A short article entitled Perfect Home Automation suggests a somewhat different way of thinking about your Smart Home. You should not be thinking about how you can best connect with your Smart Home. You should instead think about how your Smart Home can connect with you. That might seem like a small change in wording but, as we will show, it can have major implications on how your Smart Home system is designed and installed. In other words, your Smart Home should be making accommodations to what works for you rather than the reverse.
Your Smart Home Should Connect With You in Your Preferred Way
A Smart Home can connect with its residents in a variety of ways. It can accept a voice command, an entry on a wall mounted touchscreen or via the buttons of a mobile device, wall switch or wall keypad. Any one of these may be more or less appropriate at a given point in time. Whichever is used, the appropriate action should be obvious, not overly complicated, and easy to remember.
Your Smart Home should KISS
KISS (Keep It Simple, Simon) is the very best approach whenever humans are required to give instructions to smart devices. The system designer should be ruthless in avoiding any situations where the possible actions may be unclear or complex. It is always advisable to have a number of other persons attempt to use the particular device or control. If at any point, they are uncertain about the appropriate action, then there is still further work to do.
Ultimately, if the home is really smart or even intelligent, the Smart Home functions should require very minimal intervention by the user. Using different sensors, the Smart Home should identify what is going on and trigger the Smart Home functions automatically.
For example, motion sensors combined with light sensors in different rooms can be used to adjust lighting based on the presence of occupants and the current light level. Occupancy detection can be used to arm or disarm security functions including locking or unlocking doors. An intelligent HVAC system that senses presence and temperature in the different spaces together with knowledge of the home residents’ preferences can create the preferred conditions in every space automatically.
Complex Scenes can be created that address the real life habits and preferences of the house residents. These can be based on a thorough analysis of the house residents’ lifestyle and routines. For example, a Good Morning Scene activated by voice could open the blinds and turn on the light slightly just as much as is needed to complement the natural light in case of an early winter morning. It then would play a daily weather forecast, turn on the light in the bathroom, turn on the TV on the favorite news channel, and so on.
The Smart Home for every User
It is important to remember that several members of the home with different skill levels and preferences may need to control some aspect of the Smart Home. Ideally they should be able to do this in whatever way works for them. The way of entering commands to the system should be user friendly and intuitive for all.
Note that the same user might prefer using a different interface on different occasions for triggering the very same function. As an example, while Bedtime scene in the bedroom would usually be activated by a voice command, sometimes it might be just easier or preferable to press a wall keypad button as you enter the room.
Your Smart Home should operate at all times
Another important aspect is that residents of the home should be able to connect with the Smart Home reliably and at all times. That includes times when there is a failure in the Smart Home system, when the Internet service is unavailable, or when their mobile devices are discharged. Such times require a Plan B that still allows essential functions of the home to continue to operate.
You would certainly not want to be locked out of your home because the Smart Home system is not functioning. This will usually mean that manual methods are available to achieve whatever state the Smart Home would have created. This can include such things as manual switches to turn lights on and off and physical keys to open doors. Obviously in that case Smart functions like preset Scenes would not be available.
Smart Home design should be robust
The Smart Home functions should be designed to be robust and reliable. For example, using a Smart Bulb where the entire control logic is in the bulb itself presents some solution design challenges.
For that setup to work the manual switch needs to be kept on permanently so that the light control logic can operate. If the switch has been turned off by accident or due to a lack of understanding, the Bulb is now dead. None of its Smart controls will turn it on. Not only this is very frustrating, but so is the troubleshooting where you’re not sure if it is the bulb or another component of the Smart Home system that may be defective.
When using a Smart Bulb, it’s better to eliminate the switch entirely to allow the Bulb to operate at any time. That however is contradicting the previous rule – the Bulb can’t operate if there is a failure in the Smart Home solution itself.
A more robust solution in that case would be to use a regular Bulb where the Smart Control is replacing the switch. In that case the switch can be operated manually if its Smart Control function is not working for any reason.
User Experience (UX) in Smart Home Design
All that has been written so far relates to what is often defined as the User Experience – UX. In earlier times this was often described as Usability. The activities associated with this particularly came into vogue as people were creating websites on the World Wide Web. If you would like to know more about Usability, you will find an article listed below by Jakob Nielsen that provides a good explanation.
The notion of Usability was not only applied to digital products but to physical objects as well. How easy is it to use that automatic coffee maker without having to resort to reading the User Manual. Since then the whole field of UX has become much more sophisticated with a whole raft of UX design tools to deliver an optimal UX to its users.
The more sophisticated the product, the more important it is to improve as far as possible the UX. This applies particularly to a complex solution like a Smart Home. A Smart Home is very tightly connected to how people are living for many hours each day. It must be a place where people feel at ease and find everything is convenient to them. The technology is developing rapidly providing an abundance of products for DIY. Everyone is encouraged to jump into making their home Smart but without much consideration of the usability aspect.
Further Reading on Smart Home UX
An increasing effort is going into this field and the following links provide further reading on Usability and UX and what is being done.
Usability 101: Introduction to Usability by Jakob Nielsen
This is an article explaining usability as it applies in the context of websites.
Home Automation: The next frontier for UX?
Their final word – “We recommend that UX professionals take lessons that we’ve learned from the previous digital revolution and apply them here to be successful.”
Home, Smart Home – theory and practice of the connected home
An article that sets out the challenges for UX in the Smart Home.
UX Best Practices: Home Automation Ecosystem Design
An article that introduces the notion of an ecosystem, which makes the UX even more challenging.
The Bottom Line
The industry has been pushing the DIY approach with products that should allow anyone to create her own Smart Home herself. It’s important to remember that creating a good user friendly Smart Home takes more than just the technical skills needed to connect together these devices. There is a whole layer of usability analysis and design to ensure that the solution is going to integrate naturally into the lifestyle of all the house residents.
This analysis needs to take place before selecting products, purchasing them, and connecting them together. Unless this is well done, it could be that the Smart Home can never be fully functional because the other occupants rebel to express their frustration.