Starting with One

Designing for the Internet of Things

Alasdair Allan
13 min readFeb 25, 2019


This is the second article in a series of six on designing connected devices, the first article in the series is “Where Does Your Smart Product Sit?” and talks about product design. The next is “Your Developers’ Experience” and talks about prototyping and product design. Links to all six articles can be found in the series overview.

Every idea begins where no one else can see it, inside someone’s head. While it lives there it always appears more fully formed than it actually is, it’s important to get the idea out into the world as quickly as possible. Because there it’ll meet the corner cases, the “what happens if?” questions that you haven’t thought about yet.

However while it’s important to take the idea and get it down on paper, it’s far more useful to build prototypes. Many individual prototypes will be needed. Sometimes a whole prototype is needed to examine how an individual feature of the product will work. But building the physical product that results often begins with two separate versions, the “looks like” and “works like” prototypes.

The “Looks Like” Prototype

The first, the “looks like,” is in the hands of designers. Typically this prototype ends up being made from materials that don’t resemble your final product in the slightest, good materials include balsa wood, clay, or cardboard, although recently many designer have started to use 3D printers to build more comprehensive prototypes than was possible before.

Almost certainly this prototype won’t do anything, except sit there and look like the product. However while early versions of this prototype can be just a solid object, a single non manipulable lump of matter, it’s vitally important that if the product itself can be manipulated, folded, unfolded, twisted, then later versions of the “looks like” can to.

The point of this prototype is so that the product designers in the first instance, but later potential end users, can get a look and feel to the new product before it exists rather than after. It can directly drive product design by influencing, say, the placement of controls and by showing how the end user may interact with it, but it also drives the “works like” prototype which should be under development in parallel.

Physical characteristics like weight of the product, its size and hence the available internal volume for components…



Alasdair Allan

Scientist, Author, Hacker, Maker, and Journalist.