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Google, Nest, and the Internet of Things: Why UX Is More Important than Ever

| January 17, 2014
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It’s been all over the news this week: Google has acquired Nest Labs, the makers of the beloved Nest Learning Thermostat, for $3.2 billion. While the jury is out about whether this was a wise business move on Google’s part, whether Nest customers’ data will be Google’s property, and whether Google has any plans to change Nest’s products in the future, we’re interested in what this type of partnership means for the future of technology and UX.

Arguably the only thermostat people actually love, Nest learns when you turn the heat down before bed — and when you turn the heat off before you leave the house.

There’s no denying that we are moving toward an increasingly connected world. The Internet of Things is growing: we already have smartphones, smart watches, and smart TVs. It won’t be too long before driverless cars are all over the road, refrigerators know what foods are being stored in them, and doorknobs scan your fingerprints instead of requiring keys.

Ads everywhere – but will they be smart enough?

Of course, this level of connectivity opens up a world of possibilities for advertisers. Online ads already know a lot about us – our location, demographics, and search history. (Would anyone be surprised if Nest users start getting more advertisements from competing energy companies than they used to?)

Some ads seem to know what you’ve been googling, but not why. For example, let’s say you’re interested in Warby Parker’s virtual try-on feature, which lets you upload a photo of your face and position a pair of glasses onto the photo to see how you’ll look in the frames. You’ll need to select a pair of glasses to test out the feature. After you do, you’re probably going to become inundated with ads for that style of frames — even if you were only interested in the virtual try-on, not the glasses themselves. (Yes, true story.)

The feature is worth a try, if you’re ready to start seeing Warby Parker ads everywhere.

Now imagine that it’s a few years into the future and you own a smart fridge that can sense you’re almost out of orange juice. Maybe the fridge will ping you with a notification offering to add it to your shopping list app, email you a coupon, and give directions to a nearby store you recently googled that happens to have a sale on juice. But what if you don’t actually like orange juice, and the bottle is only in your fridge for your kid’s science experiment? If ads are going to become smarter and more prevalent, advertisers will need to develop a deeper understanding of our actual consuming habits.

What this means for the UX world

With our household items learning about us, talking to us, and selling us things, user interface is going to become more important than ever. A bad user experience with a website can be frustrating, but a bad user experience with a smart washing machine could mean you have to wear dirty socks.

Here are just a handful of issues that could arise as more objects become connected:

Privacy and embarrassment. To revisit the refrigerator example, it might be convenient to have a big, shiny screen that indicates which items you’re running low on, but you sure don’t want an ad popping up reminding you to buy beer when your teetotaling aunt is over for a visit. It will be crucial to maintain user control over which alerts are appropriate and helpful.

Differences among users. Connected items will need to be tested and tested again to ensure that they work for everyone. Imagine appliances that didn’t work properly for people who are too short to be detected by the item’s sensors. Items that don’t account for people’s appearance, speech patterns, and disabilities are going to frustrate users and fall quickly out of favor.

Security concerns. We’re not busting out our tin foil hats just yet, but there is legitimate concern (especially with recent privacy issues in the news) over how your personal information will be shared once Google is a firmly established feature of your home. It’s going to get harder to be anonymous, especially when smart appliances like Nest are built into new houses and apartments. From the practical concern of “Who is my personal information being sold to?” to the more dystopian “What if my data ends up in the hands of criminals?”, users’ worries should be taken seriously – and answered directly – by any company that wants to gain consumer trust.

It’s not too far-fetched to imagine hackers getting personal information from your household appliances.

Let’s get it right

The more technology becomes laced together with our everyday tasks, the more crucial it will be to have seamless, pleasant user experiences. If we can’t escape a constant stream of bad UX, we’re likely to take a hammer to all of our devices and head for the hills. UX pros, take note: your jobs are going to get more exciting as we move toward a world with more connected devices, wearable technology, and appliances that understand our habits better than we do. Learn everything you can about emerging technology, and listen closely to the concerns of users, because we will rely on you not just to make the web work, but to make the world work.