Let's Connect: The Era of Smart Home

To design effective smart homes, we need to understand how people live their lives, put more focus on contexts, and design systems.

Google I/O 2014 ended a few weeks ago and it was full of exciting news for the tech industry. Among all of Google’s newly announced features and products, Android L, an operating system for phones, cars, tablets and televisions, got my attention immediately. This new OS, along with Android TV and Google’s acquisitions of Nest and Dropcam, make Google a very strong player in the smart home market.

Not too long ago, at Apple WWDC 2014, Apple unveiled HomeKit, a platform for pairing iPhones with home appliances, to enter the smart home market. Is it a coincidence that these two tech giants decided to jump into this space around the same time? As I see it, it’s just something that happens naturally. Since it’s very likely that “everything will have data in it” in the near future, extending their reach beyond phones, tablets and laptops seems like a logical next step for these companies.

A smart home is like an ecosystem, or a network of interactions among devices, people, and their environment. This kind of connectivity, many people believe, will help us feel more secure and live more comfortably and efficiently. Apple and Google, among other tech companies, have made tremendous efforts in building digital ecosystems over the past few years. For examples, Apple’s new feature Handoff enables the user to switch from one device to another and continue an ongoing activity seamlessly; Google Now integrates a set of web services to enable the user to check customized weather, traffic, and delivery information under one platform.

What does the emergence of the smart home ecosystem mean for us, as user experience designers? As promising as it seems, there are a couple of design challenges associated with smart home. One big challenge is protocol fragmentation, or the fact that current systems and devices use a variety of wireless protocols to talk to each other. Google and Apple are the kind of companies capable of leading the smart home industry and breaking the fragmentation. However, if they stick with their closed systems, either it’s Android or iOS — “works with Nest” or “made for iPhone” — and we are going to either get stuck in one system or jump from one system to another endlessly. This is not good news for designers or users.

Another challenge is with taking a more holistic approach to the smart home space. Although by definition “user experience” is any aspect of a person’s interaction with technology, we as a profession usually put a lot more focus on the software interface than the other aspects such as hardware and physical environment. To design an effective connected experience, it’s important to think through different aspects of an experience.

Take a smart fridge, for example. If you are asked to design a new-generation fridge that has the potential to create a mass market, how would you go about designing it? Here’s what I would do:

First, understand how people use refrigerators right now: Why do people use their fridges? How do they interact with their fridges? They may say, “I want to store food I bought and extend its lifespan so I don’t need to do grocery shopping that often,” and you may observe that their interactions with the fridge are very quick. These kinds of stories and observations will give us insights on their behaviors and context of uses.

Second, list all the possible touchpoints and use cases. We know we need to consider both mobile and home contexts because people buy food somewhere and then store it in their fridge at home. Also, some people tend to organize food in specific spots inside a fridge based on categories, while others tend to place food randomly wherever there is an empty spot. Therefore, a smart fridge that requires users to place items in specific spots to help it keep track of food will not fit everyone.

Finally, design systems rather than individual components. Based on user research insights, we can start connecting nodes and drawing meaningful patterns. For example, it will be pretty handy if a fridge could create a shopping list for you based on your preference and current inventory and send it to your phone or car before you are heading to a supermarket. Another useful feature could be when, after you are done with your shopping, your mobile phone or credit card sends your purchase information to your fridge so it can better maintain your inventory.

Smart home is all about the connected experience, and we are the group of people designing that experience. It’s going to be an exciting era for us.