(Above: a view of Colorado National Monument Plateau)
American singer Kate Wolf has written many wonderful songs, among which “across the great divide” is my favorite. It combines melancholy without sadness in a very poetic and simple expression (listen here).
The IoT, in its own way, finds also itself “where the rivers change direction - across the great divide”: either to remain a specialized technology supporting isolated projects (which is not useless, we reckon) or to become a powerful mainstream that will change the way we work in the office (or factory), how we live in cities (or the countryside) and how we inhabit our homes.
Technology-centric or user-centric?
Users win against techno 4 to 1
In a recent post (here) and its related white paper, Juergen Kraemer, General Manager for IoT at Software AG, noticed that “nearly three-fifths (58%) of businesses said that their IoT projects had been unsuccessful—just 12% said that they’d been fully successful”. To the question “why do Internet of Things projects so often fail?” his answer was “Company culture”.
A wet finger assessment is that technology counts for only 20% and the person / organization / culture for 80% of the success of any IT project. A large 4 to 1 victory. This is the reason why IoT leaders need to ensure that users are at the heart of their projects.
By the way, who are the users of an IoT project?
Specialized teams: they are specialized IT specialists (working in the IT department or integrated in production and operating organizations), long-trained and highly qualified in the administration and operation of software tools. They love technology (it's their job, after all), use it every day, and take pride in being able to tame such complex animals.
General end-users: they can be employees, partners, contractors or even the general public. If your project aims to improve productivity or the quality of production, they will be your fellow workers, forklift operators, logistics employees, sales representatives; etc. If you operate a facilities management business, these are the security people, plumbers, electricians, elevator repairers, cleaners and may be the person who lives or works in the building you are responsible for. If you deploy a smart city project, it's a safe bet that citizens are the real clients of your project. What is common to all general end users is a) that they don't care about the technology b) they will use it at a low dose and c) they do want the project to make their life easier, not more complicated.
In the elephant graveyard
In most cases, user interfaces consist of dedicated applications, mobile or web-based. This trend might even be amplified by new codeless tools that allow enterprises to configure - rather than code - their own mobile applications fairly quickly.
This results in application overcrowding. People have already responded to it by a significant change in behavior: on average people download ‘only’ 0 to 1 new applications each month. Today’s users must have a real and tangible benefit in downloading – and using – another app. And this app must be simple to use and straightforward to understand (RTFM is no longer an acceptable response to confused users). Otherwise, the punishment will be that the application quickly disappears into oblivion in the elephant cemetery, among dozens of other congeners that have become useless.
What are the credible alternatives?
Far ahead of music and multimedia, social networks are the most used applications. The most popular? Facebook (81%), YouTube (71%) and Messenger (68%) according to Simform. Even though the numbers can change quickly and these apps be challenged by TikTok, Snapchat, Whatsapp and others, it is significant that contenders are still social apps.
There are two main reasons for this:
The power of collaboration: they allow people to interact with other people, friends, colleagues, etc. 1 + 1 = 3.
The power of language: there is nothing new to learn to use them, no doc, no tutorial, no certificate… just speak or type as usual and it works. Users focus on what they want to do, not how to do it.
Let’s face it: users have already made the decision on behalf of IoT product managers: natural language in collaborative applications have won the general-purpose battle, and if IoT is to become general-purpose technology, we must accept it.
Can natural language interfaces do the job?
The honest answer, as always, is “it depends”. To do what, for whom. The figure below compares some characteristics of dedicated apps versus natural language interface in social networks.
In a nutshell: when tasks are recurring, highly specialized and require knowledgeable users, an app is probably the right medium for interactions. And when the tasks are reasonably straightforward, natural language interfaces are the right choice for the general public.
Savvy or not savvy, that is the question
As with rivers, when IoT projects cross the great divide, they must choose a direction: technology-centric or user-centric. Afterwards there is little hope of going back.
Who are the users? that is the question for your IoT projects. If you need to interact with people not specialized in IoT in your enterprise, with partners, customers or the general public, then you have a challenge to face: your project is user-centric whether you like it or not. And in that case, there's a lot to bet that natural language interfaces will be essential contributors to your success.
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