Beyond the product: UX for ecosystems 

July 8, 2024

Products rarely exist in a vacuum. From digital hubs – such as streaming sticks and smart speakers – to wearables like glucose monitors, users increasingly expect the devices they integrate into their lives to work seamlessly across multiple platforms in varying contexts of use.  

Designing a positive UX for smart speakers, for example, requires manufacturers to make it easy for users to navigate multiple affordances, such as the physical volume buttons on the product, digital audio controls for any associated app, and voice integration on both the physical speaker and devices used to control the speaker, like a tablet or phone. 

Here, we’ll highlight the perspectives we recommend manufacturers keep in mind when designing products that work across ecosystems. 

Are you designing for a closed or open ecosystem? 

The goal of effective UX design is to manufacture useful devices that work. It can be easy to measure the usefulness of a single device from a user’s perspective by answering a few simple questions. Does the device work as intended in the intended environments of use? If an affordance doesn’t work, is it easy for an intended user to determine the problem? And once the problem is identified, how easy is it for the user to find a solution? 

However, how a device functions in an ecosystem further complicates the matter. 

Some ecosystems are like walled gardens: the cultivation of each digital app or physical device is highly regulated. In these ecosystems, processes such as troubleshooting are often standardized across the incorporated platforms or devices. 

Other ecosystems, however, are more like community gardens. Various stakeholders are each responsible for their own contributions. As a result, the guidelines for how to use and troubleshoot their particular services often vary—sometimes to a labyrinthine degree. 

The problem for manufacturers is that whether the ecosystem is walled off or open, users usually don’t know the nuances of its development. They just need devices that are convenient to use and easy to troubleshoot. 

Consider real-life contexts of use 

Let’s consider troubleshooting a smart speaker as an example of a complex user experience. Manufacturers like Google and Amazon develop hardware for smart speakers, and third-party developers create apps that integrate with affordances, such as a speaker’s voice assistant technology. Such tech often allows users to adopt smart speakers as home hubs. Using the hub’s ecosystem, they play music from third-party streaming services like Spotify and Tidal, order food from UberEats and Doordash, or control other connected smart home devices. 

Imagine that a user is having trouble playing music from their preferred streaming service on their smart speaker. As the manufacturer of the smart speaker, you’re responsible for the voice integration on the device, but that device and voice commands also interact with the streaming service, which is operated by a third-party developer. The user’s phone, which they use to manage their playlists, is developed by yet another manufacturer. 

In this case, the user may face challenges in determining where the problem originates – and it can be similarly challenging for any manufacturer to design products that help users troubleshoot issues in an open ecosystem. 

To address these challenges, UX for smart speakers should reflect real-world examples of how users may need to troubleshoot issues with affordances like voice assistance. One way to do this is by making it easy for users to navigate within the product app to a “help” menu. The design process for challenges like this can be complex but can start by addressing research questions such as: 

  • Are all support channels known? Users need to understand where and how to use physical and digital affordances, such as those that help them access support menus for devices primarily controlled via voice.
  • Is the menu easily discoverable? Menus must be large enough to see and locate where users are likely to find it, such as a menu bar at the top or bottom of a screen.
  • Does the menu appear interactive? Users may not realize they can follow a link to find the help they need if the link doesn’t appear clickable.
  • Can all users access the menu? Ensure your UX design includes accessibility considerations, such as contrast for visually impaired users.

These are only some of the questions you may find useful when working on how to troubleshoot a product in a broader ecosystem. However, the important takeaway is that they represent the type of thinking that can make supporting your users throughout a product’s lifespan easier.  

Build a better backend to support integrated user experiences 

To design easy-to-use products that users want to integrate into their lives, it can be helpful to evaluate a variety of situations of use in various real-life environments, from users’ home living rooms to restaurants abroad. However, focusing your research and design on only end-users risks creating friction in another user group: your own teams. 

When developing products like a smart speaker, we recommend taking into account not only the end-user’s perspective but also your business’s backend perspective. This means that your team should consider how the smart speaker fits into the broader ecosystem and integrates with existing products, how it will be maintained and updated over time, and how the product aligns with your broader business goals. 

Let’s say, for example, you’re researching the design of a smart speaker that will integrate with an existing line of smart home devices, including thermostats and doorbells, as well as both indoor and outdoor lighting. While away from home on an extended vacation, users might choose to automate actions like: 

  • Turning indoor lights on when outdoor lights activate in response to ambient sensors.
  • Turning on outdoor lights when the smart doorbell’s camera detects motion on the stoop and leaving those lights on until dawn.
  • Maintaining a consistent indoor temperature or level of humidity regardless of outdoor conditions.

UX research helps manufacturers determine which use cases reflect users’ real needs. It also identifies how manufacturers can efficiently and seamlessly meet these needs. That information can, in turn, be used to drive development and integration priorities for both the business and individual teams. 

Ultimately, better workflows for backend processes – such as whether the hardware or software team supports fixes to bugs in integrations between ambient sensors and timers – can help reduce any friction users can encounter when setting up or using your product. In other words, the easier it is for your team to work, the more likely it is that users will have a positive experience using your product. 

Leverage data to drive user-focused updates 

Internet of Things (IoT) devices generate and gather a lot of user data. But no matter how much data you gather about user behavior, it’s only as valuable as the ways you choose to use it. 

Home hubs like smart speakers, in particular, gather a wealth of complex, behavioral user data, such as data identifying when users prompt music to play via voice commands versus when they complete the task via manual affordances and whether or not they choose to automate that task. 

Initial quantitative analysis of usage data can help provide directional insights on which features, such as turning on music via voice commands, are underutilized. Pairing this approach with qualitative, in-depth interviews can then help determine why users prefer to control their music using other methods – and help you decide how to address that reality in future product updates. 

Here’s how: Through a mixed-methods UX research approach, you can identify behavioral patterns among users who are playing music via voice commands and among those who aren’t. Using this data, researchers can then identify correlations between users’ goals and motivations and craft different user personas – e.g., those who frequently use voice commands vs. those who choose different affordances, like the speaker’s physical buttons. 

Once outlined, these user personas can act as a foundation for future qualitative research to gain more insight into each group’s needs and motivations. 

The research results are then analyzed, and recommendations are provided to mitigate issues or fulfill unmet needs for each of the identified user personas. For example, your team may find that the voice control regularly fails to accurately interpret commands spoken by people with particularly deep or high voices. Users with these vocal traits avoid using the feature not because they prefer manual affordances overall but because they find the voice control unreliable. 

Knowing this, your team might work to update the software to work more seamlessly for all users – including those with particularly high or low vocal timbres. Once the update is pushed to the product, you can further leverage data to identify the best means of advertising the update in the app as well as whether the update has impacted user behavior (e.g., prompted more users to use voice controls). 

Good UX research is evolutionary 

Good UX research is evolutionary. It’s an ongoing process that involves the continual iteration of a product’s design in response to user feedback and behavioral data. For example, once your team releases its new smart speaker, qualitative user feedback and usage data will provide insights into how well the product is meeting user needs and what further changes can be made to improve the user experience. Similar insights can, in turn, be leveraged for each product update. 

At Bold Insight, we approach each project with an open mind and stay responsive to how manufacturers’ needs and products develop over time. Does this sound helpful? Let’s talk!