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Dec 5, 2017

Home, smart home – theory and practice of the connected home

From "house automation" to "domotics" or "smart home" –  the concept of the intelligent house has existed as a recurring buzzword for 30 years. Now – once more - it seems to be about to make a breakthrough. The smart home is quite promising for its inhabitants: convenience, energy efficiency and a better quality of life combined with greater cost-effectiveness. But does it live up to its promises? And: To what extent does positive user experience contribute to the acceptance of these solutions? 

Following washing machines, vacuum cleaners and co., the smart home seems to be the continuation of the home automation trend. If studies of various economic research institutes are to be believed, the global market for smart home solutions will grow by 1,000 per cent until 2020. (Botthof et al., 2016, p. 7) This enormous market potential can mainly be attributed to private households, which are the main target group of smart home systems. But what added value do smart homes offer for the 40m or so households in Germany?

Swiss Army knife

Traditional sales arguments for smart home technologies aim at increasing energy efficiency, convenience, life style, entertainment and security. Health aspects, too, play a role, with technical solutions now in place that analyze the health status of the inhabitants when they are at home and offer suitable health strategies. In fact, the smart home is even portrayed as solving the problems related to demographic change: With assistance systems supporting elderly people in their familiar environment, they can continue to live at home independently longer. 

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Functional principle

In general, smart home systems consist of two components: Sensors measure relevant conditions in or around the home while actuators initiate actions based on the collected data. What makes this technology "smart" is the fact that sensors and actuators are connected by if-then rules. This means that lights (actuators) switch themselves on, when the motion sensor registers movements. The blinds close when it gets dark. The alarm starts when window sensors register an opening movement even though the house is supposed to be locked. That way, even more complex scenarios – such as the daily morning routine of opening the blinds, turning on the heating and starting the coffee machine – can be fully automated. 

And what about the user?

Smart home systems are still largely controlled by technology and focus on the technical feasibility and automatability of everyday tasks. The user as well as the user experience of these technical solutions are all too often neglected. Therefore, it is not surprising that potential users are still reluctant to accept smart home solutions. This reluctance can be traced back to four key issues (Jakobi et al., 2016):

Complex market

Especially for amateurs, the huge smart home market is hard to comprehend. Very often, potential customers are left in the dark about which devices and components meet their requirements and how to combine them.

Complicated installation

Many smart home components are now up for sale for everyone in DIY stores. However, without professional help they are difficult to install and configure.

Insufficient usability

Usually, smart home systems are not overly user-friendly. To create cosy lighting, for example, you first have to find your smartphone, then start the appropriate app and use it correctly. Moreover, smart home systems do not cover all needs. Past data on power consumption, for example, may not exist at all or, if they do, they may not be displayed in a user-friendly way.

Lack of flexibility

Often, ideas for smart home functions emerge after the system has already been put to use. However, integrating new components later on is difficult as the devices, services and software of different manufacturers may not be compatible. 

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Routine myth

Smart homes pursue the ideal of the automatability of homes. This is based on the assumption that people follow certain routines in their homes. On the surface this may be true: Every morning, we get up, have breakfast, leave for work or school, get back home at night, have dinner, watch TV or surf the Internet and finally go to bed. On weekends, things may be a little different. So much for the theory.

In practice, several people in the same home may have to leave and therefore get up at different times. One day, an early-morning appointment may change the schedule, another day you may be off. School may start at different times in the course of the week. In short: The presumption of consistent routines is an illusion. Moreover, routines are influenced by the environment and change over time.

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Automation: boon or bane?

In fact, many potential users believe that smart homes are not compatible with their way of life. It is especially the high level of automation that they consider as problematic: On the one hand, they fear that they might become lazy over time. On the other hand, many everyday tasks at home - such as cooking a nice meal for the family - trigger positive emotions.  Such activities strengthen family ties and form the perceived role of a "good" parent. Too much automation can prevent such positive experience. UX researchers Hassenzahl and Klapperich have shown that the process of making coffee can be perceived in very different ways, depending on whether you brew it manually or use a coffee pad machine. 

While using a pad machine is a lot faster, it often turns the process of making coffee into a waiting experience with negative connotations. When making coffee manually, however, the user's experience is more intense and more positive because every step that has been accomplished brings with it a sense of achievement. When time is short, people will prefer the faster coffee making method. But in these cases, a positive experience is less important than efficient action. Both scenarios need to be considered and suitable strategies have to be developed for each of them.

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To do: more home, less automation

Smart home technologies have a lot to catch up on when it comes to usability and user experience. In order to live up to the promise of more convenience and a better quality of life, these systems need to become more suitable for use, i. e. they have to be easier to use and configure but also useful and expandable. This means that user requirements have to be identified and implemented as best as possible. When developing smart home products, creative ideas continue to be imperative. A home is more than the sum of daily household chores. Therefore, we need smart home products that not only make lives easier but also support people in their daily rituals and provide positive experiences for family and friends. This could be a dinner party, at which the kitchen plays suitable background music, takes snapshots of the guests or shows pictures of former parties. A smart kitchen could help hobby chefs to live their passion for new ingredients and taste combinations, for example by suggesting interesting variants of their favorite dishes.

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The author

Michael Burmester, professor at the Stuttgart Media University HdM and UX expert, writes for UID.