Cities Internet of Things

Connected Cities Demand a Great User Experience

Courtesy of HARMAN Connected Services.

The seemingly endless capabilities of the Internet of Things (IoT) are uniting city planners and technology experts around the world. They want to transform otherwise sprawling metropolises into smart, connected cities. Autonomous driving is looming, sensor data is more often helping optimize traffic flow, and cities are monitoring their environment and leveraging smart building technology.  Cities are becoming smarter, safer, healthier and more sustainable.

Smart city initiatives are going mainstream across the globe. But despite the opportunity to do great things, there remain lots of challenges and problems to which the new solutions can be applied. We’ve experienced some of them for hundreds of years: traffic, dirty water and air, crime, unreliable power supplies, underfunded education—the list goes on and on. But cities need to be resilient to survive, adapt, and grow despite the challenges. What is different is that we now have technology to address these challenges in new ways. But unless these tech solutions solve users’ pain points, their mere existence is irrelevant.

With the number of connected devices potentially reaching 30 billion in 2020, tripling the current estimate of 10 billion, IoT is the key to meeting consumer expectations and is therefore essential for urban centers that want to be competitive.

The ongoing rollout of IoT initiatives in major cities in Singapore, Japan, Europe and many other areas is scaling the city experience to a whole new level. The GrowSmarter (smart cities) initiative in Europe has identified major solutions to pilot test, spread over three major areas: low energy districts, integrated infrastructures, and sustainable urban mobility. Spain has major IoT rollouts across six key urban verticals—parking, street lighting, refuse collection, environment, transport, and tourism.

In the past decade, effective user experience design (UxD) has evolved as a major way for businesses to spur innovation and growth. To truly transform cities, we have to shift to building “systems of experience.” This isn’t just about technology: Systems of experience represent the combination of people, processes, and technology that will define a city’s prosperity and long-term sustainability.

In this context, the first and the fast movers have made a conscious choice to let UxD take the lead of their development efforts, with a user-first mindset. Businesses have found out the hard way how much it matters. In my opinion it was the lack of a predominant focus among companies towards this empathy-first approach when designing their products that has resulted in only 12 percent of the Fortune 500 companies in 1955 still remaining on the 2016 list. That’s fewer than 1 in 8.

The cycle of “discover-understand-design-iterate-implement” is now the bedrock of almost any successful design project.  Applied to designing city projects, that sort of approach can drive exceptional insight into finding the sweet spot between business, technology and actual users. It helps achieve a balance between the yin of analytical thinking and the yang of creative thinking, to create innovative smart city experiences that people love.

Know Thy People

To create meaningful innovations, designers must strive to understand users and care about their lives. For design to guide technology, first and foremost it needs to be “human-centered,” which starts with being in the mind, heart, and shoes of the people. Extensive user research with methodologies like card sorting, contextual inquiry, ethnographic interviews, etc., will pave the way to better customer understanding.

Customer empathy is essential. For smart city initiatives that transform the way people live, development efforts have to be centered around the user, with empathy built in from the get-go. Since empathy can’t exist between designers and a contrived persona or a figment of the team’s imagination, time, and effort have to go into knowing  users. Understanding the user’s journey through whatever it is you are designing provides solid data points and remarkable insights for grounded and connected experiences. An empathy-first approach will enhance citizen engagement and help drive new ways to live, work, and play in the cities of the future.

Map The User Journey

Experience mapping should take into account a 360-degree view of user activities across the city, across all touch-points. It serves as a strategic tool for capturing their intent as they traverse through a product, service or ecosystem.

With smart cities proliferating around the world, building robust experience maps will ensure a seamless, delightful experience at all touch points—physical, digital, and social. It also highlights new opportunities and areas of improvement. A thorough understanding of who the citizens are can be achieved by gathering structured and unstructured data and analyzing it to turn it into intelligence to predict and deliver personalization at scale.

The journey–mapping exercise can be further elevated to enable a citizen-centric model with advanced analytics, such as citizen sentiment analysis or opinion mining, to better understand and anticipate citizen needs.

This also requires a holistic view of the employees who will power the experiences of citizens. This detailed mapping will help identify means to improve city employee productivity, enhance operational performance and decision–making capabilities.

Experience mapping is not easy, however: It takes quite a bit of time and effort, and there is no one right way to build an experience map. The techniques and tools have to be adjusted based on the context. But the cost of fixing bad user experience based on incorrect user hypotheses grows exponentially as the smart city development progresses. When done well, this design approach delivers a single view of how people will interact with the newly-connected world.

Rapid Prototyping for Time-to-Market Acceleration

Rapid iterations of ideation, design, and prototyping based on feedback from users and employees will be key to getting tangible results from UxD. A high-trust environment where rapid, low-cost failure is lauded both helps designers to go out on a limb and innovate without fear as well as preventing expensive and embarrassing rollbacks later. For a smart city initiative, it isn’t ideal to wait for all the ducks to line up.

Prototyping can be immeasurably useful in getting critical user and stakeholder feedback early in the development life cycle—where mistakes or modifications are cheap and easy to fix. In the context of a smart city, we may see prototyping in individual venues or smaller communities, such as airports, universities, concert halls and retail centers.

As cities become more sophisticated, connected and interactive, over time we will see them scaled from the early stage efforts of today to the genuinely-smart cities of the future.

Mohan Krishnaraj is the Global Head of LITEHOUSE (User Experience Group) for HARMAN Connected Services.

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