The “What If?” Moment of IoT


In our hangout this past Thursday, “How to Accelerate Your IoT Journey With Design”, MIT and Accenture innovation and IoT design experts reminded us how important it is for a company to ask “What if?” in order to challenge the boundaries of traditional thinking and ideation.

Full of thought provoking points, mixed with some book recommendations, this hangout is one you’ll want to catch on the replay.

“We’re in a technology saavy world,” shared Sanjay Sarma, Professor of Mechanical Engineering at MIT, to kick off the discussion. “Tech is like magic. Ask ‘What if?’ and you can probably do it. This is an era for unleashing the fundamental principles of design and looking for hidden needs because technology can probably do it. This is a very special time.”

And indeed, it is a special time. Companies have an even greater opportunity to disrupt the market place and provide solutions to customer problems that have yet to be uncovered.

Theo Forbath, Managing Director of Accenture Products, added that while “the ‘What if?’ moment” pushes boundaries of intelligent automation, we need to control experiences so we ‘wow’ customers and don’t spook them. For the first time we can know what’s happening before the customers themselves do.” This means introducing customers to new and exciting experiences, before they even expect them.

IoT is a New Design Language for Creating Experiences

IoT is a language for creating memorable experiences. A coffee machine is no longer a coffee machine, rather, it’s something that owns your morning experience. “I believe that we are entering…a new age where we can engineer experiences using this new design language,” said Sanjay, “which is IoT and all the other technologies that come along with it.”

The implications of this, Theo added, are to look at how the branded experience is crafted. “The value you deliver every day to your customers and the way they are going to engage with you and recognize you is not through a slogan or logo or TV ad, but by the experience your customers have with your product or service that becomes increasingly vital. This is why design thinking plays such a key role today in IoT design. You now need to look at the moments from the beginning of the experience and create these conjured experiences that cut across the digital and physical”.

As Sanjay said, “The boundaries between product and customer blurs as well as the boundaries between products blurs as products connect to improve experiences.” For example, imagine your coffee maker can talk to your Echo so your Echo knows to put on the news when your coffee maker turns on. It’s all about the experience it creates, and that’s important to remember – you’re designing for experiences: you are selling holes not a drill, you are selling a better sleeping experience not a mattress, just like Amazon sells a reading experience, not books.

Customer needs should be at the hub of what companies are designing for. And how smart connected products play into the design brings a whole new set of opportunities for experiences we have only begun to imagine. Sanjay has a new book out, “The Inversion Factor: How to Thrive in the IoT Economy” which offers some great insights on how to have success in IoT with exactly that.

The Data in Design

Experiences will be more connected as we uncover opportunities derived from the data and the insights of IoT. Being aware of data privacy and security concerns will be important as we realize how these insights impact design iterations and, correspondingly, the customer’s experience.

Sanjay discussed how “the mobile phone is the magic wand” that enables IoT to bring us to another level. He said even Uber is an IoT play “because it turns a dumb car into a smart car. It makes a car trackable, communicable, and the driver is part of the machine. In fact, when they have self-driving cars, Uber won’t need drivers.”

Theo went as far as to say, “We want a ‘my channel’ experience so brands understand us in a deeper more profound way than ever before.” There are so many ways companies can improve our experiences. And new skills are needed to synthesize the data and help companies fully capitalize on IoT.

Last month’s hangout with AARP, UnitedHealth Group and Accenture shared more examples of leveraging the insights derived from IoT products and services for design: “The Next Generation of IoT: Designing with the Data in Mind”.

People and Organizations Must Be Poised for the Internet of Things

Sanjay said, “Companies tend to form boundaries around the products they make.” Asking ‘what if’ and moving beyond those boundaries means looking at the ecosystem of partners you may need in order to improve the experience. “A company can’t just focus on what they do best. They need to partner to think outside the four walls of a company…We need to hire and train our employees to think outside the box.”

Think of all the technologies coming in to play here: AI, AR, IoT and more. Sanjay reminds us this is a “new vocabulary…with new narrative and new experiences”.

This can mean pulling together an ecosystem of partners. Theo said skills on the teams may include designers, digital experts, strategists, data scientists, AI experts, vision learning experts and more. It is important to have someone who can connect the experience across products as well as synthesize the data and derive the insights from which to iterate. Sanjay added that the hardest skills to get are people who are skilled at questioning. This is critical to the success of understanding the customer needs, excelling at design thinking and thinking outside the box.

Organizations need people who can help break the silos that exist in many large companies, Theo added. Interdisciplinary teams need to come together –often working together for the first time – to solve problems in new ways. This is leading more companies to turn to human centered design. Design thinking is key in solving problems in new ways.

Overcoming the Challenges

Companies who are moving deeper into the world of IoT are facing new challenges to overcome. The Economist’s The Internet of Things Business Index 2017 surveyed companies of all sizes and said the top three IoT challenges faced are investment in the IoT infrastructure, then security and privacy issues, followed by limited knowledge and commitment from executives of this space. These are all important aspects to consider.

It also references three areas that companies have turned to most to accelerate IoT efforts across their organization. These are: learning from the successes or failures of early movers; training existing staff to work with the IoT; seeking advice from third party experts/consultants (Altitude welcomes speaking with you!)

As Theo offered, “IoT presents the opportunity to redefine your business and the type of experience you deliver to your customers.” Take advantage of this to win in the market by improving the customer’s experience through IoT design. Check out the recorded hangout, “How to Accelerate Your IoT Journey With Design” for more on this conversation.


Sanjay Sarma is Professor of Mechanical Engineering at MIT. He is the first Dean of Digital Learning at MIT. He co-founded the Auto-ID Center at MIT and developed many of the key technologies behind the EPC suite of RFID standards now used worldwide. He has authored over 75 academic papers in computational geometry, sensing, RFID, automation and CAD, and is the recipient of numerous awards for teaching and research.

Theo Forbath is Managing Director in Accenture Products. In his role, Theo envisions and implements the company’s Technology Advisory Services Practice. These offerings include Strategies for the New IT, Cloud Advisory, Digital Architecture, Security, Artificial Intelligence, Block chain and Disruptive Management for blue chip companies. Theo is a leader on how organizations can develop a culture of innovation and develop new business models within a data-rich world. Theo has partnered with Harvard and MIT on researching the intersection and impact of technology and design on business strategy.

Gretchen Hoffman

Posted By: 

Gretchen Hoffman

VP Marketing