IoT Prototyping: Is your strategy in place?
Connected technology initiatives are making waves not only at Intel, Microsoft, and SAP, but they’re also quickly finding their place in unexpected everyday places like basketball courts, farmlands, and kitchens. Before we know it, IoT will seep into every facet of our daily lives, managing our homes, tending our gardens, and even monitoring our mailboxes. Shortly, IoT products will be as ubiquitous as cell phones are today, so now’s a great time to get involved.
Your IoT prototype is used to understand the pinch points and frame out the necessary parameters of your IoT product deployment. The prototype must be end-to-end, including a thin thread connecting the sensor through the device, network, cloud, end-user interface, and enterprise integration. However, the fact is, building an Internet of Things (IoT) prototype, although rewarding, is also a frustratingly challenging engineering process. Get used to hearing “Switch it on, this time around everything should work!", just before switching the power of a prototype on, only to see it spectacularly fail in a very visible fashion, or much less spectacularly but a lot more commonly, do absolutely nothing.
What is Internet Of Things (IoT)?
I’m sure this is not new to you, nevertheless, doesn’t hurt to make sure we’re on the same page since there are several definitions taking into account different aspects of the IoT. IoT is usually defined as the convergence between Wireless technologies, microcontrollers, services and the Internet. The primary factors of IoT are the device and the Internet. You start with any device able to connect to the network. A device is a smartphone, a smartphone, microcontroller, lamps, wearable device, sensors and so on. The Internet is your means to connect the devices. The commonality here is that all devices can connect to the network to allow the exchange of data and information. This exchange of information takes place through the internet. Additionally, with the use of sensors, they can collect information about the world around them. All this information is then sent to other devices or platforms able to store it. All objects connected to the net can be a source or the destination of this information flow. You will have to pay close attention to the security part to protect the information. Soon, the impact of IoT in our everyday lives will prove to be massive.
What is IoT Prototyping?
It is the process of building IoT hardware and devices enhanced with smart sensors and embedded systems using many off-the-shelf components like sensors, circuit boards, and microcontrollers. A lot of these off-the-shelf solutions are readily available to end consumers. Take an Arduino board, for instance. You can order it online and have it delivered within 24 hours. Also, a prototype is by no means a market-ready product. It is just a trial version of your connected solution and acts as proof that your innovative idea will work the way you envision it.
How is IoT prototyping an IoT product different?
Building a new product, especially in uncharted territory is risky. This is why we begin the process by prototyping. Even so, prototyping an IoT product will prove to be different to the prototyping process your team is used to. Here’s what to expect if it’s your first foray into this space.
Your prototype needn't be production-ready. If you’ve prototyped a mobile product or a web application before, whatever you prototyped likely wasn’t far from production. But IoT products are far more complicated. The hardware you use while prototyping, most probably won't be what you use when mass-producing your IoT product. The software, too, will be more challenging. Add to that, plenty of third-party integrations to consider.
Get ready to build your own components. When it comes to IoT, there isn’t much of a roadmap to follow yet. You’ll need to pave your way. So unlike prototyping for most traditional software, you can't rely on pre-existing architectures and libraries. Today, your developers will need to start nearly from scratch, but more and more pre-built components will become available as the IoT grows. Meaning, longer feedback loops, and testing cycles. IoT products involve software and a hardware layer. This means you might have to ship and deliver physical devices to your beta users to get feedback. Additionally, users aren’t yet familiar with IoT technologies, so you'll have to provide detailed setup and use instructions. Bottomline, the testing and feedback loop will be longer and more complex than with traditional software products.
Don’t underestimate production costs. Most projects don't fail due to a bad idea, but because most of them tend to overpromise with limited resources. The cost of producing hardware at scale catches many entrepreneurs off-guard and overwhelms the budget. Instead of over-promising with hardware, think simple and try to get wins from software.
The software is still the real hero here. IoT’s allure isn’t the in-your-face tech most people imagine it to be, but rather the apparent absence of technology. IoT should make products appear seamless. However, all such IoT devices are connected to a smartphone or the web, and the multiple-step setups make users want to give up. It will take a few attempts to create a reliable connection, but no IoT device can work without one. See, your software will be a big part of the user experience, strive to make the hardware easy to understand, using the software to support it.
Don't build to impress, build to serve. Sticking a chip in a device and connecting it to the Net doesn't make it IoT. Many have tried doing it and failed. Rather, put all the assumptions to the test about consumer behavior and create a device which truly delivers value. It's not about creating amazing tech but rather about building useful and necessary tech for your customers.
User-test everything. Your prototype isn't meant to charm users, So don't be shy because it’s vital to put your product into your user's hands to get feedback early and often. It’s easy to get emotionally invested in your work. Don’t be afraid to share an imperfect product. The information you’ll glean will prove to be valuable and well worth the discomfort.
What is the key challenge in IoT prototyping?
The skillset needed to build an interconnected program for a hardware device is quite different from the skillset needed to develop and maintain a web application or server, and vice versa. Leaving a skilled software engineer floundering when it comes to developing a schematic for a hardware prototype, and an electrical engineer with a bad headache while confronted with developing an industry standard mobile application to control a device.
The goals you set will define the overall scope of the prototype. Next, figure out what the primary constraint for the prototype is, then focus on the secondary constraint, and then the non-issues. This will give you more clarity on how to approach the prototyping process. Once you have defined the goals and constraints for your prototype, the last planning stage is to boil the prototype down to its functional pieces. This will provide clarity in selecting the right tools and hardware for the prototype.
The different stages of IoT prototyping:
If you’re ready to work on the IoT prototyping path, here are some tips to help you through the different stages:
1. Begin with the toughest problem. It’s vital to hone in on your product’s riskiest assumptions when prototyping your IoT product. For instance, if your biggest worry is how you’ll get mobile devices to speak with your product, that’s the task your first prototype should be focusing on. This will force you to make major product decisions upfront rather than months into the development cycle. At this point, you’ve probably spent tens of thousands developing a faulty product.
2. It’s time to start building once you’ve decided which problems your prototype will address. That means deciding on which technologies you’ll use to build the product, and this is a big decision. Do keep in mind that this will require some experimentation. You’ll likely research, develop, and end up throw away code during the process. It will seem like hitting your head against a wall, but channel that inner Tesla. And remind yourself that not failing, you’re discovering what technologies won’t work for your product. But go through it all, try and use basic components for your prototype. You can always upgrade later.
3. Once you’ve figured out what problems you want to solve and which technologies you'll use to solve them, it’s time to start building. This will prove to be the most exciting stage of the entire prototyping process. Start building early, and power through the hiccups. Use this prototyping stage to architect a way to bring your costs down in the long-term.
4. Now that you have your IoT prototype up and running, get ready to iron out the remaining issues. The bugs could be software-related, as in unstable code or broken features, or they could be hardware-related, be it a flickering screen or a weak connection point. This stage of prototyping, which is typically seen as the last 20 percent, often ends up housing 80 percent of the struggle in product development.
It's always exciting watching a product come together. But as the deadlines loom and unforeseen fiascos crop up, you are bound to feel frustrated. Some features take longer than expected to develop, user interfaces require tweaking, and the hardware needs polishing. If you've reached the troubleshooting stage and are frustrated, don’t settle. You’ve made it this far and your working prototype is right around the corner.
IoT growth today is driven by the declining price of public APIs, sensors, and the evident advantages of using connected solutions for business purposes. Even so, the process of building IoT hardware and software is riddled with certain challenges like project delays, technology limitations, and cost overruns. But you see, it's all worth it in the end. After all, the product you’re building is at the cutting edge of technology, one major brands like SAP and Microsoft are working on themselves. Get prototyping now to join the race.