Back to Blog

7 design principles for IoT

In the near future, our everyday lives will be more and more filled with intelligent, connected objects. They will appear in our homes, in our working environments and in the cities we live in as well as travel with us everywhere we go in the form of wearables, smart clothing and things we cannot even imagine right now. This development is called the internet of things, IoT.

For designers focused on designing SW services and screen based interfaces or physical products, designing IoT solutions creates totally new design challenges. IoT solutions consist of multiple elements: physical devices like sensors, actuators and interactive devices, the network connecting these devices, the data gathered from these devices and analyzed to create a meaningful experience and last but definitely not least, the physical context in which user interacts with the solution. You need to do various types of design, from industrial product design to service and business design. All of these factors have their impact to the total UX of the IoT system and the task of designing in this context may feel quite overwhelming. To make it a little easier, I have gathered my list of the 7 most important design principles for IoT.

Layers of design for meaningful IOT expeirence

1. Focus on value

In the world of IoT, user research and service design are more crucial than ever. While early adopters are eager to try out new technology, many others are reluctant to take new technology into use and cautious about using it, due to not feeling confident with it. For your IoT solution to become widely adopted, you need to dig deep into users’ needs in order to find out where lies a problem truly worth solving and what is the real end user value of the solution. You also need to understand what might be the barriers of adopting the new technology in general and your solution specifically. For deciding on your feature set, you need research too. The features that might be valuable and highly relevant for the tech early adopters may be uninteresting for the majority of the users and vice versa, so you need to plan carefully what features to include and in which order.

2. Take a holistic view

IoT solutions typically consist of multiple devices with different capabilities and both physical and digital touchpoints. The solution may also be provided in co-operation with multiple different service providers. It is not enough to design one of the touchpoints well, instead you need to take a holistic look across the whole system, the role of each device and service, and the conceptual model of how user understands and perceives the system. The whole system needs to work seamlessly together in order to create a meaningful experience.

3. Put safety first

As the IoT solutions are placed in the real world context, the consequences can be serious, when something goes wrong. At the same time the users of the IoT solutions may be vary of using new technology, so building trust should be one of your main design drivers. Trust is built slowly and lost easily, so you really need to make sure that every interaction with the product/service builds the trust rather than breaks it. What it means in practise? First of all, it means understanding possible error situations related to context of use, HW, SW and network as well as to user interactions and trying to prevent them. Secondly, if the error situations still occur, it means appropriately informing the user about them and helping them to recover. Secondly, it means considering data security & privacy as key elements of your design. It is really important for users to feel, that their private data is safe, their home, working environment and everyday objects cannot be hacked and their loved ones are not put at risk. Thirdly, quality assurance is critical and it should not only focus on testing the SW, but on testing the end to end system, in a real-world context.

4. Consider the context

IoT solutions exist at the crossroads of the physical and digital worlds. Commands given through digital interfaces may produce real world effects, but unlike digital commands, the actions happening in the real-world cannot necessarily be undone. In the real world context lots of unexpected things can happen and at the same time user should be able to feel safe and in control. The context places also other kind of requirements to the design. Depending on the physical context, the goal might be to minimize distraction of the user or e.g. to design devices that hold up against changing weather conditions. IoT solutions in homes, workplaces and public areas are are typically multi-user systems and thus less personal than e.g. screen based solutions used in smartphones, which also brings into picture the social context where the solution is used and its’ requirements for the design.

5. Build a strong brand

Due to the real world context of the IoT solutions, regardless of how carefully you design things and aim to build trust, something unexpected will happen at some point and your solution is somehow going to fail. In this kind of situations, it is of utmost importance, that you have built a strong brand that truly resonates with the end users. When they feel connected to your brand, they will be more forgiving about the system failures and will still keep on using your solution. While designing your brand, you must keep in mind, that trust should be a key element of the brand, one of the core brand values. This core value should also be reflected in the rest of the brand elements, like the choice of color, tone of voice, imagery etc.

6. Prototype early and often

Typically HW and SW have quite different lifespans, but as successful IoT solution needs both the HW and SW elements, the lifespans should be aligned. At the same time, IoT solutions are hard to upgrade, because once the connected object is placed somewhere, it is not so easy to replace it with a newer version, especially if the user would need to pay for the upgrade and even the software within the connected object may be hard to update due to security and privacy reasons. Due to these factors and to avoid costly hardware iterations, it’s crucial to get the solution right, from the beginning of implementation. What this means from the design perspective is that prototyping and rapid iteration of both the HW and the whole solution are essential in the early stages of the project. New, more creative ways of prototyping and faking the solution are needed.

7. Use data responsibly

IoT solutions can easily generate tons of data. However, the idea is not to hoard as much data as possible, but instead to identify the data points that are needed to make the solution functional and useful. Still, the amount of data may be vast, so it’s necessary for the designer to understand the possibilities of data science and how to make sense of the data. Data science provides a lot of opportunities to reduce user friction, i.e. reducing use of time, energy and attention or diminishing stress. It can be used to automate repeated context dependent decisions, to interpret intent from incomplete/inadequate input or to filter meaningful signals from noise. Understanding what data is available and how it can be used to help the user is a key element in designing successful IoT services.

If you’d like to learn more, there are plenty of nice resources available as books and audiobooks. For some quick reading, I would recommend e.g. Iot Design Manifesto, 7 things to know when designing for the Internet of Things and Understanding the experience design of consumer IoT products. Or just drop me a message and let’s talk :)

Summarizing questions
What is iot design?
Iot design is the practice of gathering data of various iot systems and their interactions with a goal of creating a meaningful user experiences. Iot design takes a holistic look across the whole system, the role of each device and service, and the creates conceptual model of how user understands and perceives the entire iot system.
Why is iot design important?
For Iot solutions to become widely adopted, businesses need to dig deep into users’ needs in order to find out where lies a problem truly worth solving and what is the real end user value of the iot solution. Businesses also need to understand what the barriers might be in adopting the new iot technologies in general and their iot solutions specifically.
What are some of the best practices of iot design?
Considering user safety, data security & privacy aspects and incorporating quality assurance in the iot design process are important for user trust. Prototyping early and rapid iteration of the hardware and the whole iot solution are essential. Understanding what data is available of how it can be used responsibly to help the user are key elements in successful iot design.


  • Portrait of Heli Ihamäki
    Heli Ihamäki
    Head of Design, Finland