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Four Rules for Designing Smart Home Products

Alessio Symons

Alessio Symons

woman using smart thermostat in her kitchen

This is an excerpt from our best-in-class Smart Home Industry Report, click here to download the full document.

At the heart of all great product thinking and building has to be the user. Smart home products aren’t emerging simply because technology is constantly improving, they are emerging because users have needs and desires that aren’t being met, as well as jobs to be done that the current ecosystem doesn’t cater to. As the world inside and outside of the home evolves, a new toolkit of products and services is required to help people navigate their reality. And in the home, these tools have to work together to create an overall environment that nurtures a sense of safety and belonging. Designing for such intimate, personal feelings is no small task. But that’s exactly why the user must be at heart of all smart home innovation. And there’s no better way to understand users than through the data smart products are able to collect.

Over the past few years it has been drummed into people’s collective consciousness that data is the new currency. Smart home products have the potential to turn this currency into increasingly impactful tools for people’s lives. By being present in people’s homes, smart home products can build up an unprecedented picture of how individuals, families, communities, and society on the whole really live. From what people eat to what they watch and listen to, and from when they sleep through to something as personal as how often they go to the toilet or take a shower, a well-connected smart home ecosystem will know more about a person than any of their loved ones possibly can.

Which is why any builder stepping into this space must be mindful of the responsibilities they have. There exists a fine line between positively influencing users and manipulating them when you’re designing experiences that live in the home and are built with the intention of collecting data for personalizing the product further. Staying on the right side of that line will be critical if you’re to ensure long-term user trust.

Building responsibly is one aspect of building in homes that are designed to get smarter and smarter. In each theme and sub theme, the opportunity areas are a way into the problem of building better products for smart homes. But collectively they can be considered in four overarching rules:

1. Think on a mass-market scale for ubiquitous use

Smartphones have become an almost- mandatory piece of technology for people in the developed world and many smart home products are designed to be used through them—e.g. Nest, ecobee. Through usability, increased affordability, and user delight, smartphones are a model and a platform that shows that ubiquitous use is possible irrespective of how varied the users are.

In order for smart home products to become more accessible and increase their adoption rates, builders need to solve for and remove the barriers, friction points, and perceptions that users have around smart home products and services. These solutions need to work for everyone if they are to be invited into users’ most intimate settings and be offered the necessary data that will lead to the greatest impact. We need to create not just smart but inclusive homes, ones that match people’s needs no matter their age or lifestyle.

2. Master simple-to-use experiences

For mass reach, smart experiences have to be easy experiences. Building in people’s homes means building for people with different needs and desires, as well as differing technical knowledge. Simple usability and seamlessness will be defining factors in convincing users to add new technological features into their homes. This doesn’t just mean the ongoing use of a product, it means the set-up and installation.

A well-designed user experience will not only be able to automate and simplify tasks, but also enable better decision making and promote proactive change. A smart home has the potential to raise awareness on the impact a home can have on their lifestyle, health, and the environment. But making all these benefits clear and apparent, while also making sure that your product can be picked up, understood, and used by anyone will be critical.

3. Work with the rest of the ecosystem

A home, smart or otherwise, should be a sanctuary. A place where everything, from the physical layout to the people who share it, work together effectively. Unless your aim is to build an end-to-end smart home with every single imaginable product already installed, the products you build will be part of an established ecosystem.

Already it is possible to find a smart product for almost anything that users are looking to accomplish; however, that isn’t the long- term solution to smart-home design. The key to a smart home is that these smart devices connect with one another to create a smarter lifestyle, one that is autonomous and solves for many different use cases. No matter what you build for this environment, being disruptive to everything that’s already there is unlikely to gain you user trust.

4. Design for life outside the home

Dr. John Barett, Head of Academics at Nimbus Centre, said in the podcast Future of Homes, that “we should be looking at a smart life, because the home is the people who live in it.” What Barett’s comments reflect is the reality that homes might be people’s islands, but that doesn’t mean that product thinkers and builders should ignore the sea around them, or everyone else’s islands. When designing for the sea around people’s individual island, it’s critical that we look at behaviours outside of the home. With the smartphone as a constant tracking device, we must ask ourselves: How can we use the data collected from outside of the home to tailor the in-home environment on a daily basis? A stressful day at work will require a very different evening atmosphere to the morning after a night of partying.

And what about other people’s islands? Home is a word laden with deeply personal, unique connotations for everyone. But a collection of homes is a community, a collection of communities is a town, city, or state/province, and a collection of towns, cities, or states/provinces is a country, and a collection of countries fast becomes the world. Building for the homes of every user and the life they lead outside of the home means that thinkers and builders who take on the smart home landscape are taking on a challenge that is simultaneously deeply personal and intimate, while also being truly global in its potential application.

With the sheer scope of the task at hand, the design of smart homes and their products and services must be considered a human challenge. Users in this space need thoughtful, well-considered products in order to develop the trust necessary for adoption. The leaders will be those that work with users to modernize the home in a way that pays homage to what they value most about their intimate environments. Now only time will tell just how smart smart homes can really be.

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