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Looking Laterally for IoT Insights: Product Voice and Voice Curation (Part I)

Varun Nagaraj, President and CEO
Sierra Monitor Corp.

Sure, I am as interested as the next guy in how the IoT will transform customer lives. But selfishly I’m more interested in the impact that the IoT will have on the companies that design and make the things or smart connected products. We know that companies that make these smart connected products are able to provide superior maintenance and support ranging from prevention to prediction to prescription.

There are interesting cases of companies that offer their products as a service; for example, Michelin offering tires-as-as-service. Companies like Babolat sell smart tennis racquets that can measure player performance, perhaps along with a coaching service that can analyze and suggest improvements. The good folks at PTC/ThingWorx have a great use case of a mountain bike providing its data-in-use back to the bikes product designers, who can then get insights on the torque levels, skid and so on, and use that insight to design a better product.

Looking for Metaphors
All heart-warming stories, so why am I not feeling that holiday cheer? I sit with my customers or snoop in on my competitor’s webinars and all of them point to the golden age of innovation and amazing new optimization possibilities that are yet to come when some miraculous integration with other systems happens. And the cynic in me notes that enterprise integration and optimization is always Phase 4 of a four-phase evolution – for any problem. Might a different perspective help us look at this problem differently and produce better insights? To paraphrase Paul McCartney, when I find myself in times of trouble, metaphors come to me, speaking words of wisdom. In this case, the two metaphors that I’d like to share with you are product voice and voice curation. Let me discuss product voice in this blog piece and voice curation in the next one.

SmartSignProduct Voice: Enriching the Voice of the Customer
It’s kind of cool to think about smart connected products as having voice that they contribute and conversations that they engage in. Most of the cases I’ve described above collect and analyze this product voice to deliver new support services or offer products-as-a-service, or make product enhancements. However, many more interesting insights open up when you recognize that product voice is only one type of voice, and that it may be lacking in context when viewed in isolation.

That is, simple insights like “uh-oh, the steam pressure in the boiler is dropping and I think it’s going to fail” may be available based on just the product data without context, but more sophisticated insights relating to innovation need context. Remember the bike use case I described earlier where the product designers were monitoring bike usage? How would the designers know if a bike was being ridden by an outlier (like this one) or an average guy? Would average statistics even mean anything? A product designer would need context around the product voice to make good decisions and that context is not part of that product voice stream, or as us geeks would say, “It’s not in the metadata”. So what’s the solution?

Let’s stay with the voice metaphor. In the 90′s, a term called voice of the customer became popular. The notion was that organizations should collect customer voices to learn what their customer needs are and specific suggestions they might have. In addition to the traditional approach of product managers talking to customers or customer service folks being told by customers what they like or dislike about a product, companies use tools like Survey Monkey to solicit voice, or they crawl through social media sites to see what their customers are saying about them or on related topics. It is in combination with these other sources of voice that the true potential of product voice can be realized. That is, product voice must be considered as enriching or enhancing the voice of the customer. That means that product voice is just one type of customer voice, and the IoT should be viewed as a part of holistic customer experience management.

Metaphor Shows Need for a Two-Tier IoT Cloud Architecture
Let’s get back to nuts and bolts. The understanding that product voice by itself can deliver a set of benefits, but that it needs to be combined to with other voices to provide more elusive benefits leads to a two-tier cloud architecture. That is, there is a need for a Device Cloud that is distinct from the larger Analytics/Application cloud. The Device Cloud should be responsible for identifying, registering, and managing the smart connected products that are in the field and providing secure access to these products to authorized and authenticated users. The Device Cloud in conjunction with the smart connected products feeding into it collects and presents product voice. In some cases, this product voice may be presented directly to authorized users, such as the case where a user is notified that something seems awry and the user subsequently logs into the remote smart connected product in a secure manner to learn more.

This is in line with the remote support and maintenance use cases described earlier in the blog. In other cases, the product voice needs to be sent on to the Analytics/Application Cloud where it can be co-mingled with other information such as customer records, open trouble tickets, marketing automation insights, shipping information, and so on to produce a higher level of application insight. The Device Cloud is like a blue collar worker it deals with the nitty gritty of products, their locations, their firmware levels, and their security credentials and so on. Without a Device Cloud, product voice would never be heard and would certainly never join the larger conversation. The Analytics/Application Cloud is more aristocratic and more concerned with issues like business logic and insight, and concerned with making sense of voice as a whole, with product voice being just one component.

Given how IoT Platforms are marketed, it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking of a monolithic cloud, but thinking of the voice metaphor points to at least two distinct blocks of functionality.

In the next blog, we’ll look at the metaphor of voice curation and see what that has to reveal about Analytics/Application clouds. In the meantime, to finish up Paul McCartney’s advice: “Just let it be.”

As CEO of Sierra Monitor, Milpitas, Calif., Varun Nagaraj often speaks with OEMs who purchase protocol gateways; and with facility and safety managers who purchase fire- and gas-detection systems. Contact him at VNagaraj@sierramonitor.com.

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