Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino: rethinking the internet of things

The internet of things has been on our radar for nearly two decades — but the digital landscape around it has changed beyond recognition. The NEXT Show explores the missteps — and where it should go next.

Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino is a London-based author, consultant, and entrepreneur with a background in design. In the sixth episode of the NEXT – SHOW series 4, she explored how the path to a viable internet of things has been a rocky one. She also touched on why voice interfaces are not the future — and why we need new models of innovation.

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Predicting how long technology will take to hit the mainstream is a tough call, as the internet of things proves. While it’s clearly not mainstream yet, people have been talking about it for a long, long time. Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino has been thinking about it since 2005, 17 years ago. Back then, she came up with the idea for her early product, the Good Night Lamp. That’s an awfully long time, in digital terms at least. We’re at a more muted point in the development of that sector, as it grows up — and experiences a plateau of disillusionment.

“There’s still a lot of appetite for things connected to the internet that aren’t traditional screen-based devices,” she says. “But there’s also a huge amount of worry on the surveillance and ecological side of things.”

That’s putting a lot of pressure on the sector, on founders of IoT startups, and on people’s expectations of devices.

Selling the internet of things

“I wrote Smarter Homes out of a desire to understand if the internet of things was something new, or an extension of trying to sell new technologies to people in a home context,” she says. “It’s always easier to sell someone new technology in a place they spend more time in and which is more open.”

Selling to businesses is a trickier place to start. People are more cautious in workplaces, and often need to seek approval. Both gas and electricity were pioneered in homes before finding their way into businesses. The home can be something of a laboratory where people cram in as much technology as they can.

But it’s unwise to think of the home as a system, Deschamps-Sonsino suggests.

“People try to conceptualise the home as a system,” she says. “That doesn’t work. It’s not actually a system. The average consumer doesn’t understand their life, and their home, as a system at all. We’re selling people things in a framework that doesn’t actually fit their lives. That’s why products have failed again and again over the past 20 years.”

Homes are not about efficiency

It’s down to individuals to decide when technology becomes useful to them, she says. And that’s not always about efficiency. The idea of selling people something that makes them more effective and more efficient? That harks back to the days of selling them better laid out kitchens.

“The early pioneers of kitchen design talked about the efficient household,” she said. But the idea of making every single thing you do more efficient isn’t necessarily healthy. The quantified self movement proved that. People can get addicted to that process, or just fake it to get bonus perks. For example, people used to go to the gym, sign in — and not exercise. Why? Because just going to the gym would get them reduced insurance premiums.

“Just because somebody buys your technology doesn’t mean that they’ll use it for the purposes you intended, as an entrepreneur,” she says. “People don’t live in a factory, and don’t live factory lives.”

The shifting expectations of the internet of things

However, that doesn’t in any way mean that the internet of things is doomed. It just faces significant challenges. There’s a very large community of entrepreneurs trying to sell things in a consumer market, which is both a very competitive and very aggressive space. Sometimes that’s positive. She thinks her Good Night Lamp, conceived as a design student, was benign. But we’re in a very different time regarding how people see connected devices. When she launched that product, people didn’t yet have smartphones…

“Things are changing, and people’s expectation of what they can do with their devices changes with it,” she says. “Yes, that allows entrepreneurs to create alternative solutions, but how they’re accepted and how sticky they become is the question for everyone.”

Voice has been a huge development in the internet of things, to the point where the connected home device most people are likely to have is an Amazon Alexa-powered speaker. Deschamps-Sonsino credits the rise of voice interfaces to the visually impaired community, who have been using them since the 1980s. We’re now up to something like 25% of American homes having a voice assistant in them.

“But I’m intrigued by how limited their use is. The top three apps are always the same: a timer, the weather, or traffic, and music. That is a really interesting example of something you experiment with. You buy a bit of a future, and think, ‘let’s try it out’.”

The limits of voice interfaces

That experiment was facilitated by a very cheap price for the early devices, particularly from Amazon. It becomes something that it’s easy to adopt – not just technologically, but “like you adopt a pet”, as she puts it. It grows with you as a family.

However, she’s not convinced by arguments that voice will become the primary medium with which we interact with devices. Sure, eight-year-olds might love talking to devices. But, by the time they’re teenagers, it’s hard to get them to vocalise at all. As she points out, text-based communication can be less emotive.

“If we assume that we’re going to interact with the internet via voice, it means we assume we’re ready to interact with search by vocalising in a different way. That includes searches that we might not be comfortable saying out loud.”

She suggests that we have to question how vocalised search fits within our social lives – particularly in the home. “Are we assuming that most people’s voice interactions are going to happen in solitude? Most things we search for — shopping, medical services — would we vocalise that?”

Voice and brands

For brands, it could be an absolute disaster, as people often don’t remember the names of the brands they buy.

“And then you’re asking an algorithm to make an educated decision, based on historic choices, on what your choice might be,” she says. “Is that a neutral way of shopping? You might be missing out on promotions, for example. It limits the consumer experience more than it opens it up.”

Marketing professionals should see voice as one channel among many, but not a dominant one. Amazon has experimented extensively within the home, and Alex was particularly entertained by the Look cameras which commented on your wardrobe. But it’s been quick to kill things that don’t work, like that very device. Most corporations aren’t ready to pump out gadgets at a loss, just to see what happens.

The law and the internet of things

However, as the internet of things gets more professional, and companies use connected devices to collect ever-greater volumes of information about us, it’s coming under regulatory scrutiny.

“There’s a lot of interesting work going on at the intersection between data protection and consumer protection laws,” she says. There’s the right to return — or to repair — aspect of consumer protection, but there’s also the use of the data collected by the product. The internet of things sits squarely between these, and there’s been an attempt to codify that. For example, one attempt is Secure by Design, which was produced by the UK Government.

The IoT Meet-up in London created Better IoT, a questionnaire that could be put in front of a product manager or entrepreneur to force them to examine these questions with regard to their product. But do consumers actually care that much about data privacy?

“Everyone cares when there’s a reason to care. From domestic abuse on one end, to someone stealing your data on the other, you need all the legal frameworks there to protect you,” she says. It annoys people to think about this, until they need to, and then you want the tools in place for them to act.

Next steps in innovation

And so, one message is clear: 17 years after she created her first internet of things device, there’s still plenty of innovation required. And she’s also delved into what the right conditions are for that level of creativity, which found expression in her book Creating a Culture of Innovation:

“Cultures of innovation are built out of what you do with people, how you trust them and the spaces you put them in,” she says. “Those are physical places, digital spaces and psychological environments. It doesn’t matter which space you put them in, if people are really miserable, they will not come up with good ideas or stick around.”

Instead, she suggests, you need to move outside the traditional paradigms of innovation, and look at fields like solarpunk or Afrofuturism.

“They’re much more grounded in the now and caring as a structure, as opposed to conquest and discovery, which are highly colonial,” Deschamps-Sonsino.

If we’re bringing devices into people’s homes, caring, and a focus on the present seem like the perfect points of focus to make devices that people really bond with.

This is a summary of an interview with Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino conducted by David Mattin and broadcast on the NEXT Show on 11th August 2022. You can catch up with Alexandra and her work on Twitter, LinkedIn and the web.