What is “Smart”? User Experience and the Internet of Things

Guest blog post for TSB’s Creative KTN 

In the developed world we’ve achieved 100% connectivity for humans and are working on connecting-up all the “things” around us too, offering the tantalising prospect of the Internet of Things – a world where autonomous devices get on with the business of making the world a better place, without needing too much attention from us. Or will they?

Gen Y is wise to technology’s dark side. In the face of ever-expanding device feature-lists,  the success of Apple products shows that many consumers now prize usability and simplicity above mere features. We are gadget-rich and time-poor.

The 1980’s were the heyday of geek chic – the remote control with 100 buttons, the VCR which few could program. Cryptic gifts from the Gods of engineering, with their internals laid bare. Unfortunately we haven’t quite left all that behind yet. But as an engineer I understand why this happens: it takes more effort to make something simple. To properly hide the technology under the hood, to test and refine the user experience until it is truly intuitive.

An approach to user-centric design which we’ve followed at AlertMe is “co-creation”, which can work well in new markets where the precise needs of the customer are hard to predict. Co-creation is a partnership with your customers – you release a product to market early, then your customers help you to iterate it rapidly using their real-world experience. This is particularly easy to do with today’s online products, as they can be modified in mid flight.

So back to the Internet of Things. Those of us who remember the arrival of the home PC also remember how we became the “IT support guy”. Imagine a time in the near future when instead of just a couple of computers in your home you have 10, or 100, to support.

Well, actually you probably already have this many, but today they are safely trapped inside their own little boxes – inside your TV, your oven, cooker, vacuum cleaner and so on. But gradually they are being connected-up to the internet, at first just to perform a dedicated function, e.g. the set-top-box that runs IPTV, but increasingly in a many-to-many way. So your Smart washing-machine will talk to your Smart Meter, see that electricity is expensive right now, but also talk to your Smart Solar panels and see that the sun is shining, so it can do that wash anyway. The technology to enable this connectivity is already largely present, but the work we have still to do is to order it into a coherent, useful, wonderful user experience.

What are the qualities that this Internet of Things must have, so that we are not overwhelmed by all these Smarts? My recent experience is with AlertMe, which I co-founded about 6 years ago. Our platform for the Smart Home offers a variety of end devices in the home which each do one simple thing, such as sense a quantity (e.g. temperature, energy, occupancy) , or act on something (e.g. heating, or switching appliances). These devices are networked together using ZigBee, and connected to the internet via your home broadband. The result is that you can now see what is going on in your home, and change things in your home, from anywhere, using almost any online means, from the web to a SmartPhone app, to an iGoogle gadget, to a humble text message.

So based on this experience, I’ve identified four key areas that deserve attention to ensure that the Smart Home “just works”:

  • Intelligence spread seamlessly: the consumer shouldn’t need to understand WHERE the smarts actually lie. They just tell the system as a whole (in our case, the house) what they want to happen, e.g. “turn down heating when house is empty”, and then all the technology should seamlessly work together to make this happen, without it being obvious who is doing what.
  • Easy to install & care for: the installation must require literally zero setup, it must “just work”.
  • Ignore the hardware, live the benefits: although for the first few days the customer will be aware of the various end-devices, they should quickly start to think of “the house” or “AlertMe” rather than those individual devices.
  • Subliminal UX (not modal): Watching TV is modal – we can’t do anything else at the same time. But the Smart Home is doing lots of things all the time, and if it claimed as much attention as the TV or PC does, it would quickly overwhelm you. So it must reduce interaction to the absolute minimum for the circumstances.

The Smart Home is coming, and I hope this has given a few insights into how we can make it truly useful.


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