Product Design

Device Manufacturers: Let The Data Go, No One Will Get Hurt

By Nicholas Gracilla  ·   March 13, 2013  ·  3 minute read

Topics: User Experience

Device manufacturers need to be held accountable on their value proposition. If they are genuinely creating these devices so that we can lead our best, fullest lives, then it's time for them to let our data free.

One of the hot topics at SXSW I picked up on this year is the Internet of Things. Devices of all kinds are receiving better sensors, are collecting more and diverse kinds of data, and are Internet connected to paired sites that help customers process, review, view, consider, and even recommend or nudge towards new behaviors and habits.


For example, my Withings scale is WIFI connected and uploads my weight and lean muscle composition to my account each time I use it. I can set goals for myself, and see how I’m doing on a daily basis. Joined with a Withings blood pressure cuff that hooks to my iPhone, I can monitor my tendency towards pre-hypertension, and adjust workouts, salt, and medications as needed.

Triathletes and other athletes have been using similar technology for many years now—my Garmin GPS watch pairs to a heart rate monitor, bike computer, and foot pedometer, so when I’m swimming, biking, or running, I can track my progress and upload my data to the Garmin site for later review.


Now these technologies are coming to the mainstream consumer. Users who wear a Nike Fuelband can see how active they are in the ‘in-between’ points of the day, set goals for themselves, and, as Esther Dyson noted in her discussion, “nudge” their behaviors towards positive outcomes. If you’re close to a goal of a certain number of steps, for example, you might walk the dog just one more block to hit it.

I’m an early adopter, and use these technologies to nudge my own behaviors. My gas bill is way down now, since my Nest nudges me towards a “leaf” when I keep the temperature down a bit or set it to “away.” When I travel, I take at least a few runs to “collect” different run routes in my Garmin run log.


At the same time, I see an enormous ethical issue that the device industry has yet to address. Who owns this collected data? Why aren’t device-based companies considering themselves as stewards of data, on behalf of their customers?

To be successful in the mainstream, these products have a user experience designed from product packaging through training, setup, usage, and reporting—it’s a designed vision focused on simplicity and reporting results. But what if the customer wants their data to do something other than that vision? Nest, for example, provides a nice emailed report about my past few days. Why can’t I download this data in a simple CSV format, to analyze myself? Why does Nest think this data, my collected data, can’t be given back to me in an open format for my own use?

It is not a sufficient excuse to say that, as startups, product features must be carefully selected and open APIs are difficult and costly to implement.  A CSV plain text download isn’t hard to implement and would likely be used only by the hackers, the DIYers, and the early adopters who are interested in it. It’s also not acceptable to claim that the data obstructs the designed user experience—it could easily be tucked into a back-page user configuration area, where the “average consumer” doesn’t have to be confronted by it.

Device manufacturers need to be held accountable on their value proposition. If they are genuinely creating these devices so that we can lead our best, fullest lives, then it’s time.

I say to you, Nest, and all the others: let the data go. No one will get hurt, and you will be, even more, the hero company in the hearts of your customers.

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