Using the Internet of Things to extend your brand essence

square_userBusiness, Design, interactive design, internet of things, iot, iPhone, Microinteractions, nixon, product, product design, smartwatch, surfing, User experience

Every once in awhile, a product design challenge comes along that we just can’t resist jumping on, even if it’s quite a departure from the majority of our past work. We tend to view these scenarios as good opportunities to explore just what’s possible in a new medium, and to further hone and stress-test our philosophies on good product design that stands the test of time—whether it’s built with code, atoms or both.

This is the story of one such challenge that we took on for Nixon, a distinctive brand of high-quality watches, bags, and other accessories for active men and women.

“Wait, I thought you guys are Digital Telepathy? How did you get involved with a watchmaker?”

Like I said, it’s a story, one that ultimately reinforced our belief in how impactful a deep understanding of, and focus on, the customer experience can be for authentic offline brands, as they grow into the online realm.

Read on to learn how we helped Nixon envision an extension of their brand into the new, connected medium of wearables and the Internet of Things (IoT), by reimagining the companion app for their first smartwatch, The Mission, in a way that preserves the quintessential soul that formed the bond with their customers in the first place.

(In a hurry? Skip to the solution, or play with the live prototype)

Nixon, who?

Nixon started in the watch & apparel industry in 1998, and instantly differentiated itself from older, more established brands like Casio’s G-SHOCK line, and Tag Heuer, through constant innovation, and great watch design that pushed the limits.

They consequently saw their watches embraced by a growing network of high-end boutiques as well as some of the world’s biggest action sports stars, like Todd Richards, Tony Hawk, John John Florence, and Paul Rodriquez.

“Team-designed, custom-built accessories for a life well lived.” ~ The Nixon creed

That heritage has continued through to today, with Nixon’s solid position as a lifestyle brand embraced by snowboarders, skateboarders, surfers, and motocross riders.

The Problem: Preserve Nixon’s authenticity in a new medium

Expectations were high for Nixon’s first forays into smart devices, wearables and the Internet of Things (IoT). They had learned much from their first attempt at connected hardware, The Blaster, a wireless bluetooth speaker specifically ruggedized for beach use—and which included small, but memorable microinteractions that added character, like power-up/down voice recordings by action sports celebrities.

But Nixon’s core ambitions lay in wearables—an ambition that was to be realized with the launch of the world’s first action sports smartwatch, The Mission.

The Mission was designed to offer a smartwatch that could not only withstand tough conditions at the beach and on the slopes, but also provide useful info to the wearer that enhanced their experience, like displaying real-time surf and snow conditions, or tracking stats about your sessions.

The Mission was to serve as the perfect launchpad for Nixon’s brand into virgin territory—but they quickly ran into obstacles and restrictions in building the companion mobile app, that prevented them from delivering the kind of authentic brand experience they envisioned for the product.

Simply slapping their name on a generic, forgettable smartwatch app and calling it a day wouldn’t do, and their customers expected more from them. They needed to create something memorable, engaging, and unmistakably Nixon.

Why solve this?

We sought out Nixon as part of our ongoing effort to connect with innovative brands that align with our values and culture at DT, and which want to create memorable customer experiences that seamlessly weave together on- and offline touchpoints and interactions.

A number of folks on our team actually live the surf lifestyle (we’re based in San Diego, after all), and we were thrilled when we received the nod to help Nixon prototype a reimagination of what The Mission’s app could do to enhance its wearers’ time in the surf, and on the slopes.

Easier said, than done

Nixon had recruited outside software development help to build the companion app for The Mission, but they quickly found that engineering capability alone just wasn’t cutting it—although their first attempts at the app were functional and generally well-received, it was still missing the essence of their brand.

The entire leadership team knew the watch needed a bespoke-designed app experience that dovetailed seamlessly with (and reflected) their customers’ lifestyles — spontaneous, flexible, and above all, mischievously living for the moment.

The Solution: Put soul into the machine

Whenever we need design inspiration, we always start with the Tao of DT — it’s our unique set of shared values that make up the culture at Digital Telepathy, and which enable us to do our best, most creative work. Helping Nixon was no different, so we leaned on several of our values to lead us to an innovative solution on this project.

Challenge the norm with soul

When people truly love a product, they talk about it in emotional terms, and refer to it like it’s a real person— we say “I love my new iPhone”, or “I can’t live without Netflix”.

This is no accident: such bestselling products have been intentionally designed to break through the norm of people’s everyday lives, and be noticed. The result is that loyal users respond by imbuing these carefully-designed products with, (for lack of a better word), a soul.

The Mission’s app needed to be unmistakably Nixon, and infused with the essence of their brand—so we started by redefining the tone and voice of the copy used to communicate info within the app, and used it as a vehicle to better express Nixon’s brand soul in several key ways:

Speak the user’s language – Normal human beings don’t say “There is currently a high surf alert in effect!”, or “Congratulations on concluding a successful surfing session, User!”, like soulless robots—so we reworked the copy throughout the app to be more realistic, and included cheeky quips to make it sound more like the voice of an attentive surf buddy.

Inject Mischief – The last thing any surfer wants is to be cooped up in the office, while there are killer waves to be had out there. That’s why we created the Boss Excuse Generator to help wearers of The Mission seize the moment, and make a daring escape from the daily grind. (We won’t tell, if you don’t) 😉

Realize the potential in everyone and everything

We believe that realizing potential—seeing just how amazing something could become with a bit of hard work—empowers you to be optimistic about what’s possible, which in turn helps you paint a vision that inspires others to get onboard.

We even took the Mission out for our own surf session to better understand users’ needs – purely for research, of course…

With that in mind, several members of our team actually took The Mission out for their own surf session, and realized it could be so much more than a simple convenience or distraction from the surfing experience – we saw the potential to add specific functionality to turn it into a tool that enhances the typical surf day.

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Learn from a Pro – We also teamed up with US olympic snowboarder and ESPN announcer Todd Richards for a livestreamed prototyping session for The Mission’s app on our product design web TV show, Elevate TV. This enabled us to explore and better understand the needs and desires of surfers and snowboarders at the top of their game.

Engineer serendipity – Friends make memorable experiences together, so when you receive a Shred Alert, you’re able to invite a limited number of friends, and track their location real-time, so you know what their ETA is.

Gotta surf ‘em all – How can you grow your skills if you surf the same breaks all the time, and don’t challenge yourself? We built in unlockable badges and achievements, to spur users to explore new spots, and try something different every time they go out.

Care about your co-workers, clients and users

We believe the work we do becomes so much more powerful and complete when we care intensely about the people we’re designing for. In this case, we tried to find and address all the major areas of friction that arise during a typical surf session.

Eliminate the distractions – Coordinating a surf session can quickly become a complex endeavor. Keeping track of weather conditions, inviting friends and finding directions to the right spot—each of these are separate apps in their own right. For The Mission’s app, we brought them together in a contextually meaningful way, giving users more time to focus on the experience and be present in the moment.

This included practical functions like real time surf alerts, a calorie counter, and walking directions, as well as more lighthearted ones, like…

The Burrito Finder – Nothing works up an appetite like shredding the surf and slopes, and not just any food item will satisfy such a craving—so we decided it’d be a nice touch to include an easy way to find the nearest California Burrito, right from inside the The Mission’s smartwatch app 😉

In order to deliver a truly memorable customer experience, it’s important to cater to users’ needs outside of what they used the product or for. This is what product design legend Kathy Sierra calls the “Post-UX UX” in her bestselling book on product design, Badass: Making Users Awesome.

The Mission, accomplished… (see what we did there?)

See The Mission prototype in action


At the end of the day, brand authenticity is what gets people to meaningfully engage with a product, even in entirely new product categories for a brand. By leveraging insights gained from hands-on user research, vetted design methodologies, and a willingness to experiment, we were able to help Nixon chart a path forward and deliver an innovative customer experience in the smartwatch category.

Want to inject more soul into your product? We can help. Talk to us about a Design Sprint — a design-thinking workshop that guides your product team from initial concepts to an innovative, user-validated prototype in just 5 days.