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Blog

Designers Say: Unique Considerations When Designing for New Hardware

Lucy Dotson

What’s it like designing for new IoT and/or hardware products? I asked five designers.

IoT (Internet of Things) is the acronym on everyone’s lips. The potential applications are vast and promising: whether we’re planning a city, building a new medical device, or counting our calories, IoT evangelists believe we can do it better, faster, and smarter through advanced connectivity systems.

From a sleek learning thermostat to a sensor-studded assembly line,  IoT devices are a motley crew. They share much more with their not-so-smart counterparts than they do with each other.

One thing all IoT devices share is the T: a new hardware element that must find its way into the lives of users. And because building hardware takes time, a hardware designer can’t always bang out a quick MVP and run it by users (although the experience can be crudely approximated, as in the case of the Apple Watch). For many IoT companies, user testing doesn’t start until after the hardware is more or less decided upon.

An “Apple 1” prototype computer circa 1976. Today, new hardware includes wearables, smart medical devices, and basically anything with a sensor in it that's hooked up to WiFi or Bluetooth. Photo courtesy of Christie’s Auction House.

An “Apple 1” prototype computer circa 1976. Today, new hardware includes wearables, smart medical devices, and basically anything with a sensor in it that's hooked up to WiFi or Bluetooth. Photo courtesy of Christie’s Auction House.

I reached out to designers working on different IoT devices to learn how they approach hardware, the collaborative process, user testing, and the overall user experience. I spoke with designers in the medical industry, luxury consumer goods, and restaurant supply. Here’s what I learned about designing a product with a unique hardware element:

There’s a little wiggle room with the hardware--but not much.

For these designers working in the IoT space, improving the user experience means improving the delivery, packaging, customization, and supporting software of a pre-existing piece of hardware.

Liz Cormack, Experience Designer at Grove Labs (maker of an in-home aquaponic ecosystem for growing fresh foods)

“The Grove Labs installation process is really important--it’s our users’ first experience with us. Our hardware is rooted in biology: aquaponics ecosystems involve human users, plants, bacteria and the fish in the fish tank. We ultimately have to design around the constraints of natural processes, which sometimes means more work for the user than I'd like.”

Martin Baladon, Design Manager at E La Carte (maker of the Presto tablet, an on-table tablet and POS for restaurants)

“We’re not going to tweak the hardware a lot—we have a solid platform on which to build. It can take a year or more to develop a piece of hardware. Presto has a camera, lights, wifi… there’s a lot of versatility built in. This will give us a larger playground to work with later on.”

Tom Gurka, Vice President of Design at Zuli (maker of consumer smartplugs)

“When it comes to what we can do with the design, packaging and presentation of the Zuli Smartplug, there are my hopes and dreams, the tech limitations of what’s possible, and then what actually happens. It’s always strange to have an element that you don’t have control over. It takes a lot of attention to detail, creative thinking and tons of revisions to get everything to the design standard you are aiming to achieve.”

Danielle Cojuangco, Head of Product Design at Proteus Digital Health (maker of Helius, a patch and sensor pair that tracks medication adherence)

“Over its first few years of existence, Proteus developed a truly novel technology, a sensor as small as a grain of sand that when swallowed in a pill, sends information to a body-worn patch. The next critical phase was achieving regulatory clearance for an unprecedented medical device.

“Today, with a technology that fundamentally works, and an offering that is cleared for use in the US and EU, we are well-positioned to release a great offering and demonstrate that we can impact health outcomes. The user experience team is a core part of defining and exploring the many ways patients and healthcare providers use the Proteus offering to improve lives.”  

Understanding users’ needs involves defining product goals.

The designers I spoke to took a few different approaches in understanding their users’ needs. For some products, the goal is to create an entirely new and engaging user experience. For others, the goal is to imitate a user experience that already exists.

Liz Cormack, Grove Labs

“We watch our early adopters install the system in their homes, and see how they feel about the experience. Our current system is less automated [than future versions]; it requires a good amount of work from the users. It's a very conscious choice we make. Our early adopters are gardeners or aspiring gardeners, and still want to be part of the plant growing process.”

Josh Stein, CEO & design-minded Co-Founder of AdhereTech (smart pill bottles)

“At AdhereTech, our goal is to have our product be as much like a traditional pill bottle as possible. When in doubt, we ask ourselves, ‘what does a normal pill bottle do?’ In the next year plus, we’re going to stay consistent with our bottles, and focus on expanding our software.”

Danielle Cojuangco, Proteus Digital Health

“Proteus’ user experience team is well-balanced between research and design. One of my favorite research activities we’ve done to date is how we refined the initial in-clinic interaction. Employees who are not part of the product team signed up to play the roles of patient and the physician. We watched them use our prototypes and run through the experience start to finish. What worked and what was broken emerged really quickly. A diverse set of people participated, from engineers to clinicians, and we had very productive discussions ranging from minor bug fixes, to higher level product goals. Research like this has pointed to a need to craft very simple experiences that focus on the benefits to the users, not the underlying novel technology. Users really need to have a clear picture of what’s in it for them.”

Owning the experience is even more vital for IoT designers.

All of the designers I interviewed believe that they share responsibility for getting a device into people’s hands easily and ensuring that his or her experience is fantastic from that moment on.

Liz Cormack, Grove Labs

“I have the opportunity to own the customer experience from start to finish. That means the software, yes, but also the packaging, print marketing, instructions, and content. As we grow, I won’t always own this stuff. At Grove Labs, we’re blessed with a lot of great design minds.”

Josh Stein, AdhereTech

“Because it’s a physical product, we have to really think about distribution. How will our bottles get into the patients’ hands? We’re not just thinking about the patient experience, but also about the the person who gives [our bottle] to the patient. We ask ourselves, ‘how can we make it the least disruptive as possible for everyone along the line?’”

Danielle Cojuangco, Proteus Digital Health

“At Proteus, the word UX  is understood as an overarching discipline: it’s about framing what the product is and whom it is for, crafting an emotional experience at every stage, and ensuring satisfaction for all users.


For these reasons, a member of the broader UX team is present at almost every product and service discussion that happens at Proteus, and is responsible for advocating for a cohesive design.  From the industrial designers evolving the patch, the graphic designers working on packaging, collateral and brand strategy, service designers developing our clinical training materials, the researchers building our user personas to the interaction designers crafting our apps, the UX team contributes to an evolving strategy around what we should be building.”

This is just the beginning.

There’s something exciting about working IoT--designers are on the crest of a wave. Here’s what the designers I spoke with are most excited about:

Martin Baladon, E La Carte

“I’m very interested in how 3D printing will impact hardware design. All of this new technology has helped create a faster turnaround. You get an idea, get it printed, and you have a prototype in your hand. You don’t have to be a mechanical engineer--any tinkerer can do it.”

Tom Gurka, Zuli

I really like that the bigger players are starting to get involved and that products that can maybe do one or two cool things without any interconnectivity with other products in this space are shrinking. Zuli recently announced integrations with Nest and Logitech. The design challenges of facing similar and easy-to-understand user experiences when working with other, well-established companies is an incredibly rewarding journey. I’m really excited about the emerging patterns and standardization, particularly the Apple home kit. Up until recently, new IoT companies have been putting layers on top of layers.”

Josh Stein, AdhereTech

“I’m most excited about the access to new data points offered by IoT. All of these things that our body gives off that aren’t measured can now be measured--and we’re starting to do that. We’re asking questions: how does one’s heart rate, blood content, medication adherence, etc. contribute to their overall health? Over the next 50 years we’ll collect enough data to make actionable suggestions based on these biological outputs.”

Danielle Cojuangco, Proteus Digital Health

“I believe we need to get serious about actually moving the needle on improving health. The Digital Health industry can and should do more than passively measure anything and everything with new IoT gadgets. I’m most excited about Proteus’ commitment to build evidence that what we have built actually works. We’re investing  in measuring the impact of our product offering on our patients’ health outcomes, and on healthcare providers’ ability collaborate with patients.”


Are you a designer working at a hardware and software company? Email me at lucy@tradecrafted.com.