In the IoT, Don’t Forget About the People

We live in the age of the Internet of Things — a constellation of never-ending connections between gadgets, products and devices designed to “talk” to each other and better serve consumers. In light of so much innovation and technological progress, it’s easy to forget that ultimately these products connect back to actual people.

As we’re moving toward a world where the Internet of Things will transform every aspect of our lives, from health to the economy, it’s important for brands to keep a firm grip on how their consumers feel about technology, especially in scenarios where they may have emotional ties to an aspect of behavior becoming digital by design.

Parents, in particular, should be carefully considered as technology pervades routines and behaviors that were once technology-free. Rearing children is an intimate experience — it’s about bonding, articulating nuance and learning to “read” the human behavior of another being in order to serve his or her needs. When it comes to technological advances and parenthood, sensors can’t necessarily replace senses.

Here’s an example from the parenting category. Sproutling, touted as the first “sensing, learning, predicting baby monitor,” is a wearable band for baby that works with a mobile app to send real-time updates to tech-toting parents. The website says, “With just a band that sits around your baby’s ankle, you just know more.” The band includes a smart sensor that reads heart rate, skin temperature, motion and position, which the device then translates into “insights” for the parents: “Aiden is waking up soon. Aiden is fussy. Aiden is operating on a sleep deficit. Aiden may be stressed out because your dinner party is too loud and he can’t sleep,” etc.

Moms in general likely agree that knowing more about their children’s sleep patterns and being able to gauge their mood is a good thing — but Millennial, Gen X and Baby Boomer moms will have very different perspectives on what technology’s role should be in that experience. A brand like Sproutling — reaching out to the mom population at large — should carefully consider how its product might feel to different moms.

By cross-referencing data on technology usage, and taking an informal poll with a few moms from each generation, we can get a sense of how a “connected” device like Sproutling might play with different audiences.

Millennial Moms: Carnivorously Connected

As Digital Natives, Millennials have grown up with technology and are consequently not only comfortable being connected to the world through devices, they’re almost compelled to do so. The BabyCenter 2014 Millennial Mom Report states that 90% of U.S. Millennial moms own a smarthphone, while more than half (53%) own both a smartphone and a tablet, and 31% use those resources for “parenting/baby” apps. Additionally, 77% of Millennial moms report they’d be interested in wearable baby monitors to track movements.

Some of the younger moms I spoke to love the idea of Sproutling because it’s just one more way to decrease the worry factor as a new parent. “Checking the heartbeat would be great,” says one Millennial mom. “I have woken my kids too many times just by going in to check on them.”

Another young mom reported, “I like the idea of having a window into my infant’s well-being if we’re out for the night and leaving her with a sitter. The app can tell me when she’s sleeping and if she’s okay.”

Gen X Moms: Cautiously Connected

While the Millennial mom fully embraces technology to help her as a parent, the Gen X mom tends to be more guarded when it comes to “digitizing” anything to do with childhood. Millennial moms are 81% more likely than Gen X moms to turn to parenting apps at least once a week for parenting-related information, but Gen X moms like Allison Slater Tate feel a certain “inner conflict” when it comes to bringing technology into parenting. “It struck me recently that my generation is perhaps the last to straddle a life experience both with and without the Internet and all its social media marvels. It seems we had the last of the truly low-tech childhoods, and now we are among the first of the truly high-tech parents,” she explains. “Even though I understand the powerful draw of the World Wide Web and social media and I participate in it enthusiastically, it scares me when it comes to my children and how it will mold and change their experience from mine.”

While Tate’s comments have more to do with her children’s exposure to technology (re: screen time), other Gen X moms have expressed clear concerns with technology infringing on a parent’s ability to engage in the small but important ways parents bond with their children. Says one anonymous Gen X mom, “I didn’t even have a video monitor, because I felt my ears could handle it. I wanted to be able to learn the subtle cues. Now we don’t even have to listen to see if our baby is happy or cranky upon waking? We cannot rely on technology to raise our children.” Another Gen X mom asks, “What happened to parents just being parents and relying on instinct and their baby’s signals?”

For Gen X moms (like myself), the idea of a device that learns its user’s behavior might also conjure up another idea from childhood — the Furby. While the iconic toy may represent one of our first forays into nurturing another “being,” it is also a terrifying thing to imagine a “Furby” tied to our baby’s ankle through the night.

Baby Boomer Moms: Conservatively Connected

Baby Boomers are far less likely than Millennials or Gen X-ers to use smartphones, wireless connectors, apps, or social networking sites — but that doesn’t mean they aren’t using them at all. Boomers see technology as a way to stay connected to friends and family, and assist with their personal health management, but are very concerned about the security and privacy issues associated with online technology.

This year, the youngest Boomers will turn 51, which means there likely aren’t many Baby Boomer moms with infant children, but what might a Baby Boomer mom think about her Millennial mom daughter using a technology like Sproutling? After all, she might be an influencer, as 28% of moms aged 25 to 39 are more likely to seek parenting advice from their mothers. One Baby Boomer mother shares her perspective on how parenting has changed. “We didn’t have as many resources at our disposal then. We had to leave a lot of our parenting decisions to instinct instead of having the Internet or someone to call.”

Technology writer Clive Thompson frames up the ultimate question we should ask ourselves as parents looking for more data on our babies — just because we can use these kinds of devices, should we?

“The trick for parents, and the buyer beware part, is: Does this app or tracker flood you with data that actually confuses you, or does it help you make better sense of things? It’s going to be a confusing time where we culturally figure out what is useful and what is not,” he’s quoted as saying in an article titled, “Infant Wearables: Handy tools or too much information?

For the Millennial, Gen X and Baby Boomer moms, the word “useful” could point to three very different ideas. Each mom needs to buy in to the connection between “that device and my life” in their own unique way.

That’s why it’s this last connection — from device to consumer — that is the most important in the Internet of Things.