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Getting smart about smart home innovation

383 Strategist Nick explores the challenges and opportunities around developing IoT solutions within the home

Alexa, write me a witty and insightful blog post about ‘smart home’ technology.”

Alexa… ALEXA!?!” – Ah bugger, it looks I’m going to have to do this the old way then.

In a world where we’re increasingly surrounded by intelligent, connected devices, it’s easy to take them for granted. When they work well, these technologies straddle a fine line between ambient invisibility and heroic moments of surprise and delight. When they fail, however, they plonk themselves right in the middle of a Venn diagram of frustration, farce and liability.

Nowhere is this contrast starker than in the increasingly competitive arena of the Smart Home where there is a veritable IoT arms race taking place at an increasing rate.

At the one end of the scale, we’re seeing genuinely useful innovation in areas such as heating, lighting, and security where connected technology is changing the way we interact with our homes. At the other end of the scale, we’re seeing a flood of pointless, bandwagon-jumping gadgets that set out to solve problems that literally nobody has, and which largely have no business being ‘connected’ in the first place. I’m looking at you £1400 smart Iron.

In this post, I’m going to explore some of the key elements that I believe are crucial to developing winning smart home and IoT propositions. I’ll also be sharing some expert insights from Ash Snook, Global Head of Product Design at Hive, who was generous enough to share a beer with me, as well as some of his insider views for this blog.

Human problems are more important than shiny technology

With the Internet of Things advancing at an astonishing rate with devices becoming cheaper and more advanced every day, it’s easy to become dazzled by technology. For businesses looking to grab their slice of the smart home pie, focussing on the tech presents a seductive, but ultimately dangerous path.

Jumping on the latest technological trends and trying to retrofit them to the needs of your customers is a sure-fire way to launch a mediocre proposition. To create products, platforms and services that will truly gain traction with customers, they have to solve real frictions and offer genuine value to your users. This means investing time and effort to uncover their needs and to understand the human lives into which these innovations will fit.

In this respect, technology must function as a tool to solve a problem, not an endgame in itself. This was very much the direction Hive took when developing Hive Link, a smart home solution designed to help families to look after their elderly or vulnerable relatives. As Ash explains:

"We identified a social and economic need that’s not even for your own home - it may be for your mum’s home and she could live a couple of hundred miles away. It tapped into an innate recognition that people felt a responsibility to look after their parents as they moved into the later stages of their lives. This is what Hive Link was formed from: not about making the home smarter, more automated and more efficient but about using the technology we had to create a genuinely great experience for people who are caring for others."

Ash Snook, Global Head of Product Design at Hive by British Gas

You need to create genuine solutions, not just more problems

It’s all well and good creating sensors and platforms that can instantly alert you when something goes wrong in your home but, unless you also present the solutions for getting those problems fixed, you’re only doing half a job. In fact, creating a warning system without also providing viable next steps for the user is worse than redundant, it’s irresponsible. You end up amplifying panic and anxiety whilst leaving the user powerless to do anything about it.

That’s not to say that the solutions necessarily have to be technological, however. Injecting the right sort of human intervention at the right time can ensure that your users aren’t left high and dry. Similarly, making self-service materials quick to find, easy to understand and simple to implement can empower your customers to resolve less urgent problems for themselves.

Again, all of this has to be led by the needs of the customer. Only by taking a step back from the technology and determining the ‘jobs’ that customers are trying to fulfill through your products and services can you really create solutions that fit.

Know when technology should occupy the spotlight and when it needs to be invisible

There’s no denying it – gadgets can be seriously sexy. For certain customers, the social kudos of showing off the latest premium bit of smart home kit is the driving factor behind their purchase. In these cases, it’s a fundamental part of a designer’s job to ensure their products not only work seamlessly but look conspicuously gorgeous whilst doing so.

However, in most cases, (as with any great design) the best solutions are the ones you hardly notice at all. Here, products and services should quietly work away in the background maintaining the desired status quo without unduly calling attention to themselves. The minute you notice them outside of your proactive desire to do so, they’re probably failing in some aspect of their delivery.

In other cases, this invisibility isn’t just attractive, it’s the very lynchpin of a product’s success. Again, this was something that was crucial to the development of Hive Link’s tools and features for monitoring the wellbeing of vulnerable residents, as Ash explains:

"It actually comes down to limiting the amount of technology we put into their property. We had a range of indoor and outdoor cameras that we could have used but, by speaking to people in a number of channels such as one-to-one interviews, field research and customer labs, we identified that this would have been too intrusive. Instead we had to think about the passive technology we could leverage: Contact sensors, motion sensors, smart plugs - we could knit those together in a way that was really pared back in the home. This would give older residents the confidence to freely go about their lives whilst the technology worked in the background, never distracting them or taking away their sense of independence."

Design for failure

Controlling your home by tapping an app or shouting commands to a smart speaker is not just convenient, it’s downright fun. I mean, nothing makes you feel like you’re living in the future more than commanding an AI to set your mood lighting. Until your WiFi goes down and your lights no longer work.

For smart home products to be truly fit for purpose, they have to remain usable in situations when they’re not able to be smart at all, often for reasons that may be beyond the manufacturer’s control.

On one hand, this means anticipating technological headaches such as internet connectivity issues, damaged hardware, compatibility problems, and hacking. On the other, it’s about dealing with human frictions such as your phone running out of battery, laryngitis scuppering your Alexa interactions or a visit from your technophobic Aunty who’d prefer to navigate your house without having to navigate your phone. And let’s face it – there are times where all of us would just prefer to click an actual switch rather than jabbing at a screen.

This means designing failure-resistant products by considering the worst case scenarios. It means creating local, real-world interfaces such as actual light switches and physical thermostats to compliment your app-based controls. It means diversifying your approach to avoid single points of failure. As Ash puts it:

"It’s a question of system architecture. As an organisation, we always try to figure out what is the most stable, scalable and sustainable approach for any technology that we build. If you look at our portfolio today, we use a mix of different technologies, all of which have their own benefits as well as their own drawbacks. By blending these solutions together, we end up with something that minimises the risk."

Think carefully about how you balance compatibility, security and control

For many users, compatibility with a wider ecosystem of smart home products is essential, not only within one brand but with other manufacturers’ products and platforms. At the end of the day, people will gravitate towards the best solutions available for their needs and it’s going to be rare that any single brand can excel at everything.

Increasingly for providers, this means integrating your products with third-party platforms and technologies, including those from the likes of Amazon, Apple and Google. Whilst this can offer enhanced capabilities and wider compatibility for your users, it also brings with it a lot of potential baggage, especially around privacy and security. With more and more high-profile stories hitting the headlines around data breaches or questionable uses of customer information, users are understandably worried about how their smart home devices could track and monitor their activity. This can obviously create a significant barrier to entry for adoption.

So how do you manage this tricky balancing act between value and privacy? One solution is to develop features that leverage those third-party technologies for the people who want them, whilst ensuring that your product still allows for a high degree of standalone utility for the people who don’t. Either way, it’s largely about being honest and transparent with your users and about the value that they’ll gain through these integrations and what they might have to sacrifice to get it. Again, here’s Ash’s take:

"What we’ve learned through our partnerships is that these solutions currently aren’t for everybody. There’s not always much you can do to mitigate customers’ privacy concerns apart from being as honest and transparent as possible about what you might need to exchange in that relationship. All we can do is to build the very best integrations possible to allow Alexa users or Google users who want to use voice to interact with their Hive products to do so in a simple, elegant and approachable way."

Lowering the cost barrier and shrinking the divide

Despite the acceleration towards the mainstream, smart home devices are still largely the domain of the comfortably-off. That’s not to say they’re restricted to eccentric playboy billionaires looking to kit out their man-caves, it’s just that while we’re still emerging from the early adopter phase, these smart technologies will remain a luxury (albeit an increasingly affordable one).

Part of the problem is the reliance on a wider ecosystem of gadgetry and platforms. On the simplest end of the scale, you’re going to need a smartphone or tablet to get any utility from your smart devices. To unlock true value, however, your going to be throwing smart speakers into the mix, plus whatever complementary bits and bobs of tech that you need in order to supercharge your home set-up. In order to drive mass adoption, the price of the technology will need to continue to drop whilst ongoing innovation generates new and better value propositions for customers.

There is also a real risk that this technological revolution could widen the gap between the ‘haves’ and ‘The have nots’. The thing is, the more technology you have access to as a consumer, the more comfort and control you can enjoy in your day-to-day life. And that’s not just in terms of creating optimal living environments in the home (a true luxury that most of us take for granted) but it’s also about tracking your utility use, monitoring your spending and finding better and cheaper deals.

Whilst the people who can afford the fancy gadgets and rolling subscriptions reap the benefits of cost savings and energy efficiency, the people who desperately need these things risk exclusion or, even worse, higher bills. With fuel poverty remaining a major issue in the UK, affecting an estimated 2.55 million household in 2016, this is a gap that needs to be bridged, not increased.

Perhaps, therefore, the ultimate challenge for utility providers is to figure out how to make the advantages of this technology truly democratic. How can we get these innovations into the hands of the people who could benefit from them most? How can we bring the price point down to the level where it’s truly viable for the masses? How can we take some of the enablers from the smart revolution and find low-tech ways to implement them (perhaps through better education)? And how can we ensure that the savings made through the increased efficiencies are passed on to the customers and not just the shareholders?

At 383 Project, we work help a wide range of clients to develop propositions that their customers will love, including those within the ‘smart home’ space. If you want to find out how you can innovate more effectively, accelerate products to market and really understand the needs of your users, have a look at the services and tools we offer.

And, if you want to have a chat about smart home innovation (or if you just want to try and convince me to buy a £1,400 iron), you can drop me a line at

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