When Should Products Connect to the Web?
The right answer: only when they truly respond to consumer needs and values.
Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.
The products in our lives are increasingly connecting to each other and an information ecosystem, while stand-alone products are becoming extinct. It's estimated that by 2020, there will be 50 billion connected devices -- a 500 percent increase from today.
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All this is happening before our eyes. Just ten years ago, people were fascinated to find that they could access a weather forecast through their cell phones. Fast forward to today, and we're frustrated if a three-dimensional satellite image of the street we're standing on doesn't appear on our smartphone quickly enough.
Connected devices have certainly made our lives easier, but like most new technologies, confusion reigns over when a product should be enabled to connect and when it shouldn't. For example, a map on my phone that helps me quickly find a hospital in a foreign city could literally help save my life. But does my toaster really need to connect? As a consumer, I'm not convinced.
It's understandable why so many companies are exploring opportunities to create connected products. Especially in highly commoditized areas such as home appliances, it's "differentiate or die." Have you shopped for a toaster recently? Walk down the toaster aisle and you'll be washed in a sea of sameness. Toasters look similar, have similar features and -- we trust -- will last at least five years. So maybe it is time for a toaster that connects to the Internet.
Not so fast. Rather than force-fitting intelligence or connectivity into consumer products, companies should consider the needs and values of the people they're serving. Call this "consumer-connectivity values." There are four of these values, with "health and wellness" at the top. The closer a product or service experience can get to this central and essential value, the more successful your connected solution will likely be. Let's look at the four connectivity values, in ascending order:
This first tier consists of products designed for general enjoyment and experiences -- products that can make people smile. We don't necessarily need these connected devices, but if we can afford them, why not boost our happiness? Consider the product TeleSound; this Kickstarter project aims to make a connected speaker that lets you send various sounds to your friends. When a person enters a room, the speaker powers on and a user can transmit short audio messages through it via a smartphone all day. Clicking on the birthday cake icon on your iPhone could send your friend across the world a few seconds of "Happy Birthday," and he'd know you were thinking of him. TeleSound is still just a concept, but it could succeed because it's a creative idea that entertains and makes our lives a little happier.
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At the next level of meaning are products that inspire confidence. Being provided a greater sense of self, for example, can inspire confidence. An example? The value of the connectivity offered by iluminage's Skin Smoothing Laser -- an FDA-approved, handheld laser device, which is designed for use in the home and claims to reduce signs of aging around the eyes and mouth. Its connection to an online user and professional community provides consumers support to understand when they're using the product correctly and are on the path to the desired results. The connectivity benefit is similar to the support you get from a personal trainer. When you go to a health club, you don't see immediate results, but a trainer provides the support and feedback you need. Support helps maintain your interest and motivation. The connectivity of the iluminage laser similarly facilitates self-confidence for consumers.
At the next tier sits connected products and services that provide personal security. Security, and the comfort it provides, is a fundamental human need that connected devices have the ability to empower. Never before have we been able to easily (and cost-effectively) remotely monitor and control the products in our lives. Consider a product such as the Goji Smart Lock. It allows people to easily modify their current door lock to remotely lock and unlock their doors, offering functional security from any location and the emotional security of knowing your home is protected.
There are, of course, inherent risks and challenges surrounding connected security products and services. The FTC released a report in January citing the challenges of connected experiences. Manufacturers need to be aware of these challenges and, early in the development process, take the appropriate security and privacy measures. Connected devices have only scratched the surface of this important and powerful category of products. But they must observe strict protocols around encryption and data security to protect the private data of their users, and deliver on the physical security they promise by keeping our doors locked when they need to.
Health and Wellness
At the core of the consumer connectivity values model is health and wellness. The three preceding qualities can all be viewed as precursors to wellness -- or components of a holistic, healthy life.
If your product leverages connectivity to help people maintain their and their families' health and well-being, you likely have the beginnings of a successful solution. Closed systems -- which allow consumers to track and monitor their own health and fitness -- are somewhat beneficial to consumers, but it's well documented that 40 percent of wearable health devices are abandoned after six months.
Facilitating communication between patients and doctors, though, is a significant opportunity. The Withings Blood Pressure Monitor allows you to track your results through your smartphone and share them with your doctor. Or, consider the partnership between Oscar Health and Misfit. In this program, Oscar members can chose to receive a free Misfit wristband pedometer, which measures steps taken per day and rewards users with Amazon.com cash. Participants benefit by being encouraged to exercise more frequently and are financially rewarded. Oscar Health benefits by having healthier members -- reducing its costs.
At this point, we're living in the formative era of connectivity. And, as with most nascent technologies, manufacturers are struggling to understand how to leverage the potential of connectivity.
A recommendation to these companies is to not become so enthralled by the technology opportunities before them that they lose sight of true consumer needs and values. If your product is able to provide consumers with entertainment, confidence, security or health and wellness, you're likely on the right track. But, if you're considering creating a connected product that doesn't provide consumer value in any of these areas, you may be better off just disconnecting.