6 questions you need to ask to drive and realize IoT success

Before we dive into what questions lead to IoT success, consider this thought and let it sink in:

Most IoT projects fail. 
They are perceived as a waste of time and money.

For someone like me whose job is to bring IoT projects to life, this stings. It puts me and my colleagues on the defensive for good reason. From our perspective, it simply isn’t true.

Yet the sentiments above are essentially the key takeaway from a steady drumbeat of news and cited surveys conducted by national consultancies who are quick to share with readers that 75 percent of IoT projects aren’t successful, and that 30 percent of IoT projects fail in the proof-of-concept stage. What is a company to believe – let alone do?  

In just over a decade of building IoT systems, we have been responsible for connecting 100 million devices in the marketplace on behalf of our clients, and many of them before the Internet of Things was even a thing. So why is our reality significantly better than the media drumbeat? We believe that sound IoT strategy unlocks business value every time, 100 percent – if you dial in the target properly.   

Our IoT success rate can be attributed to employing a human-centered design (HCD) process to set strategy and keep teams focused on what’s valuable to the people you are trying to serve. 

The framework isn’t complicated:

  • Identify the stakeholders
  • Crawl into their worlds
  • Find their pain points
  • Use data to make the pain go away

It is that simple. But the process requires discipline and focus. It is messy and time consuming. You will want to cut corners. Don’t do it.  

Here are six questions that are critical throughout the IoT project lifecycle. If you can’t immediately answer these questions positively, you may be off track wasting time and money. 

 

1 –  IS THIS A PROBLEM WORTH SOLVING?

Most established companies have customer pain points that already exist, and some hurt more than others. Leveraging an HCD process puts the user experience at the forefront, which helps define what a desirable experience looks like. Desirability will be different for each stakeholder type.  If you haven’t identified at least three unique groups of stakeholders, your homework is incomplete.  Once desirability is defined, then you can use the power of connected technology to bring new product or service offerings to life. This process has a much greater opportunity of being successful. Avoid the common pitfall of being a company that starts with a perceived technology solution and later goes looking for a problem – that’s the hammer looking for a nail approach, and it’s one of the many reasons IoT projects fail.

2 –   WHO BENEFITS FROM THE SOLUTION, AND ARE THEY WILING TO PAY FOR IT?

Innovative IoT solutions must start with discovery. Through stakeholder research and the discoveries that come with immersing yourself in their environments, you not only confirm if the problem is worth solving, but also if all stakeholders will benefit from the solution. It’s easy to serve one or two groups of stakeholders. It is much more difficult to bring value to all of them. None of us can be an expert of all things, so seek insights from internal and external subject matter experts who add value through different points of view.

If all end users can all validate that the solution benefits them and can recognize the value it provides, then it becomes a solution worth testing. Go back to the HCD process to validate your theory of value creation.  IoT projects that succeed cut across all departments and, with an HCD process in place, bridges the gaps between stakeholders in the company as well as external audiences. 

3 –   WHAT IS THE COMPOSITION OF THE PROJECT TEAM, WHO LEADS IT, AND IS THE PROCESS AGILE?

This is where things can get political or mired in structural hierarchy. In our experience, the best project teams are working teams that are as flat as they are diverse. It’s all too common for a CEO to look to their IT department to lead an IoT, a presumption that IoT is synonymous with “the cloud” – and that’s misguided. IT departments are typically cost centers optimized to serve their organizations. IT engineers know how to build systems and outsource their technical development. They are not well equipped to design and develop new offerings. Also, technology isn’t the only lens that matters. Sales teams know the customers’ wants and needs. Marketing understands the business value to position a product or service. They all matter.

Those who ask questions and probe for insights – who can seamlessly navigate across functions and audiences – are often in the best position to guide the process, which is different from actually building the solution. For companies that are exploring their first IoT project, that project leader likely isn’t in the building. Someone from the outside with expertise leading IoT projects can be an ideal first guide while also teaching the internal team how to lead future initiatives. But make no mistake: there’s no substitute for alignment on goals, timing, planning and execution. Good project management practice is about setting and articulating clear expectations.

In our experience, an agile process yields the best results. Agile enables fast iteration and test cycles with the stakeholders and keeps the team focused on the most valuable work.  However, agile is only effective when built on a foundation of trust and leadership support.

4 –   IS A CUSTOMIZED EDGE DEVICE AND/OR SENSOR NECESSARY?

This is a critical question regarding the financial fork in the road for most IoT projects. When an idea is truly innovative, meaning there is no evidence of your solution in the marketplace, then customization might be required to get the desired results. Designing, building and selling custom electronic devices is not for the faint of heart. It’s expensive and risky. It also may unlock the greatest ROI. If the project can be accomplished with a commercially available, off-the-shelf hardware solution, it might be more prudent to take the fiscally conservative route. Customization for the sake of saying a solution is original can be costly. Yet using an already existing solution for an entirely new problem also has its significant consequences. Remember – it is the user experience that matters most. If you start there and use or create the right technology to bring that experience to life, the likelihood of success in the market will be much greater.

5 – WHAT IS THE MINIMUM VIABLE PRODUCT (MVP), AND WHAT SHOULD FOLLOW?

With a desirable user experience identified through your research, it’s time to bring an initial iteration of the solution to life, known as the minimum viable product. Let’s say your goal is to sell 50 systems in the first quarter after offering your new IoT solution to the market. The development team should be laser focused on the minimum set of features needed to win those 50 customers, as well as a robust way to upgrade the features after MVP deployment. We often see teams spending too much time, effort and money in features at the outset of a project that aren’t essential. Stay focused on what works and what will provide value to the user and avoid the temptation to travel down various paths at the outset.

6 – HOW MANY PROTOTYPES WILL BE BUILT AND TESTED BEFORE PRODUCTION?

Prototypes are powerful.  Explaining a solution with words is one thing, but stakeholders who can experience a solution first-hand can give a more informed opinion. This is critical to the agile mindset and understanding that each new prototype iteration provides opportunities to learn from users in the field.

Prototyping tools change during each stage of development. Early forms can be simple 2D mockups to gain early insights, while 3D models or even manufactured products can gauge late-stage development. Our experience is that IoT projects can take from 6-24 months.  Intentional prototyping should be part of the process from beginning to product launch.  Don’t fall into the trap of assuming that you completely understand what your customers want.

If the statistic suggesting 30 percent of IoT projects die in the proof-of-concept stage is to be believed, it also means too many projects are relying on its first idea to be the best idea. Rather, the opposite is true: listening and acting on reliable target audience feedback is a key to IoT success. 

 

Getting to the end of a complicated IoT project isn’t about guesswork, nor is it simply about grinding it out. It requires remaining curious while also committing to following a defined human-centered design process. These six questions are helpful guardrails on a process that often feels foreign to those unfamiliar with HCD. However, as 100 million devices later would suggest, it is the difference between keeping your IoT project safely on track and seeing it go off the rails.

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