Drawing out some of the questions we received via direct message from the CHOICE community before we started to answer them. We combined these messages with messages on public forum threads to get an overview of the topics people are thinking about. (Photo: Ian Hutchinson/IF) Zoom In

Ask me five questions

We asked people to send us five questions about the products they own. By finding out what these questions are (and attempting to answering them) we can start to unwrap some of the topics and issues people have in mind about their connected products.

Answering these questions would also help us think about the data sources that can be used by The Log, or another tool, to help increase people’s understanding of the products they use and the areas they care about.

Phil and I took the questions we received through direct message and the thoughts people had in the forum threads about our research and synthesised them into categories. We came across six areas of interest from our conversations with the CHOICE community.

Connectivity: This is the topic that came up most frequently. This area covers using Wi-Fi to connect products in the home to the Internet and the connection to the Internet itself. People told us about frequently losing their Internet connection or having a poor Internet connection at certain times of the day. We were asked a question about security concerns like “how safe is your modem/router from being used by outside attempts?” People wanted to know what products are using the network the most and if a router was correctly configured for best performance.

A particularly interesting question came out of someone discovering that their Mac Mini had lost its Internet connection and not knowing where to get help. They asked us if they should “ring Apple or my ISP to fix [it]?”.

Compatibility: From some questions, we uncovered problems with compatibility. People spoke about not knowing what to buy because of a lack of standards between products. People spoke about the confusion around choosing the best products that work together because, particularly around televisions and games consoles because of the complicated language around features like refresh rate and resolution.

Someone spoke about wondering if they should get an upgrade to their Pay TV box because they were concerned about not having the same connection options on a newer version.

We received some questions around troubleshooting specific problems, around the functionality of particular products and software and knowing what product to buy in a certain class. Security and privacy was mentioned once, by someone asking if “smart devices can be hacked”, but appeared as part of questions in other areas. Rather than being a standalone topic, it’s a thread that runs through all these topics.

Summarising the topics and thoughts that we gathered from our engagements with the CHOICE community. Datasets in these areas are in red. (Photo: Ian Hutchinson/IF) Zoom In

Tools for answering questions

We then started speculating about the kinds of tools that could help people answer these questions and to understand these topics better.

Under the security heading, we know about things like the Common Vulnerabilities and Exposures database, knowledge base articles from software manufacturers like Microsoft and Apple, and the vast amount of terms and conditions pages that can be monitored for changes. These could all form a useful basis for some kind of information tools or services.

But we quickly found that many of the datasets needed to make these tools don’t exist or are hard to use. For example, we thought about a tool that would tell people whether a television peripheral is compatible with the television they have. It would be useful if there were an authoritative and open dataset of connection information for all products. Right now, data is separated and incompatible, held in places like product pages on manufacturers websites or in PDF’s that make it difficult to extract data.

Accessing the Internet at home involves a complex topography of products, a router and an Internet connection. We mapped the data points that are accessible in each part of this infrastructure. (Photo: Ian Hutchinson/IF) Zoom In

What we’re doing next

It’s difficult to ignore the number of times we spoke to people about connectivity problems.

I think exploring this area further has the potential to be useful to a lot of people. With that in mind, over the next four sprints, we’ll be exploring the tools we can prototype to help people answer these questions:

  • My Internet isn’t working. Is the problem with my product, the router or Internet connection?
  • Is my Internet connection speed really slower on evenings and weekends?
  • Is my wireless connection secure?
  • Which products are using my network the most?

It’s a good area to start exploring too. There are already rich datasets about people’s networks because routers have information about the products on the network, the Internet connection and the network itself. Right now, this information is hidden away in a router’s control panel where it’s difficult to make sense of it.

We started mapping these data points to help us understand how to build a tool that allows people to find where a problem on the network is and how to get help. We’ve started to prototype an interface and understand the technical requirements better. Next week, we’ll be sharing what we’ve built and what we’ve learnt.