An Ecosystem of Connected Devices

We spend with devices every day—interacting with our smartphones, working on our laptops, engaging with our tablets, watching shows on television, playing with our video game consoles, and tracking steps on our fitness wristbands. For many of us, the following are true:

We spend more time interacting with devices than with people.

We often interact with more than one device at a time.

Statistics show that the number of connected devices is growing every day and one person is using more and more different electronic devices, switching between them, in order to accomplish their goals. While each device plays an important role in many of our daily activities, their real power exists in how they are used together with other devices. This multi-device usage sets the foundation of a product ecosystem.

Ecosystem of everything

Biologists use the term ecosystem to describe interconnections within our natural world—a community of living organisms (plants, animals, and microbes) in conjunction with the nonliving components of their environment (elements like air, water, and mineral soil), interacting as a system. An ecosystem essentially describes a network of interactions—among organisms, and between those organisms and their environment—which together create an ecology that is greater than the sum of its parts. Looking at the world of online apps and electronics today, we can see a kind of climate of multiple devices composed of smartphones, tablets, laptops, TVs, and other connected devices all interacting with one another and wirelessly sharing data.

The growing number of connected devices, especially mobile ones, is progressively changing the way people perceive, experience, and interact with products and each other. Our mission as designers and product creators is to understand the different relationships between connected devices, as well as how individuals relate to them, in order to create natural, fluid multi-device experiences that allow these dynamic changes. These experiences should focus on how the (increasing) set of connected devices can best serve users’ needs as they move between activities and contexts throughout the day.

You can choose to build your product as an isolated cell on each device, replicating the same basic experience, and thus offering independent access to everything, everywhere, anytime. Or you can foster an ecosystem approach that captures the dynamically changing needs and contexts that accompany shifting devices, putting the emphasis on delivering the right thing at the right place at the right time.

The latter—the context-driven approach—is where I believe we’ll find our biggest opportunities.

The 3Cs Framework: Consistent, Continuous, and Complementary

In this era of proliferating connected devices, one goal is becoming clear: clients want to see their products on as many screens as possible. Consequently, we’ll need to get a product up and running across the basic, core set of screens already deeply embedded in our daily lives: the smartphone, tablet, PC, and TV. Google Chromecast, which turns a smartphone or tablet into a remote control for the TV, is one example of such experience design. These devices can then be used to browse the content on TV, control playback, and adjust volume.

To get succeed a framework is adopted, that has proven to be durable and immensely relevant for approaching ecosystem design. I call the framework 3Cs: consistent, continuous, and complementary.

In consistent design, the same basic experience is replicated between devices, keeping the content, flow, structure, and core feature set consistent across the ecosystem. Some adjustments are made to accommodate device-specific attributes (mainly screen size and interaction model), but overall the experience can be fully consumed, in an independent manner, on any device.

While consistent design provides access to everything, anywhere, anytime—a first important step in bringing value to users through multi-device use—it often doesn’t capture the full potential of an ecosystem. Consistency overlooks several significant factors involved in the user’s experience: context (delivering the right thing at the right time), multi-device relationships (ways devices can supplement and support one another), determining the best device for the task, and scaling the experience to a fully connected world (that goes beyond smartphones, tablets, PCs, and TVs).

To accommodate these needs, we need two additional design building blocks—continuous and complementary design.

The hallmark of continuous design is that the experience is passed on from one device to another, either continuing the same activity (watching a movie, reading a book) or progressing through a sequence of different activities, taking place in different contexts but all channeled toward achieving the same end goal (like getting ready to go to work in the morning).

The hallmark of complementary design is that devices complement one another (with relevant info/functionality), creating a new experience as a connected group. This experience can encompass two forms of device relationship: collaboration and control.

Using an analogy from the music world, let’s imagine that devices can be used in any of the following ways to elevate a user’s experience:

  •  As a solo instrument, where each performs the entire piece from start to end (consistent)
  •  As a step in a sequence, by splitting the music into pieces and playing them with other instruments, one after the other (continuous)
  • As part of an ensemble, where instruments play together in a coordinated manner to create a harmonized music piece (complementary)

By mapping the variety of contexts across an experience, and then framing the roles each device plays in the overall ecosystem, we can create a clear narrative and mental model for that multi-device experience. Once we have this clear understanding in mind, we can translate it to design decisions for each device and for interaction points between devices. In doing so, we can help users navigate (and make sense of) the increasing complexity involved in having more and more devices, guiding them toward a more effective, productive, and delightful multi-device usage.

The 3Cs help you decide what flows and functionality should be featured when, and how the experience elements should be distributed across devices.

Electronic Ecosystem

By multi-device revolution,  the fast-growing number and diversity of connected devices—from smartphones, tablets, PCs, and TVs, through smartwatches, smartglasses, wristband activity trackers, smartfridges to (soon enough) any physical object that can be connected to the Internet via sensors. However, this revolution is not characterized just by new screen sizes, input methods, form factors, or increasing processing power. It also introduces new ways these multiple devices enable us to connect, operate, interact, work, and affect our surroundings—ways we didn’t have before.

The first thing that led the electronic revolution were the iPhones released in 2007 by Apple. The Android platform, introduced officially in October 2008, significantly reinforced smartphone adoption, with new types of devices from various manufacturers being offered at a lower cost. In July 2008, Apple launched its App Store for iPhone, and the mobile space was open for business. In April 2010, Apple expanded its family and introduced the iPad to the world. In parallel, Google stirred up the tablet market even more, releasing Android OS for tablets in 2011 and gaining 39% market share within less than a year. There was another interaction effect created by tablets, one that demonstrates the strength of (and need for) multi-device experiences. According to a 2011 Neilsen Company survey, 70% of tablet owners used their tablets while watching TV—a use scenario that constituted the largest share of their total time with the tablet (30%).

The three processes just described—smartphones becoming a commodity, application stores gaining speed, and tablets joining the electronic community—all contributed to the emergence of an ecosystem, with four devices at its core: the smartphone, tablet, PC, and TV.

In this ecosystem, a few important principles emerge:

  • We are in the midst of an important behavioral shift to a multi-device model; product design is no longer just about the desktop platform because there’s a prosperous ecosystem of connected devices that complements it, and that continues to grow.
  • These connected devices can form a multi-device experience as a connected group (rather than just a set of silo devices). In other words, the ecosystem experience can employ any of the three design approaches—consistent, continuous, and complementary—or a combination of them.
  • The ecosystem is not bound to the four core devices. These devices are currently the most commonly used, and thus serve as the basis; however, as more connected devices are introduced, they can join the ecosystem, further expanding the contexts of use and device relationships it accommodates.
  •  The more we embrace the potential of an ecosystem by adapting the experience per device and building the required bridges between them (acknowledging the different use cases in varying contexts), the more we can simplify the experience on each device, and provide an overall holistic experience that is greater than its parts.

Bear in mind that the multi-device era is still in its early stages. Thus, use patterns across devices are just starting to take shape, and even the ones that seem to stabilize will probably change soon enough, as more devices join the ecosystem and introduce new, disruptive ways to connect and interact with the environment and one another.

Conclusions

At this point in time, the most important goal is exploring and experimenting with building multi-device experiences that can continuously drive us to create better products, that are more intimately tailored to individual users’ changing needs. As you will see, this new multi-device world opens up many new opportunities to innovate—not only by looking into future needs and use cases that will naturally arise, but also through rethinking some of our existing design approaches to current challenges. The latter is where much of the issues lies in disrupting widespread perceptions and assumptions regarding what is possible in light of the new ecosystem possibilities we have.

Particular conditions brought about the multi-device era and the unique factors that differentiate it from anything we’ve seen before.

The multi-device era introduces an ecosystem, similar to that of the natural world. In the multi-device ecosystem, a variety of devices interact with one another as an ecology, and their interactions are shaped by how individuals use the devices in a variety of contexts en route to completing their information and entertainment goals.

The three key processes that signify the critical transformation from a single-device model to an ecosystem approach were the entry of smartphones as a commodity, the burgeoning application market, and the success of tablets.

The 3Cs framework consists of three principal approaches—consistent, continuous, and complementary—for handling the design complexity introduced by the numerous devices on the market (and those yet to be invented).

 

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