IoT Device UI Beyond the ‘Companion App’

Alistair Inglis

Alistair Inglis

October 20, 2015

Thinking beyond the companion app

Today I want to talk a little bit about interaction design and how it relates to IoT.

Smartphones have afforded us new opportunities to design useful and exciting products, and they have given us new ways to interact with information. We can push and pinch, swipe and drag, peek and press. This has proven useful when developing IoT devices that rely on companion apps to be initiated, managed, and updated. For this reason, Kinoma Studio is able to package iOS and Android apps from the same code scripted for the connected device. images

But has smartphone-centric interaction design become somewhat limiting? We have confined the internet to screens at the expense of exploring how we could integrate the internet in the world around us. But is this a bad thing? The internet is really just information that we can express in any way we want. When starting out on my first project as a Kinoma Maker in Residence, I began asking myself if there was an enhanced way for IoT products to communicate directly with us, in addition to—or instead of—employing companion apps. Kinoma’s prototyping platform enabled me to explore all these possibilities.

Nature as IoT inspiration

A lot of the class work I did at Stanford University was an exploration of how our smartphones are starting to engulf our limited cognitive resources. Every time we get a notification, alert, or alarm, our focus is taken away from what we’re doing. As more information becomes useful and available, it will become increasingly important to find inventive and unobtrusive ways to express this information.

In the natural world, objects have a very good way of communicating information. When your avocados are ripe, you don’t get an iPhone notification; the avocado tells you itself in how it smells and how it feels. When the weather turns and it’s about to rain, clouds gather. As autumn approaches, the leaves change color.  When your plant needs to be watered, it visibly begins to droop.

Screen Shot 2015-10-06 at 12.38.42 PM

While these things seem very ordinary to us, in essence they’re communications of information. There’s no reason that hardware shouldn’t communicate information every bit as elegantly.

Elegant communication with IoT devices

The “drop: Smart Umbrella” is an early foray into this idea. It’s not particularly complicated. It’s designed to live at the periphery of the focus of the user. When an umbrella is needed later in the day, it begins to glow. If the user shakes it, it will stop its glow and therefore stop intruding on the her/his focus. If no rain is forecast, the umbrella will stay silent — it has nothing to say.


It’s not a revolutionary product, and it’s not for sale. But it does demonstrate how to think outside the confines of our smart phones in order to achieve a more natural way to express information. Objects can communicate information when they’re required to, and fade away when they’re not.

Applying this thinking to the world around you

Imagine this design approach as applied to objects around you:

  • Instead of a Fitbit notification letting you know you haven’t exercised in a while, your running shoes gain your attention by vibrating as if restless to be worn on a run.
  • In addition to your bank’s smartphone app sending an alert when your credit card has been maxed out for the day’s spending limit, that credit card itself displays an “X” so you don’t mistakenly hand it to the next cashier.
  • As you’re getting ready to leave, your car keys become warm to the touch when traffic on your route is particularly bad, suggesting you should look into an alternative.
  • On lazy days, your remote powers down according to a television limit you’ve set for yourself, making it difficult to watch shows after too many hours on the couch.

As IoT products become increasingly prevalent where we live and work, developers can distinguish their products with inventive and unobtrusive ways to express information. There’s a wealth of potential for IoT products to learn from examples in nature, and communicate directly with us, in addition to (or instead of) through companion apps.



Alistair comes to us from Stanford University, where he studies Product Design Engineering and Computer Science. He has experience with product design, business, and consumer outreach.