September is nearly here, meaning that the tech world will be once again converging on Berlin for the annual IFA convention. This is Europe’s largest and oldest tech convention and naturally, PDD will be attending.
The biggest expectation is that 2015 is the year that the connected home will go mainstream. With devices such as the Nest Thermostat leading the charge, the last few years have seen the race to add connectivity to every household device we can think of, ranging from light bulbs to ovens and even the kettle. Unsurprisingly at IFA this year we are likely to see the larger home appliance brands pushing to bring connectivity to their entire range of products.
As a UX/UI designer I see this trend as beneficial. Firstly household devices will be able to give in depth feedback to their users. For example your washing machine could recommend a more efficient cycle based on your load history and your oven could let you know how well your food is cooking. Secondly, allowing smartphones/tablets access to household devices could be a game changer. Household devices have some of the most notoriously bad interfaces out there (I’m looking at you, Microwaves). Smartphones however have some of the best interfaces and almost all users have experience using them. An app that controls an appliance will allow for a more flexible and informative interface than an array of buttons paving the way for a better user experience.
There are downsides however, as we are seeing in the media data security is becoming an increasingly big issue. But, on a more personal level one of the biggest problems is that as more devices become connected, the risk of information overload grows. Do you think your phone has enough notifications already thanks to email, Whatsapp, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Linkedin and Candy Crush? Now imagine having twelve different smart devices each with their own app demanding attention as well. Managing this may end up being more hassle than operating their non-connected predecessors, defeating the point entirely.
To make this avalanche of extra information digestible for the user, device manufacturers will have to start thinking differently. Instead of trying to engage with the user, they will instead have to try to convey information efficiently with as little contact time as possible. This is often referred to as “slippy UX” and will become increasingly popular over the next few years. This concept may be strange for designers to adapt too. Until now many interfaces have been designed to increase user engagement. For websites or apps that rely on customer purchase this approach is necessary. The more a customer sticks around, the more likely they will make a purchase (this is known as “sticky UX”). For connected household devices however the opposite is true. The customer is already past the point of purchase. Trying to force them to engage unnecessarily will only frustrate them. The emphasis should be on blending seamlessly into the users’ life instead of demanding their attention.
One of the best ways to this is to convey as much information as you can with a single glance. Google Now’s card based design shows a good example of how this works. The Apple Watch fitness app also shows a good example of this; everything you need to know about your current exercise can be seen in a single glance. Connected household devices should operate in the same way. A smart lock should only notify when something out of the ordinary happens. My thermostat should very occasionally inform me how much money I’m spending and how to improve.
The Apple Watch Fitness Tracker. Image Credit: Cnet.com
Another way to decrease user engagement is to make household devices talk to each other rather than just the user. Your lights could automatically switch on every time you unlock your front door. Your kettle could switch on for that vital cup of tea when the alarm goes off in the morning. Of course this is easier said than done as a user is unlikely to buy every home device from the same manufacturer, although the tech giants seem to be on the case. Apples’ homekit aims to make every device compatible with iOS, meanwhile Google are hot on its heels with Nest Labs. I admit it may be frustrating to see the never ending iOS vs Android war spill over into my choice of bedroom lights but so far this is the best chance there is of bringing order to the connected house.
It’s still early days for this technology. We can expect a lot of innovation some of which will work, some of which will not. It’s very easy to get caught up with the hype surrounding the connected home, but before attaching sensors and a WiFi connection to a mug (that’s already been done by the way), designers will always need to ask themselves one question: How this will benefit the user? If adding smart features fails to impact the overall experience of using the device in any way, then your efforts are best put to something else.