Why are we not already living in the home of the future?
For decades we have been living with the promise of futuristic homes that will seamlessly respond to our every need, reinforced by movies and tv shows that leave us dreaming of an idealized life. Today, some of this “dream” technology has become a reality, yet largely remains supplemental, rather than essential, to our everyday lives. What is holding us back?
The appetite for smart home products is clearly growing, as 1.3 billion connected products are expected to be in U.S. homes by 2022. As technology continues to evolve at a lightning pace, how can we make sure it is working to solve our real problems? In order to prevent these innovations from becoming gimmicks, we must work to infuse value and meaning into smart home products and systems by avoiding several common pitfalls:
Assuming that one size fits all
Connected home products may boast a range of features, but often mandate a specific way to use them. Most smart home products are designed for early-adopters, leading to some assumptions about age and ability.
What good is a smart thermostat if it can’t be viewed or reached from a seated position for those in wheelchairs? Mobile apps have become our universal remote, but the interfaces can leave behind people with visual impairments or limited dexterity. Voice-activated controls can help a visually-impaired person check to make sure the oven is turned off from across the room, but may require cognitive skills that would be difficult for a child or someone with dementia. Rather than over-indexing on one target user, how can we consider the true range of people who use these products?
Doubling up on accessibility features can remove the barriers of adoption that may have prevented access for people who need this technology the most. In order for connected home products to become essential elements in the home of the future we must consider the range of accessibility issues that users may face now and throughout their lifetime and design interfaces that will support them.
How can we design products that are evolutionary, revolutionary, and add value to the home?
Force-fitting solutions without context
Homes come in every different shape and size, and reflect the diversity of our world. Therefore, it makes sense that a rental condo in New York would have an entirely different hierarchy of needs than a cottage in England, or a micro-apartment in Japan. Smart home technology will only be successfully adopted when it is used to solve real problems.
For example, smart home security products are a top-selling category in the United States, reflecting a common need and desire for this type of solution. But in Japan, where safety is less of a concern, products like security cameras and smart locks have less of a use case. But people in Japan are living longer than almost anywhere else in the world, and smart home products could make a huge difference in staying independent. Products that improve wellness in the home, medical monitoring, even automated cooking are a better fit for this market.
Not considering the value hierarchy each individual considers when choosing products for their home can lead to bloated systems or products that create more hassle than help. As we continue to re-invent products for the home, it is important to take these cultural nuances into account and understand that the value that they create.
Limiting innovation to linear thinking
Today, the smart home experience is rooted in people adapting to available technology, such as learning the correct way to ask your smart speaker about the weather. This is essentially a task-based, linear approach that relies on fetching information and delivering a response. We are adapting to the way technology works, rather than technology adapting to the way we actually live.
Several innovations are gearing up to change this. Emerging technologies such as 5G, AI, and voice control are creating synergies that will allow for more passive responses that will evolve and build off each other over time. Currently, you may wake up in the morning and say, “Alexa, turn on my coffee pot,” and then, “Alexa, turn on the lights in my kitchen.” But the ideal scenario would be to just say, “Alexa, start my morning.” By taking a thematic approach to connected products we can broaden our expectations and find new ways they can help our lives.
This type of theme-based synchronization can provide real value to help a person in need. For example, migraine sufferers have a routine to prepare when they feel a headache coming on: dimming the lights; asking a loved one for help; perhaps informing their doctor or their job. Instead of doing these things sequentially, activating multiple tasks at once by saying “Hey Google, prepare for a migraine” would greatly improve this process for someone who is in tremendous pain, and just wants to lie down.
Today, our homes probably contain a jumble of one-off devices that do a specific thing very well, but don’t work together. This array of products from different manufacturers can create siloed rather than seamless experiences.
Competition, both from a branding and manufacturing perspective, leads to companies digging their heels into their specific vision of the future, usually where their product has become ubiquitous and others must fall in line. As designers, we can show brands the value of allowing their products to integrate into connected systems with shared values. This actually helps to make products more scalable and even sustainable, as holistic systems provide greater longevity in our rapidly-evolving world.
Rather than building a product where you develop a neighborhood and you try to invite people into your neighborhood, why not try to connect to as many neighborhoods as possible?