As easy as it may be to say ‘voice is better than the phone’ or ‘a phone is better than a switch’, the truth is that good smart home UX design is not as black and white as one might think.
To be clear, when it comes to smart homes, no one way of controlling the home is better than another. In true lawyer-speak, the right answer is ‘it depends’.
It depends in the same way that humans use so many different ways to communicate, from instant messaging, Facebook posts, emails, video chats, slack messages, tweets or even letter writing and birthday card sending. It all depends on the situation.
In this post, we’ll explain what it depends on. This will help you create a truly amazing smart home experience.
We’ll start off with one of the biggest influences on why people choose one option over another and how this knowledge informs a good user experience.
You’ve probably heard of the “path of least resistance" back in school. Water always takes the path of least resistance. If you build a dam in a river, the water will now find a new path of least resistance.
Psychology uses the same name and concept to describe how people, on average (and psychology is always about averages), choose the path of least resistance for any given task.
The nice thing about psychology and the fact that it’s a science is that you can recreate experiments and come to the same results.
It’s not the exclusive reason, but this principle explains, for example, why people use a light switch to turn on the lights when they’re just entering a room (where quickly hitting the switch is the path of least resistance), but then switch to voice to turn the lights off after they sit down on the sofa and begin watching a movie. The path of least resist
This also explains why people hate to use the phone just to turn on and off lights because they’re so used to a switch or voice. Both are paths with much lower resistance.
Design principles offer numerous options for good design based on many years of research. One of these design principles is called the Flexibility/Usability Tradeoff.
Imagine that you are going camping. You don’t know what you will need, so you opt for a flexible tool like a Swiss army knife. It’s not the greatest knife, and it’s not easiest to use, but that’s okay. Flexibility is more important than usability in this case.
Now, imagine you’re at home and you eat bread every morning. What you need is a tool that’s great at cutting bread, so you choose a bread knife.
This example perfectly illustrates this principle. First, it explains that the more flexible or the more options you give a tool, the less usable it becomes and vice versa. Second, it explains why people tend to prefer a flexible tool when they don’t know what they’re going to need and prefer a less flexible tool when they do know.
A smartphone is the Swiss army knife of tech tools. That’s why it’s great when you’re on the go. At home, on the other hand, your requirements are probably well understood, so this flexible tool might not always be the greatest choice, and you might be much happier with a focused, easy-to-use tool.
Our brains are like computers. We can process some information, but at some point, even the most high tech computer will crash. As humans, we process so much information all day long that it becomes exhausting. In fact, our brains are one of the biggest calorie consumers in our bodies. (Perhaps we should just think harder to lose weight!)
At any rate, one of the major ways to get more power out of a computer for performing heavy tasks (like video editing, for example) is to design a computer with multiple computing cores (such as a quad core computer) which allows you to distribute processes.
We function the same way. We can reduce our mental stress or cognitive loads by distributing information to all of our senses. If we focus information on only one sense, such as the eye, when we read a message, our attention is fully taken. That’s why it’s really hard for people to answer a question from a friend when they’re on the phone.
The more we can distribute this information, the less stress we’ll have on our brain and the more we’ll be able to do other things. A switch is a good example. People always talk about humans having five senses. Actually, we have more. When using a switch, we use sight, touch (sensors in our skin) and vibration (sensors deep inside our fingers) to detect movement and feedback. We also use hearing (the click of the switch) and the relative knowledge of our body in space (yes, that’s also a sense!). By keeping a switch simple and using these senses, we can distribute information. This allows us to use a switch without even thinking about it while talking to a friend or still being able to flip it when we come home after a night of partying.
You are you and no one else. (Wow, what an insight! But it’s true.) You have specific skills and needs that are yours alone. When it comes to a smart home, chances are you’re not the only person that’ll need to be able to control it.
For example, you might have kids or you might have a partner that’s not very technical. Maybe you’re building a smart home for your elderly parents. Maybe you have friends that come over and they need to be able to use your smart home. Maybe your partner is from another country and has an accent which may impact voice recognition.
A smart home design is useless if it’s not accessible to everyone that actually needs to use it. So be a designer. Talk to your smart home users and find out what works for them.
This brings us straight to our next design principle: familiarity. Familiarity explains why people choose one tool over another. In a nutshell, this principle describes why people have an easier time using options they're familiar with.
It’s why door handles tend to have similar shapes. It’s why the first Apple calculator looked like a physical calculator (apart from its beautiful homage to the great Dieter Rams). It’s why apps tend to use the same style of navigation, and it’s why a switch is also so popular. It’s something that people are familiar with, so it’s therefore easy to use.
Different types of uses require different tools. If I want to convey something visual to a person, I’ll want to draw something, and I’ll use my hands. If I want to just quickly let them know that I’m late, I’ll send them an instant message. Different tools are great for different types of use.
It’s the same in the home. If someone is at the door, I want to see who’s at the door, and a graphical user interface is great. If I want to set a time while my hands are dirty, voice is great. If I want to dial in the volume of sound, only the fine motor skills in our hands can do this job.
The key point here is that a great smart home UX design is not black or white. It’s much more nuanced, and it’s more about the right tool fitting the right usage.
Tightly connected to the use case is the social situation. A tool might fit the use case, but it might not fit the situation. If you’re in bed and your partner is asleep next to you, you might want to choose a tool that allows you to remain quiet. You might also feel uncomfortable using your voice or your phone in front of other people.
Similar to use cases, there’s no black and white here. Create a great smart home UX design by making your smart home fit your needs and your situations.
There’s so much more to say regarding what makes for great design, but that would make this blog post explode! Fortunately, we have very wise people who have written about good design for centuries now. One great, digestible guide is ‘Ten Design Principles’ by Dieter Rams.
One of the things that we’d like to highlight here is that good design means that products are useful. Usefulness also means reliability. It’s not good enough for something to work 80% of the time. If you want to turn on a light, you want things work consistently, not just occasionally, so chose your tools carefully if you want to create a great smart home UX design.
Also consider other other factors such as sustainability (we don’t use batteries inside our switches ;)), but sustainability brings us to another point that’s close to our heart.
The development of tech over the last years has been incredibly fast-paced and awesome. Unfortunately, technology developed so quickly that it was driven mostly by revenue, and good human-centered design was forced to take a back seat. Today, we’re experiencing the consequences.
At Facebook or Twitter for example, ‘Attention Designers’ design tools that make you ‘stick’ with their apps as long as possible. You don’t know this, but it works. On Twitter, for example, there’s an artificial delay in showing you notifications when you open the page. This is done so your anticipation builds and finishes with a big rush of dopamine when notifications for a “Like” pop up. This dopamine rush makes you want to come back. It’s the same with slot machines and many other addictive substances.
Today, we see an increase in depression and isolation in a time where technology and social networks promised to bring us closer together.
Even the maker behind the iPhone, Tony Fedell, said, “I sometimes wake up sweating, wondering, what did we bring to the world?”
The smart phone is not bad per se. We touched on the big benefit outside the home, for example, or graphical use cases, but we need to be more conscious. The smart phone was NEVER designed as a way to control your home. Think sustainably. Your physical and mental health is more important than some entertainment in an endless scroll of puffs and pows.
We can explain a lot using psychology and design principles, but at the end of the day, there’s also good old personal preference. One person might simply prefer to use the phone, voice or switch. It’s your home, so design it the way you and your family want it. This will make for great UX design.
So next time you’re tempted to laugh about your friend’s choices, try to show a bit of empathy instead. Perhaps their usage, circumstances or any of the above factors make their solutions the right ones for them. Try to learn about tech. Smart homes should be fun! Ask people why they made a particular choice and use that to improve your own situation. Tell people about what you’ve learned and make them happy by teaching them something new.
We wish you lots of success and fun creating a smart home that’s well designed and brings true benefits to you and your families!!
Tobias & the team