Steps to Build Your IoT Prototype

The Internet of Things or IoT has taken over every major facet of our lives. From research labs, the path-breaking technology has moved out and found a place in our homes, kitchens, offices, gardens, and roads. 

Shortly, connected devices are poised to become more accessible and affordable than ever before. Needless to say, their demand is going to surpass all limits, and businesses dealing in the niche can literally mint money riding the wave. So, if you haven’t yet jumped on to the IoT bandwagon, now’s a good time to do so and understand how this disruptive technology works.

Just like all software solutions, IoT projects also start with prototyping. Your IoT prototype outlines all the required parameters of your IoT deployment. It binds together all the elements of your project- device, user, cloud, and enterprise. But creating a perfect prototype is easier said than done.

In this post, we will be discussing the main steps involved in IoT prototyping. But first, let’s understand how IoT prototyping is challenging.

How Is IoT Prototyping Unique and Challenging?

Prototyping for an IoT product will be different than for other software. When your team first forays into IoT, here are some things they might find disconcerting:

The prototype will not be production-ready: When you prototype for non-IoT solutions, whatever you include in their prototypes reflect in the final products as well. This is not the same with IoT products. The hardware and software in their prototypes and final products may vary widely. Moreover, there are many third-party integrations that are not included in prototypes.

Few ready-to-use components: Unlike other software prototypes, IoT ones don’t have the advantage of readymade components. Your development team will have to start from scratch, building components one by one. Feedback and testing cycles will be longer and usage instructions will need to be more in-depth since users are not very familiar with connected devices as yet.

Software occupies center-stage: IoT hardware takes time to master. But if your software facilitates user onboarding, the user experience can be seamless and smooth. In order to overcome friction, IoT prototypes need to lay special emphasis on user experience.

Products should be high on usability: Sticking a chip into a device and connecting to the web does not comprise IoT. A real IoT product delivers value from the get-go, even if it doesn’t look too pretty. It is made after tracking consumer behavior and action. It doesn’t overpromise and underdeliver, rather vice versa.

5 Steps to Create Your First IoT Prototype

Building your first IoT prototype can be challenging and exciting at the same time. A typical prototyping process consists of four major stages. Let’s take a deeper look at them.

Stage 1: Identify the Goals of Your IoT Prototype

When prototyping an IoT product, it’s essential to drill down into its objectives first. 

For instance, if you anticipate glitches in how your device will interact with real users, tackle that first. Keep it at the focal point of your development process and plan your hardware, software, and other requirements around it.

Ask yourself questions like:

  • What will the IoT prototype achieve?
  • What kinds of data do you need to capture for the prototype?
  • Where will the captured data be logged?
  • Where will you put all the UI elements (wireframing)?
  • What kind of discussions do you want to have with your developer teams?

By keeping your end goals in sight, your project will get direction and momentum. Plus, it makes sense to work on these assumptions right away rather than when you’re well into the process and down thousands of dollars already.

Stage 2: Research on IoT Hardware and Components

Once you have identified the pain points that your product will address, it’s time to dig into the hardware components and technologies that will help you achieve the end goal. 

Hardware for prototyping will be very different from production hardware. 

How, you wonder?

Prototyping hardware will be:

  • Flexible: It will be breadboard-friendly.
  • Affordable: It will be low-cost.
  • Modular: It will be compatible with multiple hardware ecosystems.
  • Usable: It can be set up in a short time and comes with built-in tools.
  • Simplistic: It can easily be used by beginners.

As against this, production hardware is more reliable, manufacture-ready, and advanced.

While deciding on your IoT prototype’s hardware, find answers to questions like:

  • Does the hardware have a consistent firmware, platform, infrastructure, and development tools?
  • Is there sufficient resources and domain support around your chosen hardware?
  • How easy are the components to deploy? Can you get your prototype up and running with the components or do you have to go hunting for installation guides and experts?

Be aware that there is a lot of experimentation involved in this step of hardware selection. 

It’s likely that you will create a solution, test it, and end up scrapping it multiple times. Sometimes, it might seem akin to searching for a needle in a haystack, but pursue till you zero into the perfect strategies for your product.

For example, if your IoT product is Bluetooth-based and requires many connections to transfer data simultaneously, you may need to experiment with different Bluetooth devices to find the best connection. 

Front-end and backend functionalities may need to be synced over and over again through different technologies until everything works in tandem. If you give up after a few fails in the initial stages, you may never find your ideal technology and solution.

Stage 3: Design and Acquire the IoT Components

And now, we come to the most exciting stage of prototyping – product creation. We recommend that you start building early so as to spot discrepancies and fix bugs without affecting your delivery schedule. 

There are four basic components of an IoT prototype:

  1. Devices/Sensors 

Sensors and devices collect data from the product’s surroundings. These sensors come in varying degrees of complexity- from basic temperature monitors to complicated video feeds. You need to either acquire or design your own sensors for your IoT product.

  1. Connectivity

There needs to be a channel for the senor-collected data to be transported to the cloud infrastructure of IoT devices. These networks can be cellular, satellite, Bluetooth, WiFi, Wide Area Networks (WAN), or any other type. Whatever be your network choice, ensure that it is leakproof and secure.

  1. Data Processor

Once data reaches the cloud, it needs to be processed to generate some output. The data processing can range from simple (checking temperature range on your smart AC) to complex (scanning the area for unknown intruders). 

Sometimes, the user’s intervention is required for the data processing to complete. That’s where the next IoT component, user interface, comes into the picture.

  1. User Interface

There needs to be an interface through which users can interact with the IoT system. The user interface, users can check into their devices, provide inputs, and extract output. The UI can be a simple touch screen or a complex video feed, depending on the device and requirements.

While designing/acquiring IoT components, keep your end goals in sight. Ensure that the hardware and software components are compatible with each other. During the prototyping, it’s okay to encounter some glitches and failed iterations. Don’t lose heart and keep persevering until you have a full, working prototype in your hands.

Stage 4: Define Data Streams

To take advantage of the massive volumes of live data collected by your IoT device, you need to set up secure data streams. 

There are a number of caveats to defying data streams:

  1.  They should be secure and tamper-proof.
  2. They should be able to collect and tramt millions of data points simultaneously.
  3. They should be equipped to acquire, manipulate, collate, combine, and discard data as programmed.

One of the biggest challenges you’re likely to face is the distributed nature of data. Your data streams will have to collect and assimilate data from varied data sources – sensors, cloud, user interface, and others. 

If your data streams don’t configure data lineage accurately, data processing will take a hit. To do so, you can define data clusters using Apache frameworks. If your data streams are more complex, I recommend you use Kafka or Spark Streaming. 

Stage 5: Integrate with App

Integrating IoT with mobile apps is the last but most critical step of prototype development. Mobile IoT solutions can have unidirectional or bi-directional data transmission/communication between users and the device in question. Whatever be your development model, ensure that the integration is smooth and seamless.

IoT-powered smartphone apps can be of many kinds, ranging from wearable devices (like smartwatches and heat rate monitors), industrial plant monitors (to keep tabs on plant vitals), agro apps (to regulate irrigation rates, etc.) or traffic moderators (for decongesting traffic, assisted parking, etc.).

After you’ve got your IoT product up and running, the next step is to fix the bugs. These errors might be software-related like broken features or code issues, or hardware-related like patchy connectivity or skewed interface. 

Whatever the issues are, take the time to recode, retest, and eliminate each and every bug. Ensure the product holds up to scrutiny by experts and real users alike. If there is a flaw in the core design and coding, you may need to go back to the drawing board and start from scratch. 

Sounds overwhelming?

It can be. Coders and developers often like to share a joke that this stage typically called “the last 20%” ends up consuming 80% of the entire bandwidth. 

It’s fair to assume that unexpected twists will crop up during this troubleshooting stage. But since you’re so close to the final prototype, you need to keep the momentum going even if there are a few roadblocks. At the end, you should have a bug-free, full-featured prototype that meets its objectives.

Ready to Build Your IoT Prototype?

Prototyping is non-negotiable when it comes to IoT products. Clearly-defined goals, robust technologies, and rigorous testing can ease prototyping to a great degree. The approach described above can be your compass through the entire process.

Do you have any questions about IoT or prototyping? Leave them in the comments below. For more helpful and insightful information in this space, stay tuned in.

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