Whenever usability is used in an IT context, it usually refers to the user-friendliness of a Web portal or an application user interface and the ease of getting up to operational speed with a new piece of software.
While these are both valid and widely used definitions, I’d like to propose an expansion of how we think about usability for systems engaged in artificial intelligence (AI) or the Internet of Things (IoT).
The other day I was visiting with Jeevan Kalanithi, CEO of OpenSpace, which builds AI and IoT applications for the construction industry. I asked Kalanithi about the learning curve for using his product, and he sounded surprised. “What learning curve?” he asked. “An individual simply turns on a camera at a building site, walks through the construction, and records what has been done.”
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According to Kalanithi, that’s all that needs to be done to enable a construction company manager who can’t get to a building site to see actual progress and to map the video against the master blueprints. If the manager clicks on the dining room area in the blueprint, he or she can pull up photos of that area to confirm if electrical wiring or drywall have been installed.
When I thought about this later, it was clear that there was more involved in making AI and IoT usable than a user interface. Here are some questions to ask yourself about your product’s usability that you may not have thought about.
Can your AI or IoT app be used immediately, with little training?
If you can literally turn on an AI or IoT app and start using it, usability has been facilitated to a point where the user doesn’t need much training. More importantly, user confidence and endorsement of the app are gained. This makes it hard for the app to fail.
Do you have user-painless security measures?
There should be a seamless and effortless way to enforce security. Some ways to do this are: One-stop thumbprint IDs; automatic network monitoring and intrusion detection at the edge of the enterprise (e.g., zero trust networks); and streamlining IT processes for synchronous push downloads of software security updates for all mobile, laptop, and desktop devices. In all cases, the effect of the technique on the end user should be minimal.
How do you emphasize return to the business?
Oceans of ink have been spilled on return on investment (ROI) formulas that attempt to ensure the company got what it paid for when it invested in a new technology. But at the end of the day, what really matters to companies is return to the business. A return to the business means that the IoT or AI app becomes so indispensable in addressing key strategic and operational challenges within the company that it literally transforms the company in a positive way. When this happens, ROI is almost a moot point.
Do you make the technology easy for executives to talk about?
Executives get asked by stakeholders, industry analysts, the board, and the press about key investments into new technologies. They must be able to explain the business rationale behind adopting a technology, but also how the technology works and delivers value. It’s up to IT to break down the technology and how it works into simple English, and to communicate this to upper management. If someone in management can’t understand and explain a technology in plain English, they’re not going to back it for long.
Is the app plugged into daily operations and maintenance cycles?
To remain usable and sustainable, IoT and AI apps have to be plugged into business processes where they operate seamlessly and productively each day. They must also be regularly monitored, maintained, and updated. Failure to attend to these rudiments on a regular basis will spell failure for any app.
The usability roundup
AI and IoT technology usability goes far beyond making a user interface attractive and navigable. The technologies must be explainable by upper management and immediately usable by staff in daily work. IoT and AI technology must also be sustainable, by ensuring that their operations, maintenance, and security are current, and that these technologies deliver value to the business on a daily basis.
These are the hallmarks of truly usable and successful technology, and they are no less important for AI and IoT than they are for any other IT asset.