smartphone ≠ smart home

This post explains how the need for Nuimo evolved and discusses 5 issues of using the smartphone as a “connected home control”. This can be relevant to you if you’re interested in the internet of things, physical user interfaces or hardware.

One of the reasons we built Nuimo was because we needed an alternative option to our smartphone that gave us faster, simpler and more natural control for our smart lights and speakers.

Today

Smart homes are not a thing of the future anymore. Right now, 100 “things” per second are connecting to the internet. By 2020, more than 250 things will connect each second.

Our hope was to benefit from a relaxing and improved home experience: “Control the volume of your music through an intuitive interface, adjust the color of your lights and lower your blinds.“

Instead, many people stopped using their smart lights or speakers within a few days or weeks.

The smartphone’s primary use case was not controlling your home…so by definition it likely is not the greatest solution, merely a transition.

50 years of solidified assumptions

“ … with smartphones, we aren’t looking at a work device, we’re looking at a lifestyle device. A device that is always with us, in our pockets. But, all the hardware, all the software, all the UI it has, carries with it 50 years of underlying assumptions — that the purpose of it’s existence is to make us more productive and more efficient.” Joe Kraus — Google Ventures

When you tell somebody today that the smartphone is not a good way to control your smart home, people look at you like you’re a crazy person. It feels like the time when I told my friends why they should get an iPod. “Why would I need a 1000 songs in my pocket? It’s a stupid idea."

The common approach of “internet of things” companies today is to transfer the control of their devices like a coffee maker or lights onto the smartphone and nobody seems to question this. It’s just assumed that this is the right way to do things.

 “Not a particularly enlightened idea of the internet of things”- Nicholas Negroponte, founder of MIT Media Lab

We believe that the future of smart home interfaces will not happen on smartphones. They are great for certain things like watching Youtube clips or checking your security camera but they were never designed as a home control.

The smartphone is the evolution of the personal computer that has found it’s way into bathrooms and bedrooms through size reduction.

Here are 5 issues of using your smartphone as a smart home control:

1. User Interface Design

The word “user interface” is mostly used in the context of Graphical User interfaces, computers and smartphones. The field is studied and there are many conventions on what makes a successful user interface. In the context of a smart home, the smartphone itself is not fulfilling some of these characteristics. Let’s look at Clarity and Familiarity for example:

We think of news in categories: politics, economy, sports, local news. We consume these pieces of news by reading them and that’s what menus and the smartphone are great for.

Light in the living room is different. We don’t think of it by category but situation or use case: be bright! That’s where options and menus hurt and where we need clear, unambiguous controls.

In the real world, a light switch is very clear (just go up to it and hit the big white button) and also familiar because we grew up with it. Hiding it behind app menus and representing it through fake buttons and sliders make it a frustrating experience.

2. It’s more complicated and time consuming than you think.

The other night, I wanted to get a jacket from my bedroom. Since I was using a light connected to a smart outlet, the only way to turn on the light was through my app.

  1. I had to get the smartphone out of my pocket.
  2. I had to activate the screen.
  3. I had to type in my passcode (thanks for fingerprints!).
  4. I had to focus on the application screen and swipe to the right twice until I got to the lights app.
  5. I had to wait until the app loaded.
  6. I had to browse through 3 menu points until I found the “On Switch”.
  7. I had to put my smartphone back into my pocket.

This whole process took 10–15 seconds including loading times. It’s the same time it takes me to walk through my entire apartment twice. All I wanted was to get my jacket. Hitting a light switch doesn’t even cost me a thought.

3. It’s attention grabbing

The cognitive load theory explains that humans only have limited brain capacity to process information and remember things. That’s why we can only remember 7 numbers (on average) with our short term memory or why you can never listen to more than two people at the same time.

What you ideally want from your smart home is a low cognitive load. That means you can control your home while focusing on the music, light or people in front of you and not on the technology; kind of like a musician playing an instrument and focusing on the music. You can decrease cognitive load by processing information through multiple senses. When you hit a light switch for example, you use your eyes, ears, touch, awareness of positioning and also your motoric memory.

On a smartphone, you lose all of that. You process all information through your eyes and a very reduced version of haptics. This leads to something what I call the “beach ball” effect.

Have you ever asked a person a question while he/she was using the smartphone?

It often times takes about 3–5 seconds for them to even realize what you just asked. It feels like something is slowly loading and you have to wait, kind of like the beach ball on a mac. That’s high cognitive load at work.

4. It’s excluding

Sharing the control is sharing access to your expensive smartphone that holds your sensitive emails, bank credentials etc. Not all phones come with a guest mode. When I’m hanging out with my friends I want to have a simple control for everyone to skip a song or turn down the volume when the neighbor knocks on the door. I don’t want people to feel like they are stepping into my private zone. I want them to feel like home.

There is also an issue with accessibility. There are 300 million people worldwide that are visually impaired and even more people that are physically handicapped that do not have full access to the functions of a smartphone.

5. It affects our health and social life

These days there’s an app for everything. Truth is, the desperation to make the most of the “smartness” of your phone has resulted in a jungle of apps that are only intruding your life.

We don’t want to get distracted by an email or a Facebook notification when we only meant to change the song on Spotify or increase the volume of our Sonos. Neither should we need to break a conversation to open the door for a friend.

So what’s the solution?

Smartphones (or graphical user interfaces in general) were designed as a lowest common denominator. Since you can represent information in programmable pixels, it is the most versatile and flexible device to interact with technology. That’s what makes smartphones so great and that’s what allows us to manufacture millions of devices at low cost.

Now, the cost and effort to manufacture hardware is dropping and we have the ability to create interfaces that are not designed as a generic device but designed for a specific person, task or situation.

We believe that the future of smart homes will not be found in a centralized device but in a combination of screens, speech recognition, sensors, dedicated devices and smart surfaces that will be integrated into the world around us like tables, walls, glass and objects.

Our first step towards solving these problems is Nuimo, an intuitive and programmable controller for your computer and smart home. It is inspired by simple devices like a dial and combines haptic feedback, sensitive touch and hand gesture recognition.

Our goal is to create a new generation of user interfaces that feel as seamless and natural as using your hand. We want to make a difference and want you to be part of it. 

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Further Reading

Part 7/8: Seamless Interactions — Why Our First Product is just Step 1.

Writing and Sharing AppleScripts for Nuimo