The Best Smart Home User Experience

Our smart home mission starts with the stated aim of delivering "the best smart home user experience", but what does this mean? When it comes to simple service or devices, or the most complex smart home technology, people always take the path of least resistance. Typically, this means an interface that is familiar or intuitive but, this also depends on who you are asking. So our definition of the best smart home user experience is simply this:

The best user smart home experience is the one that works best for the person you are asking, the task at hand and for the current situation they find themselves in.

This means it changes, depending on who you are asking. Smart home user interfaces potentially need to cater for a wide range of people, some with physical or mental impairments, some with mobility and dexterity issues, people of all ages, all sizes and also different states of mind. These interfaces also can't assume specific skills or technical knowledge. Most interfaces need to be simple and intuitive. People choose the 'path of least resistance', so the best interface needs to be quick and efficient.

This also means it changes depending on what they are wanting to achieve. It also changes based on their current situation. Have they got their hands full? Are their hands soaking wet from a household task or some DIY? A light switch is often the best way to control a light but when my hands are full, voice control might be the best way, for someone confined to a wheel chair or a teenager stuck to the sofa, it might be another method.

So our approach is to provide a range of interfaces in parallel to achieve the same goal. There is simply no one interface that works best all the time, so we let each user choose the one that they thinks works best for them.

Having said this, there is one user interface approach that does work best most of the time. An example of this is the lighting in our smart home, 80% of which is fully automated. Our smart home has enough information, context and intelligence to enable the lights to just work around us, with no user interaction at all. This is a "zero touch user experience" and this is what we aim for wherever possible. If you can achieve a zero touch user experience, then it is a user interface that works for everyone, 8 years old or 80 years old, with no learning required.

Why is the remaining 20% of lighting in our home not fully automated and zero touch? This is because people are not 100% predictable and there are times when the user needs to tell our smart home what it needs to do, via one of our many user interfaces.

Access & Permissions

An important consideration in providing an interface to your smart home is knowing who has who has access and what they are allowed to do. Do you want other family members such as your children, visiting relatives, friends or even guests to your home being able to control services, devices and features in your smart home?

Interface Examples

Zero Touch

We like a 'zero touch' user experience. It works for everyone and can be applied to many things in the smart home. Most of our lighting is zero touch, bathroom extractor fans, heating and hot water control. It relies on the smart home having the information, context and state to make good decisions though. Typically this requires passive interfaces such as connected doors, PIR sensors, etc. to provide context.

Control Panels & Tablets

A lot of people find it tempting to fit control panels and tablets into their smart home but these rarely provide a good user experience. Firstly, they are not readily to hand. Secondly, they either need some kind of authentication or they provide full access to all users. Such technology quickly looks dated and needs regular maintenance updates and reconfiguration.

Smart Thermostats

We are not big fans of 'smart thermostats'. They are mostly expensive gadgets that let anyone with local access play about with your heating. There are much cheaper and more powerful ways of providing smart heating control and in a truly smart heating system, you should very rarely need to adjust it manually. Our smart home just knows what we want.

Apps

Smartphone apps can be useful in a small number of situations, but mostly they are a painful user experience for doing simple things in the smart home. The best thing about them is the enforced user authentication that comes with unlocking the phone or tablet, which can be used to deliver a personalised experience. The are also good for the more complex tasks, e.g. searching for music and playing then it in a number of rooms or adjusting task lighting to specific settings. If you are regularly using an app to achieve basic tasks then you are not in a smart home.

NFC/RFID

We like this technology. It's really easy to use and has in-built authentication and tracking of what people are doing. We use this for control of our home security system and for access to our home.

Voice Control

Voice control works well for some things, assuming the environment is right (i.e. not in a noisy room). It is mostly not authenticated (using speaker recognition) though, so anyone with physical access can use it. For this reason we limit what 3rd party products (e.g. the Amazon Echo) can do in our home. We have our own authenticated voice control interface though that provides a personalised experience with enforced permissions.

Text Chat

Text chat (IM, SMS, XMPP, email, etc. works really well when out of the home or on public transport. Using natural language interaction, it is more private, personalised and secure than voice interaction.

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