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Giving My New House an Education, Part Three: Usability
Dan Ward

Dan Ward

Dan is Co-Founder and President of Detroit Labs. Through the belief that technology is successful when it empowers people, Dan advises clients through ideation, concept, and experience design. His unique ability to blend user experience, technology, and strategy has helped clients from General Motors, Kia, and Volkswagen to Domino’s Pizza, Jimmy John’s, and Kimberly-Clark. Dan serves as a go-to resource for media across the country, including The Washington Post, Bloomberg, and the L.A. Times, providing insight into tech trends and issues impacting consumers and businesses alike in the technology space.

In Part Two of this series, I shared the trials, tribulations, and hard-won successes of installing various connected home components in my new house. Today, we’re going to talk about usability – actually using those items in practice and not just in cool gadget theory.

The key thing, and perhaps the only thing, that makes a smart home truly usable is to take retraining out of the equation. We all know how to turn on a light switch, adjust a simple thermostat, and unlock a door. The best smart products out there don’t require relearning any of these skills or changing any habits to make them function at their most basic level. Learning to use them digitally, however, can have a bit of a curve – and that’s okay as long as there is a default, functional analog state.

When I started this project, I didn’t want to have to explain to every single person that came into my house a different way to operate things. People have become accustomed to using household components in a certain way over years and years of unconscious training. For example, we all grow up knowing how to use a light switch. Smart bulbs immediately introduce a new way of turning the lights on, because you have to use your smartphone to make them work. That’s really your only option. With smart bulbs, the light switch stays on at all times – which is really difficult to remember when you’re leaving a room and you want to just flip the switch. That’s what you’re used to doing.

But the minute you turn a switch connected to a smart bulb off, they become just bulbs. They’re not powered. You would need to retrain yourself to leave the switches alone and use only an app to control them.

Nest is really smart because in a lot of ways that’s how they built their product. We all grow up knowing how the circular rotary temperature adjustment works, and so they built a digital version of that. Now anybody can go to a Nest and know how to turn it up and turn it down. You don’t have to go through several layers of menus to figure that out. That was one of the most appealing things about it when it came out. People said, “That’s something familiar, I know how to use that,” even though it’s a brand new product. That’s initially why I installed the Nest a few years ago, and why I reinstalled it this time before changing to the ecobee3. I know how to use it, my wife knows how to use it, anybody that comes to our house naturally knows how to use it.

I picked smart switches over smart bulbs for the same reason. To install them is definitely more involved than to install a smart bulb, but the dual analog/digital functionality means that they’re still working today in my home. I can interact with them in a smart way, but if anybody else walks into the house, they don’t need to worry about that. They just know that it’s a switch, it’s correctly labeled, that you tap it to turn it on, and, because it’s always getting power no matter what, it stays smart.

The August smart lock, although built with analog usability in mind, has some quirks. There is some retraining that needs to happen. It’s set up to retrofit your existing deadbolt so you don’t have to do a complete replacement. The nice thing is it works both powered and unpowered, so if you need to manually unlock it, just turn it. That part of the smart lock is good. The challenge is that it looks so different from your interior deadbolt that the ability to turn it is not immediately apparent. I had to keep reminding people in the house that you don’t have to use your phone, you can just turn it.

The biggest thing when it comes to smart home usability is that you’re only successful if your smart home works for everybody. A smart home also needs to work 100% of the time, which is why the analog experience is extremely important. The analog experience is just as important as the digital experience, if not more so. When your internet goes down, your WiFi goes down, cell towers go down, zombies eat the electrical grid, or who knows what, these components can still operate. That’s the important thing. I can still use my key with my smart lock. Or in the more likely scenario that someone in your home does not want to pull their phone out, talk to Siri, talk to Alexa, or anything like that, they need to be able to actually operate the lights, unlock the door, turn the heat up, turn the heat down without interacting with an app. These are basic functions that you need to work in a house – and to maintain a happy home.

Coming soon: Part Four, where I’ll share my evaluation process of choosing a connected home platform.