Never underestimate the fickleness of a tech enthusiast. Drop $100 on an Amazon Echo? No problem. Pay about half that for a smart lightbulb like LIFX Color? Not a chance.
Frankly, price isn’t the reason only one in 10 households is connected via the Internet of Things. Rather, Gartner’s 2016 survey found that 75 percent of consumers are content to leave their recliners to manually adjust the thermostat or blinds. Give up Alexa? No way — Americans love their smart speakers, with 42 percent calling them “essential” for daily life. Yet they’re indifferent to the many IoT innovations that make smart speakers worthwhile.
So what’s going on? Are Americans no longer dreaming of the Jetsons-esque future they once were? Or are tech firms simply struggling to get the word out about their IoT offerings?
Well, considering that tech companies sink more of their revenues into marketing than those in any other sector, the issue isn’t consumer unawareness. In fact, it’s a trio of issues — clumsy integrations with the user’s life, lacking data security and privacy protections, and dubious value propositions — that can’t be solved simply by boosting budgets or buying ads. To up the adoption ante, IoT firms need to learn some important lessons in product design and consumer protection.
Making IoT Adoption a No-Brainer, Not a Migraine
Part of the reason Americans aren’t adopting IoT devices en masse is that IoT integrations take work. A “Star Trek”-worthy home simply isn’t a priority for a young mother chasing down sleep, no matter how much she loves technology.
Instead of removing barriers for that mother — “eliminating the jump,” so to speak — most IoT companies expect her to wade through jargon, create new accounts, and fumble with supposedly cooperative interfaces. Part of this is inherent to IoT products, which must coordinate with other software or hardware, but the bottom line is that consumers crave simplicity.
Unsurprisingly, the tech companies that make adoption easiest tend to be the ones with the most adopted products. Everyone uses Google products, for example, because they play so well together. When I ask Google Home to add events to my calendar, I love that it also pushes reminders to my phone or smartwatch. It’s seamless, smart, and hype-worthy.
Expect IoT companies to become better at fueling the hype engine. Not only will they learn to master the “efficient handshake,” bringing easier-to-use products to market more efficiently, but they’ll tap tools like Kickstarter to secure buy-in from fans, creating trust through transparency and a sense of shared investment.
Putting Consumers in the Data Driver’s Seat
Even IoT companies that make adoption easy, however, face a trust barrier. Consumers have seen connected Jeeps hacked on the highway, cardiac implants compromised, baby monitors broken into, and more.
Although stronger device security is paramount to greater adoption, IoT companies must go a step further: They need to put consumers in control of their own data. People who’ve put their trust in an IoT company shouldn’t have to jump through hoops or pay to “request” their own data. And they certainly shouldn’t have to parse legal documents just to discover how the IoT company will share that data.
Right now, when an IoT user shares their information, they’re essentially surrendering it for sake of marketing. Customers avoid doing so because not only do they not benefit, but they also put their data at risk of being stolen or used against them later by an insurer, employer, or financier. The IoT world needs something akin to the restaurant and ride-sharing industries’ online rating systems. Both users and businesses in those sectors derive value from customers sharing their experiences.
Even IoT health and wellness companies, which have an even greater responsibility to be good data hosts than their peers, can’t claim to put users in control of their own data. Fitness tracking companies, including Fitbit, were caught flat-footed when InformationWeek reported that their accompanying apps leaked customer information and left the door open to data forgery. For Fitbit or any other IoT company, better data stewardship could be a real differentiator.
Distinguishing Between Distractions and Enhancements
Data protections, however, can’t solve the problem of gimmicky IoT products. Voice apps that work with Amazon Echo or Google Home may be cool, for example, but do consumers really need them? Evidently, consumers don’t think so, with just 3 percent of first-time users continuing to use the apps two weeks later.
That’s the ugly truth about many IoT devices: They just don’t solve a real consumer pain point. If more than one in 10 homes is to be connected to the IoT, then costly “smart home” products must do more than just dim the lights.
Take robot vacuums, which operate — and provide fodder for amusing cat videos — in 20 percent of homes. Even that isn’t a great adoption rate, considering how long they’ve been available, but there’s a reason they’re twice as common as connected homes. Everyone sees value in a machine that can autonomously pick up dust from his floors.
IoT is still a young market, but it needs to flush out the offerings destined to go nowhere. A simple safeguard is a “shoe first” strategy that allows stakeholders to try out prototypes. Tech firms tend to be great at prototyping for the stakeholders, but they all too often forget about consumers. Consumers tend to think about “cool” when testing a product, while stakeholders often consider things like adoption, data security, and iterative potential.
So is the world ready for the IoT? More so, I think, than today’s adoption numbers imply. The truth is that many IoT companies aren’t creating secure products with real value and customer data protections. The products that tick those boxes best are being adopted, but they’re in the minority. Until that changes, don’t expect IoT adoption rates to, either.