Internet-connected smart things are great, but what if you can’t get them connected to the information superhighway? Let’s explore some of the methods and interactions that put the “I” in IoT.

The Purchase.
You’ve watched crowdfunding videos, scoured the blogosphere for reviews, watched countless unboxing videos, screamed “shut up and take my money” into a computer and finally received this smart thing for your abode. Your palms begin to sweat as you meticulously reenact your favorite unboxing video.

Nest screwdriver

The Nest Thermostat comes with a fancy little screwdriver.

The Setup.
Don’t botch this; you’re doing good. With toolbelt on, you crawl under the house / tiptoe through the attic / climb a ladder and get the device installed. (Bonus points if the tools came in the box. Nest, I’m looking at you.) It’s wired to a wind-tunnel-tested wall wart and ready to talk to the mothership. You button up the install and hop off the ladder.

The Anticipation.
Here’s where things get tricky; the purchase decision and unboxing were child’s play. Installation wasn’t that bad. (I’m not looking at you, Smappee.) This next interaction can be the death knell or the moment you become an evangelist. You dig in the box for instructions. (For shame if it has a booklet!) You glance at the first step just before feeding the paper shredder. You download the app. And this is that moment of stillness where you stand on the precipice, clothed in a wing suit with a return shipping label at your feet.

Smappee power monitoring system

Smappee is powerful, but installation and mobile app could be improved.

The Connectedness.
Your finger winces as you open the app. Will it ask you to crawl back in the attic to tap your mother’s maiden name with Morse code on some recessed button? Must you open a browser or dig into your phone’s settings? Will they really require your phone’s camera to see the device you painstakingly hid from view. Or, will your phone just magically connect to this new device?

These are the questions I ask at each new Internet of Things (IoT) device experience. Sometimes I soar in my wingsuit and sometimes I reach for the return label. From a business standpoint, it’s imperative to minimize friction in the setup process. Possibly the most important step in the whole process is connecting the device to the Internet.


Dropcam has one of the best setup and onboarding processes for IoT devices.

The Methods.
The main contenders for connecting a mobile phone or tablet to an IoT device (like a Dropcam) come in three basic flavors: peer-to-peer Wi-Fi, BlueTooth, and sight / sound connections along the lines of Chirp. To clarify, I’m talking about connecting devices that lack a screen to the Internet. (Think Dropcam, not Nest.) There are many other methods, such of NFC and Wi-Fi Direct, but in my experience peer-to-peer Wi-Fi and BlueTooth are the most prevalent methods for telling a device which network to join.

The Interactions.
While there are many methods for a mobile device to communicate with an IoT device, I want to focus on the interactions that occur. I believe IoT device companies have missed the mark if users must leave their app or put their hands on the device to make a connection. Consider these three scenarios:

  1. You open the app, are prompted to visit your phone’s Wi-Fi settings, and instructed to connect to the network SSID of DEVICENAMExxxxxx. Once connected, return to the app.
  2. You open the app, are prompted to push a button on the device or get in sight / sound proximity. Upon pushing the button or getting in proximity, the devices will communicate.
  3. You open the app, and it says, “I found your new device!” (In fairness, this assumes you already had BlueTooth switched on.)
Belkin WeMo light switches

Someday my parents will call, asking for help setting up their Belkin WeMo. It will be painful.

The first scenario of PtP Wi-Fi connectivity isn’t so bad for most people, but I know my parents would struggle. I’m dreading the day they get Internet access at their newly-purchased home and try to complete the setup of the Belkin WeMo light switches I installed for them. The second scenario is simply diabolical for devices that were installed in hard-to-reach areas. For instance, I crawled deep under my house to install a remotely controlled plug. Once I retreated to safety, I realized I had climb back under the house to hit a recessed button to establish a connection to my Smappee. The third scenario is a magical, frictionless experience. You needn’t leave the app or put your hands on the device. I’m talking about things like Dropcam and the August Smart Lock.

If you work on a product design team for IoT gadgetry, I implore you to craft a delightful experience. (My UX design colleagues will mock me for saying delightful, but that’s okay.) Make the right decisions when selecting hardware and designing your mobile apps. Turn your customers into evangelists wearing wing suits instead of grumbling people holding a return shipping label.

Have you installed a new IoT device recently that had a fantastic or terrible connection and setup experience? What did you like or dislike?

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Ben Robinson

Ben Robinson

Howdy! I'm a meatarian who rides bikes and runs with scissors. UX Design Lead at BlueFletch Mobile. Woodworker on weekends. Learn more about me.