Designing a connected product relies on more than just the physical materials and form. Objects must move beyond their physical manifestation— into software, interfaces, integrations and data. When it comes to smart home products, there are three factors that companies and consumers must consider.
5 minute read
September 22, 2017
In 2016, 80 million smart devices were delivered worldwide according to IHS Markit. The growing popularity of smart home products brings up an important moment to take a good look at what sort of products are actually coming to market — and how the home automation industry is evolving.
The smart home market is already relatively diverse — ranging from big, commercial systems that require dedicated installers to run cables and develop custom integrations on a project basis, to less expensive DIY options made of cheaper materials. From both sides, design is often an afterthought with companies, who instead focus on building out a platform, connectivity, integrations etc.
Unlike the traditional industrial design of home goods or furniture, the design of a connected product relies on more than just the physical materials and form. Objects have an entire life to move beyond their physical manifestation — into software, interfaces, integrations and data.
As smart home products have developed, the ‘connected’ aspect has impacted the industrial design. Smart home designers might choose a certain material to make a product because it works well as an antenna, instead of for its looks or feel. Additionally, the usability of an object goes down because designers add more features of questionable value. Unfortunately, many companies choose to optimize for cost and ease of manufacturing instead of aesthetics or usability as a result.
In our time building smart home technology, we have thought a lot about why design is important. When we consider companies who build things we love, there are three stand-out topics we think smart home companies should always consider when they begin designing:
When Smart Home Meets Design It Should…
1. Be Usable
When designing smart home products, the absolute first design question to ask is “WHY?” It’s critical that designers of smart home products ask why certain technologies are being implemented and how exactly to do that. They need to begin from a place of deep understanding about what provides value to the user. Often this means taking away options as opposed to adding them for greater usability.
Designers typically work within constraints — meaning that certain goals and rules are set out beforehand based on the project. It can be much more complicated to design a connected device than a non-connected one because there are a lot more constraints. It’s no surprise that often the technology and product don’t come together in a way that really benefits the user number (of great examples can be found in the We put a chip in it! Tumblr blog).
Typically if a connected device isn’t providing value to the user it is because of one of two reasons:
The object is not simple (and therefore not usable)
The object solves problems that the user doesn’t have or don’t exist.
Since the smart home industry is still relatively new, the aesthetic and guidelines for ‘good smart home design’ are developing as you read this. As smart home technology matures, we hope the needs of users will become more clear and higher standards will emerge. Until then, companies need to be careful not to use the ‘put a chip in it’ approach and instead do their research for what kind of value they are providing before they start building.
2. Fade into the Background
The majority of people still primarily interact with their smart home through smartphones. This is a huge problem because we are forming bad habits — ones that could be avoided with better designed tech.
“I think the technology shouldn’t look like technology; it should look like something in your grandmother’s room, and it should blend into everyday life,” — Oki Sato (Founder of Nendo) to Dezeen
The biggest issue when it comes to daily interactions with smart home tech is that of attention. Most products do not allow for passive or ambient interactions — at least not to the extent that they should. This means the benefits of smart home are diminished by bad user experiences that distract us, annoy us and ultimately don’t help us live healthier lives.
Most smart home devices also look like technology. The mechanical design of these objects draw attention to themselves, instead of fading into the background where they should be and supporting us when we need them.
3. Be Built to Last
One of the core differences from traditional industrial design for homewares, furniture etc, is that technology is built to be released in regular cycles. Consider that Apple has a new product release every 6 months to a year, meaning that obsolescence is built into their business model. However, most consumers would react negatively to being sold a chair that would only last 6 months to one year — so why do we have different standards for smart home technology?
“Planned Obsolescence,” or the idea that technology is meant to break or fail after a pre-defined amount of time to make room for new models, is an industry failure. Not only is it ethically and ecologically questionable, it also sets up a situation in which designers are working within the wrong constraints.
Materials should be chosen with longevity in mind, not disposability. Products that use plastics, adhesives and fixtures are optimized for cost, not quality. Good design is also design that lasts because it’s stylish for generations, made of quality materials and carefully considered. More on building products to last here.
We are at a fascinating point in time for IoT and the smart home industry. Consumers are aware of the possibilities and have started developing preferences. On the other side, manufacturers both large and small are beginning to produce better products (both technically and design-wise) faster, offering more variety to these newly educated customers.
Here at Senic, we are excited to see more users opting for well-designed products that blend into their lives and promote wellbeing and quality manufacturing.
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Part 2/8: Time, People and Money - Exactly Why ‘Hardware is Hard’