Smart City UX: Software Solutions for Smart City Problems

April 5, 2019

The data collected and monitored by IoT devices is the bones of smart cities. The hearts of them, though, are the residents seeking a better way of life. Smart City technology is not the product; rather, the product is the outcome of value-add to residents: increased accessibility, convenience and well-being.

Thus, even the best laid tech systems mean nothing if the general public find them difficult. IoT developers and smart cities must prioritize the user experience (UX) of residents to ensure value-add.

Smart Cities: Industrial Platforms on a Personal Level

Smart City technology straddles the line of industrial and personal technology. On the one hand, the widely-dispersed platforms must be expansive and powerful. They run on the most formidable cloud and other servers. They process data in the millions, if not trillions, of data points, taking from visual to audio and sensor input. Their tasks must be conducted in real time and are often predictive, thanks to machine learning, both of which require immense connectivity.

Industrial smart city systems are also massive fabrics sewn by many parties. Truly intelligent cities require collaboration between private firms, public entities and non-profit institutions. Thus, intelligent city systems must be highly coordinated systems, just like a factory floor, to accomplish tasks in a beneficial way.

This “industrial platform” background requires a specific set of UX guidelines and practices. Many of these guidelines are centered on efficiency, security and productivity. They also balance ease of use – for the general, unskilled user – with the advanced customization necessary for managers and engineers. Industrial platforms do not generally prioritize aesthetics as the platforms need to minimize cost and maximize utility. Medical software programs may be an exception to this.

However, many smart city systems gather and distribute data to the end user directly. This adds immense variability and changes the pressure points of use. Aesthetics certainly come more into play when dealing on the individual level. Another major point is technology familiarity as well as education and training. Smart city projects must be designed from the perspective of the most common denominator and accessible to the least privileged person.

UX for Industrial Technology

UX is a comprehensive process that considers the end user and how to make it best for them. It starts in ideation and continues through implementation and support. A UX team includes software developers, artists, psychologists, sales people, engineers, researchers and users.

Throughout a product’s lifecycle, it undergoes vigorous beta-testing and focus group analysis to ensure that the final product experience is worth the cost. This experience must balance the provider’s business objectives – aesthetic, brand immersion, system buy-in, leads – with what the user needs to feel known, understood and comfortable enough to commit.

UX often gets confused with User Interface, or UI. The interface is the physical part of the machine or software with which users interact to achieve their goals and control their experience. On a mobile app, the interface could be anything from which side the menu is on to what type of tactile response a button click should produce. Part of this interface decision is inspired by aesthetics and overall brand style guides, but those are secondary to intuitive use. UI is a majority part of UX but has less to do with the business side of things and more to do with ergonomics and human behaviors.

Industrial platforms for intelligent technology have a particularly heavy burden for both UX and UI. With the balance required to be both industrial and personal, companies implementing smart city initiatives must approach the project from double the perspectives. This lesson especially affects providers of the edge devices with which people interact. While the automated services and machines that accomplish these tasks may seem straightforward to the innovators behind them, they could come across as foreign or scary. When intimidated, the human ability to comprehend diminishes.

IoT UX Best Practices

A major concern surrounding IIoT devices and software is the potential cybersecurity vulnerability. From the backend, access to cloud-based control programs could lead to havoc through rogue users. From a personal view, stolen identity data instills insecurity about digital, personal and financial safety. Smart City technology is especially vulnerable to malicious parties due to the type of information utilized: routines, GPS or other location services, financial details, etc.

IIoT providers and smart city officials need to ensure that users are guaranteed security by starting the cybersecurity experience at development and maintaining through support. Two-factor authorizations, 256-bit encryption, and secure log-ons are current industry standards for software security. Other prevention-based tactics include minimal admin access points and localized processing without long-term data storage on edge devices.

Simplicity is a key way that major software offerings have found success. For cutting edge technology found in smart cities, keeping “features” at a minimum – at first – on software is a great way to introduce users to a new way of life. As residents of smart and connected communities grow accustomed to things like app-based updates from smart transportation or custom lighting in neighborhoods, features can be rolled out to expand the software usability.

Moreover, streamlined designs that focus on the technology with an intuitive narrative are key components to user-based systems. It’s okay to rely on established methodologies if they enhance functionality. It’s also beneficial to rely on simplified displays that work across platforms – mobile, smart car touch screen and etc – to ensure easy visual interaction regardless of the user’s status.

Proactive communication is not just for marriages. While smart city technology seems like “the next best thing,” it arrives on the heels of government distrust, a widening wealth gap and worldwide technology company failures. While it may truly be the solution to a city’s problems and offer immense convenience to residents, intelligent technology can also seem like a phase.

Thus, an IIoT system that communicates its value throughout the process will help users see how it has increased accessibility, convenience and well-being in their physical lives. Whether this comes through updates – “You just saved X amount of energy with Township Street Lights!” – or city-directed messaging is up to the specific area and type of system. Moreover, making reports available that illustrate how a city has been kept cleaner, safer or healthier through smart technology will create trust in residents.