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Product Development

Building IoT devices from scratch

Nisha Gopinath Menon
October 22, 2019

Connected smart products offer incredible opportunities for product leaders to create new customer experiences, improve their operations, and open up entirely new lines of revenue. Advances in the Internet of Things (IoT) technology is transforming disparate products into a dynamic network of insights. However, IoT is still challenging to implement. Many manufacturers lack practical advice about how to start building them, even though they are aware of the potential benefits of connected products. There is no clearly paved path to becoming a connected products business. Some hesitate due to common concerns such as scalability and security. Others get lost in the ambiguity of where to start, while many launch a connected product effort but are unable to execute successfully.

Connected products present revolutionary business possibilities, not only to offer entirely new services but also to advance the capabilities of existing products. IoT enables companies to provide products as a service rather than just make "things." The ability to control, monitor, and automate products remotely means the door is open to innovative ways of adding value. A lack of clarity about how to make this transition challenges manufacturers interested in shifting towards connected product production. The right starting point can be hard to identify, and the implications of business model transformation are wide-ranging.

Stage 1: Strategy (10-60 days)

For every business, the right strategy to shift into connected products will be different. However, virtually every company must begin exploring their options today. This paper lends an approach that applies across companies and industries to help you get started. We’ll walk you through the considerations your firm needs to consider to lay the groundwork for a connected product. We’ll also discuss practical advice based on our customers’ experiences and provide guidance on the concerns that keep many from getting started.

  • What problems does your IoT device solve?
  • A connected product strategy is based on a strong value proposition. There are three elements to building your value proposition: your distinct vision for connected products, your users’ needs, and how IoT technology addresses those needs. Too many work backwards by working on the value proposition after imagining the connected product first. As the creators never took the time to understand the issue they were trying to solve, these IoT projects are hardly ever successful. So start with the end in mind. What real benefit does the user get and what is its value (think not just about the revenues, but also about the data)? People are looking for simple solutions to their problems, not fancy IoT toys. Many applications are novel, but not very useful.
  • What are the core features of the product? Workflow planning. Create a more detailed list of functions that has to be implemented within the MVP. Rather than features such as finding then buying the product and managing and receiving orders, your focus should be more on basic tasks. These are the goals that your end-users will have while using your product. Categorize all the features based on priority.
  • Will you build custom hardware, use existing hardware, or customize existing hardware?
  • IoT development modules and boards are at the cornerstone of every IoT project. The technical capabilities and variety of these boards have only become more complex as IoT has developed. Before you fret about circuit board milling and fire up the laser cutters, remind yourself that there’s quite a mix of good off-the-shelf hardware providers out there. As far as micro-processing boards and microcontrollers go, look for the ones that suit your project: What are power usage options? Does it have the right connectivity? Is it the right size? Is it programmable in a language you can work with? Are there enough input/output pins?  
  • Will you write the firmware, or will your hardware vendor write the firmware? Firmware is a specific type of computer software that provides the low-level control for a device's specific hardware. Think of it as code running on hardware that is crucial to the hardware's working. It interacts with the hardware's electrical components and is traditionally infrequently updated. Firmware is a large portion of all of the little cogs that make our world turn, and its presence will only continue to grow. It is difficult to get firmware right the first time. You will be managing everything, all at some point on remote IoT devices, from business logic to  security to networking. To help alleviate these problems, leverage OTA firmware updates, but it also brings with it its own complexities.
  • How will the hardware connect to the internet? BluetoothLE, Wifi, Modem, Zigby, something else? Various types of networks and wireless technology allow IoT devices to speak (send data) to the web (TCP/IP Networks) and to each other without cables. For Machine to Machine (M2M) communication and the Internet of Things (IoT), there are various wireless technologies which can be implemented in hardware products.
  • What backend programming language will you use, and what cloud provider will host the backend?
  • Do you need both web and mobile apps for customers to interface with the data? Tablets too?
  • How many user roles do you need and what features do different user types have access to? Roles are sets of permissions which can be used to restrict or grant access to specific operations. Roles can be used to manage permissions for groups of applications, gateways and users.
  • Will you charge a monthly fee, and will your customers be able to pay via credit card? The holy grail for the payments industry is providing the consumer with a truly frictionless experience. There are already built-in security measures as security is a concern and an area that companies are determined to improve on.Tokenization is used for every transaction as the IoT uses beacon technology and NFC. Moreover, biometrics are getting more commonplace. In fact, you’re probably already familiar with Touch ID which uses fingerprint to authorize a transaction. With more data points in place to verify your identity, the more protected you are.

Stage 2: Pinning down the IoT device specifications (15-30 days)

  • Selecting IoT Platform/ Tools: The right platform should be able to grow with your business and adapt to future technological advancements.
  • Choosing the right IoT hardware: You’ll want to start with a simple prototyping kit when building an IoT device, but as you progress through the design and hardware development process, you must invest in hardware boards that are designed for manufacturing and scaling.
  • Build your first IoT device prototype: A thorough prototype simulates the most important and basic components of the final IoT device. Developing a prototype lets you to figure out the crucial parameters necessary for the IoT project before deployment.
    You should ask yourself the following questions to create a successful prototype:
    Which data and features are most important to the success of the initiative?
    By accurately measuring the data I’m after, can I validate the use case?
    What are the most challenging and expensive design requirements?
    Are there any features in the design that will go unnoticed and unused?
    Which demands does the design not satisfy, and how problematic is that?
  • UX design for IoT involves a sequence of interactions between users from a physical one to a virtual system, which is why for IoT UX design is different. Also, the design becomes much more complex when we design UX for connected products, due to the dramatic rise in the number of systems and users. A big challenge for UX designers in IoT is the unification of interfaces to fit various user experiences. Under a common user interface (UI), we must handle multiple types of data from multiple devices and in a simple visualization, adapt disparate data points for the types of IoT devices they are using and diversity of users. And this, considering not only their interoperability but also usability of the user interfaces individually. That is, distributing the user experience through multiple use cases. An interoperable and flexible design that can adapt to the complexities of an IoT ecosystem is critical for overcoming the problem of many in one.

Stage 3: IoT Device Development (6 Months)

  • Define the dependencies: keep in mind dependencies for your use cases. Is your device mobile or fixed? Does your device need a battery, or is it connected to a fixed power supply? Must the IoT device's connectivity be continuous or episodic? How much data per hour should you transfer to your cloud database?
  • Create a roadmap
  • Feature creep can be difficult to control. It's easy for developers to begin fixing what they consider future or current problems without strong requirements. Often leading to over-engineered products that can affect key features, inadvertently, such as security or connectivity, in the case of an IoT device.
  • Reduce the data sent and stored on the server via the firmware
  • Server-side work
  • Tracking
  • Web Frontend
  • Mobile apps


A major challenge that makes developing an IoT prototype so frustrating is that the skill set necessary to develop and maintain a web server is quite different from the skill set required to build an interconnected program for a hardware device. This leaves an electrical engineer frustrated when faced with developing an industry-standard iOS mobile app to control a device and a skilled software developer stumped when approached with the task of creating a schematic for a hardware prototype.

The failure or success of any connected IoT device is dependent on how well requirements are managed and defined from early product inception. Requirements management is the center of a successful product launch. Innovative IoT companies have come to understand this.

There's massive potential in IoT implementation in several areas. IoT allows opportunities for a more direct alliance of the real world that result in better efficiency and economic benefit. IoT applications enhance comfort and simplify our lives. It provides many opportunities for app development in aspects like wearable application, smart home, healthcare, and retail applications, transportation, smart cities, and many more. It is crucial to simplify IoT app development and deliver highly secure and scalable IoT applications that are instrumental in transforming smart dreams into reality.

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Nisha Gopinath Menon