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Giving My House an Education, Part Four: Platforms

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 three of this series, we talked about smart home usability and the importance of both analog and digital functionality. Today, I’ll share with you my investigation of various smart home platforms and their pros and cons.

When I first started thinking about connected home upgrades, I did a lot of research on the different Internet of Things and smart home platforms. I looked at Works with Nest, Apple HomeKit, Wink, and SmartThings. I ended up picking Wink because it seemed like it worked with the most products. Different companies have specific areas of expertise, whether that’s doing lighting really well, a great garage door opener, or a thermostat – there isn’t one company that makes a complete suite of products for your house. Nor should there be! But that means that trying to figure out which platform to go with before you know all of the smart home devices you’re going to add. This can be cumbersome. Wink made that a little bit easier because they happen to hook into everything.

Wink vs. HomeKit
Although Wink works well, it has its own set of issues. The core API went down a few times when I first installed it, so that wasn’t a good welcome. Local control was enabled out of the box, but there was still a delay on my switches. Setting up schedules in the app was also confusing. The app was good, but not great. In general, everything with Wink was just okay. I didn’t have a terrible experience or anything like that, but nothing blew me away.

I started using Apple’s HomeKit platform at my old house, and it wasn’t great either. In iOS 9 there was no interface to HomeKit, it was all invoked via Siri. In order to use HomeKit to its fullest, I was forced to purchase a 3rd party app for $15. Then Apple announced the new Home app that would have deep integration into the operating system. Now, you can access your smart home components right away on the control panel – you don’t even have to unlock your phone. For iOS users, this is a game changer, and it pushed me away from Wink and back to HomeKit.

There is very little time to spare when it comes to interacting with your home. Any delay means that your smart home is getting in your way, not making your life better and more convenient. The process of unlocking your phone, opening the Wink app, giving it a second to load, then another second to figure out if certain things are responding, and then accessing your smart home products is just long enough to make it slightly inconvenient.

HomeKit’s ability to integrate with the operating system worked incredibly well. I was able to access everything very quickly. Because of this, I started to migrate over to HomeKit, so much so that I disconnected the Wink hub and gave it away. Sure, I had to re-pair all my switches to connect to HomeKit, but so far I’m really happy. I’m also happy because it was very easy to show my wife how to use it. She doesn’t have to sign into my account like with Wink, which was annoying. I simply share my home profile with her through iOS to access it.

All that said, Wink is a very strong solution for Android users, although it remains to be seen how Google Assistant will change the landscape for that user population.

Upsell
Upselling is when a company is able to tell a story through their products, allowing myself and other users discover for ourselves new ways to use and purchase more of their products, integrating them into our lives. This can make our lives easier in a way that makes the most sense for us. When I evaluate platforms, I take a good, long look at their ability to upsell. Smart home is so young, and new products are coming to market all the time, that I don’t have time to spend seeking them out for myself.

One thing that Wink did really well was to show all the different products it supports every time you go to add a new product. That was really interesting because there were some smart home products I didn’t know existed. Like, I didn’t realize there were smart ceiling fans until I used the Wink app. Then I researched them and learned about them. Wink made me constantly wonder what I was missing out on and what else could work together in a smart home. It was the perfect upsell opportunity, and it worked to the extent that I started thinking about smart home products that hadn’t otherwise been on my radar.

I don’t find upsell to be very strong in HomeKit, to be honest. There’s so much more that they could be doing. Generally, I think that companies do just an okay job of upsell, but are missing an incredible storytelling opportunity. Instead of painting me a picture of what I can do with smart home products, each company advertises its product and says something basic, like “You can turn your lights on and off!” There’s not a lot of telling the story of why I need to do that, or what it can work with, or how my life will be made easier, smarter, faster. I think Apple falls short on this, too, because they have an automation section where you can build how you want your components to act, but no one really tells you a good story.

As the bedrock of the smart home ecosystem, I think telling those stories to users is the responsibility of the platforms. For instance, I would love it if a platform told me, “Hey I noticed that you’re setting timers on your lights. Did you know that if you add these sensors that go in each room they’ll turn on and off as you enter and leave the room?” If something like that existed to tell me that story, I would be buying those sensors in a heartbeat.

I want these platforms to say to me, “Hey Dan, this is what you could do when you wake up, or when you go to bed. Are you interested in learning more?” Things that actually tell me a story rather than just a robotic, “Select the product you want to automate and select your triggers and go.” I get all that, but that is actually giving me too much. It’s like going to a restaurant and having a menu that’s three pages long. That’s the worst restaurant experience ever because you never know what to pick. I want a restaurant that has done its homework and condenses it and presents me a package and makes the decision easy for me. There’s very few, if any, smart home products that have done that.

That’s where it still feels like smart home is fragmented. It’s kind of like what Android used to be. Four years ago, Android was one of the most confusing platforms ever. Now, with consolidation, it’s getting a little easier, and that’s started to create a little cohesiveness. For all of Apple’s faults, they’re really good at creating a nice picture and telling you exactly what you need and not confusing you. And that’s what I hope to see out of smart home platforms, whether it’s Apple’s HomeKit or something else, in the future.