How to Create a Smart Home Product People Actually Want to Use

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For all the hype around the Internet of Things, most people are still content to control their homes manually. A recent Gartner survey found that they don’t mind getting up to adjust the temperature or turn off the lights, and 58 percent of respondents actually prefer the idea of standalone devices to connected ones.

If you’re scratching your head, you’re not alone. If having a connected home makes life easier, why are consumers so skeptical? Who wouldn’t want to control their lights or blinds right from the couch?

IoT’s UX issue

The trouble is that not all household IoT devices make consumers’ lives easier. Before the smart home of the future can become the standard, that needs to change.

Semantic Studios president Peter Morville outlined the factors in his “user experience honeycomb” that determine whether a product offers an outstanding user experience. The seven areas are useful, usable, desirable, accessible, credible, findable, and valuable, with valuable at the center of the honeycomb. If any of the outer six areas are weak, the value comb is, too.

Not every product needs an A+ in all seven areas to offer a great experience. But at the very least, designers should strive to excel in those that matter most for their products without sacrificing others in the process.

Weakness in four particular areas accounts for consumers’ reticence to adopt IoT technology. From my perspective, many consumers think IoT products are unnecessary, difficult to interconnect, insecure, and challenging to use. In the honeycomb theory, their usefulness, findability, credibility, and usability are lacking.

Frankly, there may be some truth to those perceptions. In a Forbes article, “An Honest Review of Google Home and Amazon’s Alexa,” the reviewer writes, “The problem is that they’re still a way off from being genuinely useful. On the novelty/functional spectrum, they lean toward the former.”

That, in a nutshell, is the crux of the issue. Alexa and Home struggle to assist with surprisingly simple requests. Nest thermostats have been known to leave users in the cold thanks to a software glitch—something that can’t happen to old mechanical thermostats. With so many experience issues, users can’t trust their smart devices to deliver on their promises.

Combing for a better experience

All this skepticism slows down IoT growth. It saddles devices not yet released with the baggage of their predecessors. To improve IoT adoption, IoT makers must focus on those four honeycomb areas.

1. Usefulness

Useful products address a clear user problem. Imagine you wanted to install Philips Hue smart lights in your home. What is the pain point of regular lights that smart lights solve?

Smart lights can dim without a dimmer, change colors to set a mood, respond to remote controls, activate automatically to deter would-be thieves, and do less damage to the environment. Are any of those uses compelling enough for most homeowners to outfit their homes with an all-new lighting system?

The Philips Hue mobile app offers plenty of functionality, but it doesn’t target a specific pain point. Sure, the technology is neat, but most consumers just see a pricier lightbulb. That limits adoption to tech enthusiasts and prevents Philips from expanding into a broader market.

To correct the issue, Philips should focus on one or two compelling use cases. Randomized lighting when homeowners are gone would appeal to security-minded buyers, while environmentalists would appreciate the the smart energy savings. If UX designers interviewed users and prototyped better in-app flows for these features, marketers could better explain to certain consumers why their products are useful.

2. Findability

Anyone who has tried to turn a non-connected home into a smart home has hit snags trying to get their new toys to play together. This is partly because the ecosystem of IoT home products remains isolated—many companies in this space are competitors—and partly because there is no standard for product integration.

Plenty of IoT products also have internal findability problems. Amazon Echo might offer a growing list of skills, but most users don’t know what they are or how to activate them. Just as mobile app stores filter out subpar apps, Amazon might need to cut some of the less widely used skills unless it can create a clean way to help users discover them.

Users should be able to find the information they need as soon as they need it, and they should know exactly where to look. As a smart home user myself, I shouldn’t have to perform intensive searches just to figure out how to use my products.

3. Credibility

The credibility of a product (and company) isn’t only a function of its UX but also
positive product interactions convince users that their household IoT products can be trusted. Currently, most products in this space are designed with the assumption that users trust them, but very few people do.

Concerns over privacy issues with Amazon’s and Google’s home assistants, in particular, remain adoption barriers. People believe these assistants listen to everything they say, and the products themselves don’t do much to dispel those fears. Home, for example, simply refers users to the company’s privacy policy when asked whether it’s listening in. To earn users’ trust, these products need a transparent system that shows when they’re listening and exactly what information they retain.

Google and Amazon may well not want to reveal exactly what they collect about their users. But if a competitor were to offer a more trustworthy and transparent product, the incumbents might struggle to regain that ground.

4. Usability

The ugly truth is that many IoT products aren’t easy to use. Have you tried asking Alexa to play a song on Spotify only to end up listening to an artist you’ve never heard of? Or maybe you’ve asked Home about the weather in Paris, to which it responded with the forecast for Paris, Texas.

To be fair, IoT products are tougher to tweak for UX than software-as-a-service products. Companies can’t make quick updates without running into hardware limitations, which forces users to buy add-ons or updated product versions. If people can’t use their products indefinitely, they don’t want to build their homes around them.

Therefore, IoT designers should prioritize UX in the prototype and testing phases before moving products to production. The complexity of home setups and software, along with edge cases for specific users, makes it tough to anticipate every problem. But that ’s the point of rapid prototyping. When designers and developers collaborate to produce working models quickly, they can identify problems early to create products ready for the real world.

Smart homes are the future, but before that future can arrive, designers must convince consumers that their products make life better. Useful, findable, credible, and usable IoT products are what America’s homeowners have been waiting for.

Rudy Mutter

Rudy Mutter is the EVP of technology and a founding partner at Yeti LLC, a product-focused development and design studio in San Francisco. A veteran software engineer, Rudy led development on the "Chelsea Handler: Gotta Go!" app, which was featured on the hit Netflix show "Chelsea Does."
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