A Technophobe’s Smart Home

I’m relatively new to smart home tech – I don’t have a computer science/engineering background, and I don’t feel warm fuzzies talking about the latest and greatest computers, cell phones, or other devices. In fact, when it comes to the internet of the things, I would go as far as to call myself a technophobe – wary of what these technologies can do for me. So when I started at CRT Labs, I had some trepidations over smart home tech and its place in my own home, but over time, I’ve found a place where my life intersections with these technologies. Understanding your personal drawbacks on technology can help you to implement a smart home you’re proud of, and can help you get over some of the “bumps” in adopting a smart home system.

It’s only scary at first…

My biggest personal drawback on adopting technologies is that I don’t like feeling that undergoing such a large change could ultimately be rendered obsolete by one simple upgrade in technology. Luckily, smart home technology companies, on the whole, seem to understand that most items in your home are designed to last quite a long time (like thermostats and light bulbs) and are making their own products with that longer lifecycle in mind. So unlike your phone, which usually only has a two-year lifespan, you’d expect your thermostat to last around 35-years. Now, a Nest thermostat might not last for 35 years, but Nest will want you to be able to use their devices for several years. There will of course be exceptions to this rule – especially as companies jockey to become the “standard” in this space – but on the whole, these companies do want to stay competitive with their non-smart counterparts with their longer lifespans.

Armed with research done by my colleagues here in the labs, I started thinking about what types of things I could do within my own apartment. I live in a 900-unit complex, where my only windows are floor-to-ceiling and give me a southern exposure. This means my apartment gets very warm and has very little natural airflow. The first piece of “smart home” equipment I bought was a Netatmo Weather Station, so I could monitor the weather outside to see how it affected the temperature and CO2 levels inside. And because I was monitoring my indoor CO2, I was able to begin to correlate higher CO2 levels with certain activities – while I knew that running my oven would vent off CO2, I was able to see just how much it would rise, and now know to open one of those windows while cooking in order to offset some of that gas.

Next up, I wanted to solve my indoor lighting issue. As I mentioned, I only have one set of windows in my entire apartment – meaning that the bedroom doesn’t get any natural light. I also do not have any ceiling-mounted lights (I live in a converted fruit market with an industrial loft feel). So some form of smart lightbulb system made sense to me. I decided to go with the Philips Hue system after good reviews from my coworkers. I bought Hue bulbs for the lamps in my hallway, living room, and bedroom, and supplemented those with Belkin WeMo products for lamps with unusual bulbs. I also put a WeMo insight switch on the string lights around my porch outdoors. Not only are these devices all easily controlled with Hue dimmer switches or the Logitech Pop Switch I purchased, they also can all be controlled by voice through Google Home. The lights outside go on at sunset and off at 10pm, a program that I easily put together in the WeMo app; and the lights in the bedroom can turn on as the sun rises in order to help us wake more naturally.

After solving my lighting problems through smart devices, I felt a bit more confident in my technological skills, and have rounded out my apartment with a few more products. First up was the triple-threat of products from Nest: the Nest Thermostat, Protect, and Cam. The Nest thermostat is one of the labs favorite thermostats, and I’ll admit that installing it felt a little daunting, but Nest’s customer support helped me out by putting together a personalized wiring guide after I emailed them a photograph of my old thermostat’s wires. I was able to then watch a video about install, and got the whole project done in under 30 minutes – and promptly celebrated my dominance over technology. The Nest Protect is a smoke detector and CO monitor in one, and came in very handy a couple weeks after install – not only did it alert my phone when my bacon started smoking in the oven, it allowed me to silence the alarm (the Protect is about 10 feet in the air, so it would require a ladder to get to usually), and it also kicked on the whole house fan through the Thermostat in order to help vent the smoke out. The Protect also alerted my NestCam to take video, which allowed us to archive a very funny video of me running around the apartment to try and salvage a few strips of bacon.

Finally, I decided to pick up a SmartThings hub, which allows for the devices in my home to talk to each other and easily set up automations – within the SmartThings app, I quickly set up my hallway lights to “turn on” when I get home (using the location services of my iPhone and setting up a “geofence” around my apartment to trigger the automation). This is a huge lifesaver for me at night, so I don’t have to fumble around in the dark to find the light switch when I come inside (its not in the most convenient location in the hallway).

I’m not fully sold on a Tony Stark-style smart home system like J.A.R.V.I.S, where TVs come out of walls and start playing the news and your favorite beverage is waiting for you in the morning. And there are certainly privacy concerns when you decide to live so much of your life digitally, even when the technology lives squarely within your home. But by identifying my challenges and deciding to focus on using smart home technology to improve my quality of life, I was able to find a great middle ground between my technophobe heart and the part of my brain that wanted to understand CRT Labs’ goals on a personal level. By looking at  how you’re currently living in your own home, you can also start looking at how technology could improve your day-to-day life, and here in the labs we’d be happy to answer any questions you might have about how to begin adopting technology yourself. Feel free to comment below, and stay tuned for more articles on this topic as we explore all sorts of different ways we’re using smart home technology in our own lives.

What X-Files Aliens Can Teach Us About User Experience

I recently started re-watching The X-Files, particularly the “mytharc” episodes. You know, the conspiracy-crazed ones with the aliens hell-bent on colonizing Earth. And it was right at the end of a particularly long binge session – a few minutes into the first season finale – that I realized showrunner Chris Carter and his creative team all would have made excellent user experience designers.

It’s in that episode (“The Erlenleyer Flask”) that we’re introduced to one of the first alien/human hybrids. And not to be gruesome, but the important thing for this discussion is that this hybrid gets shot while fleeing the police. He bleeds, and he bleeds green:

Up until this happens, we don’t know anything about the person trying to get away from the cops. But when the camera pans down to his spilled green blood, we know exactly what he is.

He’s an alien.

The X-Files was a creative tour-de-force, inventing and re-inventing ways to tell stories about the stuff of our wildest science fiction dreams. But some stories are best left unchanged. Some things don’t need to be reinvented. And alien blood needs to be green.

What’s This Got to Do With User Experience?

Companies are tripping over each other trying to bring the latest and greatest smart thermostat or lock or smoke detector to market (and into your home), and to a great extent their success or failure will depend on the user experience their engineers and designers have brought to the product. Because smart devices require their users to learn new (and sometimes fairly complex) things, the best experiences will be the ones that don’t force users to learn too much or to unlearn the helpful, leading truths they already know.

So why do the LED status lights on the front of one smart hub we have in the CRT Labs glow green when everything is OK, and the other glow blue?

Why does one hub blink blue when there’s a connection problem, and why does the other hub blink purple?

And what could magenta, pink, and white possibly mean?

Smart hubs have an important job: they need to clearly communicate the state of a complex smart home network. But indicating the status of a complex system need not be complex itself, and from what I’ve seen, we’re headed in the wrong direction.

Designers and engineers need to honor what the user brings to the experience, keep the cognitive load low, and pump their smart devices full of some alien blood.

We’ll know what it means.