Home Intelligence Needs Discretion and Design

Personal technology only has to satisfy the owner.  Home technology has to satisfy all of the occupants, aesthetically and functionally.

I spent Monday afternoon kitting out someone else’s home with automation technologies in the company of TV’s Phil Spencer and a film crew. Not all of it will make it into the episode, due on digital channels later this year, but we played with smart security systems, remote lighting and power sockets, and connected appliances including a washing machine, microwave and kettle.

Some of it was very cool and functional. Some of it was a little bit frivolous. But the home owners were blown away by what is already possible. This wasn’t a great surprise: on the way down to the shoot someone sent me some research from Context, showing that nearly two thirds of the UK (and French and German) public have never heard of smart home technology, and of the minority that have, roughly two thirds of them don’t feel they know enough to make a purchase.

This is a segment in the early days of its lifespan.

It also happens to be home security month at the moment, so I’ve been testing some additional smart home security tech for The Loadout and BBC Radio Manchester.

Testing all this gear has reinforced some lessons I’ve learned in the past while playing with smart home gear.

1. Smart Home Technology Needs to be Discreet

The first lesson is that smart home technology needs to be unobtrusive and discreet. This has a number of implications.

Firstly, those in the house who don’t want to use the technology shouldn’t have to. So smart lightbulbs still have to work off the normal switches. Smart sockets still need to be accessible — easily and intuitively — without the non-techie user having to unplug them.

Secondly, the technology can’t make you feel like you’re being studied in your own home. Some people are uncomfortable enough with the passive IR sensors of a traditional burglar alarm. Start putting cameras around the house and people get naturally quite self-conscious*.

MyFox, one of the brands I’ve been testing, has a neat and simple solution for this. Its camera has a motorised shutter than flips down over the camera lens when people are home, but opens up when the alarm is armed. All the benefits of CCTV, none of the disadvantages. The camera doesn’t even look like a camera with the lens covered.

Thirdly, it has to work as reliably as dumb technology. Lots of the products I have tested in recent years have had short lifespans or intermittent problems that rapidly become very irritating for technies and non-techies alike.

2. Smart Home Technology is The Most Design-Sensitive

The success of technology in the home is also extremely design-sensitive. While this might sound obvious, it clearly isn’t to some manufacturers.

We all want our personal technology to look good, but its design only has to satisfy the owner. Smart home technology has to satisfy all the occupants of the home, both aesthetically, and also functionally.

I think this means that the design rules are different. While we’ve put up with shiny black and silver boxes in the corner of our living rooms for years, increasingly home entertainment technology is being designed to blend in: frameless TVs and tiny streaming boxes that can be tucked out of sight.

Somehow these lessons seem to have been lost on the makers of a lot of smart home tech. I don’t think it should look like technology in the same way that a phone or a tablet might. It should look like a part of the home: furniture or decoration.

This is where the ability to design away the user interface is hugely valuable. The fewer screens, buttons and lights a device needs, the more discreet it can be, the easier it is to blend in. This isn’t about putting a wood veneer on a surface, it’s about minimising the surface area.

Even having achieved this some companies go on to finish their products in shiny plastics that look like something out of Star Trek not your average family home.

The caveat to this is wholly app-driven devices, of which I am not a fan. Apps are fine for configuration and monitoring, but they’re trumped by simple switches for universal access, easy reach and intuitive use. Unless you can design the user interface away altogether, a device should always have a chunky manual control, either mounted on the device or remotely.

Barriers to Adoption

It’s a certainty that we will be adding layers of intelligence to our homes. There are hard drivers like increasing safety and security, and cutting energy bills. And there are soft ones like increasing comfort. Exactly when we start to adopt these technologies en masse will depend very strongly on the ability of the manufacturers to adapt their approach, in order to deliver more discreet devices with more universally appealing design.

*They might be even more so if they knew about the terrible security on many of them.

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