The Smart Home Experience – Is This the Best We Can Do?

Paul Boag

While design thinking has come to dominate the creation of websites and apps, it seems to have barely registered in the crafting of the smart home experience.

I was running a workshop on digital transformation for a group of CEO’s who represented a cross-section of consumer electronic brands. Companies that produced everything from fridges and microwaves to TVs and air conditioning units.

This fact proved somewhat ironic as the group struggled to work the air conditioning in our room with its fancy smart controller and failed to connect my laptop to the smart TV. They were a group of experts, flummoxed by the very technology they sell.

The experience that day spiked my interest and led to me delving into the world of smart devices in order to understand what is going on in the sector.

This research resulted in me buying and installing a large range of devices to test. Devices that include:

When my money eventually ran out, I had still barely scratched the surface of what is available. It seems everything from microwaves to kettles can be smart these days, and what I didn’t buy, I read about.

Smart Home Illustration
The sheer scale of the smart home sector is mind blowing and it feels like more categories of products are being added daily.

I have also spoken extensively with various smart device suppliers from brands such as British Gas to Morphy Richards.

So what was the conclusion of all this research? Well, in the majority of the situations, the user experience sucked!

The Problem with The Smart Home Experience

The number of issues I have encountered fitting, setting up and using smart home devices is frankly staggering.

Misleading Marketing

Devices are routinely advertised as not requiring a professional to install when this is blatantly not true. For example, my wife used to be a professional engineer but fitting Lightwave RF switches proved an almost insurmountable challenge.

Lightwave RF website showing how easy it is to install.
Many smart home products claim to be easy to install when the experience is anything but.

Compatibility Issues

Compatibility is also regularly a huge issue. Smart locks are a great example of this. It is almost impossible to discover whether a smart lock will fit your door and many U.S. locks are sold and marketed in Europe despite failing to conform with European standards.

Nuki Smart Lock Website
Nuki made a valiant effort to explain to me whether their lock would fit my door and I still couldn’t install it.

Truly Terrible Apps

One of the biggest pain points turned out to be the apps associated with these smart home devices. Even a quick look at app store reviews makes it obvious that the standard of associated apps is low. That is also born out by my personal experiences.

App store review for Yale Locks App
I found very few smart home apps that had positive reviews. As this reviewer suggested, traditional consumer electronic companies are not app developers.

To make matters worse, every device has its own app, leading to an overwhelming number of interfaces and options for consumers to battle with.

Poor Interoperability

Then there are the software challenges around getting these devices to talk to one another. Products are advertised as being compatible with services like Google Home, Alexa, Homekit or IFTTT. Although this is technically correct, it took all of my 23 years experience of working with technology to make this happen in many cases. How companies expect a normal homeowner to do this is beyond me.

For example, getting a SmartThing motion detector to control lights of any other system ultimately proved impossible, and I was forced to return it.

Cutting Corners With Instructions

A big part of the problem is that most of the instructions provided suck. Often instructions are nothing more than a few illustrations supposedly taking the user through setup. This has been done to avoid translation costs but leaves the instructions woefully inadequate. That is especially true when the instructions relate to assembly or installation.

Instructions for Velux Blinds.
Instructions are often wholly inadequate because companies have tried to avoid translation costs by relying solely on imagery.

Subpar Support

Don’t expect much help from calling technical support either. Routinely the people staffing these lines don’t have a deep enough understanding of the product or simply suggest you find a professional to help. A professional that in many cases they cannot recommend or help you source.

Poor Robustness

There is also no guarantee the devices will continue working even once they are set up. Devices typically recover poorly from power or connectivity outages and can require intermittent reboots.

Even the Google Home regularly fails to live up to what you would expect from the company. Their iOS app is painfully slow and unresponsive at times, while the home itself would regularly tell me it couldn’t connect to a light or other smart home device when it had successfully done so.

Blank screen on the Google Home App.
This is routinely the view I receive when using the Google Home app on iOS.

In short, the smart home experience is crying out to be fixed. But, before that can happen we need to understand why it is so bad in the first place.

What Is Causing the Smart Home Crisis

The heart of the crisis in the smart home experience is that most of the companies producing these devices just do not have an appropriate user-centric culture.

In most cases, these are traditional consumer electronics companies who have felt compelled by the market to move into the smart home sector. They have seen digital disruption in other fields and attempted to respond quickly to companies like Google, Amazon and Nest.

The problem is that although these companies have recognised the need to adapt they don’t tend to have the clarity of vision, culture or expertise to make it happen successfully.

That lack of skillset manifests itself in four main ways.

Starting from the wrong premise

I got the distinct impression from my research that most smart home devices began life with companies looking at their existing product range and asking which they could add a ‘smart’ component too.

For me, this is exemplified by Samsung’s Family Hub where the company had essentially bolted a tablet to the front of a fridge. What problem exactly is this solving? Yes, people do tend to stick things onto fridges, but simply making that electronic does not make it better by default.

Samsung Family Hub
Bolting a tablet on the front of a fridge does not make a smart device because it does not address a user need or pain point.

This Frankenstein approach of combining existing products with new technology fails to address a real user need or pain point.

Taking an engineering driven approach

The fact that most companies seem to adopt this Frankenstein approach is hardly surprising as in most of my conversations with consumer electronics companies this kind of ‘innovation’ is being driven by engineering teams. Teams with little knowledge of user experience principles or even market research.

This is also perfectly demonstrated by most of the interfaces associated with these products, whether built into the device itself or as an associated smartphone app.

Most of these interfaces are like stepping back in time. They are making all the same mistakes as the early mobile phones or even the old fashion VCR. They are heavy on features and consequently incredibly hard to use.

Example of a poorly designed smart home thermostat interface.
Most smart home devices are still heavy on functionality and the result is an overwhelmingly complicated experience.

Take that air conditioning unit I mentioned in the workshop I was running. We could clearly see it had functions for doing everything from scheduling to responding to the ambient temperature in the room. But, none of us could work out how to simply set the temperature at that moment.

Maintaining a traditional project working methodology

Then there is how most of the smart home products were developed. Based on my research they were run as traditional projects linearly progressing from conception and specification through build before finally being given a shiny interface at the end.

There is little prototyping, iteration and most importantly little testing with real users. They are essentially working blind.

Also, in line with traditional project management methodology, there is little long term ownership over these products post-launch. Once live the only real updates seem to be around the app and squashing any associated bugs. There is no monitoring and ongoing evolution of the product and the associated experience.

Lack of Cross Silo Collaboration

Finally, there is a complete lack of joined up thinking associated with these smart home products and no consideration of the end-to-end experience. That is mainly because of the siloed nature of these more traditional companies.

It seems that a product is often created by engineering largely in isolation, sold by marketing and supported by a customer service team. There seems little evidence of these departments working together to create a pleasurable and integrated experience.

However, as with everything, there were a few outliers and it is worth looking at these in more depth.

A Few Shining Examples of Things Done Differently

Fortunately, not all was doom and gloom in the smart home space. There were one or two experiences that show just how pleasurable and helpful smart home devices could be.

The Nest Thermostat

The installation and use of the Nest Thermostat is a great example of this. In my tests, I bought and installed a Nest Thermostat E and was blown away at the experience from beginning to end.

For a start, the Nest website provided me with detailed information answering every question I had about the product and its installation. Even before I ordered I felt confident that I would be able to install this device and that it would do what I wanted.

Nest E Website.
From the very first moment Nest demonstrates an understanding of user questions, concerns and needs.

When the Nest arrived the unboxing experience was reminiscent of an Apple product, leaving the user with the impression they had purchased a quality product. This was in stark contrast to many of my other purchases that seemed to have been shipped straight from China in a cardboard box.

The help installing the product was almost laughably good. The level of detail in the instructions verge on patronising at points but left no room for error. They provide stickers for labelling cables, a detailed video guide and even a wizard for identifying your particular system.

The instructions with the Nest E were clear and available even before purchase.

Yes, they had the obligatory Nest App, which admittedly was well designed. However, after installation, I have barely opened it again. The interface on the Nest itself is simplicity personified, and its tight integration with Google Home makes the app feel redundant after the installation.

Talking of Google Home installation, this is impressive too. Instead of you requiring some magic combination of command words and temperature settings, you can simply tell it that you are cold and it will turn up the temperature. This is in stark contrast to fighting with the air conditioning in the workshop meeting room.

Of course, you would expect this kind of ease of use from a startup, now owned by Google and founded by Apple employees. But I encountered another delightful experience that surprised me more.

The HP Tango X

Smart printers have been around for a while and generally speaking they are fairly poor. They consist of adding internet connectivity to solve problems that nobody has ever had. They allow you to do things like ‘print remotely’ which I struggle to think of a situation outside of certain work environments where this would be helpful.

HP Tango X
While other printer manufacturers bolt on smart functionality without any real focus, HP have solved a real user problem and created a new revenue stream.

However, the HP Tango X is different because it solves a real user pain point with printers and that is running out of ink. With the HP Tango you can subscribe to their ink subscription service for a small monthly fee, and whenever you run low on ink the printer will notify HP who will send you a new cartridge before you run out.

Sure it was impressive that they had solved a real user pain point with technology, but that is a pretty low bar. What really impressed me was the fact that they had done so at zero effort on my behalf, while securing a new revenue stream for HP.

Think about it for a moment. I didn’t have to open an app or use an interface. Instead, a new ink cartridge turned up at my door exactly when I needed it. I did nothing and the interface was invisible. As Golden Krishna says in his book: The Best Interface is No Interface.

Then there was the fact that HP had secured a regular revenue stream from their customers for this convenience.

Like most people, before this printer, I bought cheap knock off versions of printer ink. That was revenue HP was losing out on, but with this service, they both improved my experience and regained that lost revenue. Genius!

HP Instant Ink Service
HP had secured a regular revenue stream previously unavailable to them thanks to introducing a smart device.

There were other glimmers of good experience beyond the two examples above. However, all too often they were then undermined by some other aspect of the experience. That is the problem with creating a great user experience. It has to encompass the whole experience otherwise one bad element can taint the whole thing.

How then can we make things better? How can we create a truly great smart home experience?

How to Fix the Smart Home Experience

The answer to the smart home challenge lies in all the same areas that digital services have been struggling with for years. The smart home sector needs to learn from these mistakes and adopt some of the best practice that is now emerging.

I apologise, but this is where all of the buzzwords come in. Smart Home manufacturers need to be adopting design thinking, Lean UX and agile working practices. They need to be prototyping, testing and iterating their way to solutions, rather than just skipping to the final product.

However, most of all they need to be working collaboratively across silos to start solving these problems. Marketers, designers, developers, engineers and customer support staff all need to unite around a user-centric approach focused exclusively on addressing user pain points, rather than just pushing an also-ran product to market.

What Does the Future Hold?

Fortunately, I have hope that it will happen, because it has happened before. Almost all new technology goes through this cycle.

In the early days the aim is just to get a working product to market. Prices are high and the experience is poor, but it is enough to win over early adopters.

Next, the sector starts competing on features, and as a result, products often become bloated and hard to use.

In time the technology becomes cheaper to produce and companies start competing on price. But in the long term that is unsustainable, so eventually it becomes about creating the best experience.

At the moment, smart home products are still in the early days. Some products are just coming to market. Others are becoming bloated with features, and still, others are mature enough to be competing on price (have you seen the price of smart plugs these days!).

However, smart home manufacturers cannot afford to be complacent. They need to start focusing on improving that experience and providing the convenience that consumers will pay a premium for.

Stock Photos from elenabsl/Shutterstock