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User Experience

Life cycle considerations in the age of software-enabled products

February 01, 2018

Increasingly, physical products leverage software to enable interesting features and deliver compelling differentiation.

Some product teams employ a tried-and-true embedded systems approach while others might opt for the cloud with accessory mobile or web-based applications to further augment their product’s user experience. Regardless of the path chosen, the integration of software with a product allows it to evolve over time, hopefully for the better. This can make the experience of owning and using a software-enabled product fundamentally different from that of one without any software features. Designers should be mindful of this shift and how it might impact a product’s life cycle. Let’s explore some examples.

Not many hardware devices gain capabilities over time, but software-enabled products often do. Our smartphones gain new features via free operating system upgrades. And we’re notified when updates are made available for our desktop and mobile apps. These concepts are relatively new to the world of physical products, but with thoughtful hardware and system architecture choices made up front, companies can offer upgrades to their customers and deliver new value over time.

A good example of an upgrade to a physical product made possible by software is Tesla Autopilot. In 2014, Tesla began quietly equipping their Model S vehicles with the hardware necessary to enable some autonomous driving functions. A full year later, Tesla introduced version 7.0 of their vehicle software, which included a new UI visual design and, oh — what’s that? — Autopilot self-driving features! At the time, Model S owners and the media were surprised by the announcement, but this is now just an expected part of the Tesla ownership experience with new Autopilot and other capabilities delivered through over-the-air software updates on a regular basis.

The same can be said for some TVs, video game consoles, appliances and even guitar amplifiers. Despite best efforts, it’s often difficult to deliver software that is completely free of defects. This can be understandably frustrating for users, especially when the product is something they depend upon every day like a computer or smartphone. In reality, the vast majority of software updates are issued to resolve bugs, not introduce new features. As software makes its way into new arenas, the impact of these defects can be somewhat unpredictable.

We should consider how the product we’re designing might be impacted by a software failure.

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