What Smart Home Products Can Tell Us About Inclusive Design

Lisanne Binhammer

Lisanne Binhammer

Senior Product Designer

Multitude of smart devices including Amazon Alexa, Nest, Google Home, Portal and Ecobee.

The very common—and very justified—critique of the smart home experience is that it’s, to put it bluntly, a headache. Set-up and onboarding is lengthy and confusing. Products from different companies don’t play nicely with one another (you have to do your research, or else end up with seven different apps to manage your “ecosystem”). And, the overall experience is a rocky one. “What network is my lightbulb on?” is a question that no one, ever, wanted to ask themselves. 

But despite all of this, there are wonderful things that we, as product builders can learn from smart home products, and take away and apply to our own work. Certain qualities of smart home products—whether intentional or not—are by their very nature, inclusive. Smart home products are inclusive because they make (and attempt to make) our lives at home more seamless and effortless. While seamlessness is often viewed as something that negatively impacts our ability to understand—for instance privacy and security, or our ability to problem-solve—seamlessness for people who are not fully able-bodied is crucial. 

Having scanned the smart home product landscape over the past six months in order to help redefine that experience, I have boiled down the learnings from smart homes into five key principles for designing accessible experiences both in and outside of the home.

1. Make feedback a multi-touchpoint experience

It can feel frustrating that our voice assistants at home offer us feedback in so many different forms, from “Got it. Your alarm is set…” and a visual indicator on screen, and a blinking light. On the surface, this much feedback can feel redundant and perhaps most of us would prefer a minimal approach. But, a multi-touchpoint experience when it comes to feedback is inherently inclusive. Haptics, sound, and visuals are all used as cues in these products because everyone experiences their home—and the world— differently. By offering up a multitude of feedback forms, different people with different abilities can make use of the feedback in ways that make the most sense for them. 

Products like Google’s Nest Hub are great examples of feedback that covers all of the bases. When building a net new product or improving an existing one, it’s important to consider how your users might need to interact and communicate with your product if they have varying constraints (e.g. limited vision, limited hearing, etc.).

2. Consider users’ behaviours in relationship to one another

The ability to create ‘scenes’, or think about interactions in concert with one another (think of the If This Then That (IFTTT)) has created a crucial shift in how we, as product builders, understand and respond to users’ behaviours in the smart home environment. When we start to imagine what a user might do before, or after, using our products, or what they might happen in tandem with using our product, it is a step towards being able to consider the experience of your user in a more holistic sense. This ultimately paves the way for a more inclusive environment for people. 

If we can begin to do this properly, we can not only design for existing needs but we’ll also be able to anticipate needs that will happen in the future. IFTTT allows users granular control over how their devices work together. The next, and more interesting step in this journey is relieving people of that control—perhaps not entirely—and figuring out what that “concert” should look like for everyone. For products outside of the smart home space this is just as important; products that enable inclusive environments are ones that fit smoothly into the lives of any user.

3. Provide a variety of entry points

When we think about how we use our smart home products, there are a variety of different interactions that are available. Whether our preference is to speak to our lights through our assistants, communicate with them via an app, or even in some cases, simply provide a glance, today’s smart home products provide a variety of entry points. This results in an experience that is much more usable by a higher number of people. 

For example, something seemingly like turning a light on via a switch alone is actually inaccessible to many. Switches on walls are too high up the wall for people in wheelchairs to reach, and construction companies or electricians are often unappreciative of the fact that not all people who need to access switches are of a certain height. This is an entirely avoidable obstacle, as proven by offering a multitude of entry points to people. Google’s Nest Home Hub Max provides voice, touch, and optical input as ways to access the product. If you want your product to reach the highest number of users, you need to consider how different users will access it in unique ways.

4. Create an age-defying experience

Smart home products are unique in that they are accessible by people across generations, with varying levels of technical literacy. Conversational interfaces have been wildly popular with the elderly—particularly because it enables them to age in place. Being able to control one’s home despite mobility issues has empowered an aging population to more seamlessly take care of their environments—and by extension, themselves. As a result they have the ability to stay at home longer. 

Similarly, conversational agents are successful with children as they enable effortless interaction. Products like Disney’s Little Golden Books give children a learning companion that is available within their own home. Product builders can sometimes take the narrow approach of assuming that their product is for a specific age group. Rather, we should be building products that defy typical demographic groupings and instead reach a wider audience through versatile, and adaptable offerings.

5. Be considerate of other, high-impact issues

Much like how smart home products consider user behaviours in relation to one another, smart home products also look at their connection to the world at large, and different high-impact areas that they have the ability to influence. 

One example of this is how smart home products leverage their product’s capabilities to inspire environmental awareness amongst their users. Ecobee has a Donate Your Data program which invites users to opt-in to making their smart thermostat data available to scientists and researchers who are focused on improving energy efficiency. Whether users are motivated to share their data because of a do-good consciousness, or are driven to reduce their footprint because of neighbourhood comparisons (like Ecobee’s Home IQ service), smart home products that include and extend beyond the home, into other issues, are ones that will succeed. This fact is that thinking about the ecosystem your product fits into will help you understand your unique positioning, not to mention the features that you should—and shouldn’t—include in your roadmap.

Users need products that follow the same guidelines that smart home products do, from making feedback a multi-touchpoint experience, to considering user behaviours in relation to one another, to providing a variety of entry points, to creating an age-defying experience and considering how our products map to high-impact issues. This is so important now because of how heavily people are leaning into digital experiences as a way to navigate our current pandemic, be it for health and wellness, social connections, entertainment, and more. Inclusive products will allow for seamlessness in this endlessly disruptive time, and a sense of effortlessness when the world is uneasy.

Lisanne Binhammer

Lisanne Binhammer

Senior Product Designer

Lisanne Binhammer is a Senior Product Designer at Connected with a passion for ethical and inclusive design. Most recently, she has worked on a discovery-based project for a client in the civic technology space. Outside of her day-to-day, Lisanne is the Director of Product Design Education at Bridge, a non-for-profit that levels up skills for marginalized groups in the tech sector.

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