Contextual Storytelling, Part 3: Breaking the Fourth Wall – IoT as a Story of Connections

By Andrea Zeller

Editor’s note: This post is the third in a series of ongoing articles that highlight “Contextual Storytelling: Best Practices for the Internet of Things,” an innovative, new directed research course taught by Andrea Zeller and John du Pre Gauntt for the Communication Leadership graduate program at the University of Washington. During the course, a small team of students is developing a framework and best practices for native storytelling that is optimized for multiple devices, contexts and locations.

Currently there is much discussion around the Internet of Things (IoT) and how connected devices and things will fit into the current infrastructure of the Internet. However, there has been little discussion about what new user experiences will be possible with IoT.

IoT technology is evolving and presenting many opportunities.  Connected wearables, sensors and beacons; connected homes and appliances; and screens embedded anywhere all present a wealth of possibility that can be overwhelming when trying to define a user story.

Emphasizing Connections, Not Things

Because I’m a content strategist, the aspect of IoT that interests me the most is this new paradigm for storytelling that goes beyond a screen. What happens when screen sizes are so small that they can only hold a few words, and those words need to be highly relevant to users or they will be ignored? How does the crossover between the digital and physical worlds impact the user experience as we currently know it?

Oculus Rift headset

The Oculus Rift headset, helping to change he way we experience virtual reality (Image: Oculus Rift)

IoT presents the need for a new framework with experiences that were not possible before. Technology companies such as Oculus Rift and Magic Leap are starting to combine digital and physical experiences. The one factor that IoT provides is the ability to communicate anywhere, without the constraint of a screen. Responsive design and mobile apps are helping us move to a world that does not rely on large screen sizes. Responsive design thinking is starting to address how to prioritize content for smaller screen sizes, while mobile apps are starting to explore the space between the digital and physical worlds.

What if the new framework for IoT storytelling is not about things, but about connections? And what if we can create compelling connections between people, places and things through the data that is captured and replayed? The ability to create these connections adds a new dimension of value that is far beyond what we would gain from interacting with a web page.

The students in our class have been mulling over the few IoT experiences that currently exist, such as the Zombies, Run! app, Fitbit, the Nivea Protection ad, and 94Fifty. Our goal? To define the core concepts and functionality that these new IoT experiences are introducing. The key elements that come into play are how these experiences are harvesting data from the user, replaying that data in a meaningful way and making that data compelling.

IoT technology provides a way to harvest real-time data. For example Fitbit gathers users’ activity, sleep and food intake data. The basic functionality of the product is demonstrated in how it replays that data in a meaningful way. Fitbit does this by letting users know how many calories they burned from their activity. The huge opportunity with IoT experiences such as Fitbit lies in how to make that content compelling by adding value beyond a traditional website. Fitbit adds value by using the data that it harvests to help people maintain an active and healthy lifestyle. A perfect IoT experience.

A New Framework: Four Types of IoT Experiences

The value of IoT for users can be defined with four types of IoT experiences. These experiences can provide an effective framework for how we can tell compelling stories without needing to fully understand the underlying technology.

Connected network experience

In this scenario, objects are connected in a permanent infrastructure for monitoring machinery. Examples include a smart home in which all major appliances are connected, and a convenience store where machines are being monitored. Smart home and similar connected network scenarios add value to users by ensuring that all of their day-to-day basics are managed. These systems can include proactive functionality. For example, they can detect whether users are almost out of milk, and if so, order more.

Personalized networked experience

This scenario is similar to a connected networked experience, but introduces users’ personalized preferences. As with the connected network experience, objects are connected in a permanent infrastructure. However, objects can then be personalized with users’ preferences and people can create their own experience within that network. An example of a personalized network experience is Disney MyMagic. With Disney MyMagic, travelers can personalize their own experience before going to the park and then have their experiences tracked by their MyMagic band once they are in the park.

Portable network experience

Unlike the connected and personalized network experiences, which rely on a permanent infrastructure, with a portable network experience, users carry their own network, thus creating their connected networks on the go. An example of this is the Nivea Protection ad. This ad features sensor technology that is embedded in humidity-resistant paper armbands designed to be worn on the beach. Parents place the armbands on their children and then download an app with a simple user interface. The app enables parents to set up a geofence (the maximum distance their children can wander away from them on the beach) before the parents are notified.

Another example of a portable network experience is the Zombies, Run! app. This app lets runners set a distance and create their experience within that space, and that space can be moved.

Quantified Self experience

Quantified Self experiences are all about letting users monitor their personal data. Fitbit is the perfect example of a Quantified Self experience.

This framework has helped our contextual storytelling class define a direction for researching and prototyping an experience within IoT. It is also meant to start our user experience discussions, as we begin to think about the impact of this technology on what we now know about UX and content strategy.


adminContextual Storytelling, Part 3: Breaking the Fourth Wall – IoT as a Story of Connections
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