Belkin

What can others learn from the successes and failures of the design of your consumer product?: 

We felt that home automation as it stood wasn’t likely to take off with normal people because it required either:
1) a significant and disruptive expense, having professionals install a large integrated system in your home, or
2) required a technical hobbyist’s mindset to understand the Z-flavored wireless protocol of the day, choose esoteric hardware from disparate sources, and cobble together a system. 

It just wasn’t consumer-ready.

But lots of people already had Wi-Fi at home, lots of people already had smartphones, and most everyone had simple devices like lamps and fans that could use a little bit of scheduling or responsiveness. We flipped the problem, asking ourselves “how can we give people these benefits by using what they already have?” This was the opposite of the industry approach at the time.

Our initial launch of the product, especially the software, was usable but not delightful. We had a setup process that worked well, hardware that people could self-install, and simple controls, but people would disregard our relatively simple setup instructions, or disbelieve that they were necessary, and therefore lack confidence in the product prior to using it. User testing showed that our approach (doing physical setup first, then the software portion) worked well, but a class of users seeing that there was an app would leap straight into the app. So we needed a very pleasant way to fold people who arrived at the app prematurely back into the physical portion of setup. We made a nice set of in-app flashcards that are presented to anyone running the app without having set up a device already, and now our setup draws favorable comments from professional and amateur reviewers.

We also paid close attention to the relationship between the hardware and the software. While we did not mimic the hardware too closely in software, we spent a lot of time making the software on/off button tactile and pleasantly responsive, expressing the use of the switch product. During user testing we also found that people touching the phone and hearing the switch “click” nearby were more excited by the product than when we muffled or eliminated the switch sound, and that producing that switch sound on the phone didn’t have the same effect. Touching here, and hearing the action happen there, really told the story of remote control; people liked that.

What factors, information, research, etc. most heavily influenced the design of your product, and how?: 

The near-ubiquity of Wi-Fi and smartphones in homes informed the entire product concept. User testing and customer care data informed repeated improvements to the central workflows. And alongside user testing we sometimes present product concepts to our test subject to learn about their expectations and mental models for these concepts, helping us refine concepts before getting deeply into hardware or software design.

What were the key ways in which user-centered design and research practices affected the concept and design of your product?: 

Some time ago we recognized that scheduling and funding user testing on a per-project basis wasn’t getting us the design-phase power we needed. By the time money was secured, participants recruited and scheduled, and tests performed, we were too late in the process to address some of the stickier problems we would uncover. So we lobbied our Chief Design Officer to pilot a program wherein we would simply recruit test participants every two weeks, regardless of which projects would need testing at that time.

This sped up the process significantly, cost no more than we were already spending, and has made RITE available to more and a greater variety of projects than before. We’ve been operating this pilot program for almost three years now.

Meanwhile we’ve been digging into customer care data to find places where we can improve both the user experience and the cost structure of the business. This has strengthened the credibility if the UX team considerably and has made it possible to pursue insight-gathering and concept refinement, our next major areas of influence.