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Thinking Out of the Box

Conquering the IoT with Lean UX – Part 1

Simon Kieke
Simon Kieke
November 30th, 2017

2014 is ending, and  the term IoT (Internet of Things) is entering the public awareness of the German-speaking regions for the first time. The concept is promising: individuals can rely on a connected intelligent environment to solve everyday problems. Businesses can develop previously inconceivable products and services, and sell them at scale. McKinsey is predicting a potential economic effect of $2,7 trillion to $6,2 trillion and businesses like Intel are painting a colorful and profitable picture of the IoT world. Of course, product managers and top-level managers in companies across the developed world are ordered to get on the IoT bandwagon.

Three years later, at the end of 2017, the hype has sobered. A few large companies like Alphabet or Amazon can bring IoT products to market with varying degrees of success, but especially medium-sized companies find it hard to convert the new opportunities into hit IoT products. What is the problem? Can remarkable results also be achieved with low risk and unusual methods like Lean UX?

Kai Deller – Centigrade Head of Design


“Lean principles help to gain a foothold in the large field ‘Internet of Things’ by making human needs the starting point of each project. The complexity of IoT becomes manageable through sharply focused projects and continuous learning. This focus allows to gain groundbreaking insights early through methods like Rapid Prototyping. Early feedback is especially important for haptic products.”

Plunging in

Many medium-sized companies are not exclusively in the technology business, but have a product portfolio with a certain analog share that would require fundamentally new services and business models for the IoT. This demands not only an extreme ability to innovate, but also service and technology skills that were far less relevant only a few years ago and need to be refined now.

High cost and an uncertain return on investment – with this outlook, getting into the IoT for many companies seems to be a plunge off a cliff into stormy seas. It is uncertain if the water under the waves is deep enough or if the landing on a coral reef will be very unpleasant. At the same time the desire to enter the IoT remains, as completely new markets and profits are to be expected. Plunge in – or not?

A little is clearly better than nothing at all

The medium-sized companies’ managers will be fed up of calls to “Plunge in!“, correctly judging them irresponsible. They are not lacking a will to develop, but a manageable way to enter the unknown IoT waters.

In any case, a closer look shows that the waves are artificially amplified. “Black or white” thinking won’t help to reach the target. It will rather hinder a company’s capacity to act, just as the image of IoT as a holy grail of future business developments does. Actually, successful companies seem to reject the hysterical “all or nothing” mentality. Instead they start small, re-think their existing products and enrich them incrementally and evolutionary with digital services.

Unexpected accomplices: User Experience designers

Support can come from user experience designers, whose everyday work has for years included evolutionary step-by-step improvement of products through Lean UX methods and small MVPs. Kai Deller, Centigrade Head of Design, has recently given a talk on the chances of using Lean UX in the context of IoT at the “Internet of Things” conference. I want to introduce the Lean UX concepts using my colleagues’ talk as an example. Kai Deller will provide in-depth detail himself in a follow-up blog post.

Good things come to those who meet their user’s needs

The Lean UX approach is based on Lean Manufacturing methods – a system that aims to exclude unnecessary production steps and materials from the process and to only allow activities that add to the product’s value for the user. This focus on actual user needs makes production processes more efficient and helps to define the product in smaller, more manageable sections.

For each product one, and only one, user need is identified that will be satisfied by using the product. The development of all further features and requirements is treated as secondary.


The first iPhone –Carl Berkeley – Riverside California, via Wikimedia Commons

A radical example for the success of this uncompromising approach is the first iPhone of 2007: many features that were considered the gold standard for applications were tossed overboard during the development, including:

  • Copy and paste
  • Undo and redo
  • Installable software (Apps)

Instead, it met a completely new user need. Users suddenly could reliably access the internet everywhere: the complete knowledge of the world on your hand and the “super power” to always answer every question. Lean UX created a flawed but viable and thrilling product that solves a specific problem for a specific type of user in a specific context – a so-called Minimum Viable Product, or MVP for short.


This focus on satisfying a single user need brings great innovative power to IoT products. Using the MVP approach among other tools and methods of Lean UX, the goal definition and product scope can be set to create significant and marketable value in a single clear project. This creates a manageable way to enter the IoT market instead of plunging into the unknown. Small IoT products with actual value can be created with little risk. To explain in detail which methods and principles can be used, my colleague Kai Deller will present some Lean UX ideas in a follow-up post and show how managers can use these ideas to give their companies new momentum for their IoT initiatives.

If you have questions concerning the implementation of Lean UX in your company you can find out more about it on our UX Strategy service site. 

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