedded they are able to hear and understand the nuances of the culture they are designing for, reacting to them quickly and efficiently.
As I mentioned before, technologies have become a commodity and aesthetics are no longer a guaranteed means to differentiate global brands from local brands. I am not suggesting local brands should copy, or that global brands do not bring their own set of values to products and services that local brands just cannot match. I believe that global brands should continue to innovate towards consumer needs and focus on user experience; while hardware and software can be copied the user experience is key point of differentiation that brands can leverage. Whereas for local brands, the ability to understand the global world and use it to adapt to local consumer needs will set them apart from other players within their own highly competitive and fast moving marketplace.
That sums up my observation over the weekend.
I recently saw an interesting tongue-in-cheek statistic in the Wired Magazine (March 2013) commenting on what people look for in a TV; 4% wanted improved features like gigantic screens and ultra-high 4k resolution, whilst the remanding 96% wanted the ability to find what to watch, when they want to. Is this highlighting a disconnect between manufactures and users? Are the 72 inch ultra-sharp screens now sitting with the six bladed razors and the 24 megapixel compact cameras in the quest for features over utility?
4k televisions, for example, offer magnificent resolution and the ability to scale TV’s to the size of walls without losing fidelity, but as HBO’s former technology officer BoB Zitter commented earlier this year. “Only 25-30% of homes, even in the US, have space for a TV large enough for viewers to discern a difference between regular HD and 4k“. A salient point and probably why the companies making these TV’s talk about commercial applications, such as bars, where the screen can easily be divided into quadrants for airing sports simultaneously. Hard to see huge benefits over current banks of TV’s that might warrant the expense. Similarly there are concepts for 8K, curved and even mist based screens with similar esoteric advantages.
As we subscribe to more and more online entertainment services we see a convergence of companies to this competitive internet media market. The obvious leader in the UK is the BBC iplayer. This pioneering service is going from strength to strength, with the BBC reporting at the beginning of the year that audiences in 2012 spent 34% more time watching in iplayer. It’s become so ubiquitous ‘iplayer’ is now the generic term for any online TV streaming. In this cases it’s a TV network, as content creator and curator, ensuring their potential audience is maximised with easy access on any screen based device.
iPlayer device platforms. Image credit: BBC