Internet of Things (IoT) and blockchain are two of the hottest technologies in the tech space. Clothing retailer L.L. Bean yesterday said it would combine both in special lines of outdoor coats and boots, according to a Wall Street Journal article.
Sensors incorporated into the articles will collect data like temperature, how often it item is used, and the frequency of laundering. Bean could see if customers use the products as designers assume. It's a very smart move.
(At least if someone hacked the sensors, they wouldn't suddenly be able to take control of the coat or boots. Wait, why is my left arm over my head?)
The useful part of the data equation should be clear. Designs improve when you can see how people actually use products rather than making assumptions. If you don't grasp how people interact with items, you stress the wrong things, make bad choices, and wind up with something that isn't compelling enough to get people to open their wallets.
Design firms that have spoken to me over the years emphasize the importance of research that involves actual people. You see what they do, the mistakes they make with an interface, the features that invite further use.
But even following people around for some time -; and top design firms frequently do this -; is limited. You won't easily fade into the background. It's Heisenberg's uncertainty principle for market research. You become part of the event and so know where someone is not but necessarily where they're going.
Instead, Bean will make it possible for the items to provide information not readily available from consumers, all on a real-time basis. Yes, if you sell coats and boots, you likely want to know the weather conditions, how often items need to be cleaned, and other aspects of wear and storage. Even if the adjustments you make in response aren't enormous, apparel is a highly competitive industry. Even a slight edge can translate into significant sales results.
The creep factor
Then again, there is that sense of following people around that is unnerving and disturbing. Look at the people you know who get upset with online stalking, when the technique called retargeting has an ad network continue to display promotions for the same item, which you looked at once, wherever you go on the Web.
This is far more invasive. You're not being following from one website to another, but as you literally walk around. Electronic eyes can traces your footsteps into the laundry to take note of highly personal habits.
L.L. Bean is taking some note of the problem. To make this system work, customers would have to opt in, download an app, and let it collect and transmit the data. But the company is unlikely to create a separate set of products with the sensors. They would likely be embedded in items whether you wanted to opt in or not.
In other words, sensors could be collecting data, even if they have no way to transmit it. Security is a real issue for IoT, even if the information is secured in transmission by encrypted blockchain transactions.
Perhaps some enterprising and unprincipled actors could scoop your information and sell it off. Or maybe, as has happened with Internet-enabled slow cookers, the combination of sensors and apps could open a back door into a smartphone and present a different sort of risk.
Using technology, and the benefits it might provide, often sounds like the obvious thing to do. Then again, you might end up with another ultimately bad idea that angers customers and eventually blows up in your face.
The solution isn't to be a Luddite, but to think over the potential down sides as well as the up before plunging into a new idea.