Why Smart Home Tech is Stagnant

Image by Marcel Elia from Pixabay

At this point in time, as we’re driving home from work our smartphones should be having a wee chit chat with our homes. If it’s winter, telling the thermostat to get the house warmed up, the oven to start pre-heating or perhaps asking the slow cooker if the brisket is ready. Since it’s dark, to have the lights turn on in that nice sunset yellow you programmed in the other week. Maybe your phone checks in with the fridge to see if you need milk or eggs. Yes? It sends an order to the grocery store so you can pick them up at the drive-through.

Except, we’re not quite there yet. It’s a little bit to do with the technology itself, but a lot more to do with how people behave. And most smarthome companies haven’t quite realised this.

But there are opportunities. Smarthome devices will eventually get better and become more meaningful. But how?

One factor curbing device growth is that most people just don’t really need smarthome devices. Their basic home needs are already met. Smarthome technologies have often failed to meet a perceived value threshold as well. Put all these together and it’s a rather big hill to climb.

Aside from the issue of needs, many of these products take a problem solving approach and fail to apply an understanding of humans and how they live their lives. The product isn’t seen in the context of the home and all who may live in a home. They borrow from consumer psychology but miss social and cultural aspects, which is how humans actually live their daily lives.

Smarthome companies base their products on assumptions around how people live in their homes, focusing on core behaviours. This misses how people actually live their lives. Which is not through scenarios.

In homes, smart speakers have lead the market. But they’re not being used in the ways their creators intended. So much so that Amazon has curbed its development of Alexa and nixed the shopping device entirely. They thought consumers would buy lots of stuff. This was a failure to do any meaningful initial product research, letting stakeholder bias rule the business decision.

Another popular smarthome device are video camera doorbells. Adoption is largely due to sociocultural issues, especially in the United States. The main issue being fear. Digital doorbells can connect to your phone and when something happens, you get the video wherever you are. They are sold as a fear product. Like insurance. Amazon’s Ring has come under fierce controversy for sharing data with police departments. Again, fear.

Having done research on a number of smarthome products, including one that was a sensor designed for the toilet to test for things like infections, sugar levels and such. It was a brilliant idea. No one wanted it in their toilet.

The key insight from this research was that people have very intimate and deeply held cultural and personal views about bathrooms. They are also highly ritualistic places. Almost all participants in the research indicated that they did not want a notice on their smartphone in the wee hours of the night or early morning that they should go see their doctor. Even if notifications might be adjusted, perception reigns in these situations. Product cleanliness also featured.

People struggle to find the value in many smarthome devices because they see them as adding complexity, rather than simplifying their lives. The time to set up, learning to use the device and the consequences of long-term ownership, including things like subscriptions.

Weather is yet another factor. It’s quite a lovely climate in California where most of these devices are created. Research of such devices across multiple markets is expensive. Those smart door locks? A nightmare on the North Atlantic coast of Canada and America in winters. And Alaska or Chicago. Or Texan and Floridian humidity. Most outdoor smart devices are not designed for extreme climates.

Then of course, is the proper mess of how these devices all interconnect. There’s WiFi and Bluetooth and then Zigbee and Z-Wave and no single standard. Basically it’s the late 90’s and no one wants to allow the other in like Apple and Microsoft. All of this adds to confusion and barriers to entry.

These issues aside, the primary reason consumers have been slow to adopt smarthome devices just comes down to needs along with cultural norms and behaviours. And a failure of the creators of these devices to really do some up front research.

They may use Design Thinking in the development phase of products, which emphasises using empathy up front. But empathy is not a gateway to understanding human behaviours. This is also shown in how so many smarthome products are complicated to set up, don’t play well together and make currently simple tasks, like flicking a light switch, far more complicated.

In most cases, these devices are not really made for the convenience of the customer either. They are designed to create behavioural change in consumers, to get the buyer to buy into a system that is outside their needs and designed for the needs of the manufacturer. They are conflicting systems which create an inherent tension. One that consumers are largely rejecting.

So far, the market hasn’t really learned these lessons in culture and human behaviour. Some have. Like Sonos, Apple and Google Home, but even they are struggling.

As I indicated earlier, there are opportunities. But it means doing more than thinking in terms of empathy. That’s an excellent starting point. Smarthome device companies should spend a little more time in homes. A great example of this is IKEA. Before they open a store in a new country or market, they send in a team of anthropologists and sociologists. They go into people’s homes. They ask questions, take pictures and tons of notes. They then use this human-first qualitative data, mixed with quantitative data, to determine which products are most likely to succeed, the bet pricing points and the cultural aspects they need to respect.

This has proven successful for them. Including their selection of smart home devices. This is because IKEA actually thinks human-first, applies critical thinking instead of problem solving in their approach and seeks to understand how people actually live.

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Giles Crouch | Digital Anthropologist

Digital / Cultural Anthropologist | I'm in WIRED, Forbes, National Geographic etc. | I help companies create & launch human-centric technology products.