Smart homes crop up regularly in technology news and trend reports, but many of the smart home products being launched aren’t that smart. MG recently visited user experience (UX) research firm New Experience to get the low-down on what’s going on this area. New Experience went into consumers’ homes to see how so-called smart devices were being used and found that what the industry bills as smart home tech is falling well short of the mark.

The problem is a familiar one. Tech firms develop revolutionary innovations and rush to launch new products, only to realise that they’ve overlooked a key part of the proposition: the user experience.

The history of innovation is littered with examples of products that failed due to poor UX design. Clippy. The Segway. The emailer phone (does anyone remember that one?). One example that nicely illustrates the point that you shouldn’t do something just because you can is the wearable DVD player, launched in 2004. It consisted of a pair of glasses with a screen built into one of the lenses (stand aside Google) and a relatively small DVD player that were connected by a wire, like an old Discman. Unfortunately it didn’t take into account that squinting myopically at a small screen for the length of a feature film didn’t go well with such things as walking, driving or anything really. Users complained of motion sickness and looked silly carrying around the clunky player. The wearable player was a UX nightmare.

Ten years down the line though, the firms in the smart home industry are at risk of making a similar mistake. Billed as ‘smart’, products launched in recent years connect users’ basic home systems to their smart phones, enabling them to control their home environment remotely.

What many of these products don’t do is anticipate or learn about users’ preferences properly- a key distinction between the smart and the connected home device say New Experience. This distinction is important because it makes the difference between a gimmick that will appeal to tech enthusiasts and a product that actually makes every day users’ lives easier.

Asking the right questions

Based on the consumer needs that New Experience came across while visiting real consumers in their homes, we list the questions companies should be asking themselves when designing new propositions. Where possible, we’ve tried to find an example of a solution that addresses the consumer need in question as well.

1. How can we avoid swamping consumers with connected home apps?

This first one is intuitive, but is still causing users problems. They don’t like having separate apps for each device in their home. It makes controlling it confusing. It also makes it a hassle – if not an impossibility – to get different systems to work together. Doing so requires a smart-hub, which connects all the different devices and ideally allows users to programme conditions into it – e.g. ‘when I’m on my way home in the evening, turn the oven on.’

The open architecture-based Ninja Sphere enables users to control any connected device through a simple touch interface and British Gas’ Hive – a 2014 Corporate Entrepreneur Winner for Best Market Disruptor – is an example of a smart-hub that works with conditional commands.

2. How do we address the needs of consumers who don’t carry smart phones around with them?

Surprising as it may be, not everyone carries their smart phone around with them all day. Some people like to have their phones charging continuously when in the house. Others may have a special spot where they put their phone after coming home. Whatever the case, this is obviously a problem for products that rely on a connected device to input commands, and creates a need for alternative ways of interacting with the smart home.

Amazon’s Echo is a voice-controlled home assistant that can answer questions and perform simple tasks, but doesn’t connect to home systems yet. A system that will be able to control home systems is Homey, a voice-controlled smart-hub that successfully got funded on Kickstarter last year, whereas Jibo, labelled as the first family robot, combines both of these functions into one.

3. How can we make systems that work for users who aren’t that engaged with technology?

One problem New Experience encountered had to do with the different types of user in a household. Households typically had a tech-savvy main user, with other users depending on this person to make any changes to their systems. In a truly smart home, this wouldn’t matter, because the home would know who was around and what their preferences were. Unfortunately, in reality this can result in the unengaged users being left in unlit and cold houses when main users leave.

4. How do we make our systems guest and family friendly?

Guests posed another user-related problem. Consumers mentioned that they wanted to allow guests to control the connected systems temporarily – particularly important in the case of a bed & breakfast for example. At the moment, if systems allow for multiple users, owners have the choice of giving guests unlimited access or not giving them access at all. Regarding access, it’s all or nothing for parents who would like to give their children limited levels of permission as well.

5. How do we address the elderly with our UX design?

The UX design for connected home devices usually doesn’t take the needs of the elderly into account, even though this large segment of the population could be served well by smart tech. This neglect results in elderly consumers often viewing devices – such as smart phones for example – as annoying or difficult to use. iPads on the other hand tend to go down well with their large icons and touch screens.

A partnership between Dutch and Chinese firms Green Peak and ZTE Health has recently set out to create smart home devices specifically targeted at empowering the elderly to stay in their homes for longer (up to 10 years).

How to get it right

Now it’s hardly surprising that smart and connected home systems are still a little clunky and may not be hitting the consumer need nail on the head. The technology is still in its infancy after all, and new innovations always take time to reach consumer acceptance. But there are things that companies can do to speed up this process and improve the odds of their proposition becoming a success.

What it all boils down to, is involving the end customer in each stage of the development process. This could mean talking to consumers to find the problems they have with current offerings. It could mean co-creating a solution together with end users. Then testing propositions with customers, and iterating based on their feedback. If you’re flexible with your design process, there are many different ways to involve customers. You’re only limited by your own imagination.

Firms in the smart home industry actually have an additional advantage in uncovering consumer needs. In this field in particular, early adopters have shown themselves to be keen DIY enthusiasts, rigging up all kinds of integrated home systems using services like If This Then That (IFTTT) for example.

Leaving you with one thought on smart home devices

So if we could leave you with one thought after reading this, it would be the following. Why not go out and talk to your customers? See what they’re doing in their homes (people like to show off their ingenuity). It’s a free way to find out what they want, and where you could be growing your revenues in the future.