In the face of abundant, disorienting disruption, some things will remain constants. Revenues and profitability will be the chief measures of success. Growth will continue to drive valuation and share price. And product managers, engineers, designers, and entrepreneurs will continueto work together to build the impossible. However, to create value in this new era, they will need to learn a new vocabulary.
Fortunately, we have identified four essential principles—connectedness, composability, recruitability and immersion—that all stakeholders can use to develop and build the next wave of world-changing solutions. Fluency in these concepts will become pivotal to the Inversion Age. Marketers and business leaders—from disruptors making brave forays into IoT to desperate late adopters struggling to compete—must understand and master these four principles of inversion if they wish to remain relevant.
The Inversion Paradigm
Let’s begin with a reminder of what we mean by inversion:
Inversion is a paradigm for evolving from a product-first orientation to fulfilling needs and finally to creating and curating customer experiences.
As a company moves through this process, it ceases to direct all its resources on perfecting products before they ship and begins to direct some of those resources on identifying unmet needs, measuring consumer experience, satisfying new needs through reapplying existing products, and identifying value hidden in the economy in which its services are consumed.
In the product-first business environment, these are some of the more common assumptions about products:
- They have impermeable boundaries. A product’s purpose and performance does not change, regardless of its environment, the functionality of other products in its proximity, or how it could be used to meet additional needs. A mattress is always just a mattress, even if a need for greater functionality exists and there are other products available to help meet that need.
- They are inflexible. Once their designs are approved and their manufacturing specs set down, products are unchangeable. New functionality means a new version, a new box and a new fee. Too often this has even applied to software, whose ones and zeroes are much more easily revised than the molecules of a DVD player or waterproof hiking shell.
- They do one thing. Coffee makers brew coffee. Hair dryers dry hair. Restroom towel dispensers dispense towels.
- They are “black boxes.” Users—and often, the manufacturer—have no way to access data that reveals the product’s performance, use patterns, or anything else that could be used to improve the product or the customer’s experience.
However, what if engineers and designers began with a different set of assumptions? What if an organization’s default mission was not “build more boxes” but developing solutions that meet needs with an eye on eventually creating new experiences for its customers? How would that assumption change the outcome of those engineers’ and designers’ work?
Consider Raden’s line of “smart luggage,” which the company’s CEO, Josh Udashkin, even describes as a “platform.” The lightweight rolling carry-on bags not only function as chargers for mobile devices, but their careful composition of mobile app, sensors, and a crowd of GPS networks enables the suitcase’s display to provide local traffic and weather information, show security wait times at selected airports, weigh themselves (helping travelers avoid excess weight fees), and even send their owners a proximity alert, something that’s especially convenient in crowded baggage claim areas.
The suitcase is no longer a carrier for clothes, but a nexus for everything you need to do while traveling. This evolution from products to needs to experiences is turning a wide range of product categories into connected IoT-powered devices—even humble, utilitarian products such as suitcases.
In the inversion era, key design considerations are changing.
Boundaries are permeable. Designers can develop objects with multiple intended uses from their conception, and as new use cases present themselves, other designers can find new ways to recruit the functionality of those objects to do new things.
Engineers are building connectivity into products and maintaining communication with them after they are sold, seeing how the product is performing and being used, and using that knowledge to develop new services that better meet customer needs. The focus is no longer on things locked into a single state but on platforms that behave. Instead of asking, “What is it?,” we are beginning ask, “What can it do?”
Four New Principles for Inversion
The current engineering vocabulary used in product-first businesses is insufficient for inversion. Designers, engineers, and entrepreneurs who set their sights on creating solutions for the needs-based, experienced-based marketplace must learn to embrace four new design principles.
1. Connectedness is the ability to connect a device to a data processing platform through the Internet using a communication protocol—usually, in the IoT age, a wireless one. The processing platform can be an onboard computer (such as the microprocessor found in many home appliances or the computers in modern automobiles), a local hub (such as a smart base station used by residential audio or security products), or a remote system (most commonly, the cloud). The ability to connect devices to the Internet wirelessly defines IoT.
2. Composability is a quality that enables the customer to combine the functions of multiple connected devices, creating “composite” devices that together perform new functions in ways that meet needs their designers may not have foreseen. Note that the user is not creating new devices any more than an artist creates his subject matter; she is merely assembling them into an overall composition to satisfy her immediate need.
3. Recruitability is the capacity of a system to be readily adaptable to additional functions beyond those for which it was originally designed. A recruitable solution typically features an open architecture, externally-facing application programming interfaces (APIs), and function nonspecific controls (LCD touchscreens, voice, cameras, haptics) that can accommodate unanticipated adaptations, including those proposed by third parties, with relative ease.
4. Immersion is the principle of composing devices, software, and distributed “fog” or “mesh” computing power to create a seamless constellation of intelligent, environmentally responsive devices with the user at the center. Working in concert, these technologies become a mobile, responsive, immersive personal ecosystem designed to create high-valueexperiences for the customer—and let the customer control his or her own experiences.
Early innovators of IoT incorporated these principles into their products by fortunate accident, the by-product of science and innovation colliding at high speeds. However, in the future, intelligent devices that succeed in creating extraordinary value for customers and companies will have these properties “baked into” their development from the earliest conceptual stages.
Linda Bernardi is a serial technology entrepreneur and author. Formerly Chief Innovation Officer for IoT and Cloud at IBM, she runs the technology strategy firm StraTerra Partners.
Along with the late Kenneth Traub, Bernardi and Sarma are co-authors of The Inversion Factor: How to Thrive in the IoT Economy (MIT Press, October 2017)