The app economy is all well and good, but the world still needs physical, tangible products. Consider washing machines. On high-end models, design trends are moving away from mechanical dials and large switches in favour of digital displays and touchscreens. This move from the mechanical to the electronic presents new challenges for designers and engineers, including microcontroller programming and UI design. But there is another way.
Adding a Bluetooth chip to the washing machine and building a corresponding app means that the end user can control washday from the palm of their hand.
There are also cost savings associated with our hypothetical app-controlled washing machine – the cost of the Bluetooth chip will be considerably less than a touchscreen display and the appropriate supporting hardware, shaving pounds from the bill of materials. Let’s not forget that the bill of materials for an app is essentially zero – once it’s built, it can be duplicated over and over again, at no cost to the manufacturer. Clever app design can also ensure that it is compatible with multiple models and provide a richer, smarter experience – if the app thinks you’re going to run out of washing powder, it could order you more at the click of a button.
See the light
There are increasing opportunities for this approach outside of the home. We worked with UK lighting control company Danlers to produce ControlZAPP, an innovative app allowing remote control of complex commercial lighting systems. This single app replaces a plethora of remote handsets and allows control of functions that would previously have involved climbing ladders and dismantling lighting units.
This often led to a ‘set and forget’ mentality that was wasting a lot of energy, so we continued to work with Danlers to develop ControlZAPP into an app that offers such a fine-grained level of control over the lighting that users can make considerable energy (and cost) savings. This would not have been possible with manual, physical controls.
More than real
Even before a product reaches a customer’s hands, apps can play their part. Many manufacturers will equip their sales teams with product catalogues loaded onto tablets, offering 360-degree views and video content that won’t work on paper.
The cost of producing and maintaining these apps compares very favourably with the cost of printing and distributing physical media, and offers opportunities for more two-way interaction. Some manufacturers and retailers are taking this a step further with Augmented Reality apps that put products in your home before you have bought them, from sofas and bookcases to trainers.
After-sales service can also benefit from being app-enabled. Manufactures across a wide range of industries now provide service manuals and other support materials electronically. Whilst even the evergreen Haynes manual has moved from a grubby, well-thumbed book to a (probably equally grubby) app, Austrian motorcycle manufacturer KTM has raised the bar by making its service manuals AR-enabled. This lets service technicians view every nut and bolt on a real-world bike superimposed with all of the information they need to service or replace the part. To simplify development of the app, the original CAD diagrams used to design the bike were repurposed to create the app content.
Maybe the most exciting aspect of app-enabled products is the ability to engage with new groups of users. What if our washing machine could talk to blind or partially sighted users? Or accept voice commands? Android and iOS have this functionality built in, so why create it from scratch?
We have seen first-hand how enabling app technology can be, through our work on the UCAN GO app for arts group UCAN Productions. A creative arts co-op for blind and partially-sighted young people, UCAN wanted to ensure that their members felt confident when accessing performance spaces, particularly those that were new and unfamiliar. We built a friendly, intuitive and inclusive way-finding app that allowed all users to access a number of venues. Such was its success that we are now offering the app to other building owners who want to make their buildings more accessible to the visually-impaired.
By offering app control of your product, you are also presented with the opportunity to add functionality, or refine the user experience after purchase. Although this is technically possible for firmware built into the washing machine, how many users are going to hook it up to a USB port on their laptop and download a software update? Imagine the frustration if something goes wrong and their washing machine gets ‘bricked’?
Even if your product is firmly planted in the real world, consider extending it into the world of apps too. Smart phones and tablets aren’t just about games and selfies – they have the power to extend the range, the reach and the reality of the products you offer, all whilst saving costs and trimming the all-important bill of materials.
To see how other businesses have used apps internally and externally, check out more Calvium case studies.