The Internet of Things (IoT): Challenges for HCI and Interaction Design

Tuck Wah Leong | 18 December 2013

There are many challenges currently standing in the way of making the IoT a reality. What we read about predominantly (at least in research/academic writings) are the massive technical undertakings required to put together the IoT. However, as my previous blog entry indicates, there are also great challenges that clearly relate to human concerns when realising the vision of the IoT. These human concerns are what HCI and Interaction Design practitioners primarily deal with. So, I will further elaborate some of these concerns and think about how we might begin to address them.

Monitoring, sensing and automatic actuation are probably the most common capabilities highlighted in discussions of the IoT. However, for "smart things" of the IoT to be able to act and respond more effectively and appropriately to our behaviours, situation and activities over time, these things need to learn about us. Thus, the activities of monitoring and sensing are accompanied by a constant logging and the storing of data about us. Such envisioned abilities excite many as we can easily imagine the countless possibilities whereby aspects of our lives (and our physical environment) can be automated and modulated without us being actively involved. For example, home lighting and climate controls that automatically respond to our presence, and our (affective and physical) states in order to create a more comfortable, conducive, and even productive environment for our activities. Perhaps the stored data about us could be used to surreptitiously trigger services, such as new entertainment programmes, news related to our state of health, a tailored exercise programme delivered to our home gym equipment or to the gym we frequent, new recipes (with diet considerations) sent to our kitchen, with the necessary ingredients updated on our shopping applications or even ordered (and paid for) on our behalf from our online supermarket accounts. This is just a simple scenario of what could be possible in an IoT world. All we need is our imagination.

Privacy, Trust, and Security

A great deal of personal information that will be continuously logged and shared for a simple scenario such as the one above to be realised. This raises immediate challenge with regards to privacy, trust, and security. The responses so far had been largely technical, with computer scientists and engineers working on developing technical solutions that can best secure such personal data. While this is necessary, this technical response should also be accompanied by and informed by understandings of how people experience such concerns: how they react and deal with such issues. A particular challenge will be to determine how people will be able to deal with these concerns when there are many more things involved not just in the capture of data but also the sharing of data. Work to date (on current Internet use) have revealed the need to also understand and design technologies that takes into account people's perceptions of such concerns. This perception would be significantly different in a world of tightly linked ecosystem richly suffused with personal information. Another would be to ensure that future IoT technologies are designed in ways that makes such concerns more transparent, easier for people to understand, as well as providing the capacity for people to manage risks, privacy, and security of data.


Related to the above discussion is question of agency. Human beings have always acted upon the world according to his/her desires and needs. However, in the world of the IoT, "things" will have agency too. They can 'talk' about us in the background with each other, publish our states, and do things for us. Thus, in the IoT world we must contend with sharing this agency with "things". Whilst this sharing of agency with technology is not new, the kinds (and degrees) of agency IoT "things" will have will be significantly different and greater. They can be potentially allowed to 'think for us', make decisions for us, and so on. Fundamentally, this raises questions for how we think about human agency in the IoT and what does agency mean in general. Such explorations are important because they are linked to issues of our deeper sense of self, and how we perceive our actions in the world. Besides determining the different types of agency possible in the IoT, the question for designers is how should we design IoT technologies with this new conceptualisation of agency? Here, I believe that collaborations with philosophers, especially those from the philosophy of technology may be particularly fruitful.

Breakdowns and Maintenance

Next, are the challenges designers faced when thinking about breakdowns in the IoT. With computation becoming highly interconnected but at the same time disappearing and becoming more fragmented in the IoT, designing for breakdown and planning for how people might be able to deal with breakdowns when they occur will be an important design challenge. This includes considerations of how people might be informed of and locate the source of the breakdown, e.g., how will people know where and which "thing" is not functioning? How easy will it be for a layperson to 'fix' various types of breakdowns? Are there (or should there be) any redundancies designed in case of breakdowns, and if so, which systems? What about software updates? These questions and many more related to the longevity, sustainability and ongoing maintenance of a highly interconnected, distributed and disappearing network of "things" will be one of the significant design challenge of the IoT.

Integration and User-Configurations

Besides breakdown, ongoing maintenance would require considerations for how we might design for integration. This means addressing questions such as how easy would it be for a new "thing" be added to an existing ecosystem of interconnected things and function appropriately? This might be challenging if the "thing" is a commercial product that will only work with other products from the same company. But on the other hand, designers might want to consider how we can easily allow a layperson to transform any existing artefact into a "thing" of the IoT, and to be able to integrate it to an existing ecosystem. At the same time, designers should also consider people might be able to change the nature of a "thing", in terms of its function. In fact, what I am alluding to is a kind of open and dialogical design, to design for user-configuration of the IoT where people can design, configure, change, modify, manage, and adapt IoT technologies to suit their needs under changing (and desired) situations.

Longitudinal in-situ Prototyping

What I have discussed so far are just some initial thoughts of some of the major challenges for human concerns when realising the IoT. These concerns are significant challenges for the HCI and Interaction Design communities not just in terms of their complexities but also because actual semblances of the IoT has yet to fully materialise. It is difficult to investigate these concerns in-situ and for many people, it is difficult to fully imagine and comprehend what the IoT could and might be, let alone offer any useful insights about how they might perceive and experience the IoT. Of course we could wait until technologies of the IoT become more widely spread, available, and adopted by people but I argue that there are greater opportunities to make a positive impact through informing the design of new technologies than to wait and call for changes in technologies once they have been developed. Given this, I see that prototyping future IoT technologies and deploying these prototypes in-situ into people's everyday lives would be one way to cultivate an understanding of how people might experience the IoT. I believe that longitudinal studies of such deployments would be necessary not only to understand the changing nature of people's experiences but to understand how we might deal with reconfigurations, breakdowns, integrations, decommissioning of artefacts over time.

A role for Participatory Design

Finally, I also believe that particular design traditions can offer greater value to addressing the range of design concerns I have raised with regards to the IoT. I believe that Participatory Design (PD), with its core activities of co-designing and on-going prototyping with people are not only conducive to designing technologies that empower the user but its epistemological commitment to designing for user values, mutual learning and co-discovery of meaningful alternatives can offer people bespoke design outcomes that can to a certain extent respond to some of the challenges raised. Finally, PD's commitment to mutual learning means that those involved in the design process learn about the technologies being designed and develop some skills to be able to tinker with the designed artefact. This is important because PD believes that the designed artefact is not complete or 'finalized' when the design process finishes but rather that a designed artefact is continually finalized and reconfigured through use by people. In this respect, PD can offer a way to deal with ongoing user-configuration and maintenance of IoT technologies.

The main responsibility (and expertise) of HCI and Interaction Design practitioners is to ensure that human concerns are raised, understood, and addressed in the design of future IoT technologies. I have only begun to scratch the surface to reveal some of the challenges that these communities face and might want to deal with. I have also offered some potential solutions as to how these challenges could be approached. But the time to act is now, while the vision of the IoT is still emerging and evolving.

Reclaiming People in The Internet of Things (IoT)

Tuck Wah Leong | 1 December 2013

The idea of the Internet of Things (IoT) is exciting! Perhaps that's why so much has been written about the IoT even though it has yet to fully materialise. The vision of the IoT is of the "future of the Internet". While the current Internet consists primarily of a vast numbers of interconnected computers and smart devices, the envisioned IoT promises an unimaginable escalation of the current interconnected networks whereby all "things" can be potentially connected and networked; able to communicate, sense, track, store data and act upon each other ("things") as well as upon the physical and virtual environment. Through this, it is speculated that the IoT will have the potential to significantly extend, enrich and even shift the relationship between people and the world around them; playing a pivotal role in addressing many of today’s societal challenges such as an ageing society, deforestation, traffic congestion and recyclability.

Despite the promises of the IoT vision, I want to focus on what we need to do now. As a designer working within Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) and Interaction Design, I can clearly see that there are much to contribute to shaping this vision. Of particular concern is how the IoT is currently conceptualised and approached. Efforts to realise the IoT remain focused primarily upon technical concerns, such as what infrastructures are needed, what networks can be used, what identification, sensing, and actuating technologies are suitable for particular tasks, and so on. In fact, most of the definitions of the IoT view people one of the actors in the periphery. Even more troubling is the "flattening out" of people in some definitions, where people are deemed merely as one of the "things" within the interconnected network of the IoT. Sure, people will be a part of the interconnected network of the IoT vision, but it is also imperative that people should be the core focus of the vision of the IoT. However, one might conceptualise the IoT, people will never be a "thing"!

As contributors to shaping technology design, the HCI and Interaction Design communities are rightly placed to redress these concerns - to find ways to champion the role of people in the emergent vision of the IoT. This is because the basic remit of HCI and Interaction Design have been to ensure that people are the central focus of technology development. These communities have helped design technologies that not only support people's activities more efficiently, effectively, and productively, but technologies that could also be experienced by people in ways that are supportive and respectful of human values during use. Whether the technologies are used to support the running of various processes of a bank, the work performed by skilled professionals in an operation theatre, the social interactions within homes, our use-and-living-with technology shape the very core of what makes humans human. Our interactions with technology shape our sense of self, our identity, our sense of agency to act in the world, and how we interact with others. This is why it is vital that HCI and Interaction Design contribute more actively in shaping this emergent vision of the IoT. If the IoT is to become the future of not just the Internet but also how we interact, work, and live with technologies, individually and with others, then we must ensure that future IoT technologies are designed in ways that a respectful of people's needs and their everyday experiences.

With technologies becoming more ubiquitous, pervasive, embedded, and disappearing into our physical worlds; with "things" sensing, monitoring, actuating (acting) on our behalf with, and often without our knowledge, basic human concerns such as agency, control, sense of self, trust, identity, security, privacy, social interactions, and many others will be dramatically altered. In the IoT, "things" can also collect and store an unprecedented amount of data about us: our activities, routines, states, our surroundings, and so on. This means that it is even more crucial that we think carefully about how people might experience an increasingly informated world - how people might make sense of the data. This is not just an issue of more efficient retrieval or better/richer visualisation but also how people might understand the information and be able to act upon it sensibly. In addition, it raises questions with regards to trust, privacy and security.

The good news is that HCI and Interaction Design do not need to reinvent the wheel. Related disciplines such as Pervasive computing, Ubiquitous computing, Physical computing, Tangible computing, Wearable computing, Ambient computing have long worked with some of the technologies that are related to those envisioned for the IoT. Some have also addressed human concerns when interacting with networked technologies that invisibly support and shape our activities and interactions. Issues of embodiment, presentation of self, and interactions within physical (and augmented) spaces have also been studied. Concerns such as trust, privacy and security with sensing and monitoring technologies have also been studied. Through this, they have established good understandings of the particular sociotechnical concerns outlined above and how we might design to better address such concerns. Yes, their efforts (to date) have been primarily limited and embryonic; their experiments have been limited in terms of the number of "things" that are connected. The extent and scale of the networks they work with have been similarly constrained. To an extent, such limitations reflect the current state of technical development. While it is growing steadily, those involved in the technical development of the IoT are still struggling with agreeing upon common protocols to use, creating stable infrastructures, finding ways to reliably power "things', and so on. In light of this, it is an opportune time for the HCI and Interaction Design community to work more closely with those involved in advancing technical efforts, In doing so we actively shape the development of the emergent IoT to ensure that it is Human-Centered. With people in the centre of "things", we will hope that the future IoT will not only be able to augment people's needs and potentials in positive ways but can also be experienced as empowering and respectful of what we truly value as humans.