As chief innovation officer at Massachusetts-based design consulting firm Altitude, Heather Andrus has seen firsthand that companies are bending over backwards to beef up products with connectivity to cloud services—regardless of whether it makes sense. Phones, computers and tablets have so far been the focus of developers and entrepreneurs but one area that has yet to see a lot of smart, cloud-based innovation that consumers really love is in home appliances and gadgets.
“It’s really about finding a way to leverage the value for the consumer and use connectivity to deliver that,” Andrus told FORBES. “And a lot of clients just think, ‘if it’s connected, people will love it.’”
The fact is that companies may not be putting enough thought into exactly how to harness technology and connection between the cloud and devices, creating a possibly silly combination that will not resound with consumers. “For how long have we been hearing about the refrigerator that orders our groceries?” Ms. Andrus wrote regarding connectivity and product innovation.
Andrus has some advice for companies that want to inject state of the art features to products for the home. With an emphasis on the ubiquitous smartphone as a controller, innovation in household gadgets can be engaging and make sense if companies remember to focus on a product’s true function, using technology to enhance that function and changing business models to fit a new consumer and a new economy.
1) Interface Is Key
The way a consumer interacts with a product is the first connection point and needs to be compelling. According to Andrus, the modern smartphone has already been accepted by users and consumers, and companies that want to install wirelessly-connected, data-gathering tech should leverage it. After all, using the phone lowers the cost of producing the product because you don’t have to build a display screen—the phone already has one.
Andrus points to the Withings baby monitor as an example of how this smartphone-hardware synergy can work, offering high quality camera technology along with a corresponding app.
2) Operate From Anywhere
Sticking with the smartphone theme, users’ phones can act as a remote control for any number of products in their lives. Andrus is a fan of Samsung SmartHome WiFi Washer & Dryer—an important piece of home hardware that can be controlled by a phone, complete with alerts that notify you when you’re clothes are clean and allows you to change functions remotely.
3) Provide Useful Information
“The world is becoming more and more full of data and the trick is to take that data and make it relevant to consumers,” said Andrus. This means home appliances and gadgets that spot trends, not just supply a quick piece of information. As an example, she points to scales that don’t just tell you your weight, but make it possible to see your change in weight over time, allowing you to better understand changes that are taking place. Similar metrics can be used for both financial data and energy usage.
4) Partnerships & Ecosystems
Activity monitors are all the rage these days but going beyond a simple motion detector and gathering data on a user’s heart rate, sleep patterns, weight and blood pressure allows a greater swath of accumulated data to be collected and accessed to get a better sense of how health and exercise regiments are progressing. This is what several products from Withing’s Smart Activity Tracker accomplishes, Andrus said. The company then partners with food tracking apps such as LoseIt! and My Fitness Pal to offer even more data coverage.
“The idea of these connected products is that it fits into this broader ecosystem of offerings and really delivers to the consumer exactly what they need as opposed to what your business delivers,” Andrus explained.
5) Upgrade Through Software
The idea of getting a basic piece of software for free and then paying for more advanced features later on is no mystery to anyone who’s downloaded more than a couple of applications from Apple’s App Store or Google Play. Companies can leverage a similar business model when selling home appliances and gadgets to consumers, Andrus says.
When a consumer buys a piece of hardware, it can be another three years before they return for an upgrade, and that’s usually in the form of buying another piece of hardware. Selling software-based upgrades is a more compelling business model for consumers that want better functionality and companies that want to continue selling that functionality more often than every three years.
Around The Corner
As she looks to the horizon, Andrus feels that appliances that have been with us for years will begin to see a wave of innovation as companies and entrepreneurs begin to think of compelling ways to upgrade them with the latest tech.
“The time in which products become ripe for innovation is when they have been the same for many decades and they are commoditized,” Andrus said. “You have this rich plethora of products in your home that are commoditized—it’s a known feature set, it’s a known market. Bringing connectivity in to change that game, kitchen appliances, home appliances, all of those, I think, are going to really see a lot of change.”
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