War of the buttons: the internet of things version

By checking some facts & figures for a recent project, I found this interesting figure: we supposedly spend an average of over 2 hours per day looking at our smartphone screen, and this number is increasing significantly over time (source). Thanks to these portable devices (smartphones/computers/tablets etc), many elements of our daily lives are now digitalized: news, music, video, plane tickets, TV remote, credit card, control panel for your connected home, you name it…

Can a smartphone do everything? Doesn’t it lack convenience to have to grab a chargedon and available smartphone, unlock it, enter password, locate app, open app, get to screen and do wished action? Aren’t we all lazy chaps? A key question remains open: what is the best user interface that would allow us to better interact with digital information in the real world?

Simple answer: a button.


Why are buttons such a great idea?

A button is the simplest user interface we could imagine for a single-repetitive-programmable task. First, buttons are simple, as they are designed for a single-task: only a few parameters are considered when building the customer experience. Second, buttons are easy-to-understand, as they provide immediate physical feedback and trigger immediate action.

At this point, the best illustration would probably be the toggle switch in the wall that turns on the lights, which is the most common and most accessible button in our physical world.

Now, we can imagine potential phygital applications (bridging the digital and physical gap). Any task that could be done more quickly via a simple action than via a smartphone app should be delivered via a button. Or, to put it differently, when the smartphone app is too cumbersome (you need to reach out your phone, which has to be charged and connected online, unlock the smartphone, open the app, click several buttons, etc) it means you should use a physical device.


What are the applications so far?

In this section, we will quickly go through several buttons that have made the news headlines recently.


Amazon recently launched the Amazon Dash Button, which allows the user to quickly place online orders for the product of their choice directly on the Amazon store. The value proposition is simple: just press a button and an order will be placed almost automatically.amazon dash

Problem is: that works only until it scales. Think of how many different products you need regular refills of around your house. Imagine now that you will have a separate button for every single one of these products which all equally want to tie loyalty programs to their Dash button users. Another massive issue is the setup process: since the button is Wifi, you have to configure it via the Amazon app. Once for every button. And, last but not least, battery life over Wifi is usually terrible. What would you do after the battery is dead: replace the batteries or just leave it there and forget about it?


  • BT.TN: automate your daily-life tasks

BT.TN explores this great idea: you can automate many recurring actions by the push of a single button: order a taxi at your office reception desk, control lights, call the emergency, send/get notifications, or simply count something. Using IFTTT for example, the user can configure the required services.


Problem is: the electronics is so badly designed and the product not yet well-refined, the overall user experience is absolutely awful. The current version of the product has several major issues: the size of the button (why so many electronics) ; the plastic finish (feels more like a FisherPrice toy than a usable button for daily use in a company environment) ; the too-many-steps configuration process ; the why-do-I-have-to-wait-sooooo-long when you push the button (each time you push the button, it connects to your local access point, then to the bt.tn server, then to the web-service you configured, etc… count 20 seconds before your Hue light goes on) ; and again, the 3-days life expectancy of the 4 AA batteries make it difficult to trust.


  • Flic: automate tasks you would normally do with your  smartphone

Flic is a small, very well designed product, focused on what matters: getting things done in a quick & efficient way. It is configurable via a smartphone app, and can trigger different actions depending on the type of click (click / double click /or hold). Flic uses BLE meaning the battery lifetime can be over several years.


Problem is: you always need your phone around the button for it to work. Why would I use a single-tasked button if I have my phone with me? Also, the lack of visual feedback makes some use-cases more difficult to apply in real life.


  • Dimple: tiny smartphone shortcuts

Dimple’s concept is simple: add extra shortcuts to your smartphone. Quick dial, launch the camera app, launch your favorite app, or control smart-home appliances directly.



Problem is: it’s just another button for your smartphone. Use-cases are very limited and devices design bring many constraints: first, addressable market is limited to Android (due to technical choice of using NFC). Also, the phone mus have the screen turned on for the buttons to work.


  • Nuimo: the button to control everything in your home

Nuimo brings the button to the next level, by adding more features that the simple push: you can press, rotate, swipe, or even use gestures to control the button. That’s a great tool to control your devices in the connected home, including music, doorlock, etc… on paper


Problem is: it’s not a button anymore but a user interface to control your home. Thus, simple tasks become complicated. To switch from one application to another becomes complex and makes the product too cumbersome to use for multi-purpose activities. And again, I believe the battery life can be another big issue…


The customer service button comes from a great idea: as Darty differentiates on service, let’s make an “I need assistance now” button. This is a cool way to increase brand visibility within the customer’s home, as well as a good opportunity to catch sales leads (the customer can call for a product he didn’t purchase at Darty).


Problem is: I’m really wondering who will use such a button in the household? How many times a year? Is this really profitable for the brand or just another marketing campaign gadget?


Philips Hue is a great example for a button case: it’s a clever light switch with 4 buttons. No batteries are needed as it uses the energy generated from the click. The switch can control a multi-room environment as it can be moved from one room to the other. It is very convenient compared to the hassle to control the lights from your smartphone.


Problem is: the price (60€ per unit) is still quite expensive for a physical switch. Also, the user experience could still be improved: the no-battery paradigm puts a lot of constraints on the design (button is quite big for a simple light switch, some pressure is required for the button to work, etc)



What can we learn from popular use-cases? Key success factors for designing a great phygital button

At Productize, we have identified 6 success factors for the design of a great button:

  1. Solve a problem: the use case should be relevant to the user and add value to him
  2. Make it straightforward: it should bring a user experience simpler than an app
  3. Make it interactive: trigger an immediate action, and/or send visual feedback to the user
  4. Make it flexible: if the button can be configurable, limit the use-cases to only 1 action (or 1 type of action) at a time
  5. Make it simple: if zero configuration is technically impossible (you should at least configure the behaviour from a mobile app or website), try not to complicate things within the home environment. Avoid Wifi connectivity (which requires access-point configuration), and avoid any complex setup process. Depending on the use-cases, avoid connectivity technologies which require to have a smartphone nearby (e.g. NFC, BLE), and try other standards instead e.g. Sigfox, Zigbee
  6. Battery life is key: who would make the effort of replacing the batteries on your button every other week? Please avoid Wifi which drains the battery, include good and replaceable batteries (or even no batteries at all).

Also, follow an iterative design process: first, start from the idea and get the main feature straight (what does it need to do? What should be the ideal size? How many controls does it need? Etc). Then, try to make it as simple as possible. Trim back the features, reduce the product to its core functionality. Finally, add in key user experience elements such as visual feedback (LEDs or screen), physical feedback (push-button, haptic feedback), multiple actions (dimming by rotation, motion sensors, touch, etc). Then field-test it, and start again until you have designed a great product.


About Productize

Productize is the first one-stop-service agency to provide strategic advice, technical expertise and prototyping abilities to companies addressing the challenges driven by the Internet of Things.

Productize is helping companies to develop new products and services using lean and agile methods, applied to both strategy and execution. Hands on and no fuss are part of Productize’s DNA.


Some references for further reading

  • https://medium.com/@msg/the-push-for-push-5f360829f4c1?ct=t()
  • https://medium.com/@daveixd/a-branded-home-the-vision-of-amazon-dash-28a4cdfba48b?ct=t()
  • Teardown of the Amazon Dash Button: http://www.amateurradio.com/inside-the-802-11bgn-amazon-dash-button/