Remember the Physical Environment

Designing for the Internet of Things

Alasdair Allan


This is the fourth article in a series of six on designing connected devices, the previous article in the series is “Your Developers’ User Experience,” and talks about product design. The next is “Time to Market vs Common Sense,” and talks about manufacturing as a startup. Links to all six articles can be found in the series overview.

At the prototyping stage the physical environment for your device operates in is fairly benign, an air conditioned office or a lab perhaps, however once out in the world your final product may face an unforgiving natural environment — wind, rain, snow, and worst of all users.

Physical Environment

When designing the prototype its important to consider where it will eventually be installed. Will it be inside, or outside. If inside what sort of inside environment will it face. While an office environment may be temperature regulated, a factory floor while theoretically also being an inside environment may suffer extremes of heat or cold. If installed outside there will be a large variation in temperature over the course of a year, or even over the course of each day. The device needed not only to be able to cope with the expected maximum and minimum temperature extremes, but also possible rapid variations between those extremes.

Bláskógabyggð, Iceland. (📷: Alasdair Allan)

Each component of your product will have an manufacturer recommended operating regime, which means that your final product will roughly be operable in the narrowest subset of those constraints.

Beyond the obvious temperature other constrains your product may have to face other factors should play into the design, the typical installation environment may be subject to moisture and dust. If so the product enclosure may have to be sealed against water ingress, with external physical ports provided with covers for when they are unpopulated.

When your prototype has progressed beyond the breadboard stage, it’s important to take it to the physical environment in which it will normally operate if possible. It may seem obvious but this can surface problems with the design. For instance when considering how your device will be used, if it’s permanently installed into a crowded or tight space, the…