Data + Agile = Better Tech

October 04, 2017

You’ve heard about the Internet of Things and Agile Design being the next big things in the tech world so combining the two must be a licence to print money, right?

Unfortunately, as with all things, it’s not that simple. There’s still the pesky problem of actually producing a product that consumers will use and appreciate – it’s not good enough to just stick a WiFi adapter on your latest invention and then ship it as normal. Fortunately, by combining agile development with connected devices, there is a way to make your latest WiFi or Bluetooth enabled offering work for you and your customers.

Better Devices Make Better Customers

How many pieces of tech have you bought in the past with high hopes for its functionality, only to become more annoyed by the design features over time? That running watch you bought which only tells you your average speed for the last mile but not over your whole run? Or what about that connected TV that requires you to go back to the TV guide even though you just want to know what programme’s on next? It’s these seemingly trivial design features that can infuriate users and drive them towards your competitors. What if there was a way to find out what’s annoying your customers and then address their problems without the customer having to do anything?

In the old days, finding out how your customers use your products would be a lengthy and expensive undertaking of setting up helpdesks, conducting customer surveys, product trials, user testing, design panels, and so on. Fortunately, these days, agile development means that shipping your product is not the sink-or-swim finale that it used to be. More and more companies are realising that Internet-connected devices allow them to fix software problems (and even some hardware problems!) after they’ve been sold. This means that the transition to production no longer becomes the be-all and end-all of the process.

In a traditional waterfall design process, a design specification would be created early on in development and then the remainder of the design process would be taken up creating a product that meets the original specification. The alternative, using the agile process, is to accept that it’s just not possible to foresee all the device requirements before designing anything so it is better to just design something.

The agile approach means that the initial requirements don’t have to be precise, as the design and requirements are iterated throughout development until an acceptable design is achieved. Obviously, there is no reason why this process can’t be used in conjunction with a fixed date for production but this is an external constraint, which, thanks to the invention of connected devices, can be relaxed.

While it is still necessary to start production at some point (you wouldn’t have anything to sell otherwise) it is possible to keep iterating the design even while you are actively selling your new product. This can cause headaches with respect to configuration control, but it does allow for a better customer experience because, while the original product may not be perfect, it is possible that those undesirable features will eventually be ironed out. Of course, there’s still the small matter of figuring out what exactly it is that your customers aren’t happy about in the first place. This is where we talk about what data analytics can do for you.

Better Customers Make Better Devices

While it’s nice to think that getting feedback from every one of your customers’ devices in real time will give you a huge advantage in providing your customers with exactly what they want, the practicalities of doing anything with so much data make achieving this very difficult. It’s like attaching a rocket engine to a moped - it will certainly increase your top speed but you may end up smeared thinly across the next vertical surface.

Fortunately, help is at hand.

Advances in data engineering techniques, cloud computing, and data analytics algorithms mean that it is now easier than ever to ingest large quantities of data, analyse them for recurring patterns, and then incorporate learning into the design process in a timely fashion. This can provide invaluable information on how your customers actually use your products and, because this happens in a natural environment, are free from biases that can occur in artificial settings such as product trials.

As an example, suppose you are a manufacturer of Internet-enabled TVs and have thousands of TVs feeding back information on how each customer is using them second-by-second. With the correct data infrastructure and architecture, it is quite trivial to detect which options your customers use the most frequently, and which of the most popular require navigating through more than two menus to activate. Once you have identified these options, this information can be fed back into the software design process and the new software automatically updated over-the-air; your customer gets a better user-experience and you get more information on what makes a good user interface for your future product offerings. It’s a win-win scenario.

Now, this is all very nice for the manufacturer, but what’s in it for the consumer? While I’m sure that they will appreciate their newly purchased device working better, consumers tend to have the expectation that what they’ve purchased will work flawlessly out-of-the-box. In this scenario, there is no need for the device to be connected because, if it works perfectly, there will be no need to update any software and the hardware required to provide the connectivity will just add extra cost. The moral of the story is that if you are going to add connectivity you must add functionality as well.

What constitutes desirable connected functionality could form a blog all by itself but there is already a long list of devices out there that connect to the internet and it looks like this list is only set to get longer. Obviously, computers and mobile phones have been connected to the Internet for years but we are now seeing a large proliferation of Internet-connected devices from watches and other wearables to thermostats and fridges. The opportunities created by connecting devices to the internet provides so many design possibilities that it will soon be hard to imagine a time when, for example, your car didn’t talk to your garage door.

In a world where even your toaster is contributing to the flood of data, all businesses will have to learn how to harness that data or risk becoming irrelevant. After all, who wants to eat burnt toast?

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