IOT requires a broader skill set than traditional product management

Whilst user interfaces have by definition been based on hardware, the increasing ubiquity of the Internet of Things (IOT) will likely challenge product managers to develop a broader range of skills. Once, you had a computer, built, let’s say, by IBM. There needed to be an operating system for it, and a young Microsoft came along with DOS, which stood for Disk Operating System. It was before Windows. One company made the hardware, another made the software, and if something didn’t work, there was always a chance that they could say ‘it’s not our fault, it’s the other guys’.

IOT typically encompasses a combined hardware and software offering from one company. Even if parts of the whole are contracted out for the manufacturing, there’s going to be a lead marketing company which takes responsibility for all of it. And the product manager needs to know enough to be able to manage production, software development, UX, and to work with colleagues in marketing. All of that, as well as understanding the market, competitors, customer needs, measurement and feedback processes etc. If hardware and software are developed in-house, being able to manage those processes can sometimes be as challenging as outsourcing – sometimes more so, if, say, the internal IT department has its own budget and autonomy. It’s always critical when engaging with a supplier, internal or external, to agree the terms of engagement up front. Have arguments, have disagreements, but have them before you start, so that once you’re on the path, you have a contract or terms of reference that everyone has signed off on. Everyone has to be aligned to commercial and customer needs.

I have a dog.

My dog

The dog is one of the family, and we want to keep her safe. We have bought her more than one satellite tracker that attaches to her harness. If we lose her, there’s a SIM card in the tracker that connects to an app, and we can see where she is in relation to us, on a map. It’s a great idea.

To make it work, a lot of different elements have to come together. Someone has to have the idea. It can’t just be a good idea, it has to be a commercially viable idea. So there has to be an understanding of the potential market, barriers to entry from competitors (if it’s new), cost and timescales of production, distribution, quality, and product features. That’s the hardware. There are similar consideration for the software, but it’s a different skill set to understand the UX of the app from the features of the hardware, or the technical infrastructure or data sources that are needed. The original tracker we bought wasn’t natively waterproof, but the company had brought out a case for it. Many dogs love to go swimming, as ours does, and they are going to be caught in the rain, so a waterproof tracker has to be high on the list of requirements, but adds to the expense. There’s an equation to be worked out.

Ultimately, the hardware was good, from our point of view. The software was a different story though. It seems that many companies outsource software development not only to India, but also China, as was the case here. The default location for the dog was always in China, which completely threw me when I loaded it up. The whole interface was un-intuitive. If you’re in a panic because you’ve lost your dog, your vision and thinking will shut down, and you have to have something that is utterly simple to use.

The point is that, as ever, the end-to-end experience has to work for the customer. I messaged the company repeatedly about the problems with the software, including the bugs. They didn’t help much. I don’t think they had the skills, or maybe the resources. I wonder if they even owned the IP on the software, or were committed to using a developer thousands of miles away with whom they had poor communication. That’s speculation of course, but something a product manager should be thinking of. Eventually the company stopped supporting the device, leaving me with some useless and expensive hardware, and a useless annual subscription for a SIM card.

Marketing and sales need to understand the benefits to the customer, as is the case with any product. When I realised I had to replace the tracker, I researched the market. One of my requirements was that the tracker should roam across mobile networks. There’s no point having an O2 SIM if there’s only a Vodafone signal. It should work if there’s a signal from any network. If there’s no signal, then you’re out of luck, but at least maximise the chances. This requirement means that either you provide your won SIM, or the built-in one has to be able to roam. One product I looked at comes from Europe. I messaged the very friendly people there, but was either unable to clearly communicate what the question was that I was asking (will it roam across UK networks), or they didn’t know. So I bought a different, more expensive one.

Some ideas will originate with the hardware, such as, say, a thermostat or speakers, and someone will come up with an idea that will link them to the Internet, make them controllable remotely, integrate with other functions, which requires a software interface (that doesn’t have to be an app, it could be voice, for example, or both). Equally you could start with a fitness app, and have an idea for a hardware tracker. In each case, the manager has to extend their skill set beyond their traditional competence to ensure that end-to-end experience.

IOT will also integrate with the latest tech buzzwords – robotics, AI, big data, AR, VR, and alternative interfaces, such as gestures and, particularly, voice. Interface designers will need to be clear about the underlying principles of good usability that apply across different implementations, and then understand how to apply those principles for each case. The product manager must be able to assess and trust that the designer has done their job.

New technologies demand new skills, and the IOT is no different in that respect. It does though need  product managers/owners and their bosses to recognise what that range of skills is.